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:
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.