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our name is The Workplace, and we have a comment problem.

  1. We definitely have a comment problem
  2. We have tried to fix it, but haven't succeeded yet
  3. We want your help to figure out a way to do that

We have a growing comment problem:

This is our comments by week since the Workplace started out:

Comments by Week

As you can see, from January this year we have seen a marked increase in the number of comments we are getting. Bear in mind this does not include deleted comments, of which there are many hundred per week that are being deleted.

For a more specific example, at the time of this edit, this question is 15 hours old and already has 59 comments. Currently none are deleted. Take a look and tell me that all these comments are appropriate and useful to high-quality Q&A.

What we've tried

We have tried explaining what comments are for:

Comments are not intended for long-term storage of important information. But that transiency doesn't mean you can use comments for random, parenthetical asides. If your comment isn't likely to change the content of the post, please do not post it for someone else to clean up. Thanks.

We have tried recommending chat instead:

Chat is an underused tool on The Workplace, yet we have users in our community with over 300 comments posted in just a 30 day period. The evidence speaks for itself; people like to chat. Yet, comments on the Q&A site leads to a lot of unnecessary cleanup, not just for moderators but for all of our diligent community flaggers who work tirelessly to help keep the clutter under control.

But yet we still get a whole lot of comments, and plenty of meta posts trying to ask the community what to do about them:

These are just the posts in since April!

What can be done?

I would like you guys to let us know what can be done to prevent comments from drowning out the core information on the site: questions and answers. As explained in the help center for every SE site:

You should submit a comment if you want to:

  • Request clarification from the author;
  • Leave constructive criticism that guides the author in improving the post;
  • Add relevant but minor or transient information to a post (e.g. a link to a related question, or an alert to the author that the question has been updated).

We definitely are getting far more comments that isn't in one of those categories than in it, and that is creating noise for people seeking our high-quality answers, and adding additional burdens to the community on flagging and cleanup.

How can we solve this problem short of turning off commenting?

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    request SE team to set a limit of displayed comments at Workplace to five, like they do for Stack Overflow. Or, better yet, to 3-4 – gnat Jul 11 '14 at 4:54
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    Thanks for the suggestion @gnat, mind tossing it up as an answer with relevant links to wherever this is discussed on meta.so/meta.se so that people can refer and vote on it? Thanks! – jmac Jul 11 '14 at 9:08
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    Why do you see them as a problem? On other SE site they are not always in line with the bullet points you listed, but they usually help, either with providing more (loosely) relevant information, or helping to work out the solution. They are more often than not left be and I don't see how leaving them in is a problem. You may be a bit more pedantic than others ("but it's in the rules!"), but is there any other reason why you think the comments are harmful? – Andrew Savinykh Jul 12 '14 at 4:29
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    @zespri, when there are 3-4 comments, it isn't a big deal and I don't usually go looking to delete them. When you get over 20 comments on a question in the first 12 hours after it's posted, that definitely is a problem, because it draws attention away from the Q&A, and makes future visitors have to read through a bunch of comments to find their answer rather than looking at the actual answers provided. SE is not a discussion forum, and when used as one, loses a lot of the value that makes it successful. – jmac Jul 12 '14 at 4:58
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    That's a personal opinion as to what is distracting. What the SE platform has done is let the "crowd" clarify what is important with the voting process. The platform buries comments without votes. One person's opinion shouldn't replace the system. – Mike M Jul 12 '14 at 5:05
  • What happens if you exclude closed questions from that query? – Jim G. Jul 12 '14 at 7:15
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    @Mike, why do you think this is 'one person's opinion'? These rules existed prior to the creation of The Workplace beta, and the linked post on what comments are not was also created by the "Director of Community Development for the Stack Exchange Network." I get that you don't like it, and that is certainly fine (we all have our own opinions, and I wouldn't have it any other way), but it definitely isn't one person's opinion. – jmac Jul 12 '14 at 8:52
  • When did The Workplace graduate from Beta? – Joe Strazzere Jul 13 '14 at 12:46
  • @Joe, February 20th. – jmac Jul 13 '14 at 12:54
  • @jmac - thanks. That lends even more credence to the thought that we have less of a "comments" problem, and more of a "lots of posts, thus a corresponding lots of comments" phenomenon. – Joe Strazzere Jul 13 '14 at 13:03
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    @Joe, if the comments were evenly distributed, it definitely would be less of an issue. The problem is that the comments aren't evenly distributed -- they are quite clumpy, especially on popular posts where over 40 comments can pop up in hours. Note that Jon's answer says that the comments/post indicates there is no sharp increase assuming even distribution (which isn't the case). We also have some pretty chatty back-and-forths too, which aren't good to keep around. – jmac Jul 13 '14 at 14:13
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    @Joe, the goal is "working together to build a library of detailed answers to every question about the workplace." Community is definitely not the goal because Stack Exchange is not a social networking site. We are (presumably) here to give good answers to questions to help future visitors -- community should take a back seat to that. Comments are problematic when they shift us from Q&A to debate and chit-chat, and that is the issue that I am seeing recently and think needs to be addressed. – jmac Jul 14 '14 at 14:55
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    @JoeStrazzere comments requesting clarifications that haven't been addressed yet should stick around. If you think comments like that have been incorrectly removed, please bring it up (chat or meta). Once comments have been addressed they're obsolete so might get removed, basically the next time something calls mod attention to the post. As for execution (leaving a comment about deleting comments/directing to chat or not), not all mods are completely consistent, either with each other or with ourselves at other times. For example, I haven't yet set up comment templates at work (new PC). – Monica Cellio Jul 18 '14 at 3:02
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    @jmac I plan to post an answer some time later, as I am mostly offline this and next week. Wrt links I am going to use, there are two: this 2009 announcement about 5 top comments shown at SO and this 2013 complaint about the explosion of comments on Stack Overflow – gnat Jul 21 '14 at 2:13
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    @jmac regarding limit for displayed comments, Shog says it has been always there at Workplace "That's been the behavior on all sites for years... The difference for TWP and Progse is that for questions with > 15 answers, all comments are hidden by default - the top N are only shown if there are N comments with upvotes." – gnat Jul 28 '14 at 4:12
39

I second what Joe Strazzere said. Or reiterate what I said on the other post. Whichever.

You don't have a comments problem; you have a UX problem.

If you have to explain to people "what [Feature X] is for", then [Feature X] is broken. If [Feature X] is intended to be used in a way that is orthogonal to the way people intuitively use it, then [Feature X] is broken.

Software interfaces need to be intuitive. They need to clearly convey to the user what's expected of them (graphically, without using a wall of text), and they should conform to the expectations created. Having explicit instructions/a manual is nice, but it's not reasonable/practical to expect that end-users will read and/or follow it. The acronym 'RTFM' exists for a reason, and that reason is not because people are good at reading or following instructions.

So the comments problem (if there is one; as Jon Ericson very correctly points out the metric you want to look at is comments per post/answer, not the absolute number of comments made, and by that metric the commenting rate is holding flat) is merely a symptom of an underlying UX problem. And instead of attacking the symptom (which on a personal level I find to be very inappropriate, as I have seen a number of useful, helpful, and insightful comments get deleted under the guise of "improving the QA site"; and this is also not something I've seen happen on other SE sites), you should go after its root cause.

As I see it, the root cause begins and propagates roughly like:

  1. You have a feature in the interface that calls itself 'add comment'.
  2. The concept of a 'comment' is well defined, both linguistically and within the web/blog/forum/general Internet context.
  3. People use the 'add comment' feature to make comments, according to their intuitive understanding of what a 'comment' is.
  4. While the comments made generally abide by the same content guidelines as questions/answers (in terms of being respectful, on topic, and not vulgar/abusive), they don't fit the modified definition of a comment that has been adopted here.
  5. Manual action is taken to weed out all of those comments that aren't comments.
  6. Frustration ensues, on all sides.

Item #1 is the root of the issue. As long as the UI says 'add comment', #2 and #3 are going to follow as a consequence of human nature, how people interact with software, and the fact that you're trying to use 'comments' in a way that's different from how the rest of the Internet uses comments. And as long as #2 and #3 happen, #4, #5, and #6 will follow.

There are two things I can see that will break the cycle:

  1. Stop saying 'comment' if you don't really mean 'comment'. Change that 'add comment' to 'suggest an improvement' or 'message the author' or something else that's more in line with what you actually want people to do.

    And then next to it perhaps put a 'discuss this question/answer' (or even a 'comment') link that opens chat (preferably a lightweight version of chat, that lets people leave their initial message in a way that's similar to how 'add comment' currently works).

  2. Abandon the modified definition of 'comment'. Just let people make comments, and only hit the 'Delete' button when something truly abusive, obscene, nonsensical, or off-topic gets posted.

    I'd argue that this would be in-line with how the current Stack Exchange UI 'expects' to be used. Long strings of comments auto-collapse, so that only the highest rated ones are displayed and an extra click is needed to view the complete thread. So the feature is self-limiting, in that once a certain threshold is reached adding more comments to a post does not actually add any more clutter into the interface. Perhaps that threshold could be dialed down to just 3 or 4 comments.

    Granted not all comments will be 'useful', but a good number of them will. I often find very useful information in comments on SO, particularly in terms of updates being provided against an older answer that has been superseded or modified by new information (you might say that the author should just update the original answer, but that doesn't always happen; particularly on older answers).

    I'm grateful for the comments on SO. They've helped me many times. I don't see why comments on The Workplace need to be handled any differently, and I find it concerning that on this site I've seen many helpful comments just disappear into nothing. I don't believe such deletions improve the quality of the QA site, and I think it's doing a disservice to the people who took the time to post those comments.

Bottom line: As long as your interface says 'add comment', that's what people will do. If you don't want that, fix the interface.

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    The interface told me to add a comment.... – Dennis Jul 13 '14 at 18:25
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    aroth, from the wording of your post, it seems like you are distinguishing between mods/SE staff, and the community. Why is that? Your use of 'you' implies that I (as a mod) have any more power to change the system than you (as a user), which simply isn't true. I also find it slightly worrying that you think the responsibility for managing these sites lies with someone other than the community -- as explained on our tour -- "It's built and run by you as part of the Stack Exchange network of Q&A sites." The community is primarily responsible for content, that's why you can edit/close. – jmac Jul 14 '14 at 23:24
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    @jmac - I'm just a user here. Whatever explanation SE provides, I'm not empowered to actually change things. I don't have access to the source code, I can't change The Workplace or any other SE site. I don't know if that's something a mod can or cannot do, what exact powers a mod has, or how clear/blurry the line between 'mod' and 'SE staff' generally is. I just know that somewhere out there are people who can actually make changes (or who can find those people and bring them in to the discussion). That's who my 'you' refers to. – aroth Jul 15 '14 at 0:21
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    aroth, I'm just a user here too. Mods are just regular users -- we are all just users here. The question isn't whether the change can be made (it clearly can, just not by me), but rather whether it should be made. The concept of SE on the whole is that it is up to the users to moderate their own part of the SE network, because with millions of users, passing the buck to SE staff, or even moderators, just won't scale. Before worrying about the UI, understanding the concept of moderation may be better to cover first? – jmac Jul 15 '14 at 1:56
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    @jmac - I'm not sure what 'passing of the buck' you see here. There is, in my opinion, a very real UX issue. That's something most appropriately dealt with by the SE staff. And something that I'm confident exists independently of whatever my perceived or actual level of understanding of the concept of moderation may be. I'm somewhat taken aback that a moderator would imply that my commentary upon the UX issue is somehow invalid simply because they feel my understanding of a completely separate issue is deficient. – aroth Jul 15 '14 at 4:49
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    @aroth, the concept of SE, as written on our tour page is "It's built and run by you". While I agree that there may be merit to changing the word 'comment' to something like 'clarification', that does not absolve users of the responsibility to be aware of community guidelines and the rules of the place they are posting. That's why I'm saying you're passing the buck -- it sounds like you're saying that it is someone else's responsibility to improve the behavior of users, not the responsibility of the users themselves. Feel free to correct me if that isn't what you're saying. – jmac Jul 17 '14 at 2:39
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    @jmac - I'm saying that the behavior of those users is being triggered by an expectation created by the UI. The users aren't children, or malicious, or idiots. The site is telling them to 'add comment', so they add comments. That's not a behavioral problem. But if you want to remove it, the first step is to stop inviting it. It's all well and good to have rules and to assert that everyone should know and follow them; but that's not a realistic view on a public website. And when the UI and the rule are at odds with each other, forget about it; people will follow the UI, not the rule. – aroth Jul 18 '14 at 3:14
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    @jmac Why shouldn't the community shaping the direction, scope and atmosphere of the site not extend to comments? I've seen no evidence that they're crowding out questions and answers, but I'll admit that I'm only an occasional reader. If your community has demonstrated a desire to comment a lot, what's the big deal? It seems very much like you're saying "The site is built and run by you, except in this specific case where we're telling you exactly what you must do." – Anthony Grist Jul 23 '14 at 11:59
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    Though it may not sound like my comments are open for discussion, that isn't what I'm trying to say @Anthony. If you can convince me that comments help make us a better Q&A site, then I will happily listen. As someone who has been dealing with the comments (as one of the mods the community selected to deal with them), I can tell you that from where I stand they take time away from the Q&A to deal with cleaning up comments that add absolutely nothing to the quality of that Q&A. Again, open to being convinced -- surprise me! – jmac Jul 23 '14 at 12:35
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    I agree that our comment UI is misleading. (Perhaps it would be better to call them "annotations"?) Please see my suggestion to more aggressively hide comments. – Jon Ericson Aug 12 '14 at 15:37
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    @JonEricson - I Think that more than anything else could help move the culture from discussion to improvement. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Aug 14 '14 at 21:02
  • @JonEricson - I agree, being more aggressive about when comments start automatically hiding is a reasonable solution, so long as it's coupled with a reduction in the active policing/deletion of comments. Otherwise it won't do enough to solve the 'overworked and frustrated mod' side of the problem. – aroth Aug 14 '14 at 23:35
  • Except the UI for comment entry says, when expanded, "Use comments to ask for clarification or add more information. Avoid comments like '+1' or 'Thanks'." Do you really think changing the name of comments will help users who aren't reading the default explanation that appears every time they begin entering a comment? – Jeff Atwood Nov 16 '14 at 5:52
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    @JeffAtwood - perhaps the expanded description for the "add a comment" link should say "We don't really mean add a comment. We don't want comments. We have a comment problem. Instead, click here to ask for clarification, or add more information." – Joe Strazzere Nov 16 '14 at 14:33
  • @JeffAtwood I tend to think my comments "add more information". I expect other people think the same. – Chan-Ho Suh Aug 16 '15 at 20:36
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Does The Workplace have a particular problem with comment volume?

I looked at the ratio of comments to posts (including deleted of both) and tallied up the sites on the network that average more than 2.5 comments per post:

C/P  Site
---  ----
4.08 Skeptics  
3.8  Politics  
3.06 Jewish Life and Learning
3.06 History   
2.94 Mathematica
2.87 Puzzling Stack Exchange
2.81 Linguistics
2.78 Christianity
2.75 The Workplace
2.72 Theoretical Computer Science
2.63 Philosophy
2.57 MathOverflow
2.52 Code Golf 

The list included quite a few meta sites that I removed (notably The Workplace Meta at 2.86) because most sites have more commenty meta than main sites. This isn't surprising because meta tends to be more discussion-oriented than factually-oriented. The bottom of the list is largely populated with sites that died of lack of activity or are dying and have fewer than 1 comment per post.

Considering the place workplace issues have on the scale of subjectivity, the volume of comments per post here doesn't seem too extreme. (The math-related sites are somewhat of an anomaly. They rely heavily on comments for collaboration.) It's natural that more comments will be needed to clarify questions and answers when the subject has no independent method of verifying the truth of assertions.

Is the problem growing?

Well, it depends on how you look at it. I've forked your query and added a couple more lines:

Comment per Post

The green C_per_P_100 line is comments per post multiplied by 100 so that it will fit on the sameish scale. Comments per post has held steady while number of questions and answers has increased smartly since the beginning of the year. It's not so much that people are getting more commenty as that there are more things to comment on.

Does this mean there's no comment problem?

Not at all. There are a few things I haven't looked at that might be a problem:

  1. Comment distribution

    If comments were spread evenly, 2.75 comments on each and every post seems not overwhelming. But if a few questions gather many comments (like How do you decide when to go home for the day?) the problem can be quite noticable. For moderators especially, the automated "too many comments" flag ensures that such posts are noticed.

  2. Comment length

    A few short comments are less problematic (at least in terms of space used) compared to the same number of long comments. We are working on making single-line comments take just one line, which could further reduce the space consumed by short comments. (On the other hand, long comments tend to be higher quality. See the next point.)

  3. Comment quality

    I tend to think that comments on Skeptics, Mi Yodeya, Christianity, History, and Philosophy (the sites on the 2.5+ comments per post list that I'm familiar with) are fairly constructive on the whole. There aren't many +1 comments as I recall. If comments are mostly of the chatty sort on The Workplace and not helpful in clarifying the post they are attached to, there could very well be a growing problem that's not reflected in any statistic. Given my reading of the linked meta posts, it sounds as if the quality of comments, rather than their volume per se, is the problem here.

Summary

In order to solve a problem with comments, we need to clearly identify what, precisely, the problem is. My look at the data suggests that The Workplace includes more prolific commentary than most sites, but not excessively more. On the other hand, if comments distract from rather than augment the prime mission of a Q&A site, we may need to explore aggressive corrections.

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    I agree, and I'm not above using a comment to do so. If I want to amplify an answer, I obviously upvote. But that doesn't explain why I'm voting or address other concerns. Why on earth would we want to limit discussion by preventing and even deleting comments? What's the point of a site like this if not communicating? As long as there are also good answers - people aren't using comments to the exclusion of Answers - what is the problem? – Mike M Jul 11 '14 at 19:49
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    Hopefully someone sees these before they're deleted by someone who disagrees. – Mike M Jul 11 '14 at 19:50
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    And workplace issues are often more complex than at other SO sites - and quite often the original Q as asked is not the substantive issue being faced - as anyone who has worked in HR/IR will tell you. – Pepone Jul 11 '14 at 22:13
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    Hey Jon, splendid analysis. Quick question, does the above include deleted comments? We have deleted a whole boatload over the past couple months (far more than in the past), and if those are being excluded it may be masking the problem. Additionally, they definitely are not evenly distributed, they tend to clump on certain posts more than others. – jmac Jul 12 '14 at 4:15
  • @Mike, think of yourself as the average person coming in from Google. You are trying to update your resume and ask yourself, "How Should I Indicate Language Proficiency on my Resume?" Does having a comment that says, "I, too, like this answer very much. To add a little more info, if you worked and lived in Japan for 5 years, stating this fact in the resume/cover letter will help you a lot when you apply for a job at a Japanese company in the US." help me? The answer has 53 upvotes, would we be better off with 53 comments like that? – jmac Jul 12 '14 at 5:01
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    The system buries non-valued comments that don't get votes. If an answer is placed as a Comment, the solution would be to move it into an answer, not start censorship. – Mike M Jul 12 '14 at 5:07
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    @Mike, if you feel this strongly, then I encourage you (and other people who feel the same) to take the time to add valuable information from comments to existing or new answers. There are hundreds of comments each week, and only three moderators -- asking us to handle the burden of doing something that the people making the comments can do themselves will not scale as the site grows and will not solve the problem. – jmac Jul 12 '14 at 13:38
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    @jmac: I've updated the chart to a) include deleted posts and comments and b) add a line for deleted comments. (These are in our internal data.) Comment deletion is tracked by the date of the post (not the date deleted), so it naturally follows the fluctuations in posts. Next week I'll look into charting distribution of comments to test that possibility. – Jon Ericson Jul 13 '14 at 19:42
  • @jmac - That's a great reminder and I'll try to remember it with helpful questions in the future. – Mike M Jul 14 '14 at 13:27
  • Jon, could you get similar data for ratio of comments to posts but limited only to posts having comments? I mean, like, if there are for example 99 posts without comments at all and one with 100 comments, saying "average 1 comment per post" wouldn't be very informative, I'd prefer a more detailed breakdown, like, using same example, "1% posts has comments and posts having comments get 100 comments average", something like that – gnat Jul 21 '14 at 2:51
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    @gnat: Interestingly enough, my first try at the query did just what you are asking (due to an error in my SQL). As I recall, it shifted the comments per post ratio upward (as expected) but didn't change any conclusions: The Workplace isn't particularly extreme and the problem is not getting worse. But let me dig that data up again. – Jon Ericson Jul 21 '14 at 16:06
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    @gnat, I've added an answer to your query here. Please take a look. I am horrible about SQL, but I'll do my best to respond to any concerns that I can handle within my (limited) ability. – jmac Jul 24 '14 at 7:06
  • Can you get the metrics of comments deleted per site? Maybe a ratio of comments deleted per question. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Aug 6 '14 at 20:42
15

I completely agree with @aroth.

The label "add comment" causes people to react the same way they do at every other site - they leave a comment. If this were happening only rarely, then it would be reasonable to blame the writer. But since this happens continuously, you must blame the interface.

If you really want to limit this to leaving clarifying questions or suggestions for improving the Question (or Answer) - choose a more descriptive label. Don't use the word "comment" since that word clearly has implications that don't match the field's intent.

Otherwise, it comes across as over-moderation, and sometimes as arbitrary moderation.

This isn't a "naughty user" issue - it's a "bad UI" issue. It can be fixed, rather than trying to be taught.

  • Except the UI for comment entry says, when expanded, "Use comments to ask for clarification or add more information. Avoid comments like '+1' or 'Thanks'." Do you really think changing the name of comments will help users who aren't reading the default explanation that appears every time they begin entering a comment? – Jeff Atwood Nov 16 '14 at 5:53
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    I do indeed. I think any label that requires a lengthy "expanded" explanation to be correctly understood should be reconsidered. Icons should be evocative/descriptive, labels even more so. In this case, I think the UI is failing on both counts. – Joe Strazzere Nov 16 '14 at 14:27
  • Ultimately this is not discussion software; it is not a discussion forum. It's focused data, science and fact based Q&A. You could change the name of 'comments' to 'elephants' and I don't think it would matter, for those users who are unwilling or unable to read the guidance. – Jeff Atwood Nov 17 '14 at 9:00
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    @JeffAtwood - I understand what you are saying, Jeff - I just disagree. I do think a different UI could make a difference, but clearly that's not my call to make. No matter - I'll make sure I don't contribute to our Comments Problem. I go back and delete my comments after a few days on a regular basis. – Joe Strazzere Nov 17 '14 at 14:26
  • Agree. Occam's razor time. The simplest explanation is the most likely, and the UI being unclear is the simplest. Any other explanation requires several assumptions about the end users. – Retired Codger Apr 17 '17 at 12:56
14

Since users appear to want to be chatty, make it easier for them to chat.

Right now, users are forced to leave the Question/Answer UI and figure out how the chat system works. Too much work; not worth the effort for many.

Instead, consider adding a link within the main UI, labeled something like "Discuss this Question/Answer in more detail" which leads the user directly to a Chat Room.

If you make the access to chat as easy as clicking the "add comment" link, you'll have more chatters.

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    I've been thinking about this for a long time, and I do think it is what's missing in the comments UI, better integration with chat. I've also thought it would be nice to let users in the chat room @ping users in the comments so it's easier for regular users to lead discussion-oriented comments to chat. – jmort253 Jul 18 '14 at 4:36
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9

Since the problem isn't the average number of comments but that there are some big, fast-growing clumps of them, would it be possible to raise the bar for entry on those posts? It's far better to prevent chatty/non-constructive/argumentative comments from getting there in the first place than to clean them up later, if we can manage it.

How might we do that? Here are some possibilities:

  1. Lower the number of comments needed before you get the "let's continue this in chat" suggestion. I don't know what that threshold is right now, but it seems to allow two people to go back and forth three or four times right now. And when that happens it's usually an argument, and arguments have high likelihood of not being useful.

  2. Have something like protection that restricts commenting. This would allow moderators (or the community, preferably) to prevent drive-by comments on posts that are getting a lot of activity. Like protection, it should require a certain amount of reputation on this site to be able to comment.

  3. When comment velocity reaches a certain threshold (N comments/hour), either temporarily prevent further comments (for some number of hours) or queue comments for review. (That last probably won't happen as it's major new work, but comment review could help with other situations too, like new users' first comments.)

An aside: Requesting clarification to a post is one of the primary purposes of comments. So long as the issue remains we should keep those comments. So it needs to remain possible to leave them; turning off all commenting would be too extreme. It's most of the other uses of comments that cause problems, and that my suggestions above are intended to counter.

  • Awesome. Far better ideas than censorship. – Mike M Jul 14 '14 at 12:36
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    For #1, the link only shows up for individual users. I think there'd be better comment-to-chat conversions if the link appeared for everyone and remained there, just like a user had posted "Join me in chat". – jmort253 Jul 18 '14 at 4:38
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    Adding friction to longer comment chains is a great idea. For example on Hacker news they suppress the reply indicator if you've replied a few times in rapid succession. – Jeff Atwood Nov 16 '14 at 5:55
8

gnat asked:

could you get similar data for ratio of comments to posts but limited only to posts having comments? I mean, like, if there are for example 99 posts without comments at all and one with 100 comments, saying "average 1 comment per post" wouldn't be very informative, I'd prefer a more detailed breakdown, like, using same example, "1% posts has comments and posts having comments get 100 comments average", something like that

I ran a query to get the number of threads with certain bins of comments. I realized as I was doing the analysis, that part of the reason that Jon's analysis seems so reasonable is that it is looking at per post stats whereas as mods we look at per thread stats. After all, if you get a flag on a comment on an answer, you end up scrolling up to the question, and seeing all the comments on the way. That means that the feeling of being overwhelmed by comments is not limited to a single post, but rather a set of posts all attached to the same question.

I ran this for all (non-meta) sites on the network, and to make the data a bit more accessible, I took the biggest commenting sites from Jon's post, and SO as a comparison, and charted the "# of comments curve", or cumulatively what % of posts have under that amount of comments:

% of Post Threads with Under X Comments

So basically, the further left the curve starts, the larger % of post threads have fewer comments. So in Stack Overflow's case (the blue line) about 95% of posts have under 10 comments in the Q&A thread. This may be a bit difficult to grok, and that's okay, it's a ton of data and a poor attempt to make it simple, so what I invite you to look at is the far right of the chart, where The Workplace is dramatically lower than any other site on the list.

2.1% of all TWP post threads get over 50 comments -- that is absolutely massive, and a significant distraction from the Q&A. Since the dawn of time, that is 112 different threads with over 50 comments, and of those, 54 (48.2%) have happened since we graduated. Here are the 9 threads since graduation that have gotten over 100 comments:

Let's take that last one. There were 15 posts totalling roughly 29,000 characters (at 6 characters per word, that's roughly 5,000 words). There were additionally 191 comments totalling roughly 51,000 characters. That's roughly 8,500 words using the same math. The reading volume of the comment exceeded the reading volume of all the posts combined. When comments balloon, they create a significant additional burden to the reader to slog through for people who are coming in from a search engine looking for a straight answer.

At an average reading speed of 250 words per minute, it would take 20 minutes to get through all the posts. To dig through the comments would be an additional 34 minutes. That is a significant additional burden to ask our visitors. That's why comments are intended to be temporary, so that they don't distract. But 191 comments means someone has to go through and clean up 191 comments -- that someone is the mod team. And at the very least, the mod team has to read through those 34 minutes of comments to decide what to keep, and usually several times over several days as the flags roll in.

We are definitely getting a lot more comments grouped up than we used to, and we are definitely pretty unique among the network in the number of extremely-high-volume comment threads we get (even when compared to places with higher numbers of comments per post).

  • I have added a portion for you @Joe, "Let's take that last one. There were 15 posts totalling roughly 29,000 characters (at 6 characters per word, that's roughly 5,000 words). There were additionally 191 comments totalling roughly 51,000 characters. That's roughly 8,500 words using the same math ... At an average reading speed of 250 words per minute, it would take 20 minutes to get through all the posts. To dig through the comments would be an additional 34 minutes." – jmac Jul 24 '14 at 13:51
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    +1: Gosh. If every StackExchange moderator could put forth even 10% of your effort into their site, we'd be all set. – Jim G. Jul 25 '14 at 0:03
  • Hey @Joe, I know that from your use you see me bringing up comments and thinking "these are absolutely not an issue to me at all and do not affect my enjoyment of the site". I hear that, and I sympathize. You don't have to deal with them because they get flagged and sent directly to the mods who do have to read these comments to moderate them, and who do see them as a distraction (which is why I brought them up in the first place). I am not trying to say "no comments ever", I am trying to make people aware that this is an issue for members in the community and the mods. – jmac Jul 25 '14 at 2:15
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    @Joe, the team (which I guess I should count myself as a part of now) determines the proper amount of moderators based on the manpower required to properly manage the site. The issue is not only that it is a burden on the moderators though -- the director of community development has already weighed in on this as a misuse of the comment system -- asking for more resources to deal with the misuse may not be the most effective way to solve the issue here. – jmac Jul 26 '14 at 13:37
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    And it's not entirely about resources, it's that comments are kinda being used in a way that leads to "the forum problem". There's a very real danger that useful information gets drowned out by the noise. – jmort253 Jul 26 '14 at 19:02
  • There's a misleading metric if ever I saw one. Good politics, but not good science. Since questions here are more subjective than on other sites, it follows that we also have more posts per thread than other sites (if you want numbers: TW=4.05, Sk=2.57, Ju=2.96). Which will naturally result in a higher rate of comments per thread. It's meaningless to discuss comments outside of the context of a post, because that's not where comments exist. And any comparison against SO data is problematic at best with queries limited to 50,000 rows. That's only a ~1 month window on SO. – aroth Jul 28 '14 at 1:51
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    "It's meaningless to discuss comments outside of the context of a post, because that's not where comments exist." @aroth, when someone visits The Workplace to read a question, do you think they only pay attention to the comments on a single post, or every single post in the Q&A combination? Yes, we have more answers per post, and that is also a problem as identified by our community. Posts do not exist in a vacuum, so I strongly disagree with the statement that a per-post basis is the only 'meaningful' way to look at the stats. – jmac Jul 28 '14 at 2:14
  • " do you think they only pay attention to the comments on a single post". @jmac - Yes; a single post at a time, anyways. That's exactly how I do it. The posts are not combinatorial; most of the time when a question has mutliple answers it's because each one is different and each one stands on its own. It's not useful to look at all the answers collectively, and since each comment is attached to (and presumably, refers to) a specific post, trying to view all the comments collectively is no more helpful. I can't personally think of a case where that might be useful. – aroth Jul 28 '14 at 3:40
5

Short answer: Yes, comments are continuing to climb.

I've grouped these by month, but you can see a steady trend since December last year that comments are becoming more frequent with the only drop in comment count being last month (and it's minor).

Comments per month since January 2014

So yes, after a bit of a ragged decline from March 2014 to December 2014, comments are still an ongoing problem and we need to try to keep a lid on them.

Let's do some other quick analyses. Firstly, let's look at the total number of questions and answers (# answers is on the secondary axis):

Questions and Answers

There is a corresponding increase in the number of questions being asked each month to go with the increase in comments. However, let's trend comments against comments per question (# comments per question is on the secondary axis):

Comments per Question

As you can see, there has been very general trend towards the number of comments per question increasing, albeit erratically.

Last one! Let's see how we're going with number of answers per question (on secondary axis):

Answers per question

This figure, while a little erratic, is not increasing. So we're getting a fairly flat number of answers per question. Note that we protect questions, so this figure can be capped from "fly ins" who offer an answer.

Summary

So while there has been an increase in the number of questions being asked, there is also a trend towards the number of comments per question increasing. It's this figure we need to try to manage :)

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    "there is also a trend towards the number of comments per question increasing. It's this figure we need to try to manage" Ok, then I'll continue to actively prune my comments every few days. I don't want to contribute to this problem. – Joe Strazzere Aug 15 '15 at 19:28
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    @JoeStrazzere from what I've seen, your comments are not usually part of the problem. It's not that comments are inherently bad; it's that a lot of our comments are arguments or other non-constructive stuff that we really don't want to host. – Monica Cellio Aug 16 '15 at 4:45
  • @JoeStrazzere Note that here I haven't differentiated between comments being deleted or retained. It's the fact that a high level of comments are being generated. I should go back and look at the deletion rate as that would be indicative of how many comments are off topic for whatever reason. From my experience, yours would not be a contributing factor. – Jane S Aug 16 '15 at 4:48
  • Comments are comments. It doesn't matter whose comments - they all add to the numbers that folks use to bolster the argument that we have too many comments. So to make sure I don't contribute to that problem, I have been deleting all of my comments that are more than a few days old (except the comments that the system doesn't permit me to delete). As long as we have a comments problem, I'd encourage everyone to do the same. – Joe Strazzere Aug 16 '15 at 21:20
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    @JoeStrazzere we moderators are very appreciative of your efforts here! Just a thought, it may be beneficial to flag comments as Obsolete rather than just delete yours (or just flagging a post with "comment cleanup" or something). As moderators, we routinely delete comments threads which are no longer needed and it would benefit us greatly if instead of silently deleting your comments you flag the posts/comments for cleanup (this way we can delete both halves of the comment thread). – enderland Aug 18 '15 at 12:19
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Let me see if I understand all this. This is a community driven site, correct? The community finds some questions/answers uninteresting and posts few comments. The moderator looks down upon this and declares it is good. The community finds some questions and answers interesting and helpful, and posts multiple comments. The moderator looks down upon this and declares it bad. Perhaps your problem could be solved by prohibiting interesting questions and helpful answers.

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    Basically, the missing component here is that comments aren't intended to actually answer questions or delve into extended discussions. I've covered that in more depth here in this other post. Hope this helps. – jmort253 Jul 26 '14 at 19:51
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    The community is still part of Stack Exchange. It's not "Joe's forum, discuss away"; there are some reasonable norms we need to comply with. If you want a discussion forum, try Yahoo Answers or Reddit or something like that. – Monica Cellio Jul 27 '14 at 4:14
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    It's definitely not "Joe's forum". ;-) – Joe Strazzere Jul 28 '14 at 19:49
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In you other post, you made my point completely. Perhaps I was too subtle. If this is a community driven forum, it should be driven in the direction indicated by the community, not by your personal wants and opinions. If it's a moderator driven forum, that's not necessarily bad. Just give up the "community driven" claim. If the community wants to make 50 comments on a post, that means that there's great interest in the subject, and lots of people have something, if not a complete answer to contribute.

I spent 20 years as Professor of Computer Science, hopefully enlightening such as yourself. Very early I learned that the most efficient means of education was not lecture, but group interaction. I also learned patience. I learned that everyone has something to contribute, and when I was facilitating discussion groups, it was my role to seek out those that were a little reticent and enable them to contribute. Aren't the comments on this forum much the same thing?

If your purpose was, as you claim, education, you'd value comments, rather than trying to find a way to discourage their contribution.

I'd guess the root of the problem is perception. Most people understand the word "comment" to mean something other than what you'd have it mean. You could perhaps satisfy your need for control by weighting comments. You could post the one's that meet your criteria at the top, and relegate the ones of which you don't approve, or perhaps don't understand to the bottom. That way, people could stop reading when the value fell their level of interest.

By the way, messing with my profile was really, mature.

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    No one did anything to your profile. Just showing you where to go to see users, the "users" tab. With that said, Stack Exchange's approach to comments has been one of "less is more" from the very beginning. I encourage you to check out the "about" page, as well as blog.stackexchange.com if you want to learn more. – jmort253 Jul 26 '14 at 23:21
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    Perhaps you are confusing your Meta Workplace profile (the site for talking about Workplace SE) with Workplace SE, the main site about navigating the Workplace. Look for the "main site" link in your profile. – jmort253 Jul 26 '14 at 23:42
  • "I'd guess the root of the problem is perception. Most people understand the word "comment" to mean something other than what you'd have it mean." Agreed. – Joe Strazzere Jul 28 '14 at 19:56

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