What is meta? ×
Meta Stack Exchange is where users like you discuss bugs, features, and support issues that affect the software powering all 128 Stack Exchange communities.

I think we can all agree that comments like this add nothing of value to the site:

“-1 for choosing an answer that didn't actually answer your question (which was "why does...?"), then again posing the question 'why?' in your comment for that chosen answer, while ignoring the answer that directly answered your question. Which I've since…”

but I’d like to demonstrate that even comments that are intended to be helpful can be perceived as unfriendly.

In week 2 of the Summer of Love last week we posted the results of our look at attitudes in a large sample of comments. We found some really interesting trends in friendliness and the topic was further discussed. Below, I am also posting a few examples of comments that were included in the study and how each was rated.

Sometimes, it’s tough to see how language that we are so accustomed to is perceived by folks foreign to the Stack Overflow culture. So, let’s see some specific examples…

Here are two friendly comments rated such by 13 and 7 independent raters, respectively (and the rest of the raters deemed them neutral):

“Add some example code....formulate your question as a question and be more specific. What have you tried, what does not work, etc.”

“This is not possible, but please explain why it would be of importance, and maybe you could get help with the underlying issue.”

And this one judged unfriendly by 16 people:

“Absolutely nothing like a real question.”

This comment was rated unfriendly by 5 raters while 14 judged it neutrally and 1 person found it friendly:

“Ever hear of Facebook? They are even releasing the tools they use to make it happen.”

How can comments intended to be friendly be improved so that they are more often perceived as friendly?

share|improve this question
9  
Is there a question in here? (jk) –  Pëkka Jul 30 '12 at 20:45
47  
This is absolutely nothing like a real question. –  Shog9 Jul 30 '12 at 20:46
6  
Hi, @SethRogers! I'm having some trouble figuring out what you're asking here. SO prefers to be a repository of questions that have answers. Maybe you could change your title or closing line to a specific question we can work on answering? –  JohnMcG Jul 30 '12 at 21:05
    
@Shog9 FFFF-I was gonna post that –  Ben Brocka Jul 30 '12 at 21:06
1  
Did someone rate how perceptive the raters are? You could be dealing with turkers in a good or bad mood reviewing comments and skewing the whole analysis. –  random Jul 30 '12 at 21:06
7  
For anyone who actually didn't know: the OP's profile says "I'm on the Stack Exchange community development team. I work on special growth projects, research and analytics." @SethRogers: Earlier jokes aside, I am curious about why you posted this as an MSO question and not a follow-up blog entry. –  Pops Jul 30 '12 at 21:11
1  
@random We did not rate the raters, but the raters met minimum criteria including having approved ratings for thousands of prior tasks. –  Seth Rogers Jul 30 '12 at 21:21
    
@PopularDemand I added this here as a form of community documentation. –  Seth Rogers Jul 30 '12 at 21:22
6  
With summer of love in mind this is perhaps going to sound snarky, but reading through the content is "The tone of your message matters" all that we should take away from this? Isn't that rather obvious? –  Bart Jul 30 '12 at 23:25
2  
StackOverflow is not... oh, darn... in all seriousness, another difference between all those comments is length: how do we tell if someone is being rude or just terse? Some people are offended by terseness, but the real issue might be that someone has dared to say what 30 other people are thinking. Educating people to be more welcoming is a positive thing, but not saying what you really want to say or saying something else can be damaging. Tough problem. Maybe a downvote on a new user question should also be accompanied by a prompt - "Can you help this new user by improving their question?" –  dash Jul 30 '12 at 23:49
1  
@random we need meta-moderation! –  nhinkle Jul 31 '12 at 1:50
6  
@pekka it's a question now, jerk! (USED IRONICALLY TO ILLUSTRATE HOW HELPFUL COMMENTS CAN SOMETIMES BE PERCEIVED AS UNFRIENDLY!) –  Jeff Atwood Aug 1 '12 at 18:55
    
@Jeff hey! The original version worked much better, man. –  Pëkka Aug 2 '12 at 7:51
    
"I think we can all agree that comments like this add nothing of value to the site:" - Personally, I don't. Whomever gave that downvote and that reasoning I can absolutely agree with. –  H2CO3 Dec 5 '13 at 19:46

4 Answers 4

up vote 45 down vote accepted

The main problem with the last two comments is that one is passive aggressive and the other is sarcastic.

"Ever hear of Facebook?"

When reading it, you can almost hear the sarcastic tone. What it actually sounds like is this:

"Ever hear of Facebook, stupid?

Here's a good suggestion for leaving helpful comments. Write them as if you're writing a note to your boss at a new job. Pretend like your boss posted the question and you're responding to it. Most people wouldn't dare write a note, like the above comment, to his or her boss, especially if that person just got hired on.

As humans, we tend to use the sarcastic and passive aggressive tones when talking to people who we feel are stupid or who are beneath us. While we might think our boss is dumb, in most cases, we're not going to talk down to him or her because we have too much to lose.

Therefore, as a simple rule of thumb, if someone does something stupid on the site, pretend it was your boss. Take a deep breath, compose yourself, and then tell that person what he or she did wrong, but say it in a way that won't get you fired! :)

share|improve this answer
16  
+1 for "Write them as if you're writing a note to your boss at a new job.". –  Jaydles Jul 31 '12 at 3:41
3  
It makes me wish I could upvote twice. –  Peter Grace Jul 31 '12 at 15:47
3  
"Ever hear of Facebook" could also be a reminder that the Original Poster is missing the obvious - it doesn't have to be as negative as you suggest. I don't disagree with you but am struck by the fact that people on StackOverflow are helping other people, for free, for their own reasons. When writing a note to your new boss, I would argue that some of the carefulness is motivated by fear - you don't want to look foolish yourself, or, at worst, lose your new job - it's a totally different motivator. Perhaps we should just treat people like we ourselves prefer to be treated? –  dash Jul 31 '12 at 22:27
3  
@jaydles congrats on the new role! We talked about potentially hiring you back in the day, but Joel said you made far too much money in your current job to even remotely possibly ever ever EVER be hired by Stack Exchange. Glad that turned out not to be true. :) –  Jeff Atwood Aug 1 '12 at 4:48
1  
@JeffAtwood, thanks so much. I'm really excited to be working on something as awesome as what you guys have built. As for money, well... I've come to realize it's not all it's cracked up to be. You know, despite being exchangeable for goods and services. Both of which can be handy. But still. –  Jaydles Aug 1 '12 at 13:45

Essentially, the first three comments are all saying the same thing.

No, they don't.

The first two comments explain what needs to be done. The third one just says "this is bad." That's not helpful to someone who doesn't get the whole good/bad thing.

Your analysis simply misses the point. The third one is not trying to be helpful. It's someone being a tool.

That's what I don't understand about:

I think we can all agree that comments like this add nothing of value to the site:

I strongly disagree. It (theoretically, since you didn't link to the context of it) adds much to the site. It shows disapproval with the OP's accept choice, explains why that disapproval exists, etc. People sometimes accept wrong answers, or just accept an answer that answers the question that they thought they were asking, rather than the one they actually asked. There needs to be a way to address it. A comment is a legitimate means of doing so.

This comment in particular is curt, but far from snarky. It explains clearly what the issue is, why the action was taken, etc. And it's helpful, not necessarily to the OP who will generally ignore it, but to other readers of the question. It's a signpost saying, "don't trust the accepted answer."

share|improve this answer
3  
It comes across as spiteful: "You didn't choose the answer I liked, so -1." Whether or not the commentator is correct doesn't matter if they come across as hostile because the OP and other passer-by people are inclined to just ignore it (if not respond negatively). –  Troyen Jul 31 '12 at 1:56
5  
@Troyen: It doesn't come across as spiteful to me. Again, he didn't show the context, so I can't really comment on it, but devoid of context it seems curt (direct and to the point), but neutral. It isn't "You didn't choose the answer I liked, so -1;" he explained exactly what was wrong with picking that answer. It would only come across as hostile if you're looking for hostility. –  Nicol Bolas Jul 31 '12 at 3:22
3  
NIcol: you're striving to assume the best of the author of that comment, which is a very wise strategy when it comes to online communication. However, in the situation where that comment arose (which I can't link to because the exchange was deleted after things cooled down a bit), it was spitefulness, sour grapes, and... well, pretty much exactly what a less charitable reader than yourself would assume. The author was called on it, and retracted his screed (and undeleted his answer, which the asker had already up-voted though not accepted). –  Shog9 Jul 31 '12 at 3:51
1  
Out of context I read that comment as "wow someone's annoyed at people accepting to avoid getting nagged for having a low rate" –  Flexo Jul 31 '12 at 15:26
2  
@Shog9, in which case, part of the answer to the question in the title is "show the comment in context" :) [Thinking of mechanical turks] –  Benjol Aug 2 '12 at 9:04

Now that we have all sorts of glorious data to work with, we can start to analyze our problem. The first question I had, was how does comment score (i.e., the number of people who click on the up arrow) compare to friendliness:

Friendliness vs. Score

Therefore friendly comments (as measured by people outside of our community) receive fewer upvotes than unfriendly comments.


Based on Jeff's comment, I took a look a friendliness as measured by the "Unfriendly Score" only:

Friendliness vs. Score (Unfriendly axis only)

So that the chart reads the same direction as the other (more friendly comments to the right), I normalized the "unfriendly" score:

20 - UnfriendlyScore

In other words, a comment that none of the outside observers saw as unfriendly gets a score of 20 and a comment that all of the outside observes saw as unfriendly gets a score of 0. This ignores the Mechanical Turk's preference for polite pleasantries like "thanks" and ":-)".

The results are a bit skewed by the highest scoring comment (231 upvotes) which 18 people thought was unfriendly. Since only 24 comments were rated that specific level of unfriendliness, one heavily upvoted comment tips the scales heavily. However, even ignoring the outliers (by looking at the right side of the graph), the trend is clear: unfriendly comments are more likely to be upvoted.


For reference, here are the top 10 comments by score:

  1. This looks like an awful interview question.

  2. I have met people like this. There is always one day when they come and declare: I have found a bug in gcc.

  3. Seriously? Why the 3 close requests? At the moment there are 9 answers, with most of them upvoted. People are interested in this question/topic.

  4. This might be one of those cases where you need to ask yourself: Do I really want to make business with that guy? Another solution would be to press criminal charges against him. Incest is forbidden in most of the world, after all. Finally, your software is broken anyway, because you can (legally) have cycles in a family tree: cousins are allowed to marry in most (all?) western countries.

  5. let me know what company you work for so I know not to ever work for them

  6. Come on, people, the sooner you send-da-codez, the sooner Young Trevor, here, can return to playing video games.

  7. I think we've found a bug. When 1. a question is posted as non-wiki, 2. people answer as non-wiki, 3. the question is changed to wiki, and 4. the question gets > 30 answers, the non-wiki answers are not automatically changed to wiki. Is this a known bug already?

  8. I was like that at 15 or 16. Full sure I knew eveything, and couldn't be told I didn't. It took a very humilating personal failure to snap me out of it.

  9. @Mike Baranczak whether I agree with Scott on OpenID being or not, he is generally very open to technologies that aren't Microsoft-specific. Does he have a vested interest in Microsoft? Sure! But his tweet offered absolutely no marketing advantage for Mic

  10. Why is VB/VB.net so frequently used today, This is a bit like asking "Why are mules/trucks so frequently used today in transportation?"

(Only one of these comments was deleted: #7. Number 11 is interesting too: "This is a great question to farm badges. A guy with 11 rep has a gold badge. Hilarious." It garnered 8 friendly votes and 10 unfriendly. Sarcasm can be difficult to detect.)

None of these comments were rated higher than 7 on the friendliness scale by outsiders. We might disagree about how useful these comments might be, but we ought not to disagree that to a first-time user, they come off as either unfriendly or neutral. Unambiguously friendly comments (according to an outside observer) are substantially less likely to gather a lot of upvotes. Since highly rated comments are more visible to users than other comments, the system of voting on comments seems to reduce the odds that someone discovering a question via Google will see a friendly comment.


When I look at this sample of what the community considers its best comments (measured by upvotes), I'm struck again by the truth of Sturgeon's Law. Whatever you might think about the above comments, I'm sure you'll agree that many, if not most, of them could be safely deleted without making SO any worse off. Of the 7,000 comments in this sample, only 685 were deleted.

The only way to avoid the certain conclusion of Sturgeon's Law is to have someone curate comments. 90% (if not more) of photographs are crap, but when you go to a gallery the percentage drops dramatically. That's because someone evaluated each piece and only showed the best. I think our answers are of high quality (in general) because we all work together to select the best and even improve upon the best. Comments don't work that way.

Conclusion

From this dataset, it seems that high scoring comments are not often perceived as "friendly" by outside observers. It also seems that comment voting fails to surface the most useful comments as a rule.

If "friendly" is one axis a comment can be judged on and "useful" is another, it seems that score is at best orthogonal to both. People vote on comments for any-old reason: useful, funny, interesting, but mostly funny.

share|improve this answer
    
I'm not sure how this "answers" the question. I just have been playing around and this seemed a convenient place to share what I noticed. –  Jon Ericson Aug 1 '12 at 18:58
2  
"but we ought not to disagree that to a first-time user, they come off as either unfriendly or neutral." I completely disagree, actually. I think you should have picked more unambiguously Mechanical Turk "unfriendly" rated comments to analyze; a comment with 8 friendly and 10 unfriendly Turk ratings is, at best, neutral. Unfortunately this renders the rest of your analysis completely moot, but I upvote for effort. –  Jeff Atwood Aug 1 '12 at 18:59
1  
@Jeff Atwood: Yeah. Near the end of the write up, I noticed that the "Unfriendly Score" is a better measure of, well, unfriendly comments. I'm planning on reworking the answer with that in mind. But I stand by the second half: most comments are crap and comment voting doesn't help us find any diamonds. –  Jon Ericson Aug 1 '12 at 19:05
3  
Remember, too, that the dimension of upvoting (even for comments!) has nothing to do with friendliness or unfriendliness. Comments should be upvoted based on adding information or encouraging improvements to the post. Though I just noticed that the upvote tooltip for commenting says "this is a great comment".. so I blame myself. We should update the commenting tooltip (since it's official) to provide a bit better guidance on why one should upvote a comment. Some of this could also relate to not allowing downvotes on comments, though I don't advocate changing that. –  Jeff Atwood Aug 1 '12 at 19:08
1  
@Jeff Atwood: Fair point. Let's just say that I hoped there would be a correlation between score and friendliness. –  Jon Ericson Aug 1 '12 at 19:26
    
@JonEricson: "It also seems that voting fails to surface the most useful as a rule." There, fixed that for you. –  user7116 Aug 1 '12 at 20:49
2  
@Jeff, Jon - changed the wording to "this comment adds something useful to the post" (should be in the next build). –  Shog9 Aug 1 '12 at 20:55
1  
Jon, your vote/snark correlation lines up with a theory of mine: Commenting systems (reddit, HN, our comments) are much more likely to elicit A)jokes, or B)disagreement "nonsense...", or C) both (snark or sarcasm) than almost any other medium. They're the easiest to post, and attract the most votes. –  Jaydles Sep 24 '13 at 15:16

Essentially, the first three comments are all saying the same thing. Please rework your question it isn’t suitable in its present state. The fourth comment here is also meant to be helpful, but it’s largely interpreted as either neutral or unfriendly by folks not familiar with the community.

Perhaps the difference in how you say something encourages or discourages a new community member from putting more effort into their post and continuing to contribute and mature with the community; those new members who clearly don’t belong (you know who I’m talking about) won’t find what they’re looking for on SO - their posts will be closed and they will leave.

If you want to comment on a question, think about suggesting how the question can be improved. Colorful commentary on the quality of the question should be channeled into the built-in mechanisms that account for post quality, they work really well!

share|improve this answer

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .