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Lately, there's been some questions about whether The Workplace has a comment problem. After spending some time talking with jmac and Shog9 (and reading more of this site's content), I'm convinced that the problem is not that there are too many comments in absolute terms, but that comments tend to cluster around specific questions. One answer that particularly stuck out proposed we don't agree on the definition of a comment. As a result, some folks are annoyed that tangential comments exist on posts while others are annoyed that such comments are deleted.

As designed, Stack Exchange comments rest somewhere between the 4th and 5th definitions:

4. a note in explanation, expansion, or criticism of a passage in a book, article, or the like; annotation.

5. explanatory or critical matter added to a text.

And we are philosophically opposed the 2nd definition:

2. gossip; talk: His frequent absences gave rise to comment.

But that still leaves a lot of room for gray areas—especially on a site as spongy as this one. (That's not a criticism, by the way. Since most everyone has worked at some point in their lives, few questions are immune to relevant commentary by all comers.) However, our comment system leaves no room for gray: comments are either potentially shown to all or deleted. (And this is a criticism.) Users may flag a moderator for deletion or cast a potentially ambiguous upvote. So we have a system where reasonable people might agree to disagree and an unreasonable system doesn't let them.

My proposal won't fix the problem, but it might ease the conflict. Once a question has more than two answers, only comments with at least one upvote will be displayed. All others will be hidden. Truth be told, this mechanism is already in place, but the threshold is set at 15. To get an idea of what it'd look like see:

How can I reduce the size of a long resume without hiding all my skills and experience?

The question itself has 5+ upvoted comments, so the top 5 (by score) are shown. This is per usual. But the accepted answer has 7 comments and just one is shown (at the time I'm writing). I don't happen to think this method pulls the very best comments, but it does give users some agency in choosing which comments are seen. And it avoids the pitfall of hiding relevant information from posts that are less popular.

Do you think this would help ease the conflict over comments?


One pitfall of hiding comments is that unequivocally negative comments might go unnoticed. Therefore it will be important to flag rude or offensive, not constructive, and obsolete comments when you notice them. And moderators are still be encouraged delete such comments. That still leaves "chatty" comments, which tend to be solidly in the gray zone between useful and noise.

To handle long comment threads that should probably be in chat, we are introducing a tool to allow moderators to migrate comments to chat. When moderators recieve the automated "too many comments" flag, they will be able to create a custom chat room and copy all the extant comments on a post into that room. A new comment that points to the new room will be added to the post. Then, at their discretion, the moderator may delete comments as they see fit. We are testing the feature on a few sites (including this one), but it will be rolled out network-wide soon.

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    This sounds very promising, thanks! And I did a big happy dance when I saw your last paragraph; I've been wanting that for a while. (Any chance of per-site thresholds? Do we have to wait for 20 comments on all sites?) – Monica Cellio Aug 12 '14 at 16:14
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    @MonicaCellio: That's a very real possibility. Comment threads can get "too chatty" way before there are 20 of them. I think the first step will be to see how the feature is used in fairly obvious cases before expanding it. We're also crafting some guidance for moderators before rolling it out everywhere. – Jon Ericson Aug 12 '14 at 16:19
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    Guidance for moderators will be important; I recognize (from the MSE post) that some consider this a little dangerous. I asked about a per-site threshold because even if you decide not to vary it, you'll need to have the hook in the code to enable it and that's probably easier to add when writing the code in the first place. (Another good trigger, though way more work so I'll understand if it's infeasible, would be based on comment velocity -- a post that gets 10 comments in the first hour is probably pretty different from one that gets 20 comments in three days.) – Monica Cellio Aug 12 '14 at 16:31
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    @Matt Giltaji: The design is to grant all commenters who lack the necessary reputation specific permission to participate in the new chat room. In this way, everyone involved should be able to follow and continue the conversation in chat. (Please let us know if you see any problems when the feature finally gets used.) – Jon Ericson Aug 12 '14 at 17:33
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    Does SE keep historical information for hotlist questions? I think it'd be interesting to see what the comment/post ratio is if you remove these questions. Most of the other, more "chatty" sites seem to have considerably fewer questions in the hot list. My anecdotal evidence is nearly all hot list questions end up with tons of comments, which may skew these numbers. – enderland Aug 12 '14 at 18:01
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    You might want to post a separate question about that, @enderland - for now, I'll just say that the majority of comments posted here do not come from drive-by users. – Shog9 Aug 12 '14 at 18:14
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    @Shog9 I trust you - I was just curious if it was a factor – enderland Aug 12 '14 at 18:36
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    Will this be turned on here on Workplace Meta as well? Not sure if we'd want that feature enabled on meta, so I thought I'd ask... – jmort253 Aug 13 '14 at 0:52
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    What happens if all of the comments are up voted? Will it still hide the lower scored comments? Thank you! – jmort253 Aug 13 '14 at 0:58
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    @jmort253: I don't think it's a good idea on meta. Only the top 5 (or 15 on meta) are shown no matter how many answers there are. So if all comments (or, rather, 5 or more) on a post are upvoted, this won't change anything. (But hopefully, in that case, all the comments are useful and interesting.) – Jon Ericson Aug 13 '14 at 1:53
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    @JonEricson, my thoughts exactly on the meta question. Thanks for clarifying on the votes question. – jmort253 Aug 13 '14 at 4:01
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Do you think this would help ease the conflict over comments?

Hard to tell.

If the core problem is the "number of comments" - then hiding many of them probably won't help.

If the core problem is that the "wrong kind of comments" are being posted (ie, random, parenthetical asides) - then hiding many of them probably won't help.

If the core problem is that people should be using Chat rather than Comments for much of what they are saying - then hiding many of them probably won't help.

If the core problem is the uneven distribution of comments - then hiding many of them probably won't help.

If the core problem is short, single-line text - then hiding many of them probably won't help.

If the core problem is comment quality - then hiding many of them probably won't help.

If the core problem is the amount of real estate taken up by comments - then hiding many of them seems like it would help.

If the core problem is comments distracting readers from the content of answers - then hiding many of them seems like it would help.

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    I agree with all of those points. But I would phrase the final one as "If the core problem is comments distracting readers from the content of answers..." The main problem for me is that the comments often lead me down a rabbit hole that makes me forget the post they are attached to. I can still jump down it if many of the comments are hidden, but there's a door to open first. – Jon Ericson Aug 12 '14 at 16:36
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    Yeah, I really agree with this, I think the core UX is the problem. The UX more or less drives people to post comments. Hiding them doesn't resolve this problem. – enderland Aug 12 '14 at 17:46
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    There is more than one core problem. One is the signal to noise ratio for readers, one is the cleanup burden for mods, and one is determining community reasons for being so chatty to keep the good from that content while reducing the bad. This targets the first and second issues. – jmac Aug 13 '14 at 1:12
  • Assuming it makes fewer people comment @Joe, then yes. – jmac Aug 13 '14 at 3:55
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    @JoeStrazzere an interesting idea would be to instead of making the limit 3 simply auto-create a chat room and migrate comments whenever there are more than 5 comments on a question/answer. Auto generate a link to the chat room and then prevent future comments on any post with one of these chats created? – enderland Aug 13 '14 at 13:31
  • As I explained @Joe, there are 3 different goals. If limiting comments were the only goal we could just turn them off, but then we would lose the clarification and signaling benefits. – jmac Aug 13 '14 at 13:39
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I think this will help especially with popular questions that get lots of comments quickly, before the post author even has time to react (and meanwhile everybody has to scroll through them to get to the answers). Make those opt-in for the reader.

We also tend to see people posting answers as comments; once there are answers there are probably answers that cover those same points, so it helps to collapse the comments until we're able to delete them.

Some of our comment noise comes from back-and-forths between pairs of users. Sometimes these are non-constructive arguments and they should just be deleted, but sometimes there are valid points that the author of the post should address, so we want the comments to be available. Since the most-important reader of such comments is the author and he'll get an inbox notification, collapsing them for everybody else seems helpful.

There is a risk that the "wrong" comments will be chosen, because people like to upvote humor and snark. The answer there is for non-constructive comments to be removed no matter how many votes they have. (So people need to flag.) I had such a comment here once at over +40 and was at the time annoyed to see it go, but it was the right decision. It wasn't helping and it was inviting more of the same (more comment noise).

I'm using language like "I think" and "seems" because we won't really know until we try it -- but I'm optimistic.

Finally, I'm particularly excited by your last paragraph. As a moderator, I look forward to having another choice between (a) leaving piles of comments on the site because no single one is non-constructive enough to merit deletion and (b) users getting upset because I removed marginal comments. Not every comment deserves a second life in chat and I'm quite willing to kill ones that aren't helping, but for those collections of middle-ground comments, this should help a lot.

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