There's been a lot of discussion about comments lately. By nature comments are transient.

When should I comment?

You should submit a comment if you want to:

  • Request clarification from the author;
  • Leave constructive criticism that guides the author in improving the post;
  • Add relevant but minor or transient information to a post (e.g. a link to a related question, or an alert to the author that the question has been updated).

Many comments that are several years old find themselves in the mod queues.

By ensuring comments are transient, by automatically deletion, it would reinforce the transient nature of comments.

Note this suggestion is for the main sites, as meta does lend itself to discussion under posts, and are very different in function as compared to the main sites. I'd recommend addressing meta comments separately.

Would it be a good idea to automatically delete comments after a set period of time?

If so, how long?


I'm almost convinced that we're dealing with two different problems here:

  • How do we make good suggestions, supplemental links, and other things that actually might make the post better continue to be seen as valued while
  • ... we stress the truly ephemeral nature of comments?

It seems to me that, since we keep having this discussion (and sobbing a bit when we query the live DB for the last thousand things flagged), we can treat the first bullet point as the exception to the norm. Most comments are not:

  • Essentially suggested edits that weren't made because the editor wanted to collaborate before making changes, or,
  • Supplemental links that, while only often tangentially related to the post itself, provides the reader with more to explore, or,
  • Counter, contrary or supplemental views that someone managed to articulate in a manner worthy of preservation within the space that we allow for comments

.. why don't we just have a separate spot for that stuff that isn't called comments and see if there's still any angst surrounding automatic self-destruct of stuff that's supposed to be ephemeral to begin with? Because ephemeral stuff should go away, that's why we call it ephemeral.

I'm not pretending to spec out what that should look like here in this answer, I'm answering only to say it looks like we keep hitting our heads against one wall when we could be doing twice the damage to two walls with one head instead of two heads with one wall (or something like that, I'm getting a little lost in that analogy) or well you get it, why aren't we just considering two different use cases since people have clearly demonstrated the need for both since comments became a thing?

Are we looking at talk pages, similar to Wikipedia? Are we looking at more work into hiding older comments by default, but exposing them more to review this time (that doesn't seem like it would scale well), or are we looking at something else entirely?

I'm going to decline this specific suggestion for implementation because it doesn't solve for what worries folks, and I think those worries are valid. But I think the broader conversation here is good, and I'd love to see some proposals that consider two different use cases.

  • Yeh, I agree that there are useful comments, but they're scattered far and few between the noise. Hmmm this opens a can of worms. As if a comment is useful - shouldn't it be edited into the answer or written as another answer to provide more information? and the head wall banging thing - I need to re-read that tomorrow and I may be able to follow it :) I'll trust it is in keeping with the rest of the answer and accept it. – Yvette Colomb May 14 '18 at 15:47
  • Honestly would it be that bad timing comments out after # years? – Yvette Colomb May 16 '18 at 6:57

Some comments are obsolete five seconds after they're posted. Some are still relevant five years later. Two examples of the latter are:

  1. Requests for sources to support an answer. I have sometimes seen somebody come along and add this information years later, improving the post. More commonly, a comment of this type stands as a subtle hint to readers about limitations of the answer.

  2. Links to related questions on this site, other sites, or meta. While duplicate candidates should be addressed in an edit ("this is similar to (link) but differs in this important way..."), other main-site links are more informational and meta links should almost never be edited into the post.

Software can't tell the difference between a comment with lasting value and one without. It might be able to detect some of those without lasting value, same as it detects and expedites deletion of things like "+1 thanks" or "please accept my answer". Maybe the formula for flag-deletion of comments should take age into account. These are open questions. But "delete all the old things" isn't a good solution to the comment problem, much as I'd love to find a solution to clutter on the comment-heavy site I moderate.

  • I agree there's a smattering of useful comments under posts. I advocate that these either be edited into the answer or posted as a separate answer to provide ongoing feedback about changing issues. I have no idea how we'd retrospectively implement such a thing and it may not be viable. – Yvette Colomb May 14 '18 at 15:49
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    An edit to add a request for sources into the body of an answer would be rejected as against the author's intent. Links to meta discussions about a scope issue tripped by a question or whether the question should be closed/reopened/deleted don't belong in the question itself. Comments that can be incorporated into posts should be (especially when they're from the author!), but not all comments can be. – Monica Cellio May 14 '18 at 15:53
  • yeh even an algorithm that selects on keywords is not going to be 100% reliable... yep I agree re editing into the existing answer ergo - post another answer as an adjunct for info... I'm wondering if it's possible to have another thing - such as a "memo" for the sake of a name - a type of tethered comment, so that people can post a memo to a post, with valuable info - but then how that would be approved is another whole can of worms and sounds like it's a whole feature request of issues - so just ignore that ;) – Yvette Colomb May 14 '18 at 15:58

The idea of auto-deleting comments seems wrong to me, at least for Stack Overflow. Lots of useful information is often only found in the comment, so unless it is incorporated in the post, it probably shouldn't be deleted for no reason.

Many comments that are several years old find themselves in the mod queues.

If the problem is the mod queues being filled with flags on "stale" questions then the obvious solution would be to disable comment flags on questions with no recent activity (edits, answers, views). If nobody is using the question, there is little point in moderating it.

  • 1
    Exactly. In theory it could be a good idea. In practice posts often aren't ever edited to address or incorporate useful comments. Automatic deletion might lead to this changing to a large extent, but not before a lot of useful comments are deleted. – Dukeling May 14 '18 at 12:35
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    We've uncovered some really unflattering comments that were on questions that were 'stale', but still visible, the kinda stuff you really don't want anyone to see because it's something that would be embarrassing to all of us. We definitely need flags to work there. I'd be more comfortable purging comments preemptively than risking comments like "you stupid [racial slur] scum" being shown to anyone due to not being flagged through lack of visibility. (that actually happened, and yeah, way more than once). – Tim Post May 14 '18 at 14:48
  • Yeh, I'm advocating that the useful stuff goes into answers, either as edits or new answers. But not sure how we can achieve that.. too hard.. – Yvette Colomb May 14 '18 at 15:52

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