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The problem of sub 50 rep users being unable to comment is well documented

Many sub 50 rep users have complained about the problem of not being able to comment under the limit. I am one of them. A small sample of these complaints can be found here, here, and here.

The rationale for the 50 rep limit is good: reduce spam

As evidenced by many of the answers to those questions, the problem that this limit is trying to solve is that of spam.

The justification is simple: we don't want the site to be flooded by comments from passers-by. ЯegDwight

The canonical answer to this question is found here. Because it does such a good job of summarizing the points, I'll quote it directly.

However, history and experience have shown that the downsides of allowing everyone to comment are far greater than a few useful comments lost:

  • There are big problems with spam. Automated filters cannot catch all of it.

  • Even among the real comments, most would either say "I have the same problem" or "I agree". Such comments do not add any value, and have to be manually removed.

  • Comments are very painful to moderate. Stack Exchange sites have a process of community moderation (voting, flagging, review queues) that works great for questions and answers, but not so much for comments. Comments cannot be downvoted or closevoted, nor searched (nor do we want that).

  • Comments are second class citizens on the Stack Exchange network, not designed to hold information for all eternity. They may get cleaned up at any time. Generally, truly important information should be incorporated into an answer anyway (either by posting a new answer, if the information answers the question at least partially, or by editing an existing answer, if the information is a minor complement or clarification of that answer).

Clearly, we need a solution that reduces spam and maintains the site's goal of high quality information. In partial opposition to the quality goal is the goal of effectively on-boarding new users. We want new-users because we believe the average lifetime contributory value of a new-user is non-negative.

The 50 rep limit is not good for new users

The purposes of comments are these:

  • 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 (for example, a link to a related question, or an alert to the author that the question has been updated).

The problems introduced by the 50 rep limit are these:

  1. A new-user is not be able to ask the clarifying question they have on the answer they have found

  2. A new-user cannot add clarifying information which could help a future user

#1 is bad for the user, #2 is bad for the site

"But it's easy to get 50 reputation"

The very common response to this problem is that it is easy to get 50 reputation points. Here's how to do it:

  1. Correcting the grammar of either questions or answers. To do so, click the edit link by the entry. Rephrase poorly expressed needs. For many, English is not their native tongue.

  2. Answer questions. Each time another member upvotes your answer you receive 10 rep.

Paraphrase of Andrew C's answer

To simplify Andrew's and other people's recommendations: #1 edit and #2 answer so that you earn the rep you need. It's easy.

However, both solutions fail under scrutiny.

#1 Editing is a limited option and non-trivial

Editing, while an option for native speakers, is not really an option for non-native or poorly educated speakers. Presumably, we'd like to avoid discriminating against users based on English mastery. This leaves only number #2 as an option to those people.

Furthermore, the 25 edits needed to reach the 50 rep limit are not nothing. If it takes only 20 minutes each, that means over 8 hours of editing to reach the limit. It certainly takes me more than 20 minutes on average to edit an answer because I want to make sure the edit balances between substantive, without changing the original meaning of the author. Effective editing is also predicated on prior knowledge which brings me to the problems with option #2.

#2 Question answering has many barriers to entry

It's a question/answer site, how hard can it be?

Stack Overflow is known for having stringent guidelines for what constitutes acceptable answers, deviating from those guidelines can result in reputation hits. To avoid breaking rules, there is significant prior knowledge required about the site. By definition, new-users don't have that prior knowledge. The intro-tutorial only gets them so far (and only up to 10 rep). This dearth of context reduces a new-user's confidence in their ability to participate. Anecdotally: it did for me.

Furthermore, answering a question requires not only information about what constitutes a good answer, but also an answer to the question being asked. New users are disproportionately more likely to be new programmers, therefore their ability to answer questions is much much lower. To demonstrate how I felt as a new user:

I touched programming for the first time about 9-12 months ago. Only in the last 2-3 months has my level of competence reached the degree where I can provide valuable answers. In other words, [answering questions on tags like] php and docker have not been available to me as options, because until recently I knew nothing.

a comment I made on this answer

It gets worse. Not only are new-users nervous about messing up how they answer questions, while having less to provide in terms of an answer, they're also handicapped in terms of their ability to collect information in order to answer the question well. They cannot comment for clarification.

Consider this quote.

To make requests for clarification, or mere responses to other answers, you need to wait until you have the comment privilege.

community wiki

While there are ways to get around it (see "But I can't write a good answer without more information!" in community wiki), there is no denying that a new user is at a disadvantage in this respect.

In short, it is not easy to get to 50 reputation points. It is much harder to get from 0 to 50 rep than it is to go the next 50 to 100 rep. Just look at a couple of users' reputation graphs; they frequently follow a non-linear trajectory.

This is a problem that can be solved

There are certainly bad solutions to this problem.

There are also workarounds that are not acceptable:

Can I put my comment in an answer?

No.

community wiki

But there are some off-the-cuff ideas from high rep users that garner support.

I was never a fan of the 50 point threshold. My two cents would be to allow <50-rep users to comment, but if any >1,000-rep user flag their comments, then the 50 point threshold gets put in-place instantly. Just a brainstorm. – LarsTech

The first comment on this answer

Brad Larson has an excellent post on this subject as well. A portion of his post is here:

The minimum reputation limit for commenting on Stack Overflow is intended to prevent spam and noise. Stack Overflow is constantly attacked by spammers and trolls, so some safeguards are needed. We don't have a similar reputation requirement for questions and answers, because we have moderation tools that help us identify and remove spam and undesirable content coming in via those post types.

The minimum reputation requirement for people to leave comments is a constant source of frustration for new or less active users. People find something factually wrong or in need of correction in an answer, and they don't want to go and have to spam answers to get enough reputation just to comment. Many turn to leaving answers (since they don't have a reputation requirement), which then clutters up the site and wastes our time in cleanup.

Maybe it's time to think about relaxing this, contingent on proper tools being made available to moderate comments.

How do we solve the problem of the 50 reputation comment limit?

To steal from Brad,

[Solving this problem] would both reduce user frustration and clutter from non-answers that come in every day.

A note about my reputation

My low reputation is my credibility on this matter. This is a frustration that I have been dealing with since I signed up for Stack Overflow a little over 1 year ago. What finally provoked my frustration was a scenario where I needed the version number of a program that someone had used in an answer; I couldn't ask them about it. My solution was to download every version of that program and run their code until I could replicate their error to verify the version number. One comment would have circumvented that ordeal. That's untenable.

I expressed my frustration in this thread. I'm grateful to halfer and GBlodgett for their editing and suggestions.

I'm now above the 50 rep threshold, but I'm unwilling to abandon this issue. I'm concerned that this is the type of problem where people with influence and the capacity to make change are unaffected and therefore unmoved. I hope I have managed to convey the problem, a potential solution, and at the very least manifested a conversation worth having.

  • 8
    "If it takes only 20 minutes each, that means over 8 hours of editing to reach the limit." - If it is taking you 20 minutes to make an edit to a question or answer, then you are making far to many substantial changes to the contribution, and your edit is likely to be declined by the community. You can also focus on the edits that are extremely easy to implement. You can also focus on questions that are already clear. I could create a new user on Superuser, starting with 1 reputation, and I have no doubt i would have 50 reputation within 24-48 hours. – Ramhound Jun 25 '18 at 20:43
  • It's also worth mentioning that moderators do have the ability to convert answers into comments, in the exceptionally rare case where a new user leaves a non-answer that is very good as a comment. – Sonic the Reinstate Monica-hog Jun 25 '18 at 20:43
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    @Ramhound It took me 20 minutes to make an edit when I was a new user on SO and SU. – Sonic the Reinstate Monica-hog Jun 25 '18 at 20:44
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    @SonictheInclusiveHedgehog And I was merely stating how I detest people just assuming that anyone that disagrees with them must have just voted without reading, rather than because they actually felt the vote was merited. By that logic I can just say that the person who upvoted the post probably voted without reading it. – Servy Jun 25 '18 at 20:46
  • @Servy I wasn't referring to every downvoter, just a proportion of the downvoters. – Sonic the Reinstate Monica-hog Jun 25 '18 at 20:46
  • @ConnorMcCormick You posted that comment 13 minutes after the post had been around, not less than 7 minutes. Additionally you edited in a bunch of content a while after posting it; the original revision was much shorter. On top of all of that, this isn't the first time you've posted this here, you've just copy-pasted it after having already posted it elsewhere, so any number of readers could have read it before you even posted it. – Servy Jun 25 '18 at 20:47
  • @Servy that's fine. Let's assume everyone who downvoted read the whole thing. I'd still like to hear their thoughts on why this doesn't merit being seen by anyone else. Responses like Ramhound is providing are useful (also, you're right about the comment part, I was wrong about the timing) – Connor McCormick Jun 25 '18 at 20:48
  • @Servy I copied it from this gist where I was editing and seeking feedback. I had to edit after posting because of this issue – Connor McCormick Jun 25 '18 at 20:51
  • @ConnorMcCormick Yes, I know. The fact that you had specifically publicized your question already was my point. So in reality your question has been publicly visible for the past 42 minutes. – Servy Jun 25 '18 at 20:52
  • @Servy Oh because of the git repo. I gotcha. Sure, you're right. Now what do you think about what I have written? Clearly, this is something I have put a lot of time into thinking, researching, and writing about – Connor McCormick Jun 25 '18 at 20:54
  • Somehow my comment earlier got deleted, but I wholeheartedly agree with your analysis. – Sonic the Reinstate Monica-hog Jun 26 '18 at 0:30
  • Am I missing something here? Don't you also earn reputation from asking questions? 10 question upvotes = 50 reputation. Even someone who isn't capable of improving other posts or answering questions can still quickly earn reputation by asking questions. – Alex Jun 28 '18 at 3:42
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Spam gets a lot of play in these discussions, because almost everyone can agree that spam is bad and we don't want more of it.

But... We get a lot of spam even without new user comments. We just delete it. There are tools and systems for reducing spam in answers, and removing it when it gets through anyway.

So why don't we have tools like that for comments? Why, if spam is such a concern, wouldn't we put a small reputation threshold for answers?

Comments are inherently problematic for a Q&A site

The goal here is to get answers. Not long discussion threads that contain a partial solution woven through them, as one normally expects to find on the 'Net... Rather, one or more stand-alone posts that present self-contained solutions to the problem represented in the question.

Comments exist to facilitate that. When Stack Overflow first went into private beta nearly 10 years ago, it didn't have comments at all; folks hashed out the problem by posting answers and by editing. Edits are good; answers that aren't answers... Aren't so good.

So comments were added, and were immediately a huge boon to folks trying to decipher unclear questions. They were also immediately abused for other reasons: answering questions, insulting the author, making jokes about the author, adding bits of tangential information, disparaging the author's skill, chatting with other users about related or unrelated topics, complimenting the author's avatar, critiquing solutions, insulting commenters whose critiques you disagree with, hashing out thorny issues, insulting the author's ancestry, posting memes...

...and some of those were and remain really useful. Others, like answering questions in comments, detract directly from the goal of the site. And still others are just actively hostile to everyone involved. Which, sadly, tends to be exactly what folks expect from a feature on The Internet labeled "comment": a place to dump their trash on others' heads.

Right now, we're in the middle of yet another attempt to make these sites a bit more welcoming. And, as usual, that effort is centered around how frequently comments are used to attack one another; particularly on posts from new users, but also just... as a matter of course.

It's like we're giving folks innocent little gun-shaped pez dispensers...

found on The Internet: a Pez candy dispenser shaped like a gun. "Fun to eat, fun to shoot", it reads, "Ready-Aim-Fire!"

...except our fun little toy is also a normal gun, loaded, and still we're shocked that folks use it for more than just dispensing candy.

You probably think I'm exaggerating here. Yeah, I am. Comments on the Internet only occasionally kill people. Still, it's super off-putting, and opening them up to more people just means that many more off-putting comments.

You're making it sound like all is lost. Is all lost? What does "all" refer to here? Hope? Is all hope lost?

Never fear, all hope is not lost! Just because this seems like a hopeless situation that can never get better and will almost certainly get worse doesn't mean it can't get better. We just have to come up with some better ideas. Ideas that don't involve the folks who want to answer questions having to spend all of their time here flagging comments until they lose all hope in human decency and go off to become hermits.

Right now over on our site for Interpersonal Skills (motto: "We have to delete every other comment posted because y'all can't stop kibitzing and being jerks") we just wrapped up a little test to see if even just not calling them comments would have a noticeable effect. And, it did! - they went from deleting slightly over half of all comments posted to slightly under half! A notable improvement, but... Not a panacea.

Meanwhile, over in data science land, our plucky team of analysts are looking for ways to classify bad comments automatically. As anyone who's ever tried to analyze text knows, this is a long shot - but if they can pull it off, there's hope.

Cue rising organ music

Will they succeed? Will changing the text of "add comment" to something that doesn't contain the word "comment" have any effect over on The Workplace? Will next month be July, or more of this now very long September?

Stay tuned!

  • “Comments exist to facilitate that[full answers].” So low-reputation users should have the same ability to clarify the question/answer as other-users – Michael Freidgeim Oct 14 '18 at 20:52
  • “Change the text of the "add comment" button to "suggest improvements" is to compare apples and oranges. You restricted the type of comments that users can asked. E.g if users want to ask for clarification, they will not (less likely will) click “suggest improvement” button. – Michael Freidgeim Oct 14 '18 at 21:08
  • Hello @Michael. Most people on The Internet, most of the time, do not use comments for suggesting improvements, requesting clarifications, or any other constructive purpose. Restricting who can comment and where folks can comment is a heavy-handed means of mitigating this problem, but it is very effective; if we can ever figure out how to restrict uses with a lighter touch, that would benefit everyone. – Shog9 Oct 14 '18 at 21:16
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I have never seen the requirement to be awarded the comment everywhere privilege before being able to comment everywhere as a problem.

Whenever, a new user comes to an SE site, there is a training component necessary for them to become of net benefit to that site.

Those users can quickly demonstrate that they understand comments are not for discussion, and that their primary (and virtually exclusive) purpose is to help posters improve their questions and answers by seeking clarifications, by working to achieve 50 reputation points.

It is possible that some users understand this at much lower reps than 50, but my observation is that the vast majority of those coming with habits developed on discussion forums and other less-focused Q&A sites do not.

I think having to attain 50 reputation points before being able to comment everywhere is a temporary impediment to a few who arrive already understanding the purpose of comments, and a necessary brake on many who do not.

I think reducing spam is the other/secondary benefit of requiring 50 reputation points before being able to comment everywhere.

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    "I think having to attain 50 reputation points before being able to comment everywhere is a temporary impediment to a few who arrive already understanding the purpose of comments" And those would probably be intelligent enough to quickly understand how to overcome that restriction. – πάντα ῥεῖ Jun 25 '18 at 22:01
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    Why 50? Why not some other number, like 25? – Sonic the Reinstate Monica-hog Jun 25 '18 at 22:21
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    @SonictheInclusiveHedgehog Why not 2? Why not 100 or 1,000? I'm assuming that there was some experimentation before 50 was settled on (and to me that seems to work well). – PolyGeo Jun 25 '18 at 22:30
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    @PolyGeo: More accurately, there was some trialling, not experimentation, and the gut feel to most users is that it's more or less OK. This is actually quite far from working well, especially from being measured to work well. (In fact, measuring the suitability of a rep threshold is very far from trivial, and AFAIK SE has never attempted it in any systematic form.) – Nathan Tuggy Jun 26 '18 at 3:41
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IMO it is okay to have 50 rep restrictions on putting comments. Because

  1. It'll avoid spamming.

  2. Considering Daily traffic, tracking spam comments will be too much overhead.

  3. Also comments are for notifying OP if any changes has to be done with respect to quality(at least for new comers).

This is a matter of privilege, SE is designed like that. Sure it may take some time if one didn't take tour, but that's for just once.

-10

My proposal

Sonic the Inclusive Hedgehog recommended I write my proposal as its own answer, rather than including it in the post.

In the short term:

Use incentives to solve the problem.

If a user has 10 ≤ rep < 50:

  • allow them to spend (perhaps 3-5) reputation for the ability to comment on a post.

  • if they are commenting on a question (esp an unanswered one) consider lowering the cost to comment (perhaps 2-3 rep)

Under this system a new user can weigh the cost/benefit of leaving a comment. This would allow high priority commenting to take place, simultaneously discouraging low effort "thanks!", and "great answer" trash.

Additionally, even if a user is malicious/incompetent, there is an upper limit on their shenanigans. They will eventually run out of reputation to spend on their frivolity, at which point they will have to contribute something of value to the site to continue their commenting.

The economics dictate a spammer would be better off getting to 50 reputation with their comment bot once they want to make more than 20 comments at the lowest-end rep cost per comment (2 rep per comment; at 5 rep per comment that value is (50-10)/5 or only 8 comments).

20 comments is not a profitable payload for a spammer. Even if it were, at that point it would be incumbent upon the system to flag the malicious commenter and deliver proper consequences, just as it is today.

In the long term:

Consider implementing Brad Larson's recommendation.

Essentially:

  • Require login

  • Implement Late Comments and Comments by New Users queues

  • Implement better means of searching comments

This post is not about Brad's recommendation, but I am including it to show that reputable users believe that with the proper review tools, commenting can be completely open to all users, just like answers and questions are today.

The takeaway

  1. The <50 rep comment limit is an annoyance to thousands of well-meaning users across all of Stack Exchange. It is particularly harmful on Stack Overflow where the issues involved are highly technical, attract users from across the world, and relate directly to peoples' livelihoods.

  2. The current rule is bad for new-user experience, bad for the site, and unintentionally discriminatory.

  3. There are ways to circumvent the limitations of the rule without sacrificing the quality of the site.

    a. One way is to implement a fully tooled comment management system and remove the comment restrictions. This is a non-trivial, development-intensive undertaking.

    b. The other way is to allow users to pay a small reputational price, similar to that of downvoting a question, that allows them to post a comment. This applies market norms to an incentive problem; a completely natural thing to do.

From my naïve perspective, the economic solution seems much simpler to implement than building complex comment management solutions. I'd like to hear more about how I might be incorrect in this respect.

  • I haven't actually downvoted either this answer or the question, but based on process grounds, I'm leaning that way. This seems like the very definition of a feature request, and the feature being requested ought to be in the main post. (I was pretty annoyed when I clicked on your title and got to the end of that long question and didn't find an actual suggestion. I nearly didn't even read this far down, as a result.) – SOLO Jun 25 '18 at 21:06
  • @SOLO This post is where I got my recommendation from. – Sonic the Reinstate Monica-hog Jun 25 '18 at 21:15
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    I love that you're trying to lead a charge on this topic. It's an important one, and overlooked too often. I can't get on board with your proposal, though. By your own admission, "it's easy to get 50 reputation" is often untrue. For a low-rep user, each and every point represents a major achievement, and is accordingly hard to let go of. Also, for a lot of people (and some smaller sites), "a lot of rep" isn't the 30,000 we often think about on meta; rather, it's more like 500-600. A cost of even 3 might be prohibitive in many cases; plus, it'll keep people that much farther from reaching 50. – SOLO Jun 25 '18 at 21:19
  • @SonictheInclusiveHedgehog Thanks for the explanation! I don't really think the linked suggestion applies here. The purpose of the OP's post was not to bring up a new topic and brainstorm responses, it was to make a specific suggestion to a well-understood and frequently discussed issue. No absolute right or wrong here I suppose, but as you can tell I would prefer the other way. – SOLO Jun 25 '18 at 21:23
  • @SOLO yeah, based on how this is going I may agree with you. It seems that this would have been better structured as a standalone feature request – Connor McCormick Jun 25 '18 at 22:28

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