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I've noticed over the few years that I've participated on Stack Exchange websites that moderators and moderation behavior in general is rather secretive, in that moderators take action with little or no explanation. While this has been remedied a bit with explanation boxes detailing why a thread was closed or moved, there are still plenty of actions being taken that leave no paper trail. For example, in a closed topic that I was participating in, I asked in a comment why my answer was still being down voted. I return a day or two later to find my comment was gone. Why was it removed? I don't know. And I can't find out.

I'm not upset that my comment was removed, I am upset that action was taken with NO communication routed back to me. If my question was removed because of some specific undesirable quality, then I'd like to know that and what policy it violates. But nothing was provided. That in itself can create bitter, rebellious users, which leads to trolls, ranters, and other detestable behavior.

My feature request is this: moderators regardless of rank should always have to provide an explanation for any action they take that affects a user or group of users, and that explanation should be routed to those who are affected by said actions.

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    Most moderation action on the site is not performed by moderators, they're performed by the community. Community members vote to close questions, and can flag comments for deletion. Mods can unilaterally do either action, whereas community members can't, but the majority of most of those actions aren't the result of mods doing things. – Servy Aug 7 '13 at 18:48
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    @kevin628, you have two kinds of mods... SE employees and community mods (non-SE employees). We are all accountable to the community, and if you don't like something a mod has done, then post a (polite) question on MSO asking for clarification (much like you already did). SE employees and the rest of the community hold us accountable. – Mike Pennington Aug 7 '13 at 18:55
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    I see what you did there, that who shall not be named. – BoltClock's a Unicorn Aug 7 '13 at 19:20
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    I'm deleting a crapload of comments here because they're getting noisy and mostly just repeat things contained in answers... But also for the irony. Mostly for the irony. – Shog9 Aug 7 '13 at 19:21
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    @Shog9: Don't worry, I won't tell anyone you're just taking the rap for that other guy. – BoltClock's a Unicorn Aug 7 '13 at 19:25
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    How clandestine of you, @Bolt! – Shog9 Aug 7 '13 at 19:27
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    Be aware that moderation culture varies a bit from site to site. On the core sites the moderators have to handle lots of exceptions every day, and it simply isn't reasonable to expect a lot of information from them on every one. On smaller sites moderators may be inclined to explain them explain themselves more often. – dmckee Aug 7 '13 at 23:59
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What are comments?

Comments are temporary "Post-It" notes left on a question or answer. They can be up-voted (but not down-voted) and flagged, but do not generate reputation. There's no revision history, and when they are deleted they're gone for good.

-- Source

Comments are a light-weight way to attach information to a post. They can be and often are deleted without warning, particularly when they don't add anything to the post. If you have something important to say that would be a great loss if it were removed, say it in an answer.

But of course, you didn't. You were just whining about downvotes. Don't use comments for that and you won't see them unceremoniously deleted.

It doesn't even take a moderator to delete such useless comments; some fairly small number of flaggers will trigger the system to remove it automatically. Could the system notify you of this? Sure - but we prefer to reserve notifications for things that you can use; letting someone know that a comment they wrote somewhere - which they can no longer see and may well have forgotten they even wrote - has been Removed For Reasons of Moderation doesn't provide useful information to folks, doesn't reassure them or give them anything to act upon; at best, it gives them nothing - at worst, it's a worrysome slap on the wrist for what is usually a very minor thing.

Presumably you already knew your comment didn't add anything to the post, since you wrote it - the system doesn't need to tell you this. Some folks are in the habit of leaving dozens of comments like yours, and they do tend to get a little warning sooner or later; most folks don't, and don't need it.

There is one scenario I can think of where it would make sense to notify authors of comment deletion: if a significant portion of the comments you post end up flagged and quickly deleted, it might make sense to inform you of this the next time you go to add a comment. But in situations like yours (one deleted comment in a year), I tend to think this would raise more concern than it would allay.

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    I propose a compromise. People should have to provide an explanation when they leave comments, and moderators should have to provide an explanation when they delete comments. (This is a joke comment.) – Bill the Lizard Aug 7 '13 at 19:13
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    If a feature to downvote comments is ever added, remember to also include a feature to require an explanation when downvoting. – George Cummins Aug 7 '13 at 19:14
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    @Bill the Lizard: Not deleting your joke comment because it would then ruin the joke. – BoltClock's a Unicorn Aug 7 '13 at 19:15
  • I see a mod war brewing :P – American Luke Aug 7 '13 at 19:16
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    @GeorgeCummins, do you think the explanation would just be another comment, or would you expect it to be a special sub-comment? (perhaps it could be named an inception comment) – Zoredache Aug 7 '13 at 19:27
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    We'd have to have votes - and vote-comments - on inception comments too, of course. – Shog9 Aug 7 '13 at 19:28
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    @Shog9 There's already a culture of fear especially on Stack Overflow, which makes it hard for users to want to post questions. You acquiescing to this kind of culture given your reputation of 157k is certainly not comforting. SE doesn't have to be a rainbows-and-unicorns website, but it also doesn't have to be a boot camp for visitors. – kevin628 Aug 7 '13 at 19:33
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    A culture of fear @kevin628? Got any proof for that? It seems that the thousands of daily questions suggest otherwise. – Bart Aug 7 '13 at 19:39
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    Acquiescing to fear, @kevin628? You're suggesting that folks get a message from the moderators every time one of their comments get deleted. That'd be over 6K users messaged in just the past month - well over 300 in the past day! I don't think that would be particularly reassuring to folks... – Shog9 Aug 7 '13 at 19:39
  • @Bart (and Shog9) The culture of fear comes from the fact that after someone posts anything, it can be gutted and destroyed by a community. Meanwhile, whoever wrote the post can't do a whole lot. That leaves users with a constantly lingering perception of, "Am I going to get shamed when I post next?" It is not valid for SE to say, "well that's the user's problem." That would be tantamount to a doctor telling a patient not to walk because his (the patient's) left foot hurts when he tries to walk on it. – kevin628 Aug 7 '13 at 19:48
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    @kevin628 People being hesitant about asking questions is a good thing, not a bad thing. Asking a question should be a last resort when you have a problem. Being being a bit afraid of asking a bad question, and consequently ensuring that it is of the utmost importance and quality before posting it, is fantastic and results in much higher quality content. It's the people who don't care about asking an SO question because they couldn't figure something out in 30 seconds that bother me. – Servy Aug 7 '13 at 19:48
  • @Servy Why should asking a question be a last resort? Why is it treated like a final doomsday option? How are people supposed to learn anything when they are shamed because they are calling out for help? Yes, occasionally you get the "I have X problem, please code the solution for me." Those requests produce nothing of value for SE. But users of all levels of experience come to SE. Users are the life-blood of SE. Instilling fear doesn't make them better; it scares them away. – kevin628 Aug 7 '13 at 20:00
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    @kevin628: that is a problem - while we do want to encourage folks asking questions like that to put a bit of thought into it first, we still get an awful lot of them every day - and the attitude occasionally ends up spilling over into posts that are considerably more reasonable. Amusingly, a big part of the effort we've made toward discouraging the spread of this attitude has involved deleting mean, snarky comments left on questions, as well as working on more specific, helpful guidance for question closure so that fewer ad-hoc comments are necessary there too. – Shog9 Aug 7 '13 at 20:06
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    @Servy I have never once seen a rule-by-fear philosophy succeed. Stackoverflow.com has a reputation as a place to ask questions; I would not use adjectives like "useful" or "high quality", though. Fear has not created a useful, high quality website. It has simply produced yet another forum. – kevin628 Aug 7 '13 at 20:26
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    @kevin628 The entire post is because SE isn't behaving like yet another forum, so it seems odd to claim that it's no different. In any case, it's rather clear, through both subjective an objective analysis, that SO has been widely successful in at it's stated goal, and it does work to limit low quality questions (something with most other sites don't even attempt to do to begin with). By all analysis I've either seen or experienced, the system SE has created has already succeeded. Programming experts come here more than to any other site because it weeds out the cruft for them. – Servy Aug 7 '13 at 20:32
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Ideally, any moderation action (whether by a 10k user or diamond mod) would be accompanied by an extensive explanation.

But...

Doing so would severely impede our ability to take those actions. It would take many, many times longer to leave such comments or information than it takes to handle the flag itself.

Some random notes:

Putting questions on-hold comes with a generated message which can be helpful, usually. They are based on the options users choose when voting to put on hold.

Comment flags that mods handle simply can't have accompanying messages most of the time; often we are deleting comments simply to clean things up of 'noise' not really related to the question/answer. Leaving an explanatory comment would defeat much of the purpose.

Other, more 'drastic' actions usually do come with some messages, though; outside of the normal channels.

  • But what about the perspective of the punished? If my comment was removed... why? Can't the reasons be compiled together and forwarded on to me in some way? – kevin628 Aug 7 '13 at 18:51
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    @kevin628 You seem to think that having a comment deleted is some sort of punishment, when it is not. – Michael Hampton Aug 7 '13 at 18:52
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    @MichaelHampton The intention does not matter, only how it's received. Care should be taken about how something is delivered. The fact that I consider it a punishment (as a plain old user on Stack Exchange) is telling enough. Had there been an explanation with it, I would have still been upset, but I wouldn't have considered it a punishment. – kevin628 Aug 7 '13 at 18:55
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    @kevin628 Comments are intentionally second class citizens on Stack Overflow: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/189038/… – George Stocker Aug 7 '13 at 19:02
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On sites as busy as Stack Overflow and the other popular SE sites, the moderation activity is the most important thing. When a moderator has to choose between fixing ten problems without commenting and fixing a single problem while communicating fully, they should err on the side of the former. Communication is nice, but moderation is more important because it keeps the site clean and useful for a larger number of people than the direct-to-user communication does.

In cases where clarification is needed, there's Meta. People can post here when they don't understand a moderator action, and the moderators have been very good about explaining their actions.

  • I have trouble believing this is true. Consider that if a comment is deleted based on the fact that several community members requested it be deleted, then there should already be an explanation there. It need only be delivered to the user. And that can be automated without placing any additional burden on the moderators. It's what I'd call a "workflow" feature. – kevin628 Aug 7 '13 at 19:00
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    In the case of deleted questions and answers, the system already provides such notification. With comments, it simply isn't necessary; the documentation clearly explains that comments are temporary. Commenters should write them with the understanding that they could all be deleted tomorrow. It is a complete waste of time to force the system or a moderator to explain why a temporary comment was deleted. They are temporary and can be deleted for any reason. – George Cummins Aug 7 '13 at 19:04
  • If they could all be deleted tomorrow, then why have comments at all? I regularly look at comments for deeper explanation, or perhaps because other considerations were discussed. If those could be deleted, then the entire user experience around comments needs to be heavily de-emphasized. Comments are, as I've always seen it on Stack Exchange, important because there are plenty of profound observations or questions users can ask that wouldn't sufficiently fit in an answer. Comments are value-added. – kevin628 Aug 7 '13 at 19:08
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    @kevin628 Comments exist primarily to encourage people to improve existing posts. You ask clarifying questions in comments so that the author will edit the answer to your question into the post; you point out mistakes, flaws, problems with content in comments so that users edit the post to address those issues. The goal, in all of these cases, is for the post itself to be edited to incorporate the important information. The comment is therefore temporary and can be deleted. SE has taken pains to ensure comments are de-emphisised. In part, by not having deletion reasons for them. – Servy Aug 7 '13 at 19:11
  • @Servy Were those "pains" valuable? I still regularly see answers with large comment threads under them, but none of the valuable information is merged back into the answer. If there's even one case of that, then comments are value-added. Hiding all comments under an extra click-to-show link would be a better effort toward emphasizing the ephemeral nature of comments. – kevin628 Aug 7 '13 at 19:14
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    @kevin628 Some examples of ways comments are de-emphasized include: limiting comments to users with over 50 rep, only showing the first X comments, and forcing users to click to show more, using a smaller font for comments, not allowing extensive editing for comments, forcing a rather short char limit on comments, not having revisions for comments, not providing or removing rep based on comments, not indexing comments in search, and specifically saying all over the place that comments aren't 1st class citizens. – Servy Aug 7 '13 at 19:18
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    @kevin628 If valuable information is never merged into the question or answers, someone isn't using the site correctly. Those with edit privileges should add the info to the appropriate place. The documentation is clear on the nature of comments, so there isn't an excuse for using them incorrectly. – George Cummins Aug 7 '13 at 19:18
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    @GeorgeCummins I regularly find in my job that when I engineer a feature in software that it is never used the exact way I intended it to be used. Instead, I sit down with real users and quietly observe how they use what I've created (if they use it at all). I can have on my little clipboard the rules of my feature, but I never expect the user to follow them, nor am I disturbed when they don't. It's unreasonable. I don't know how SE approaches its SDLC, but I would be a bit startled if they preferred rules over users. – kevin628 Aug 7 '13 at 19:24
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    @kevin628 Your point is well taken, but there are two reasons that I don't think the issue is as big as you have made it out to be. First, I don't see that this is a common problem, either in my real activity on the various sites or reflected in Meta posts about the subject. Second, the site's stated goal is to produce questions and answers. Elevating comments to the type of status you recommend would change that goal and cause the site to become forum-like. (cont'd) – George Cummins Aug 7 '13 at 19:28
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    (cont'd) If users have to wade through comments (some relevant, some not) to find useful information, how are the SE sites different than the forums that exist everywhere else? – George Cummins Aug 7 '13 at 19:29
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    @kevin628 Which is why we work so hard to help users understand that we're different, through resources such as the help page, rather than simply emulating and allowing the behavior that was so frustrating it motivated the site founders to create a radically different system specifically to avoid that exact behavior. Having SE devolve into a forum would effectively mean the site was a failure. – Servy Aug 7 '13 at 19:51
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    @kevin628 It is common to see comments on deleted answers explaining the problems with it, particularly in the case of very new users. With respect to comments, they really aren't deleted nearly as much as they probably should be; users learn to use the more based on the examples of others, and through experimentation, and as has been said if there is a problem that's not isolated a moderator can contact a user to explain a problematic behavior. – Servy Aug 7 '13 at 20:12
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    @kevin628 It seems that you are still giving comments an elevated status (like driving) and that you consider their removal to be a punishment (like a speeding ticket). The system already gives a provides detailed explanations and references for the things that matter: questions and answers. Moderating comments is more akin to janitorial work: a janitor shouldn't have to ask for permission or explain why he threw away a paper cup that was left on a table after a meeting. Sometimes he gets it wrong and throws away a cup that someone was using, but nobody cares overmuch; it's just a cup. – George Cummins Aug 7 '13 at 20:12
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    @kevin628 The policy shouldn't change, because the effect would be to make SE more forum-like and we are intentionally avoiding that. As for trying to change the users, the comment-privilege documentation is explicit and is given to all users when they reach that privilege level. If one chooses to ignore the documentation and is confused as a result, tough. That particular user may have a less-than-satisfying experience, but the experience is greatly improved for the vast number of users who benefit from the clean Q and A approach. – George Cummins Aug 7 '13 at 20:41
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    @kevin628 So you don't care what the policy is, you're just doing whatever you want, and then you're complaining when the site policy is enforced, preventing you from doing what you want, despite the fact that the site doesn't enforce it's policies. Hrmmm. You are correct, as I've stated, that comments aren't deleted as often as they should be. The solution then is to find ways of deleting comments that should be deleted, or preventing them from being posted, not to change the site policy. If you have suggestions as to how to find comments that should be deleted, please post it. – Servy Aug 7 '13 at 20:55
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The calculus on this is simple. There are 16 moderators on Stack Overflow. They get over 7000 questions on an average day. I don't know the exact number of comments but I bet it's more than 3 times that. In addition several hundred flags are cast every day (again exact numbers unknown)

If they had to stop to explain every moderator action they took they would need more than twice the number of people currently volunteering their precious time to this effort. That's kind of a crazy ask. As it is they hardly have time to deal with just the flags alone.

Some moderator actions do require further comment, and some don't. Comments are among the least important items of content on this network and as such asking a moderator to explain why he deletes every comment isn't just preposterous, it's actually counter to the values of the network.

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    As I said in a previous comment: at the very least, a statistical average of the most selected reason would be more than enough. No, it won't explain entirely why a comment or answer was deleted. But it will provide the best explanation, given the laborious task moderation is. If a user is still complaining after that, then that's because of an irrational user, not a failure of the system. – kevin628 Aug 7 '13 at 19:17
  • There are no reasons asked for or given. That's the point. Comments are just deleted answers are just deleted. They've taken steps to make comment deletion easier recently, not harder. – wax eagle Aug 7 '13 at 22:32
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You're absolutely right, communication is everything. Stuff like that should be explained, feedback is essential to helping people learn the system. We should be able to implement something automated to handle most of it.

Feedback on comment deletion (and probably other stuff) could be inserted in a User's activity tab in their profile.

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    I have deleted almost 2000 comments this month, and every single one needed to be deleted. No way we could properly moderate comment flags if we had to notate them all. – Andrew Barber Aug 7 '13 at 18:58
  • @AndrewBarber auto-annotation could make a good start, without involving manual activities. "Got 112 flags, removed by moderator". No need to make a straw man - if you dislike the idea, explain why – gnat Aug 7 '13 at 18:59
  • @Andrew - curious - what's the most common reason for these comment deletions? Noise? Offensive? – Adam Rackis Aug 7 '13 at 19:00
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    I was certainly thinking of something automated. – Lance Roberts Aug 7 '13 at 19:00
  • @gnat That's not a bad idea, really; but that's just a count of comments/flags which you speak of there. It's not a 'detailed' explanation for each. – Andrew Barber Aug 7 '13 at 19:02
  • @AdamRackis It's fairly evenly distributed, actually. – Andrew Barber Aug 7 '13 at 19:03
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    Thanks, @Andrew - and thanks for all the work you all put into this site :) – Adam Rackis Aug 7 '13 at 19:03
  • @AndrewBarber Even a statistical average of the most selected reason for deletion is more than enough. – kevin628 Aug 7 '13 at 19:05
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    @kevin628 We don't actually specify a 'reason' for deletion at all. There may be related flags, but that might not at all be why the content was deleted, and there may be no flags in the first place. For purposes of moderator accountability, the content is still in the database, and visible to mods/staff for review. – Andrew Barber Aug 7 '13 at 19:06
  • @AndrewBarber If the accountability data is sitting in a database, how does that help an upset user whose comment or answer was deleted with no explanation? I thought this site was user-oriented? – kevin628 Aug 7 '13 at 19:11
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    @AdamRackis Ironically, I'm asking for a simple explanation in an effort to get rid of the "whiny" meta threads. – kevin628 Aug 7 '13 at 19:19
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    I fear that notifications and explanations would only lead to more whine @kevin628. "Why was my comment not constructive? Why was it deleted as offensive?", etc. – Bart Aug 7 '13 at 19:29
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    @Kevin - customer service can never fix an irate customer. You simply hang up, or ask them to leave, or lock the thread - in all seriousness and honesty, with no sarcasm intended, are you new to Meta.SO? Excessive noise and nonsensical posts are a huge problem. – Adam Rackis Aug 7 '13 at 20:00
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    @AdamRackis I am not new. I'm just not cynical about these issues. – kevin628 Aug 7 '13 at 20:09
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    @AdamRackis Actually, looking over things again; I think the "Not Constructive" comment flag reason is probably about 40-50% of the flags, then "Too Chatty", "Obsolete", and "Offensive" scale down from there in order, each at 33-50% of the previous. – Andrew Barber Aug 8 '13 at 13:47

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