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The present situation regarding comments seems to be deteriorating. Bad comments stay, good comments go, and the site does not get any better with this.

Bad comments left standing

We all know what comments are, and how they should be used, or treated. Or do we?

  1. Plainly superfluous, chatty, 'incorrect info giving comments' are left standing far too often. (In case an argument should come up like 'users need to flag those': Going back through my declined flags, the last two were 1. a primitive misunderstanding on a question's topic, rectified by a clarifying edit made to the question obsoleting the comment, 2. a chatty comment responding with incorrect info on another comment that responded on another incorrect info as well. That was 3 levels of 'not improving the question' left standing, to this day). It seems to me 'no-longer-needed' is a flag one can forget about entirely, as others noted a long time ago. But it seems that 'flag any comment as 'rude'', even obviously incorrectly, and it has a high likelihood of disappearing.

    I can give more examples when requested, with links and screenshots.

    Why are those chatty and incorrect comments not pruned? What happened to our 'comments are barn cats' analogy?

    Don't we have far too many half-answers in comments, for which the official SE policy is: don't do that!? At all!

    It's a big problem to see an utterly incorrect half-answer comment get double the upvotes than a full-on correct high quality answer posted at roughly the same time.

Good comments disappearing

  1. Some posts are egregiously bad. Even if they seem to appear fine on first look. Many users just reading along, not checking the arguments made, and certainly far too seldom checking up on the links vote very superficially. That is bad. These posts need at least some comments to point out the flaws. That is what 'when should I comment'-help says to do, that is what the post notice "may be disputed" implies.

    Some posts are in need of correcting comments below them! (Meta had this topic before) We also need more post notices for 'citation please'. If a flag requesting such a notice comes up, the banner should follow. My impression is that mods apply those notices on their own whim, if they, the mods have complaints about a post, but decline most flags in that direction?

Abusing the emergent system

  1. Moderators lately abuse the 'move to chat function' — and at the same time have complained about 'users not posting to chat but continuing to post below a post'.

    — 3.1. The first 'abuse' is that apparently there is an alert going off for a threshold of comments. Mods here then sweep in, move all of the stuff to chat. No pruning, no quality assessment to keep some comments attached to the post. Sorry, this is automatism, best done by a bot, and frankly: lazy. There are many many comments that do not need any conservation. And there are many important additions, criticisms etc that are far better and much more useful if left below the post.

    The '20 comments alert and now move' is also not 'the law': around the SE network we can see posts that on purpose have much more comments below a post left standing for long time. Why? Because they are useful, and seen as such by mods, so they make exceptions.

    — 3.2. The second abuse is that some mods 'move to chat' very short comment threads, also most of the time without any pruning leaving a message that says: "Comments are not for extended discussion", when in reality there are/were usually less than 10 comments made. In each and every instance this was evidently not an extended discussion. It seems some mods became somehow scared and want to avoid any form of controversy? But the effect is that

    —— 3.2.1. Those chat rooms with less than 20 (?) overall messages do not just get 'frozen' after a while, but outright deleted! That fact alone proves that there was no extended "discussion" in the first place. It also achieves the opposite effect of 'preserving the comments in chat', obviously.

    If that is the intended effect mods want: then why not either state that plainly in the comment message that goes along the move2chat?

    Like: "I the mod want this discussion which I consider fruitless anyway to die in an abandoned/detached chatroom that's scheduled for deletion, but you guys have a few days to see how bad it all went down in the comments; and, if you insist can still participate in this mess"
    That is understandable, even transparent to a degree, and honest. Move to chat with just six messages and this auto-comment is not honest.

    Better yet: why not outright delete those comments? Those offending comments? Since some comments should stay, and some of those should stay attached!
    Yeah, perhaps difficult to decide, maybe more work, complaints also guaranteed for that. But in my view: still an improvement?

    —— 3.2.2. This effect is obviously also abused by certain users. Or is mod behaviour abused by those users? Those users that are prone to post things like "this is not a forum", but comment amply on other posts, make chatty comments, respond to comments that respond to comments; in short: users that are prone to indeed engage in extended discussion in comments. But those users start kicking and screaming, with ad hominem and personalised attacks, if their posts are commented on in what they perceive as 'negativity'. These comments are designed to escalate, not confirming to any expected conduct, and show 1. that these users cannot control themselves, and that these violations are selectively, and thereby arbitrarily enforced. (Archive of screenshots, actual usernames, and still working links omitted for now. It's a shame that personalised attacks and a barrage of plain insults were in effect useful to get this user's wishes fulfilled).

    Those users do not like the flaws of their posts pointed out in comments, accuse others of 'spamming the comments', and then flood the comments, apparently counting on the mods removing the entire thread, either by direct deletion of: 1. factual, neutral, 'about the post & not the person', and needed correcting comments; or by 2: indiscriminate move to chat, with leaving valid comments below post or prior pruning.

What is to be done now?

What I'd like to see from this meta post is:

  1. an update from mods on the current situation: what are the implicit policies, tendencies, rationales?

  2. input from non-mod users about the current state and intended goal of our comment policies

  3. That premature move-to-chat just stops! If an alert goes off, first prune the comments. Only if there is indeed 'a chat' developing, and is either semi-useful, or 'interesting', and above the resulting threshold for a room to not auto-dlete, then move to chat.
    But leave useful, needed, on-topic & on-puropse (improving the post) comments as much in place as much as anyhow possible!

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Didn't mean to ignore this, but it is a difficult question. I was hoping that mulling it over for a while would generate more clarity. I don't think I'm going to get any more clear, so I'll do my best to respond. I'm answering this with my diamond in place, but the opinions are my own; I have not discussed with the other moderators. (Because this is complex, I'm going to quickly write a first draft, then if I have time, come back and revise.)

This is a good question, full of thought, but I think it is based on some assumptions that I don't share, and omits some priorities that I value.

Comments are largely barn cats. We welcome the value they provide, but they are not investment goods. The site exists to support Questions & Answers; those are our capital, and that's where we want to invest our efforts. The primary reason for comments is to request clarifications or improvements to Questions or Answers. After that, they should be deleted.

Distinguishing between a good comment and a bad comment is difficult. Pruning comments - selectively deleting - is very difficult. Reading through the entire comment string and identifying which comments support the flagged pattern, vice which comments both support a better question and can be separated from the other comments in the string without losing context is very difficult.

Very frequently a comment is flagged for degrading the site - either because it is abusive, or for some other reason. In almost every case, the flagged comment is the result of a conversation (argument) in comments. If I delete only the flagged comment the underlying dispute remains and one of the involved parties will feel compelled to continue the discussion. The root problem isn't the comment, it is the discussion in comments. Discussion in comments is bad.

Pruning comments is far more difficult than the last bullet suggests. Every comment I prune is going to be an affront to the person who left that comment. That person believes that their comment wasn't just valid, but was more important than the other comments in the string, and they will resent the culling. The culling also makes it much more difficult to understand the comment string as a whole. Context is lost, which leads people to make erroneous assumptions.

Most of the H:SE users are pretty sharp folks - while we have some personalities, the most frequent cause of dispute is differing perspectives. A Marxist historian is going to weight evidence differently than I do and come to different conclusions. A student of feminist history will have a different perspective - not because they deny that the history I study exists, but because they are trying to draw a focus to specific themes in history. Moderating a comment stream where the fundamental issue is a difference in perspective is not something I want to do - I don't want to privilege either of those perspectives. In those cases I'll throw the comment stream to chat and let them work it out.

Finally, dispute is ... not sure I'll express this well, but dispute is negative sum/exponential. Once a dispute crosses a certain threshold it picks up momentum and risks degrading the rest of the site. First it will generate additional flags, then it will generate behavior that will result in a significant action (ban, escalation, etc.) I'd prefer to avoid that escalation; when the dispute crosses the boundary between civility and disrespect, (when it gets flagged), I'm generally going to err on the side of civility.

All of these because comments are barn cats. House cats get to go the vet; barn cats don't. Review of comments isn't just a vet visit, it is surgery. We don't schedule barn cats for surgery. If we invest time and energy in questions & answers, the site improves. Comments require disproportionate time and energy and don't improve the site nearly as much.

As I said, personal opinion.

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    Will certainly totally back up that optimally pruning comments, particularly when you for whatever reason haven't been following the comments on that post as they developed, and perhaps aren't as much of an expert on the subject as the commenters, is really difficult. If it gets complex, really nobody should be shocked if the mods have to "declare bankruptcy" and move everything to chat.
    – T.E.D. Mod
    Commented Sep 26, 2022 at 14:17

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