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Over the past few days, some people have been upset about how long comment threads are handled.

My understanding has always been that comments are secondary to the actual questions and answers. This is why comments cannot be edited for more than a couple of minutes, why there is no easy way to link to a specific comment, why extended discussions are automatically collapsed, and why there is a warning to "Please avoid extended discussions in comments. Would you like to automatically move this discussion to chat?" Despite all of these limitations, people still like to use them for extended discussions.

One way to handle this—short of deleting a long series of comments entirely—is to provide a tool for moderators to migrate comments to chat. This would definitely be a step in the right direction, but it's still re-active instead of pro-active.

I propose a mechanism that would do the following two things automatically once a comment thread reaches a certain length:

  1. Insert a comment with a link to a chat room and the statement "Please avoid extended discussions in comments. Would you like to automatically move this discussion to chat?"
  2. Lock the comment thread.

By locking long comment threads automatically, we can spare moderators from the need to clean them up—and take the heat for doing so—while allowing users to continue their discussion at a place that is exactly designed for that.

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Just to add to this... If a user happens by later and actually does have something meaningful to add as a comment to an already-locked thread, that user can simply flag for moderator attention to clean up and unlock. – David Jan 17 '12 at 20:36
Why do you want to repurpose the locking mechanism? That would prevent users from cleaning up the thread by deleting their comments. Why not a new mechanism simply limiting the number of comments attached to a post? – Josh Caswell Jan 17 '12 at 20:36
The problem with machine-based solutions is that a machine cannot tell when ongoing comments are appropriate, because a machine cannot understand context. – Robert Harvey Jan 17 '12 at 20:37
@Problem: Maybe it can be automatically unlocked if the thread drops below a certain count threshold? That might encourage users to self-police their noise if they want to add something useful. – David Jan 17 '12 at 20:37
@David but (unless I'm mistaken, which is entirely possible) locked comments can't be deleted by their makers. If the thread is locked, it'll never drop below the threshold. – Josh Caswell Jan 17 '12 at 20:41
@Problem: Perhaps, I don't think I've run into that. Certainly a consideration for this feature request. – David Jan 17 '12 at 20:43

Comments already automatically protect users from extended discussions; only the top voted n comments are displayed after a certain amount of comments are added on any given question or answer. Most users won't notice an extended discussion unless they care to look.

A programatic solution to a social problem is rarely a good idea, and limiting functionality of the site programatically is a really bad idea. Many Meta posts have extended and relevant discussions, and some questions on non-meta sites could conceivably have relevant discussions.

Moderation should be left up to (wait for it) Moderators. Situations like this require a judgement call, and they really don't cause much harm. Long comment threads don't deface the question page; we make sure of that. It's just not the proper format for such discussions, so we can move them.

I also don't see this as a solution to the current upset with how long comment threads are handled. Instead of "why was my comment thread deleted" the meta posts will be "Why was my comment thread locked?" or "Please allow up to X comments on a post". In fact more people are likely to fall victim to an automated solution, and unlike the current situation we can't say "Mod Y removed your comments for X reason".

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Let the moderators actually moderate? This is madness! – Michael McGowan Jan 17 '12 at 20:49
Madness? THIS. IS. META!!! – jadarnel27 Jan 17 '12 at 20:51
The problem is that the moderator in question made a bad judgment call. Thus calling into question the judgment of moderators on this point. – Nicol Bolas Jan 17 '12 at 21:49
@Nicol An automated system would regularly make bad judgment calls. – Andrew Barber Jan 18 '12 at 0:40
@AndrewBarber: True. My point is that while the proposed system is terrible, just saying "moderators will handle it" has also failed. Hence my proposal to just let us take care of it. – Nicol Bolas Jan 18 '12 at 2:08

The simple fact is this: sometimes, people need to talk about the question before being able to effectively answer it. It just needs to happen. Chat, the so-called "third place" is intended to be the solution to needing to talk at length about something. The problem is really quite simple: we do not have a way to talk about a question in chat.

Yes, we could go to a chat room. But unless there is a link there directly that people who want to talk about it can go, then there's no direct connection between that chat thread and the question. It would just be the person who created the chat room in chat; everyone else will not know about it and continue to use comments.

The problem is easily solved: allow us to take a comment thread into chat without tripping some threshold. Just give us a button that copies the comments into a chat room and leaves a link for others who are interested to follow.

However, until the powers that be give us this simple feature that has been requested over and over on numerous occasions, there is nothing that can be done. Long comment threads will be left up to the judgment of the moderators. And, given one of the meta threads that spawned this debate, some of them seem to be lacking in judgment.

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I don't necessarily advocate this idea, but it could be done rather fairly, I think.

One of the biggest problems with this suggestion, is that new users are likely to fall prey to it, since they often lack understanding of how StackExchange works, and need the most coaxing; yet they need to gain ~19 points to enter chat.

The only way this could be justified is if

  1. It warned you first, as it does now, but with a more explicit message like, ", After N more posts, the last M comments will be migrated to chat automatically", and

  2. New users could be promoted to 20 reputation either by a Q+ rep. user who was looking at the thread, and noticed that the user's participation had been "worthwhile", or automatically by virtue of clicking the "follow this discussion to chat" link.

Suitable values for N, M, and Q pending further consideration

Note, though that limiting Q users to "only moderators" is possibly a bad idea: by the time a mod notices, the discussion participants might very well have vanished into the aether.

Also, on notifying, there should be a warning at the soft limit (where M begins), so that users learn that, "It's coming soon!"; then, the hard limit is not a total surprise, and it is a convenient way to tell which messages will move to chat. We'd want M >= 5 or so, to give a good threshold for winding down.

Obviously, this suggestion lends to the possibility of abuse, but I do not consider that here.

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