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I think some of the recent fireworks over comments stems from a conceptual disagreement between those like myself and Sbi, and "management" of StackExchange -- namely, who conceptually owns a given piece of content. And by "owns", I don't mean in the "intellectual property" sense, I mean in a "who do we optimize for" sense. I mean in a "why are we tracking this content" sense.

Here are possible "owners" I'm speaking of:

  • The Asker -- The original asker of the question.
  • The Answerer -- The author of an answer. Note that this applies only to their own answer, and not to comments they may make on another answer.
  • The Commentor -- The author of a comment.
  • The System -- Content which should be maintained for the system as a whole; e.g. for Google/Bing drive by viewers.
  • Moderators
  • Users with access to "Moderation Tools"

I think it's pretty clear at this point that Questions and Answers are owned by the asker, the answerer, and the system. Obviously the asker is helped out by the question -- because they're getting an answer. The answerer is getting helped out because they're getting something to answer, which often teaches them as much about the topic as their answer teaches the asker. Both questions and answers are left open to editing and improvement by anyone with sufficient rep, which makes them more useful to the system as a whole.

Once you leave questions and answers though, things get murkier. Who owns the other kinds of content on StackExchange? And by that I mean:

  • Chat room posts
  • Comments (!!!)
  • Question Votes
  • Answer Votes
  • Close Votes
  • Delete Votes
  • Moderator Flags

etc. ?

For example, I think Sbi and myself (looking at the above linked discussion) are of the opinion that comments are owned by the answerer and the commentor. Jeff & Co. are obviously of a different opinion, believing that they belong more so to the system (which is why they'd ever be "noisy"). At least, that's what I'm guessing, but I'm not entirely positive.

What I mean is (source by Jeff)

The reason we have the "get a room" feature is that two users go off on some tangent (or worse, bicker) for 10+ comments each. No other human being is going to read all that, because the only people who care are person A and person B typing all those comments at each other.

Jeff is saying nobody but the commentors are ever going to want to read those comments. And in that respect, I entirely agree with him. The disagreement is whether or not that's a bad thing. If comments are owned by the system, then that's certainly a bad thing, because comments can indeed be noisy. If, on the other hand, they're owned by the commentors, it's not an issue, because it's certainly not noise to them.

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2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted

To elaborate on a comment I left earlier.

There is no flow of discussion in the typical case -- comments always address the person "on the podium" (aka the post owner) unless they explicitly indicate otherwise. In other words, every post is like a little blog entry or presentation, owned by the person who wrote it. Like so.

every SE post is a tiny presentation

During a presentation, when someone raises their hand in the audience and asks a question, it is quite safe to assume they are not addressing another random audience member.

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+1 -- but what about things like votes? (E.g. I think I've seen before that "votes are a means of communicating with the question asker and with other readers") I used comments in my example because comments are where the "fireworks" are at the moment, but hopefully things can be generalized. –  Billy ONeal Jul 22 '11 at 6:18
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Votes mean "I, a member of the community, find this item to match with my beliefs on the topic" and prevent the need to duplicate opinions and answers on a regular basis. –  jcolebrand Jul 22 '11 at 6:27
    
This image completely lacks Cthulhu. UN-ACK-SEPT-ABLE. –  Tim Post Jul 22 '11 at 16:29

I don't think you're asking the right question.

People come here

  • To get answers to their questions
  • ... uh, that's pretty much it.

Comments should be aimed at improving the answer or the question. Comments which are of no value to future viewers of the question, who have the same problem as the op, are of no value to stack overflow. They are detritus.

However, they are second class citizens and a lot of leniency has been given historically as a way to allow people to be a little chatty without that chattiness occuring in questions and answers.

In other words, comments also improve the questions and answers by acting as a small pressure valve so people can clearly differentiate between content that belongs in a question and content that belongs in a comment.

Ideally questions and answers should absorb anything useful from their comments, and the comments should be removed once they are no longer useful.

As to the question of whether it's a bad thing to let idle chat hang around, the answer is an obvious and resounding YES.

Much like the boy who cried wolf, people eventually learn that comments hold no significant value, and thus skim or skip them, and read only the answers. They then miss those comments which actually do pertain to the answer or question.

Those that end up reading all of them are distracted by the arguments and extended discussion that takes place.

It's a lose-lose situation - either you skim them and miss important information, or you read them and go off wild tangents that are only peripherally relevant.

While comments are second class citizens, while they are meant to supplement posts, while they are meant to act as safety valves, we have to realize that they are still content that must be presented as part of the post, and as such they can either add to the sum total of knowledge, or detract from it.

There is most certainly value in making sure they meet even a low standard of relevancy to the post to which they are attached.

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We originally had to reach a compromise between hiding all comments unless asked for, and showing all comments by default - we are now at the uncomfortable middle point of showing just a few comments, but I still wonder if that was the right decision... –  Adam Davis Jul 22 '11 at 0:12
    
See, the main reason I disagree with this is that comments get folded. If they were truly supposed to "contribute to the attached question or answer", then they would not be folded. Obviously the system is currently designed with the idea in mind that comments are not for the average reader. And even if that was not the case, I certainly don't think the answer is that "obvious" or "resounding" -- otherwise there'd not be so much disagreement. –  Billy ONeal Jul 22 '11 at 0:13
    
@Billy Out of curiosity - would you then be ok with the system hiding comments from everyone (ie, no being able to see them or know that they are there) except the two having the discussion? –  Adam Davis Jul 22 '11 at 0:17
    
That would be just fine for me. (So long as the rampant deletion of comments was toned down as a result of course) Comments are there to serve the commentor and the answer. I don't see why drive by users should give a damn about them. –  Billy ONeal Jul 22 '11 at 0:17
    
Oh wait, I read that wrong. No, I think everyone should be able to see the comments. However, hiding all of them unless the user presses a button to show some or all of them was what I meant. Hiding them from view from everyone would prevent discussions between more than two people. (Such as this one ) –  Billy ONeal Jul 22 '11 at 0:22

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