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This is a variation of this feature suggestion. It is much more difficult to implement, but is much more refined, as it allows the deletion of specific parts of a comment thread.

Many - but not all - conversations in comments lose their value after the conversation has been concluded - fixed typos, requests for clarification etc. Conversely, there are some conversations that are worth preserving because they add value to the question or clarify a common misconception.

Robert suggests that moderators should as a rule weed out outdated comment threads. While that would probably work most of the time, I fear that judging what can be deleted and what shouldn't often requires domain knowledge, and experience with the issue at hand.

Therefore, cleaning up comments should be in the hands of the people best suited to decide whether a conversation has lasting value: Those who are having it.

To do this, I would like to suggest the following functionality.

Add a "recycling" symbol underneath each comment thread that exceeds two or three comments.

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Upon clicking the symbol, the user selects the start and the end point of the conversation they want to see deleted. The selected conversation is highlighted (in this example, in a dark yellow).

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All users who participated in the conversation get a notification in the collider.

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When the users open the page, they see the suggested deletion (in the form of the comments in question being highlighted, there'd be no extra dialog box or anything) and an option to agree or disagree. Only the involved users see the suggestion.

enter image description here

once all users have agreed, the comments are deleted.

(The UI design isn't great; also the example is suggesting that my comment was in fact worth preserving, which was not really the case. Please regard the contents as the quickly copy & pasted example that it is. You get my point.)

  • Delete suggestions would wither away after a defined period of time, e.g. 6 or 12 hours.

  • If a delete suggestion is in place, no new suggestion can be made that overlaps with it. (Therefore maybe the suggestion needs to be visible to the public somehow.)

  • Even though this puts the responsibility of cleaning up comments into the hands of the users, moderators could still pick up on delete suggestions, and act immediately on the totally obvious ones.

  • As a rule, only people who participated in a conversation can suggest a deletion, but maybe suggesting deletes on any comment thread could be made a 3k+ or 10k+ privilege. I take this back. The idea is to let participants in a conversation delete their own comments quickly.

  • This is a bit like picking up litter after meeting in the park. I imagine this could actually be fun to do, and become a habit quickly. A badge could be introduced to make new users familiar with the behaviour.

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10  
What​​​​​​​​​​? –  XMLbog Mar 16 '11 at 19:56
6  
Whom? ​​​​​​​​​​ –  Pëkka Mar 16 '11 at 20:04
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<a href="">eh?</a> –  augustin Mar 16 '11 at 20:06
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Please, not more busy-work. So what if it is a little untidy? –  Uphill Luge Mar 16 '11 at 20:11
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@Hans that's what I say about my kitchen! :) Seriously though, that's a valid view. But fighting comment noise is on the official agenda, and before that becomes the standing policy, I would prefer a solution where users decide what to clean up themselves. –  Pëkka Mar 16 '11 at 20:14

6 Answers 6

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I appreciate the intent, but this is hellishly complex. I think my solution is even simpler than Shog9's

Simply flag the first comment in the series for mod attention with the text

irrelevant comment conversation; delete this conversation

A moderator could then blam, blam, blam, blam on each [x] to remove it.

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1  
Fair enough. I can imagine it would indeed be terribly complex to implement. The issue I have with mod flagging is that it's often hard to tell what is on-topic and what is off-topic without domain knowledge, and my strong suspicion that flagging stuff that isn't actually offensive doesn't come naturally to many users. I'm not convinced enough people actually use the mod-flagging opportunity for lower-level stuff - hence my desire to have this as an element in the UI somehow. But I can be wrong, and I don't have the numbers –  Pëkka Apr 19 '11 at 16:46
    
@Jeff @Shog how about having an UI element to select a range of comments (like steps 1 and 2 pictured above), and make that selection a mod flag? That would have the advantage that a flagger can show the mod exactly what they think is noise, and would be obvious to everyone, but should be much less complex to implement. –  Pëkka Apr 19 '11 at 17:09
    
@pekka: You could always just flag the first/last comment. I think Jeff has the right idea though, since if it isn't obvious where the noise is you probably can't expect a moderator to be doing anything (or should expect him to delete everything...) - if you leave a mod flag on the post explaining what's wrong, it'll probably do more good than simply marking a range... –  Shog9 Apr 19 '11 at 17:26
    
@Shog fair enough. That makes me think there should be a comprehensive guide to flagging... But that's a different topic. –  Pëkka Apr 19 '11 at 17:32
    
@Pekka: Another guide that probably won't be read... But hey, feel free to expand this or this - they're both in need of some love. (and note that "noise" is now "unconstructive") –  Shog9 Apr 19 '11 at 17:35
    
@Shog ah, nice! Arjan has again done a fine job already, it just needs 1-2 lines about deleting ranges. I'll put something in. –  Pëkka Apr 19 '11 at 17:41

Comments are noise. That's why they're comments. But the good ones float to the top and the bad ones get hidden. I'm not seeing a need for this.

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Fair enough, but as said, deleting comments is becoming official policy anyway. That was not my idea. This suggestion is just changing who will do it. –  Pëkka Mar 16 '11 at 21:58
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@What: Eh, I don't think its quite becoming official policy yet. If it does, I'd hope it becomes the purview of 10k+ users. Our moderation queue is starting to stay above 100 all the time now due to some of the recent changes (such as having a visible flag weight). Adding in "this comment is noise derp" flags will certainly lead to increasing the mod queue noise. –  Won't Mar 16 '11 at 22:04
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but this way wouldn't flag conversations - it would delete them completely if all participants agree, without a mod or 10k+ user ever having to look at them. That (and the fact that it's sometimes hard to tell noise from important info) is why I think it's way better than having mods do it. –  Pëkka Mar 16 '11 at 22:06

I really can't shake the feeling that this is overly-complex, given the current status of comments on SE. You're adding what amounts to collaborative editing to a document (the set of comments on a post) that has no history, and trying to avoid mistakes by imposing a complicated set of rules on who can participate and when changes can take effect...

I shudder at the thought of trying to explain this system to new users.


A bit of history

Early on in the life of SO, when comments were still fairly new, deleting them was much, much easier: if you owned a post, you could delete any comment posted to it, and if you had more than a certain number of reputation points (5K, AFAIK), you could delete any comment on any post.

This resulted in a good deal of noise being cleaned up as a matter of course: an editor, upon seeing an edit recommendation, might make the edit and then delete the comment. An asker, upon seeing a request for clarification, might provide it and then delete the request. A high-rep user, upon seeing an argument erupting over an argumentative or off-topic question, might close the question and delete the argument. Etc...

...It also resulted in quite a bit of hurt feelings and flat-out abuse. Deleting an argument doesn't necessarily end it, so deletion to put out flame-wars failed. Some users would sit and guard their posts, jumping to remove any critical comment (I clearly recall sitting with a comment in my clipboard, re-posting it as fast as the rate-limiter would let me, until the OP got fatigued and left).

After numerous suggestions on UserVoice to add some restrictions, history, or at least an indicator that something had been removed... The system was changed to restrict deletion to comment owners, moderators, and the system itself (based on user flags).

Even so, deleting comments can still result in confusion and controversy. Unlike just about every other part of the site, there's no visible record that anything happened, outside the memories of individual users.

Judicial oversight

A delete-happy moderator can really make a mess of comments. But then again, a moderator can make a mess of pretty much anything without due care. That's why we elect them, with the idea of granting this much power only to those who have shown themselves to be responsible. I'm fine with letting moderators delete comment noise when clearly appropriate, and I'm also fine with leaving it alone when moderators have better things to do.

User moderation

You can already suggest deletion on any comment, merely by flagging it. If there's more than one comment you feel should be deleted, you can flag them all. If enough other users agree, they'll be deleted. If there are too many for this to be practical... well, you should probably think twice about wanting them gone... But you can flag the parent post and ask a moderator to have a look.

This is a fairly simple system, and while it lacks the elegance of your suggestion it fits in well with the overall simplicity of the comment system as a whole.

An alternate route

If you really want to get serious about cleaning up comments, imposing a big complicated voting system for it on top of the pitifully-simple comment system itself is a bit backwards...

Instead, take a cue from the editing system. Make deletion easy, give access to users above a certain rep level, and keep a history: each set of deletions by a single user is a revision, revisions are tracked, and can be rolled back. This would provide a much simpler and more effective means of actually getting rid of the noise, while still providing a robust means of review and correction.

(I'm omitting detailed description of how this might work, UI mock-ups, etc. because I don't actually think it's worth the bother, much less the back-end cost - but if we had to spend dev effort putting in a fancy new system for encouraging comment deletion, might as well make sure it actually results in lots of deleted comments...)

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Hmm. I can't predict how this would play out in the real world of course, but I expect it to be much less complicated than collaborative edits. It would surely not be something a newbie grasps quickly, but then, it doesn't have to be - this is definitely aiming at a market of more experienced users. The problem I see with flagging comments for deletion is 1.) that mods have their hands full already and 2.) what is meant to be cleaned up with this is not the actively harmful noise (quarrels getting out of hand or wildly off-topic) but rather conversations that are no longer relevant. –  Pëkka Mar 17 '11 at 15:45
    
Doing that is close to impossible at the moment because it takes an immense amount of co-ordination even if all participants agree that the conversation should be removed. True, this could be sorted by mod flagging it, but is this really the kind of work moderators are supposed to do? Why not provide a group of users with a tool to clean up their own litter after they're done? And if you allow only participants in the conversation to suggest a deletion, I think this could stay fairly simple to use. –  Pëkka Mar 17 '11 at 15:46
    
@What: experienced users already have a way to collaboratively delete discussions: 1) inform each other that they're going to delete their part of the discussion, and then 2) do so. New users don't necessarily get this (and also tend to need more in-comment hand-holding). If one participant fails to understand your system, it falls apart - leaving us no better than the ad-hoc system we have today. So: more rules, more code, more UI, more confusion, no more deletion. –  Shog9 Mar 17 '11 at 15:49
    
@Shog that way doesn't work, I've tried it numerous times. It's complicated as hell and leaves holes. A deletion of a defined range of comments would work much better. Also, if you have everyone on board, there is no need for keeping a history because the decision to delete is unequivocal. A system that lets other users delete other peoples' comments (no matter how much rep they have) is guaranteed to create trouble - even more so if deletions can be audited, disputed, and rolled back. That is my idea of hell. The chance of avoiding that is what would make it worth trying to implement IMO –  Pëkka Mar 17 '11 at 15:54
    
@What: yeah, that was the point of my lengthy historical notes section... But let's not quibble here: this whole discussion surrounds a desire to delete other peoples' comments. Robert suggests just having moderators do it, you suggest letting anyone do it (but requiring comment owners to acquiesce), and I suggest letting trusted users do it (but allowing abusive deletions to be detected/reverted): the only real question here is how we can avoid some of the mistakes of the past while still ramping up deletion. –  Shog9 Mar 17 '11 at 16:00
    
@Shog9 the heart of my suggestion is to let the participants delete their own comments. Including the higher-rep user possibility may have been a bad idea, I removed it. The point is to allow undisputed, quick and silent deletions that don't require anybody's attention. –  Pëkka Mar 17 '11 at 16:03
    
@What: I think there's some value in that core (as it essentially codifies the ad-hoc system I mentioned), but I'm not convinced it's worth the overhead. Example: if I edit this answer to include everything of relevance from this comment discussion, and then remove my comments, one of two things will happen: you'll remove yours as well (all noise gone) or you won't (some noise gone, remaining noise is noisier). If your system was implemented, I suggested deletion, and you ignored it... No noise would be gone. Yes, your system makes it easier for you to agree, but if you're gone it fails. –  Shog9 Mar 17 '11 at 16:10
    
@Shog agreed, it's that system's achilles' heel, and would need much work UI design wise (and maybe rule wise... if 3 out of 4 users agree etc.) to have a chance of working. Point taken. –  Pëkka Mar 17 '11 at 16:15
    
@pekka I think you're both overthinking this! see my answer –  Jeff Atwood Apr 19 '11 at 16:33

I think the suggestion should "expire" after several days if not a week. Not everybody is here 24/7, and 12-24 hours is too short imo.

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Maybe a week is too much, but it definitely shouldn't be less than 24 hours. –  Hendrik Vogt Mar 17 '11 at 15:21

This is an interesting idea. If it is done in a proper way, i.e. not one that suggests censorship, it could work very well and would be accepted by the community.

Give the users about a month to reply (or a week, but I would favour a longer period for the non-regulars). If any user disagrees, then automatically cancel the deletion (to avoid flame wars and cries of foul play). If a user does not reply (maybe he is no longer active), then a default behaviour could be enforced (maybe deletion, if all those that replied agreed.) If nobody replies: keep.

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Yeah, agreement from everyone would be required (although mods can override the decision either way.) A month may be too long if it blocks other suggestions that overlap. But 12 hours may indeed be too short. –  Pëkka Mar 16 '11 at 20:07
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Mods can already do as they please. And currently, there is a lot of bad vibes regarding how certain decisions are enforced autocratically, so it's critical that this feature is implemented correctly (i.e. avoid mod overrides) otherwise it may backfire. –  augustin Mar 16 '11 at 20:09
    
I see what you mean, but mods are already at liberty to remove comments (and the devs are anyway, they always have been). I don't expect many problems with that on SO proper. Meta is a different thing though –  Pëkka Mar 16 '11 at 20:36

What? I actually just wanted to make a similar suggestion. To make it more complicated, I'd actually like to see that not only ranges are possible: I just had a case where another user and I managed to carefully remove a comment discussion that had several unrelated comments in-between. That would have been easier with the proposed feature plus optional marking of individual comments.


Delete suggestions would wither away after a defined period of time, e.g. 6 or 12 hours.

As others have said, better 24 or 48 hours.

If a delete suggestion is in place, no new suggestion can be made that overlaps with it. (Therefore maybe the suggestion needs to be visible to the public somehow.)

Indeed, that's important. But I wouldn't like it visible to the public; probably an error message suffices for people who try to put an overlapping delete suggestion. I'd actually prefer to completely disable the feature for that comment thread for the duration of one delete suggestion.

Even though this puts the responsibility of cleaning up comments into the hands of the users, moderators could still pick up on delete suggestions, and act immediately on the totally obvious ones.

I actually wouldn't like to see the mods encouraged to pick up on delete suggestions.

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