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There are a lot of people on Stack Overflow who like to share their technical knowledge. Not surprisingly, there are also many people who like to show new users how to use the site itself. This is great for example when they work with the OPs to write a clear question, but considered noise when the comments are only about meta topics, like accepting answers.

The success of Stack Overflow is based on formalizing certain interactions between humans. For example instead of writing "user123 has the right answer", I use the vote up button. The same approach could be taken for guiding new users: the system should offer a way to send common, standard reminders to new users on request of experienced users. This could include messages like

  • "There are people who have tried to answer your question. If this helped you, you can tell people so by accepting the answer that was most useful for you. Otherwise, you may need to clarify your question by editing it." – This reminder would be available a certain time after the first answer has been given.
  • "Your comment indicates that the answer was useful to you. Instead of writing this in a comment, you should use the vote up button on the answer. Also note that you can always delete your own comments." – This reminder would be available if the OP commented on an answer.
  • "You have written an answer to your own question. If this solves the problem for you, you can let others know by selecting the check-mark next to your answer." – This reminder would be available if the OP provided the only answer, and it has been inactive for a while.

All these reminders can today be posted as comment, and this is what many people do (for example indicated in answers here, here, and here). However, compared to commenting, the formalized approach has the following benefits:

  • No persistent comment noise: The reminders are only sent to the new user – others who are just interested in finding good answers don't need to see them. Also, they are not around longer than required: they should automatically go away when the addressee acts on them, and they should be easy to dismiss.
  • Reminders can be throttled or filtered: Unlike with comments, the system could check if it makes sense to send the selected reminder. So if someone tries to send the "please give feedback" reminder right after posting the first answer, the system would reject to send it. The system could also prevent multiple reminders of the same type and unnecessary reminders e.g. to people with an Analytical badge on any Stack Exchange site.
  • Reminders can be measured: Moderators could see how the new feature is used (unlike with comments), and if they discover bad patterns, we could tweak the rules and for example require that two users choose the same reminder before it is actually sent.

Compared to fully automated reminders (see current status, idea for improvement), the proposed user-requested reminders have the following advantages:

  • More complex triggers: Certain reminders could not be triggered automatically because the system can't reliably detect their preconditions. For example it only makes sense to trigger the "consider accepting your own answer" reminder, if the self-answer is actually answering the question. This is easy to judge for humans, but hard for the system.
  • People can still help: This is probably the main reasons why meta answers saying "don't ever comment about accepting answers" (e.g. this one) are not particularly popular: Not commenting would require people to fight their urge to help. So with user-triggered reminders, people can still be helpful, without all the drawbacks of comments.
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related: Repository of useful pro-forma comments –  gnat Sep 9 '12 at 13:02
    
Yes, it could be a good idea. You've completely ignored the most important part though. How would these "reminders" be delivered? –  ben is uǝq backwards Sep 9 '12 at 21:34
    
@Ben: I intentionally left this to the web designers. But I'd imagine that reminders are shown to the addressee in a similar way as new comments: they are shown on the page of the post, as inbox notification, and on the responses profile page. –  oberlies Sep 10 '12 at 9:05

1 Answer 1

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The problem isn't so much that "accept" comments are noise, but that they're not posted in a manner that isn't constructive. A user who simply says:

Accept more answers!!!! - user54231

or

improv yur accept rate - mightyCoder

doesn't explain to the new user what the problem is, or most importantly, how to fix it. Ths is definitely noise and shouldn't be posted, but not because of the goal of the message, but because of how the message was written. Guiding comments, great guiding comments, are not noise.

Moreover, private messages to the user don't scale. As community members who actively try to guide new users, we would literally need to send thousands more of these messages in order to reach everyone. This is a huge waste of time.

Perhaps the largest advantage of the current commenting system is that, when a community member leaves a guiding comment, it's there for everyone to see. The purpose of these comments isn't to only communicate with the new user; instead, they're signposts to the community. They're breadcrumbs that help lead large groups of potentially new users from point A to point B. There are way more visits to Stack Overflow that consist of people who don't have accounts than there are people who do have accounts.

From A Theory of Moderation:

Whenever possible, try to leave frequent comments on posts where you’ve taken (or considered taking) a moderator action, explaining the reasoning. This is important so that community members can learn the norms of the community and the moderation policies.

While this statement is targeted at moderators, the Stack Overflow community has grown to such a monolithic size that not all of the moderation tasks can be handled by these 17 people. In fact, the entire reputation system is built on the concept that other community users will step up to the plate and help with common community moderation tasks, leaving the diamond moderators as the human exception handlers to intervene in those rare cases where some action must be taken that requires special intervention.

Also from A Theory of Moderation:

Stack Overflow is run by you! If you want to help us run Stack Overflow, you’ll need reputation first. Reputation is a (very) rough measurement of how much the Stack Overflow community trusts you. Reputation is never given, it is earned by convincing other Stack Overflow users that you know what you’re talking about.

In short, if people are posting curt, unhelpful comments that don't explain anything, then these just need to be flagged for removal. However, if those comments are intended to guide new users, then it's possible that even the drive by user from Google may learn something. In that case, those comments are like gold.

After all, many of us, including myself, were once drive by users on Google who eventually joined the community. It's very possible that there are 1 rep new users who have spent enough time on Stack Overflow to see these guiding comments, and who have a head start over some of the users who have been wearing their blinders.

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I find that most of your answers annoy me; they're just too perfect and I can only upvote them once. Would you mind posting some slightly less thoughtful answers so I can feel better about myself :-)? –  ben is uǝq backwards Sep 9 '12 at 21:33

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