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One of my sites has a long-standing comment problem. When a CM collected stats for us in 2014, 2.1% of our posts had more than 50 comments. That's absurd, and the problem has continued. Moderators spend way too much time dealing with comments and flags on comments and complaints on meta about deleted comments and sniping about comments in other comments... for a second-class feature, comments sure do cause a lot of work. We haven't been able to bring about a cultural change yet; can we add some friction?

The answer isn't to prevent comments because, while some people love to use comments for tangents, arguments, jokes, and long-winded discussions, comments do still serve a purpose. We also get the good kind, the ones that seek clarification or otherwise try to improve a post. And that's why we don't just purge threads wholesale; we need to preserve those ones if they're not yet obsolete. We want the good comments; we just want fewer of the others.

Instead of cleaning up the problems afterward, it would be great if we had some way to impede some of those comment explosions in the first place, on sites where this is a problem. How can we do that? I can think of a few possibilities:

  1. Lower the number of comments needed before you get the "let's continue this in chat" suggestion. This currently happens if two users have posted three comments each, so there's not a lot of room to improve this. I see two downsides: (a) people can ignore that prompt (unless we change that), and (b) this does nothing for threads involving several people.

  2. Have something like protection that restricts commenting. This would allow moderators (or the community, preferably) to prevent drive-by comments on posts that are getting a lot of activity. Like protection, it should require a certain amount of reputation on this site to be able to comment. This helps with Hot Network Questions but might not make much of a dent otherwise.

  3. When comment rate reaches a certain threshold (N comments/hour), temporarily prevent further comments (for some number of hours) -- maybe from everybody, or maybe just from people who've commented more than M times already. The idea of rate-sensitive commenting limits is attractive, but I'm unsure about how it should work.

Would any of these work? What else could be done to address this problem? (I now see that I made a couple more quasi-suggestions elsewhere a while back.)

This question arises from one site, but I've seen comment explosions that could benefit from some throttling on other sites too, so it's not only one site's problem. I'm looking for something that sites could opt into, not something that would be mandatory across all of SE.

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    I agree with this, especially point 2. HNQ's tend to attract a LOT of comments (especially if they are of the "haha funny title" variety). – Ash Apr 28 '16 at 2:51
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    This sounds good, on one condition: that especially your feature 3 can be turned on or off for each site by its moderators (or high-reps). Because many sites don't experience this problem and may wish to allow the occasional long/frequent comment thread. – Cerberus Apr 28 '16 at 2:53
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    @Cerberus good point, and I'll edit. It should be a per-site setting, just like the setting that auto-collapses comment threads if there are more than N answers. – Monica Cellio Apr 28 '16 at 2:55
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    FWIW, the current requirement for #1 is that only two users are currently participating and each has posted at least 3 comments. That could be lowered, but... Obviously not by much. – Shog9 Apr 28 '16 at 3:16
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    Lately I've been toying with the notion of just blindly archiving comment threads to chat when they cross some length threshold. 10, 20 comments maybe. Shove 'em in chat, leave a link to the transcript for folks who want to read it, everyone gets on with their lives. – Shog9 Apr 28 '16 at 3:32
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    Well, nice thing about dropping a transcript link instead of a link that drops you into the room is that it doesn't exactly encourage joining chat and posting more stuff. You're just making room for more comments. – Shog9 Apr 28 '16 at 3:36
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    Could also just move the comment privilege to like 50,000 points – Shog9 Apr 28 '16 at 3:36
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    @Shog That's an interesting approach. I.m.o. anything is better than the way the thread now collapses, at what may appear to be arbitrary places: the breaks disrupt the chronology of the comments, without users seeing that it is collapsed at that point at all. The result is some comments come to look weird or out of place - until you realise later that you've read over a collapse. Then you have to re-read all comments again from the beginning in order to understand the proper context, who was relying to what. – Cerberus Apr 28 '16 at 3:41
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    On sites like Super User where a lot of questions are of the troubleshooting kind we often require more than ~6 comments to even get close to nailing down the OPs question so it can be answered. I know these questions could be closed as too broad but we like to be helpful ;) Auto moving to chat would discourage this. – DavidPostill Apr 28 '16 at 7:23
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    @MaskedMan noise, pinging the author of a post for every single comment in an unrelated argument among other users, the author missing actually relevant comments that will help him improve his post, users in those unrelated arguments getting more and more worked up and spilling over elsewhere on the site, making a bad impression on would-be contributors to the site (who see that, say "meh, Reddit", and walk away)... mostly the same basic reasons that anybody filters and curates secondary stuff that attaches itself to the main content he cares about. I know you've seen comment train wrecks. – Monica Cellio Apr 28 '16 at 17:00
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    Maybe I'm a bit foolish here, but if only 2.1% get high comments, doesn't that mean that 97.9% don't? Isn't this a case of making the perfect the enemy of the good? – Don Thermidor_Lobster Mobster Apr 28 '16 at 17:38
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    @RichardU 2.1% get more than 50 -- in other words, super-high comments. There are plenty more posts that have too many irrelevant comments but "only" have 20 or so. (Only people with database access can provide statistics, though; mods don't have this information.) Anecdotally, on Workplace I expect that at least 10% of posts have this problem, maybe even 20%. Also, your argument would suggest that we shouldn't do anything about spam or offensive comments/posts because they're such a small proportion of the total, but they degrade the site for everybody so we do. – Monica Cellio Apr 28 '16 at 17:46
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    @RichardU I'm critiquing your logic; please reread my comment. As for whether it's a problem, see the meta thread I linked to for an example from one site, and other commenters here represent other sites. If you think this is not a problem, I encourage you to develop that argument in an answer. Even though meta is different, this comment thread would have long since been moved to chat under Shog's proposal. – Monica Cellio Apr 28 '16 at 18:23
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    And what problem do you think this creates? Answer in an answer, please, not in comments. – Monica Cellio Apr 28 '16 at 19:01
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    The problem with number 2 is that most of our comment problems are from high rep users. I know I am one of them and I am sorry for that. But when someone is wrong on the interwebtubes I must correct them. Its OCD really – Chad Apr 28 '16 at 21:23
9

Change the name to not be "comment"

On every single site on the entire Internet except here, comments are intended to discuss things, provide personal opinions, argue with others, etc. A "comment" invites discussion by its very nature.

Except on Stack Exchange.

This drives me nuts, because I have a background in Human Computer Interaction/UX design and this problem exists fundamentally because of bad UX design.

Taking a wildly understood affordance for one thing (discussing/opining) and then changing the actual meaning will cause problems. Because it's really bad HCI and UX. I encourage people to read through The Design of Everyday Things or at least the wiki synopsis as it really helps avoid problems like this. Misusing designs with clear affordances causes all manner of problems.

It's the site design equivalent of a door like this being used for "pull:"

enter image description here

Nearly everyone would see a door like that and push on it. If the door is actually a door you are supposed to pull, is it the users fault or the fact that the door designer was an idiot and decided to override the basic functionality and intent of something everyone understands?

Realize that the way Stack Exchange uses comments is exactly like this door example. Nearly every single door like the above functions as push (just like how comments are used on the Internet). Is it really a surprise people try to push the door and are annoyed when they find out it's a pull door?

Maybe that example is too subtle (we don't label the door pull afterall!). What about this?

enter image description here

When you use an affordance incorrectly you have to make all sorts of workarounds to tell people how it is supposed to be used.

If your design requires an instruction manual to explain why the commonly understood things don't work as commonly understood you have a bad design.

The correct way to resolve this is to scrap the idea of "comments" entirely on non-meta sites (oh right, not only does SE have this affordance problem but it's not even consistent with _itself). Make two buttons, "Request Clarification" and "Suggest improvement" and only allow the OP to respond. Or otherwise nix the idea of "commenting."

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    Your answer presumes that discussion is always a bad thing and should never be in comments, but the whole reason comments were created in the first place was to get discussion out of questions and answers, not to suppress it entirely. Yes, we do have the "clarifications and improvements only" rule, but it is more like a speeding ticket than a building code. – Robert Harvey Apr 29 '16 at 15:57
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    @RobertHarvey - Disscussion in comments on non meta sites are always a bad thing – Chad Apr 29 '16 at 15:59
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    @RobertHarvey workplace.stackexchange.com/help/privileges/comment – enderland Apr 29 '16 at 16:07
  • @enderland: Sure; all consistent with my viewpoint. – Robert Harvey Apr 29 '16 at 16:33
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    So if my options are "request clarification" and "suggest improvement", which of them do I use to @-ping an editor about a bad edit suggestion, argue against a possible duplicate, or link to a related-but-not-duplicate question? I'm not sure we can enumerate all the valid uses of comments. That said, your point about the word comment having connotations contrary to our usage is spot-on. (Not that I can think of anything better...) – Jeffrey Bosboom May 1 '16 at 4:50
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    @JeffreyBosboom All those fall under "suggest improvement" in my view. Admittedly it's sort of a loose definition. If we switch to purpose-driven labels like enderland is suggesting, I'd support adding at least one more category, "Link to Related Resource". – David Z May 6 '16 at 9:52
8

An idea that combines #1 and #3 (since you asked for further suggestions): limit each person to 3 (or perhaps 2) undeleted comments on a post at any time, except for the poster. That cuts off long discussion threads in their early stages, without much limiting the ability to request clarifications or suggest improvements: when the poster responds to your comment, you can delete it, which frees up a "slot" for you to make another suggestion.

This doesn't solve the whole problem, of course; there are still cases where a whole lot of people contribute to a discussion and you get 15 or 20 comments without more than 3 being from any one person. The door is still open for some other measure to address that case. It is also possible that two people can keep a rotating buffer of the last 4 or 6 messages of their ongoing discussion, but at that point it just seems silly not to move to chat, and honestly, if they're deleting their comments as they go is it really that bad?


Personally, I would also be in favor of automatically deleting (almost) all comments after a week, but I think it's been established that I'm in the minority there.

  • If you're going to delete comments automatically, why have them? – Don Thermidor_Lobster Mobster Apr 28 '16 at 18:08
  • I think this would be really awkward for comment debugging... perheaps enable on a per-site basis? – Tim Apr 28 '16 at 18:08
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    It would be nice if we could make it easier to retire to chat, so that users doing interactive debugging or starting discussions could just go straight to chat in the first place. – Monica Cellio Apr 28 '16 at 18:50
  • @monicaCellio - Chat is also not that easy all the time. Many firewalls will block chat but allow access to the rest of the site. – Chad Apr 28 '16 at 21:26
  • @RichardU As I said, for requesting clarifications and suggesting improvements to the post. – David Z Apr 29 '16 at 10:21
  • @Tim what do you mean by "comment debugging"? – David Z Apr 29 '16 at 10:24
  • @DavidZ a comment stream, asking someone to run a command, then another, then another... – Tim Apr 29 '16 at 12:46
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    @Tim Ah, I would say that sort of thing should be handled in a chat room, with relevant excerpts being incorporated into the question and answer after the process is finished. – David Z May 2 '16 at 12:21
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    @DavidZ That seems good. Unfortunately, chat is 20+rep only. On Ask Ubuntu there are 211833 users with less than 20 rep - that's 68.75% of all users cannot chat (some error for people with chat priv from other sites). Perhaps if 500+ rep users could allow a user with <20 rep to chat (idk how direct invite?) this would be easier (chat is better for this - you are right). – Tim May 2 '16 at 14:56
  • @Tim Yeah... there may be some provision for that already. I don't remember the details offhand, but I think in some circumstances when a comment discussion is sent to chat, anyone involved in the discussion gets explicit write access to the chat room, regardless of their rep. – David Z May 2 '16 at 15:00
  • @Tim everything old is new again :-) – Monica Cellio May 2 '16 at 23:02
  • @DavidZ, how about you can only have 3 or 2 0-voted comments on a post. When a comment gets UV'd once, maybe twice, you can post another comment on the same post. This helps people who actually provide constructive comments. – OldBunny2800 May 5 '16 at 23:23
  • @OldBunny2800 I don't think there is all that much correlation between upvoting and constructive comments. Even if there is, I don't think it's a good idea to exempt upvoted comments from the limit entirely. In a lot of these long comment threads, many of the comments get upvoted, and if such cases your proposal would still allow long discussions to proceed, which defeats the point. Not that I mind encouraging constructive comments, but I don't think that's the way to do it. – David Z May 6 '16 at 9:52
4

Allow mods to suspend Comment privileges.

In most cases the problems could be nipped in the bud if there was a penalty for abuse of the comments. Right now comments are used to avoid the risk of down-votes and the work of creating a real answer far to often. These are probably half of the comments that tend to spawn chatter. The other half are disagreements of opinion.

This would give mods a method that simply restricts abusers ability to create and modify comments this would not inhibit their ability to create answers, questions, or vote which are the core functions of the site; then the site will continue to generate good content with out the comment noise.

Part of the problem is not that people do not know better, but rather that as long as it stays mostly civil there is going to be no penalty for breaking the rules. This would give a tool to mods that is more slap on the wrist and less ban hammer. Of course the ban hammer(site suspension) is still avialable for when the slap on the wrist is not nearly enough.

4

Here is a simple solution.

Make the comments only visible to those directly addressed and the op.

Give mods and the OP(with X rep) the ability to promote a comment to publicly visible.

Allow anyone with X rep to purge any comment directed at them. That has not been promoted to be publicly visible.

The only flags mods have to deal with now are inappropriate, and promote this Comment flags.

Finally make the add a comment privilege variable and every time a comment is flagged inappropriate that bar is raised to 5% more than current rep. This has the effect of a temporary comment mute and a penalty for misuing comments.

Ideally make this optional so that sites like The Workplace and Politics which have a high incidence of comment chatter can be turned on with out stymieing the entire network. I would also not implement this on Meta

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    Interesting idea -- limit the impact of comment explosions not by limiting the number but by limiting the visibility. (Plus some user-level moderation.) The idea of purging others' comments initially gave me pause; I've seen people flag the comments on the "other side" of an argument they're engaged in while doing nothing about their own and that feels wrong. But if the comments aren't visible to anybody else, it's a self-correcting problem. So if we modify that to "purge any comment directed at them that is not publicly visible", I think that would work. – Monica Cellio Apr 28 '16 at 22:18
  • @MonicaCellio I think this would address all of the concerns I raised. It's a VERY good idea – Don Thermidor_Lobster Mobster Apr 29 '16 at 12:09
  • On technical sites, if comments are only visible to the poster, they're likely to get (what they perceive as) pile-on "Please run command and edit the output into your question" comments as each new reader realizes the information is missing, but can't see the existing comments. – Jeffrey Bosboom May 1 '16 at 4:53
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    @JeffreyBosboom that's a feature; if they get lots of comments asking for the same clarification/action/etc, that might encourage the author to edit the post instead of carrying on a conversation in the comments. – Monica Cellio May 1 '16 at 16:40
3

I would caution that any solutions don't create problems worse than the problems they solve. The comments section is going to require human eyes to maintain it regardless if for no other reason than to slap down the occasional spammer.

Yes, there's nonsense in the comments, but sometimes that nonsense makes this site look like something more interesting than a technical manual. It reminds me of what Ben Franklin wrote "make something foolproof, and only a fool will use it".

As to the question above, here are some problems I see:

In general, all of the solutions proposed will have a few problems such as that spammers can still sneak in, insults can be dropped, et cetera, so they will not change the fact that human eyes need to give it a once over.

Specific problems I see for each:

  1. Too easily ignored, doesn't stop spammers, bad comments, or silliness. I don't see a way to enforce it without having the mods sitting on it. Pushing people out will cause resentment.

  2. People who find they can't comment during the protection will likely start to add answers to a question, so it isn't solving the problem just moving it to another place. Also, setting the reputation high will just make the comment section seem cliquish. Again, this only affects quantity not quality

  3. This addresses traffic and not what's on the road, so to speak. Could cause a rush to get in before closed. Closing it for a few hours will just lock out ALL comments regardless of quality. Also, it will likely drive people to post something into the answers instead. Another problem I see is that someone who has something meaningful to say probably won't come back to the comments, but someone who is snarky might.

So, what is a good number for comments? is 50 bad and 49 good? why not 48?

If the comments contain a good deal of back and forth to improve a question or answer, is that a bad thing?

What's better, 15 meaningful comments or five spammers? ALL of the proposed solutions (including Shog's idea and David Z's only address volume and not quality. Address the quality issue and the quantity will take care of itself.

I say go back to creating a cultural change.

Those of us with higher reputations need to remind others and ourselves to behave in accordance with the intent of this site.

  • I'd point out that the other answers address volume and not quality because the question is asking for ways to reduce comment volume. Of course we want the comments posted to be high quality, but that's a separate issue. – David Z Apr 29 '16 at 10:24
  • @DavidZ isn't it the same issue? If the quality is addressed, won't the quantity be addressed by default? – Don Thermidor_Lobster Mobster Apr 29 '16 at 12:03
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    People who find they can't comment during the protection will likely start to add answers to a question there are penalties to bad answers... there are none for bad comments. This is a big part of the problem that allowed the comment issues I believe. – Chad Apr 29 '16 at 16:09
  • @RichardU No, it won't. Having many high-quality comments is a problem in and of itself. There is a correlation, in the sense that if there were a very effective way of preventing low-quality comments, that would help reduce comment volume by a lot, but there is not such a way (as far as anyone knows), and reducing comment volume is a lot easier than increasing quality. – David Z Apr 29 '16 at 17:06
  • @Chad, maybe a votedown for comments? – Don Thermidor_Lobster Mobster Apr 29 '16 at 17:49
  • @DavidZ Please explain why an abundance of usefulness is a bad thing. – Don Thermidor_Lobster Mobster Apr 29 '16 at 17:50
  • @RichardU While I'll admit that I don't see the site implementing this, perhaps you should suggest downvotes for comments as a separate answer? Perhaps only greying out a comment if it goes negative to indicate that it's "not useful" but not showing the actual score? – Lilienthal Apr 29 '16 at 18:41
  • @RichardU No, I won't, because I didn't claim that an abundance of usefulness is a bad thing. I said that having many high-quality comments is a problem, because it distracts from the questions and answers. – David Z Apr 30 '16 at 7:52
  • @DavidZ repeating your assertion makes it no less false. If the comments are a distraction, why have them at all? Back up your assertion with reason, not repetition – Don Thermidor_Lobster Mobster May 2 '16 at 12:19

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