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The simplified purpose of Stack Overflow: be a better Q&A site; raise the bar for finding answers above "trawling through a forum."

SO achieves its goal by making questions editable (and well-moderated) so they don't suck; making answers editable, like wikis, so the best answers get better and more complete over time; and allowing voting on posts.

Here's how comments are breaking the system:

  1. Comments on a question are higher on the page (more visible) than the greatest possible answer
  2. Comments don't head to oblivion with downvotes, or even get surpassed by other comments. (Example — the first part of the comment thread is shown to be incorrect by the first answer).
  3. To get the best information about a problem, it is now necessary to read not only the question and all the answers, but also a mini conversation about every single one.
  4. It's quicker and easier for people to comment on a question or answer than to actually edit the post, but less useful for actually understanding/solving problems.
  5. Comments regularly answer questions — or provide different solutions within an answer. (Example)

I can understand comments as a meta part of SO; i.e. as behind-the-scenes discussions that lead to improved questions and answers. But the current, highly visible implementation is causing a drop in Stack Overflow's ability to server its purpose (as I understand it).

P.S. This will probably be an even bigger problem amongst communities that aren't as technical and well-moderated as SO.

I'm sure this has been discussed in depth somewhere but the most detailed answer I've seen so far — largely about functionality of comments — pretty much says they are useful for things that are either meta discussions or should be merged into a question or an answer.

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13  
Some valid points, but I am too lazy to answer. Allow me to leave a comment instead. –  NullUserException อ_อ Oct 6 '10 at 15:45
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I disagree. Comments have been nothing but positive on these sites. –  jjnguy Oct 6 '10 at 15:47
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I disagree too - comments are great. (Waldo, if you are not familiar with Meta, votes are treated as an expression of agreement or disagreement here. There's nothing wrong with your question, it was very well put.) –  Pëkka Oct 6 '10 at 16:24
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Comments suck, and so do the people who leave them. –  user27414 Oct 6 '10 at 18:09

3 Answers 3

You've been on SO long enough to remember this, but in case you don't...

Before comments were introduced, people used answers to ask for clarification, point out problems with other answers, etc.

This was very noisy, ineffective, and annoying.

I agree with at least one of your down-sides: comments are too often used when their author could just edit the post he's commenting on. But the ability to comment must share at least some of the blame for that with a pervasive reluctance to edit in general and good old-fashioned laziness.

Comments are, by and large, a necessary evil. With a strong emphasis on necessary!

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Random example I just happened to stumble across –  Pops Oct 6 '10 at 17:05
    
@Pop: yup, questions from the first couple of months are full of these. –  Shog9 Oct 6 '10 at 17:07
    
I'm guilty of the comment-rather-than-edit thing. And while laziness plays a part (maybe a big part), I also do it because I want the original author to understand why the change makes it better. Probably I should edit and comment, but there's tht laziness factor again. –  dmckee Oct 6 '10 at 18:36
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@dmckee: you can actually do both, at once, by leaving your rationale in the revision notes. This has the additional advantage of remaining permanently attached to the edit. –  Shog9 Oct 6 '10 at 18:39

Some thoughts:

1.Comments on a question are higher on the page (more visible) than the greatest possible answer

This is necessary. Often, users do not post coherent questions, and comments are the only way to get clarification. The trail of comments after the question must be prominent so that other viewers of the question can see what is happening. Bad comments get pushed down the stack, as good comments get voted up. Eventually, the noise comments are hidden by the system.

2.To get the best information about a problem it is now necessary to read not only the question and all the answers but a mini conversation about every single one

What's wrong with just scrolling past the comments? They are in small type, making it very easy to visually skip them.

3.Quicker and easier for people to comment than actually editing the question or answer - but less useful to actually understanding / solving a problem.

4.Comments are regularly answering questions - or providing a different solution within an answer.

Sometimes the OP just needs to be pointed in the right direction, and if I don't have the complete answer to his problem, posting a comment is preferable to posting a half-baked answer.

Please don't take away my ability to have civilized discourse with people about their questions and answers. I know we programmers are an anti-social lot, but geez...

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While it's being pointed out several times that comments facilitate the lazy asses busy ones that do not want to answer or edit, you could turn that around and state that the lazy asses ones with apparently little time are the readers who are not prepared to skip or skim comments for relevant info.

After all, most SO stuff is geeky and understanding it requires effort from the reader. So wouldn't it be reasonable to expect from the reader at least some labor to mine for the gems in this otherwise free site?

I gladly accept that noise, which has never kept me from finding the actual information I was looking for, if it was present at all.

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