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I understand that discussions in comment sections are a major problem, and more so on History:SE than on, say, Stackoverflow. I understand that this needs to be tackled because it clutters up the site with irrelevant stuff and makes it hard to identify those comments that are helpful. I understand that this causes a major amount of work and that the moderators have a very difficult job dealing with this all the time. I understand that it has therefore become standard practice to move the entire comment section of a post to chat as soon as a discussion develops, discussion being understood as contributors replying to each others comments.

However, I feel that comments are sometimes moved to chat so fast that I find myself considering whether to add comments at all. In particular for comments that require some effort, comments with additional information or suggestions how to improve the question or answer. I do not think the chats the comments are moved to are normally read by anyone, least of all the author of the post the chat is about. Further, they are automatically deleted if they have less than 15 comments and there is no new activity for seven days. (There rarely is.) If I can expect my comment to be buried in such a chat (or deleted directly, as it happens) within a few hours, it does not seem worth looking up sources etc. This also defeats the purpose of comments.

To be clear, I do not want to dispute that comments are barn cats. It is clear that they are meant to be temporary. Nevertheless they have a purpose and we should make sure that they can fulfill this purpose. In terms of T.E.D.'s metaphor, if our barn cats die so quickly that they are ineffective at pest control, this might be a problem.

Why I feel this is bad

  1. It encourages posting comments as answers instead. My feeling is that we are seeing an awful lot of very bad answers: Short comments, quotes copied uncritically from somewhere, or brief explanations without any sources or references. Sometimes this is even the case for long-time contributors with a lot of reputation.

  2. It is exploitable. If I would, for whatever reason, want to post a ludicrous answer (say, to promote a particular ideology), I can expect to be called out on this and the answer to be downvoted. However, if comments flagging my answer as biased are moved to chat as soon as some discussion arises in the comment section (because then all comments are moved to chat), I can simply start a discussion and wait it out. Within 3 weeks, there will be no trace left of the comment I wanted to get rid of, my post will perhaps still be the only answer to the question and people will start upvoting me. Easy. Nice way to promote antisemitism for instance.

  3. It discourages putting any time and effort into comments. For instance, if we have a new contributor posting a bad question, wouldn't it be nicer if she got some personalized feedback from someone who takes some time to do that. Instead, she can expect the standard comment, copied for the 50000th time. Another example: If I comment about some aspect missing in an answer, should I just mention this aspect or should I look up and suggest a reference? If the comment will be gone within a few hours, it does not seem worth the effort.

Other considerations

I realize that the author of the post should integrate any relevant information from comments into the post. You could argue that comments should therefore be removed as soon as the original author has seen them; if she has replied, it is clear that she has. And if she deemed it relevant, she would have integrated the information in the original post. However, this is very rarely done. I suspect this is because 1. It takes effort and time (that you may not have every day); 2. It feels wrong to many people; like appropriating other people's contributions; 3. It is not usual to see other people do that.

I also realize that you can edit posts directly to integrate additional information. However, I feel this option should only be used if you are really, really sure that what you are adding is uncontroversial and does not change the spirit of the original version of the question or answer.

Note that there was another recent discussion about this. Maybe this shows that other contributors (in that case Gort the Robot) are concerned as well (although the issue was deletion, not moving to chat).

I understand that there are other opinions on the roles of comments and answers: A comment (how ironic!) by LangLangC here suggested that comments with "half-answers" should be answers, not comments. I respect this opinion, but I fear what that would do to the quality of the answers on History:SE and therefore I believe instead that some answers that only contain "half-answers" should have been comments instead.

There was in fact an entire discussion about whether "answer-comments" should be subject to arbitrary deletion like other comments. Some opinions were collected, a comment linked similar discussions on other SE sites, but there did not seem to be a consensus. Curiously, no one mentioned what I would think would be the obvious way to deal with "answer-comments" with "half-answers" (integrate the relevant information from these in the post they comment on, then flag them for deletion).

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  • I am a bit confused over when to apply which argument you make. Please clarify when you talk about comments below answers and below questions. I think both cases are quite different and require mostly separate thoughts, despite the overlap in general considerations. – LаngLаngС Jan 23 at 15:32
  • @LangLangC Thank you for your comment. I do not see a substantial difference between removing comment streams pertaining to questions and to answers, although I mentioned some examples with specific scenarios for one or the other. Since we have the same common practice (or policy?) for both at H:SE, I wanted to address both. Could you please elaborate why you believe these two cases to be different? (We can do that in a chat.) – 0range Jan 23 at 16:50
  • 2
    I am likely guilty of "half-answers" as comments, and generally speaking, it's because I know some bit of information, but have no time to make a good answer. The hope is that someone takes it and runs with it. That was basically the gist of the comment that inspired the discussion you mention. An alternative is to just post it as an answer, but I fear such a thing would be downvoted to oblivion, probably rightly so. In may case, I don't give a damn if the comment lives, I just want the information somewhere. – Gort the Robot Jan 31 at 21:08
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The situation with comment treatment as currently practiced is indeed not ideal.

Part of that is systemic design failures. Comments can be voted up but not down etc. For all that's wrong coming down from SE top, we can not do much about, just try and circumvent the problems.

But despite comments being second class citizens among posts, with their rights being revokable at any time, some things I observed that might need achange:

Some comments below a question are important requests for still needed clarification, etc.

Some comments below an answer are important to suggest improvements, criticising (perceived or factual) 'wrong', etc.

Move to chat seems done almost automatically, mechanistically

This seems to be triggered by a mod seeing an alarm flag (which I know nothing in particular about how it works, just that it exists). When this happens mods seem to react by almost always responding to the flag with wholesale move-to-chat.

  • This is a problem when consequently people still want to comment, whether as comment or as chat. As stated, mods get cranky and prone to delete new comments. That is OK when the chat room is still active. But after a while it gets at least frozen, if not deleted outright if there re less than 15 messages from at least 2 people. In the latter case I keeo asking myself why the move to chat was activated anyway?

    What are we supposed to do with comments moved but chat not available?

  • Does it have to be that way? It seems mods get quite deletion trigger happy after a move to chat and any new comments appear. Letting me wonder why they don't prune the comments earlier, more often — either before the thread-length alarm goes off or when it does. I know that those can get very long. In the sense of 'mods decide to keep just all' that's posted below a post.

    It is really not good that nonsense comments, VLQ comments etc get the same weight and retention value by moving those to chat as well, while they by sher annoying presence also trigger the move in the first place.

    So, what I'd like to see is that

    • more comments getting pruned by mods, cleaned up by users (self-deletion, flagging)
    • especially when a length alarm goes off, that the first reaction should be to prune obsolete or LQ comments, not 'just move to chat'
    • move to chat is not implemented before there are really 16 messages to preserve (to avoid chat deletion, except that is the goal?)
    • move to chat is to be tried to be avoided, by mods (if that is possible and my guess is that this depends a bit on whether that alarm is raised again after perhaps repeated pruning?)

Comments are not ideal, I agree. As per theory, they are even bad. But some comments are needed, some are useful, and chat is much worse for that.

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My own view of the ideal for comments is that a person (who is perhaps not an expert on the subject of the post) should be able to glance at them and see if a post has unresolved issues.

To that end, any time some comments are hidden (and thus new comments will be hidden) we are already in sub-optimal territory with the question's comments. If someone sees and reports a new problem with the post, most people will not see it. The more comments there are, the worse this problem is.

Moving comments to chat is a vital tool to fix this issue. If something needs to be discussed at length, particularly with back and forth messages, that's a venue designed for that activity. From that point on, what I'd like to see is few enough comments that posters can see some comments got moved to chat.

The only other tool we have available is deleting comments. That works great too, but is a bit of a shame if there's something people found valuable in one of the deleted comments.

Of the points raised in the question, I'd say:

  1. I really don't think this has been much of a problem. When I service legit "not an answer" flags, its effectively always a new user with a rep below the commenting privilege's, who most likely saw the "post answer" interface and assumed that's how everyone else was posting those comments they saw. (Full disclosure, I did that myself back in my noob days).

  2. Never seen that happen. This looks like an invented scenario that relies on the humans in the loop acting like dumb machines, which is not in my experience how things are done here.

    A more typical example I'd see would be one highly upvoted comment, followed by a multiparty discussion with the author. What we try to do there is leave the first comment, and then the next one should be "This discussion has been moved to chat.". People who think, "I have that problem with this post too!" can click to upvote the comment, and people who want to engage in a discussion about that issue can (and should) go to the chat and do so. When/if the comment's issue is resolved, we can then remove that original comment too, but perhaps keep the chat link.

  3. Exactly backwards. A post having too many comments discourages any new good comments. If I see a post with 27 comments on it, its almost guaranteed that anything new I have to say about it will be the proverbial voice crying out in the wilderness. For someone to see it, they'd have to see that number, not be intimidated by it, click the "more" link, then read through all previous 27 comments without getting distracted, bored, or called away for something in Real Life more important. Comments sort of obey the law of Supply and Demand; the more there are, the less valuable they are.

Less is more.

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  • Is there somewhere a publicly readable (non-mod) insight into how it looks procedurally for mods that see the (too-many-comments) alert? Like eg does it pop up just once, or again if some comments are removed and then the limit is reached again? (I know only that there 'is one alert', and the 'mod move2chat' only works once. Are more than one "let's continue" invites in one string possible etc? – LаngLаngС Jan 23 at 17:56
  • As a matter of disclosure, I should mention that this may just be my opinion. I don't know that I'm speaking for anyone else, and every mod on this site has deleted far more comments in the last month than I have (because they're so awesome I almost never notice a flag these days). – T.E.D. Jan 23 at 19:18
  • The ideas I have for this depend a bit on me trying not to add too much additional work and burden for any mod, with any fancy suggestions I might entertain. If what I think of will increase workload for questionable advantages, then I'll keep them under wraps. But I just do not know the tools & options of your workflows. – LаngLаngС Jan 23 at 19:22
  • That's broadly how I deal with comments too. But, to be fair, that's based on the "I've analyzed our past group behavior, and it looks like this is how we do things", descriptive, rather than prescriptive approach. – sempaiscuba Jan 23 at 22:58
  • Since there is no discussion in the chat, I feel I should summarize again here what I said there: Point 2 is not an invented scenario but very real. Points 1 and 3 are matters of opinion: what kind of comments do we want. – 0range Jan 27 at 10:29

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