Through his never-ending sense of wonder and curiosity, my colleague Jon Ericson recently posted some findings on his exploration into the possibility of ...hastily written... questions essentially becoming an (inevitable or not) self-fulfilling prophecy.

While we're getting a little out in the weeds there, something sort of smacked me as I read it, sort of like when Shaggy stepped on a rake as Scooby chuckled. I couldn't find a good image of that, but this one illustrates the concept:

Intentionally-not-spelled-as-centre

I found Jon's closing to be extremely compelling; I'll quote the relevant part here:

To casual visitors, question comments are more visible than answers. We know from talking to people who don't contribute that one reason is because they see discouraging comments on the site. In sum, leaving a negative comment on a bad question:

  • encourages the OP to ask again and
  • discourages anonymous users from asking a question.

There's a certain feeling you get when you realize that one of your worst perceptions was just validated beyond purely anecdotal evidence — it's something along the lines of giddy-nauseous. Spending years working the flag queue I'd seen this behavior, but never thought to (or even knew how to) test it. But, I immediately became thankful for two things:

  1. Jon ends most of his posts with a plain English summary, and,
  2. This, as we confirm it more and more, is relatively easy to fix.

That leads me to make my next assertion:

While comments are treated differently than standard posts when it comes to their expected life span, the tone and civility of comments should be no different than what we expect in regular posts.

You don't often see condescension like did you even Google it? as an answer, at least not one that stays around very long. Why would we tolerate that in a comment? The appearance of our community created by subtle put-down comments such as "that's such a silly approach" is as incorrect as it is unfair to the countless people that go way out of their way every day to show others how far the limits of patience can really be tested.

So, what should we do?

The first thing we should do is actually the first thing we shouldn't do, which is we shouldn't make even more people feel bad about a bunch of comments that we're pretty sure nobody intended to be toxic. This isn't a blame game, unless someone has a history of coming a bit unhinged, but we already deal with that as an exception.

Don't feel bad about not being a saint; being okay with not being perfect means being okay with stuff you didn't think enough about prior to typing vanishing on occasion. It happens.

If folks do the following things:

  • Avoid unnecessary sarcasm (which, especially online, is almost all sarcasm). There are ways to get it right, but it's hard, and opportunities to nail it are rare
  • Avoid subtle put-downs and rhetorical statements like "Did you even try Googling?" or "Are you too lazy to run it and see?"
  • Avoid accidental misinterpretation of your comment by being deliberately explicit about your intent. For instance, if the question is about 'foomatic': "I'm not asking rhetorically; I really want to help you with this, I just want to be sure you also searched for 'foomatic'" is a lot better than "Did you even search? what for?"
  • Flag not just comments that clearly cross into the territory of being rude, but also those that seem more like condescending / mean-spirited 'jabs' than actually attempts to help someone (use "Other" if it seems problematic, but doesn't quite fall into obviously rude)
  • Lead by example by spending 50 - 100 more characters to deliberately show that you at least considered how someone would receive your comment
  • Refrain from commenting if you're not willing to make an earnest attempt to check for tone. Remember, comments under questions can be more visible than answers, and we're all accountable to the perception they create
  • Try not to provide full answers in comments; if you end up working a problem out in comments, please move it to an answer. We know you're trying to help, but the system expects answers to questions. If we're reiterating that comments are ephemeral (and they are), we have to caution against leaving good information in them that needs to last, too

... we'd be in a much better place.

As we work to make our be nice policy into a more codified and formal code of conduct, we're being much more deliberate about what kind of language isn't acceptable, but we don't need to wait for that document to be done in order to curb this problem by just not adding to it, and cleaning it up as we see it.

We know we have more work to do with question quality, and we're doing it, but this is important, too.

We pretty much already have this policy, we're just calling on everyone to enforce it more consistently, and treat the language used in comments with the same scrutiny that we apply to posts. It's something we can do, now, to make folks less apprehensive about jumping in.

We need to do that, pretty urgently, or we'll be the only kids playing in this pretty elaborate pillow fort we built together :)

Questions? Thoughts? Have at it.

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    Refrain from commenting is much of what I've learned is the best thing to do. That's best of any guidelines I've ever read @Tim. – πάντα ῥεῖ Jun 26 at 18:51
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    I've never understood why people thought "be nice" was something you only had to do sometimes. Where was Mr. Rogers in their childhood?? – Joe Jun 26 at 18:58
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    @Joe In the land of make believe. Some kids never got to visit there :( – Tim Post Jun 26 at 19:03
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    @πάνταῥεῖ yup - I just downvote them. Quicker and safer. No expanding 5 words in 50 to 'appear' nice, and no target username:) – Martin James Jun 26 at 19:06
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    'like when Shaggy stepped on a rake'... I read that as 'Shoggy':) – Martin James Jun 26 at 19:17
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    As an added suggestion, can we lower the trigger for migrating to chat? That'd help clear out a lot of back and forth, arguments, pile ons, and other behavior that can lead to a spiral of unintended sarcasm and hostility. Granted, that can just lead to moving it elsewhere, but chat mods are far more plentiful than site specific ones. – fbueckert Jun 26 at 19:19
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    Another comment - it may sound silly, but I always try to think of something nice to say, in my experience it helps soften the tone, even when the rest of the comment is critical of the post. For example, instead of "This wouldn't work when X", "This is a good option when Y, but it doesn't do Z so X wouldn't work if that's needed." – Kobi Jun 26 at 20:09
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    If we're going to treat comments more like posts then perhaps we need to be able to vote them down as well as up? Right now there's no disincentive to use bad language. – DavidG Jun 26 at 22:01
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    In addition to overt condescension in comments, I also see a milder variation: a lack of respect for the question. For example: "Why are you trying to do that?" or "Why are you using Tool X when you could use Tool Y instead?". The tone of such comments is superficially neutral, but they disrespect the OP by completely ignoring the actual question, and never contribute anything of value. – skomisa Jun 26 at 22:27
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    @DavidG Good thought in principle, but in practice snarky harsh comments tend to get upvoted. – apaul Jun 26 at 23:41
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    @Joe At the risk of sounding snarky - they probably grew up in a country that isn't the USA. Which is, I believe, most of them. – Steve Bennett Jun 26 at 23:54
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    You might want to start by cleaning up a lot of Jeff Atwood's snarky and rude comments and posts. The big boss started the culture and everyone else followed. As for "examples", I am pretty sure you can randomly pick any 10 of his posts or comments, and find at least 3 to 5 of these. – Masked Man Jun 27 at 4:15
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    Have you guys also considered hiding comments on the question by default (until "show comments" is clicked) if you don't like promoting question comments more than answers? I get that they are relevant to the asker and to other people interacting with the question, but not so much the passive reader. (Whereas comments on answers can often point out "hey, don't do this, it's dangerous!" and have more value.) – Troyen Jun 27 at 8:38
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    This is an XY problem!. If the problem is: To casual visitors, question comments are more visible than answers, then the obvious solution would be to adjust the visibility of comments on questions to casual users, not to stop trying to help the OP ask good questions by commenting. Since comments are often meant to address the OP, they're not that useful for these users. We could collapse all comments on questions by default for logged-out users. – Erik von Asmuth Jun 27 at 11:00
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    I think a better use of time would be discouraging hostility from new users when they encounter enforcement of quality standards. There'd be a ton less snark if there was valid recourse against the new users who just don't care and want their question answered, quality be damned. As it stands, they have no skin in the game, so they're free to be as hostile and rude as they want. And all we can do is take it. – fbueckert Jun 27 at 14:07

37 Answers 37

In the spirit of this post, I'd like to point out a particular part of the Be Nice policy which, IMO, doesn't get quoted often enough:

If you don't have time to say something politely, just leave it for someone who does.

I suspect a lot of the less-than-friendly comments that have been tolerated come from people who:

  1. actually have a point;
  2. feel the need to make that point explicitly in a comment;
  3. have become jaded and tired of seeing too many poor questions, and no longer have the patience to be nice about it.

It's easy to think that 3) is the problem here, but in fact 3) is as understandable as 1). Especially on a big site like SO, there are going to be a lot of low-quality questions, and highly active users are going to get fed up after seeing too many of them. 3) is a natural reaction. The real problem is actually 2).

You, personally, never have to comment on a post.1

There's almost never anything so outstandingly perceptive about your feedback that someone else couldn't also notice the same thing. And that someone else might be able to say it more politely. If you feel pissed off when you're composing that comment, it might be better not to post it at all. Leave it for the next person, perhaps someone who hasn't just seen fifty other poorly researched questions, someone who has more patience left in them.

1 Not you, Tim Post. You, the generic user reading this.

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    My grandmother offered me similar advice over 50 years ago: If you don't have something nice to say, it's best not to say anything Some old adages withstand the test of time. Dealing with the "must post" impulse is a thing all internet users eventually have to come to grips with. – KorvinStarmast Jun 27 at 1:45
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    @KorvinStarmast: That adage may apply quite well to Stack Overflow comments, but it definitely is not universal. When the possibility of irreversible harm exists, being clearly understood is necessary, politeness is not, and keeping silent is simply out of the question. – Ben Voigt Jun 27 at 4:45
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    The only downside of that is new users also can get quite offended with the down votes or close votes coming in and no comments.. Sometimes you're wrong whatever you do – BugFinder Jun 27 at 7:33
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    "have become jaded and tired of seeing too many poor questions, and no longer have the patience to be nice about it." ... in which case they should really avoid the [php] tag. *sighs* i.stack.imgur.com/ADuu2.png – CD001 Jun 27 at 8:27
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    -1, because I frequently see answers that have been around for literally years gathering upvotes that have serious problems nobody has pointed out. There is a real need for me to comment on them; if I don't, years more will pass and tens of thousands of more people will be misled before anyone points out the error. – Mark Amery Jun 27 at 8:45
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    If someone 'no longer have the patience to be nice about it' then they should stop trying to score points on SE. There's no requirement to help anyone but there is a requirement to 'be nice'. – Carl Onager Jun 27 at 9:21
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    @MarkAmery I can't help myself. – yo' Jun 27 at 9:40
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    @BenVoigt When something needs to be said, but you can't say it nicely, my grandma's advice would be "keep your peace until you can say it nicely. You don't have to be ugly about how you say something, no matter how difficult the message is for someone to hear." Tact is a thing. I confess that I am not always able to follow that advice, but it is still good advice. Since we have a keyboard as a buffer, we are always able to take a breath, and give a moment's thought to how to present a critique or comment tactfully. Yes, we can. Or, we can be like any other internet site full of noise. – KorvinStarmast Jun 27 at 12:45
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    @KorvinStarmast: Agreed. My caution concerning the adage was for real life. SO comments very rarely concern life-and-death or maiming situations (although on some sister sites, like Home Improvement, Outdoors, even Travel, bad advice could get someone killed or severely injured, and in those cases commenters should focus on protecting readers and if that information offends the person giving the dangerous advice, so be it) – Ben Voigt Jun 27 at 12:52
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    @BenVoigt One of the things that got me to return to the SE sites after my initial new user experience, which was negative, is that the SE concept of high signal to noise ratio appeals to me. Comments in a nasty tone are noise, not signal. I've worked in environments where direct and blunt communication are utterly necessary (a USN aircraft carrier's flight deck.) This internet site isn't such a place. See my point above on us all having the keyboard buffer. We agree on the context issue; I have concerns about misinformation at Aviation.SE (OT here) that fit your point. – KorvinStarmast Jun 27 at 13:01
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    @KorvinStarmast: Yes, an aircraft carrier's flight deck is a perfect example of where the adage does not hold. Not saying anything because you are contemplating how to say it nicely would get people killed and property exploded. There are very few situations on Stack Exchange with the same potential for harm (but I have seen a few over the years). Now, that requires addressing the situation (high signal), not the person posting the dangerous advice... but if the poster takes offense to having the danger pointed out that does not make the comment inappropriate -- in that scenario. – Ben Voigt Jun 27 at 13:09
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    @Mark This answer doesn't say "never leave critical comments". It's perfectly possible to be critical without being not-nice. Just not easy for every person on every day. (Your own comment here, for example, is a perfectly civil criticism of my answer, even though I disagree with it. If you'd said, for example, "Meh, another example of an SE moderator promoting standards they don't enforce uniformly. When will people drop the pretence?", that would be a good example of a comment of the type under discussion: not technically rude enough to be flaggable, but not really nice either.) – Rand al'Thor Jun 27 at 16:56
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    i resent being called "generic" – billynoah Jun 27 at 22:12
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    What can you do when 1000's of untrained civilians are appearing on the flight deck every day, badgering the crew with the same questions day-after-day and starting disputes and street-fights when the crew say they only have so much time to spend on answers? Your brig and sick-bay is full of crew for getting involved with defensive fights, aircraft have been vandalized, no duties are being performed for fear of causing injuries, flight operations are impossible and the Fleet Admiral is on the radio threatening to bust you to E-3? – Martin James Jun 28 at 8:43
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    @Mari-LouA As I said to Mark Amery above, this isn't about discouraging negative comments - it's about discouraging not-nice comments. There might be a fuzzy region between useful criticism and unnecessary snarkasm, but it's still a distinction worth drawing. – Rand al'Thor Jun 28 at 22:47

My one word of caution with this is that we have a (significant?) number of users here for whom English is not a first language, or a second, or even any (anecdotally, I have seen a number of questions asked in Google English).

Given this, constructions such as

I'm not asking rhetorically; I really want to help you with this, I just want to be sure you also searched for 'foomatic'

could be quite challenging to expect from these users. I certainly could not achieve that in, say, German, but I could (without resorting to translators) produce something like

Hast du Google benutzt? Nach was hast du gesucht?

Have you used Google? What did you search for?

which is strikingly similar to the suggested "no-no":

Did you even search? What for?

(Agreed however that the use of "even" here is extraneous and gives the comment the air of snarkasm we're trying to cut down on.)

Further, our users from non-European countries such as India and China may have entirely different standards for what politeness entails; to them, what may seem a perfectly reasonable comment may seem highly snarkastic to us, simply because of a lingual and cultural barrier.

I don't pretend to be a scholar in international sociology, but I guess my take-home message is that structured politeness is often difficult (not impossible) for English as a Second/Third/Fourth Language speakers, both due to vocabulary challenges and cultural differences, so please keep that in mind when moderating comments.

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    Point well made, I tip my cap to you. – KorvinStarmast Jun 27 at 12:51
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    Great point. Also note that it goes both ways. If a question is phrased poorly, the querant may not be lazy but just doing a poor job at expressing themselves. – SQB Jun 27 at 14:29
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    The German syntax may be kind of right, but those two short sentences strike me (I'm Dutch, not German) as quite rude and abrupt -- like an interrogation in a bad krimi. – Elise van Looij Jun 27 at 14:48
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    @ElisevanLooij That's kind of my point - I wouldn't be able to make it more polite (except maybe liberally sprinkling "bitte" but that seems inappropriate) without resorting to something like Google Translate - and even then, it would probably give me the "correct" translation, but not necessarily the culturally acceptable "polite" translation – ACascarino Jun 27 at 15:19
  • I'm not sure if the first construction is all that nice. I thought we were not supposed to expect people to Google at all? Maybe that's just on some stacks. See: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/8724/… – Todd Wilcox Jun 27 at 18:11
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    Instead of "Did you even search? What for?" substitute "How did you search? Which search terms did you use?" to make it clearer you are trying to debug their search techniques. – Jan Murphy Jun 27 at 18:40
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    If somebody has trouble with "I'm not asking rhetorically," I think that person will also have a really tough time with practically any actual technical answer they receive :-/ – Ziv Jun 28 at 8:17
  • @JanMurphy I've tried that before, eg 'Can you post the search string you used so that we might be able to suggest a better one?'. 100% no response. – Martin James Jun 28 at 8:28
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    @Ziv I respectfully disagree. The internet is an international forum. Yes, English is the de facto language of software engineering, but that does not mean we should expect everyone who we interact with to speak enough English to understand the word "rhetorically"! Surely it is part of our obligation as "educators" to make ourselves understood in clear and simple English? – ACascarino Jun 28 at 8:29
  • @ACascarino they can look it up - the all have internet access. Adding yet another constraint on content is asking for yet more volunteer effort for a dubious and unmeasurable cause, breaks up the thought proceses used to compose posts and inceases the redundancy and noise of posts, (for those who can immediately understand them). – Martin James Jun 28 at 9:44
  • @MartinJames is the volunteer effort actually worth it if the content is unclear to its target audience? – ACascarino Jun 28 at 9:45
  • @ACascarino If you meant 'unclear to some small set its target audience' then yes. There will always be upsides/downsides:) – Martin James Jun 28 at 14:24
  • @MartinJames I don't disagree with your assessment about people not responding. The point for this Q is not whether the asker responds to us, but how the request looks to anyone else coming along afterwards who reads it. We do have a problem here because efforts to make shorter sentences in comments to help out someone we think might be a non-native speaker of English (intending to be polite and helpful) may be perceived as rude and abrupt because they are short and direct. – Jan Murphy Jun 28 at 20:20
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    Excellent point. +1 also for "snarkasm", a word I've now already started using. – Rand al'Thor Jun 28 at 22:47
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    I don't think though that "Have you used Google? What did you search for?" is rude. The same way people should make an effort to make nice comments, they should also give other posts the benefit of the doubt, and appreciate that people may be "straightforward". I think this whole movement should start by first preventing comments "Did you even try to use google before wasting our time?", which clearly is rude. Once these much worse comments aren't so pervasive, we could always reevaluate exactly where the line should be. – Nir Friedman Jul 2 at 18:11

So, it looks like some vague intent to tackle "unwelcoming" comments is still on cards. I'm mostly going to echo points that I've been making since the "welcoming" drive started:

  1. Critical comments on answers are more important than critical comments on questions because they (generally) contain technical corrections to the material in the answer. Your proposal here encompasses them - you're talking about "comments" generally - yet your post doesn't actually acknowledge that they exist or examine whether the issues around them are the same as those surrounding question comments.

  2. My comments generally aren't intended to "help" the person whose post I'm commenting on, but rather future readers. Depending upon how the call to delete comments that are more "condescending" than "attempts to help" gets interpreted by flaggers, I fear that this will be used to justify deleting them. But comments that aren't meant to be temporary, and aren't meant to result in an improvement to a post, have always been a crucial part of our quality control system. We have no other mechanism for pointing out the way in which an answer is fundamentally wrong.

  3. There is no way to criticise the technical content of an answer that won't be perceived as rude by a large fraction of the userbase. Write the sort of fluffy, saccharine prose that the April Wensels of the world would like us to write, and half your readers will feel that they are being patronised and treated like fragile children. Instead skip straight to the technical meat of your point, and the other half of the site will feel that you're "unkind" or a "Zuckerbot" or whatever.

    When dealing with a community that is split into camps with diametrically opposite standards of what polite criticism looks like, it is impossible to be universally perceived as polite except by never criticising anything. But that's the worst possible outcome, because pointing out technical inaccuracies is valuable to future readers and that value is more important than whether the comment is perceived as rude.

  4. The staff have failed to articulate or provide examples of what their standard of politeness looks like (as far as I know, we don't yet have the dataset we were promised in https://stackoverflow.blog/2018/06/21/rolling-out-the-welcome-wagon-june-update/ showing what comments were considered "snarky" or "unwelcoming" or how that classification differs between staff members). Also, comment deletion doesn't trigger any kind of notification. What this adds up to is that even if we want to comply simply for the sake of avoiding having our comments deleted, we have no way of knowing what compliance looks like.

  5. In any case, making all authors here adhere to standards of politeness that are not their own is in itself unwelcoming and oppressive. The most upset I've ever been by a mod action on Stack Exchange was when a well-meaning mod edited a comment of mine for tone in a way that I felt made it drastically ruder by turning what was previously some (very blunt) technical criticism into what, to my ears, sounded like some kind of unhinged moral condemnation of the answerer for even daring to post. Trying to force your particular standards of politeness on a diverse community with different linguistic norms is a recipe for having this conflict constantly with an even larger fraction of your userbase.

  6. Whatever changes in rules we do make to comments moving forward, if they're going to retroactively make a bunch of valuable existing comments illegal then we need a mechanism for preserving the value of those comments - either grandfathering in "unwelcoming" comments before a certain date, or adding in comment deletion notifications so that users can attempt to repost a more "welcoming" version of the same content, or requiring mods to post a more "welcoming" comment with the same technical content before deleting an "unwelcoming" one. Otherwise, we'll set fire to a whole bunch of valuable content. I've contributed far more (precise, technical) criticisms of other users' answers than I've ever contributed answers; those comments are probably, in aggregate, more valuable than my own answers are. Despite assurances I've had to the contrary, I remain afraid that in time they're all going to be nuked, because nobody on the staff has yet seriously addressed the question of how we can radically change our commenting standards and not destroy lots of valuable historical content. The repeated calls, like this question, for users to go forth and purge (vaguely defined) new classes of problematic comments from the site seem likely to achieve precisely the outcome that I'm scared of.

I'd rather we just dropped this entire quest to improve comment civility, which I don't expect to achieve anything at all. But if we must do it, can we at least see some acknowledgement from the staff of the probable drawbacks - measured in valuable content destroyed or never created, in users with different standards of politeness driven away, in internal conflict created in the community, and in time and effort and self-doubt expended by commenters trying to comply with nebulous standards that they don't really understand - and even a minimal attempt to approach this problem in a way that mitigates them?

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    To add to this, when I was a new user I liked it a lot more when people gave snarky criticism on my content then when nobody bothered to react or respond at all. This is what the future is going to have more of. When faced between "just downvote/closevote/delete and move on" and "carefully construct a critical comment that does not carry any form of snark" a lot of prolific contributors might opt for the former. The net result could well feel less welcoming for a lot of people, since (imo) snark is still more welcoming then being outright ignored. – Magisch Jun 27 at 11:05
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    If I'm facing pushback, I want people to tell me why. I want personalized advice on what I'm doing wrong. I want to know why my question/answer is bad beyond reading the help center and guessing. But it's already a lot to ask, and it's already not assured I'll get that. I fear asking even more of the people who shoulder this task on the regular could cause them to just ... stop. – Magisch Jun 27 at 11:10
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    There is no way to criticise the technical content of an answer that won't be perceived as rude by a large fraction of the userbase. I think you need to back that up. You're saying that no matter how you phrase constructive criticism, a non-negligible amount of people are going to be offended. I mean, yes, a lot of people don't take criticism well, but that doesn't mean you can't try. – HDE 226868 Jun 27 at 12:55
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    @HDE226868 I can't provide empirical evidence because I don't have it, but if a logical argument will satisfy you, then it's already there in the answer. Many users in the Meta community, me included, are saying, repeatedly and explicitly, that they consider it a matter of respect to just clearly and straightforwardly spell out what is wrong with their posts, and that pleasantries are superfluous. Others (a minority of the Meta community, all the staff, April Wensel, and, if you believe the as-yet-unevidenced claims made by April and the staff, most women) say they find [1/2] – Mark Amery Jun 27 at 13:15
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    @HDE226868 [2/2] this same style of communication insulting and that a person who engages in it is an "inhuman" "robot" or "Zuckerbot" (real quotes from Wensel and Jay), and that we should do... something else, not yet really specified. While I admit that I don't yet really get what's being asked of us (indeed, that's also part of the point of this answer), it seems like a hard task, at best, to find the common ground between a worldview in which blunt technical criticism is the height of politeness and another in which having a taste for it makes you a subhuman who needs to be silenced. – Mark Amery Jun 27 at 13:15
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    @MarkAmery All I'm going to say to that is that you're taking an extreme view of the situation, and exaggerating viewpoints. I don't think anyone - let alone Tim Post here - is saying that having a taste for technical criticism is bad, just that having a taste for adding snark and unnecessarily harsh phrasing to technical criticism is bad. There's a difference. – HDE 226868 Jun 27 at 13:30
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    @HDE226868 Maybe you're right that I'm misreading the other side's intentions. If so, that just takes us neatly into point 4. Examples of comments that are or are not considered "snarky" by the staff would immediately bring clarity and let us know to what degree we all actually fundamentally disagree with each other about what is polite and to what degree we actually have the same views but interpret the vague fuzzy terms (like "snark") that the staff are using differently. Without any such source of clarity, I guess we can both accuse each other of interpreting things perversely forever. – Mark Amery Jun 27 at 13:35
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    Reformultated: For me personally on a question I would rather have three snarky comments with some hidden advice, then downvotes and no comment at all. I despise downvotes w/o comment. When I got more active here I had a very good idea what and how to ask. I did not come to SO like by means of virgin birth - this whole discussions (imho) stipulates newbies somehow come to SO without any prior knowledge of how the site works and whats "common sense" here. The rules are plainly written, reading over any 10 questions will give you a quite good impression how SO works. YM5cc – Patrick Artner Jun 27 at 13:42
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    There's a whole lot of room in between those two extremes. The focus in this question is on avoiding being snarky and condescending, not avoiding being direct. There's a huge difference between the two. Tinging your comments with "you're an idiot" is bad. Clearly explaining or questioning a problem with a post is fine. Don't you know that X makes what you're saying impossible!?! vs Because of X, what your answer suggests won't work. The first isn't welcome. The second focuses on the content, not the user and explains the problem. This is good. – Catija Jun 27 at 14:32
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    @Catija Leaving aside the !?! at the end, you've inadvertently provided a good example of how cultural differences in politeness come into play. Imagine you are an inexperienced and somewhat unconfident programmer from a society in which outright telling your superiors that they are wrong is very rude, yet you know enough to see that due to X, an answer you are reading from a 50k rep user must be wrong. I figure that "Don't you know that X makes what you're saying impossible?" - posing a question that the answerer may rebut - may well seem more polite than making the statement outright. – Mark Amery Jun 27 at 14:42
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    If someone said "Don't you know" to me, I'd consider it pretty darn rude. It's a direct query about a person's specific knowledge or expertise (and implies they lack it), which is what we need to avoid. We need to focus on the content of the post, not the person who wrote it. If you want to question something, you can do that without implying that they're an idiot - What about in X situation? I can't seem to get it to work in that case. This leaves an opening for them to explain or reconsider without being accusatory. It's still not at that far extreme you're talking about as "saccharine". – Catija Jun 27 at 14:56
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    @terdon It's always been said that comments are temporary... and they've always been used for criticisms of answers that need to stay around forever anyway, because there's no other viable place to put such criticisms. My favourite example of why using a comment or edit just doesn't work is stackoverflow.com/q/12083605/1709587, where I have a (accepted, highly-upvoted, correct) answer and where there are roughly 30 incorrect answers. I've commented pointing out the errors in each and every one of them. What would you have had me do instead? – Mark Amery Jun 27 at 15:17
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    @terdon As I see it, using an answer would've meant adding 30 different addendums onto my answer about why particular users' answers were wrong (which would be a far harder format to parse than comments on the answers themselves, and would then stay around, explicitly calling out those users by name for their wrongness, even if they deleted or fixed their answers). Using edits would in effect mean either changing each of 30 answers to be a copy-paste of mine, or adding a "THIS IS WRONG" banner to every answer (which the answerer could remove). No approach makes any sense besides commenting. – Mark Amery Jun 27 at 15:19
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    @Catija "There's plenty of language out there that doesn't include implying "you're an idiot"." - perhaps, but as a community we can't even agree on what such language looks like. I've seen stuff like using the word "clearly" before pointing out a mistake described as hostile, or suggestions that describing an answer as "nonsense" is too insulting and that "every detail of this answer is wrong" would be a softer way of putting it (when to me personally the latter sounds somewhat more aggressive). You're assuming much more common ground than I think actually exists. – Mark Amery Jun 27 at 15:29
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    @terdon All it takes for a useful comment to not be able to be integrated is for the core thesis of an answer to be entirely wrong. It's right and useful for commenters to point that out, but it can only be "fixed" by either deleting the answer or completely rewriting it from scratch to say something entirely different. Such fundamentally broken answers are, in my experience, common on Stack Overflow and on other technical Stack Exchanges. (I'm sure I could quickly find some on U&L if I went looking.) – Mark Amery Jun 27 at 15:31

Preface: This answer will be written with Stack Overflow-coloured glasses because the comment snark issue is topical there right now.


Let's start with an allegory:

If your house has a sign outside that says "Do not track mud in", because you want to keep it clean so that it's a nice environment for everyone who uses it; and someone walks in tracking mud, and you ask them if they read the sign, and they say "Lol no didn't bother"... are you not going to be in the slightest bit peeved?

Are you not, perhaps, going to respond to the rude mud-tracker with a somewhat snarky comment?

Assume you did. And assume that after the mud-tracker is long gone, someone who also lives in the house comes up to you and harangues you for being nasty to that poor widdle mud-tracker.

Are you, perhaps, not going to be somewhat peeved that your efforts to keep the darn house clean are being punished instead of rewarded?


People who post snarky comments on questions are trying to keep the house that is Stack Overflow clean. And they are human: sarcasm is a quintessentially human thing and a quintessentially human response, especially to rudeness.

The people who ask bad questions are the ones not Being Nice. Yes, we should all hold ourselves to the highest standards and not respond to them in kind, blah de blah, et cetera, but it's difficult; for some people, really difficult (and that may have nothing to do with how Nice, or not, said people are). And, I would argue, quite unreasonable.

Stifling sarcasm because it's Not Nice isn't solving the problem of bad questions, it's just shifting the blame of bad questions onto people who actually care about deterring some of the bad questions.

If you want a website filled with perfectly polite and completely civil robots, by all means, go ahead. But if you want human beings to participate in your site, you have to accept some sarcasm here and there.

Addendum: This does not, in any way shape or form, mean I support trolls who exist to harass hapless new users. If you behave badly for the purpose of causing disruption and torment, you should get the chop; if, after a long and bad day at work, you lose your cool and direct a snide remark at a user who posts a "gimme teh codez" question... are you really a terrible human being? Or, just human?


We know from talking to people who don't contribute that one reason is because they see discouraging comments on the site.

Really.

Perchance, is this "we know" in the same vein as Jay Hanlon's infamous "Too many people experience Stack Overflow as a hostile or elitist place"? I.e., completely unsupported by any sort of empirical data?

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    In my sample of stack users 100% of them think it's a hostile place. Admittedly the sample size is small but that doesn't invalidate the research. – Carl Onager Jun 27 at 9:26
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    "If you want a website filled with perfectly polite and completely civil robots, by all means, go ahead." +1 – jknappen Jun 27 at 9:57
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    @CarlOnager Equally important is how a sample is obtained. We don't lack anecdotal evidence, both of happy users and unhappy users. Objective research into this would require careful analysis. – S.L. Barth Jun 27 at 10:03
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    Personally I'm put off by reading those sorts of comments. I don't particularly want to engage in the same space as that. Deliberate snark creates dissonance for people who are willing to comment more constructively. And I've flagged people snarkily asking if OP did any searching, when OP already linked to another SE question. Honestly yes, I'm more comfortable seeing silence than deliberate snarking. And I think it's hard to overstate how discouraging silence is. Seeing your first question ignored while other questions are asked and discussed, feels like a big pushback. – sourcejedi Jun 27 at 10:24
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    If I'm reading you right, you're saying that we shouldn't delete rude stuff from people who mean well. . . I'm not sure I agree. Rude is rude, and snark is never the only way to get across a point. – HDE 226868 Jun 27 at 12:57
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    @sourcejedi I'm usually more put off by the new users who don't read the rules, misunderstand what the site is about, and then are hostile when you point out their question is either off-topic or low quality. No matter how constructive you are, we encounter a lot of users who just don't care about our mission, and see enforcement of standards as rude. "If you can't answer this, just ignore it so someone else can answer it." I honestly can't blame people for snark when that level of hostility is the norm, not the exception. – fbueckert Jun 27 at 13:36
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    @sourcejedi Voting on questions is a core curation activity. Including it as part of not, "being nice" is one of the very things I'm making my point about. It's not about being nice, mean, hostile, or welcoming. It's about keeping the site clean. New users have to understand that. If their first response is to lash out, that's totally on them. It's users like that that I believe have led to the collective exhaustion and snark that abounds. If new users tried harder to adapt, there'd be a lot more welcoming. – fbueckert Jun 27 at 15:42
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    @sourcejedi "flagged people snarkily asking if OP did any searching, when OP already linked to another SE question" is perfectly fine. There is always going to be a small subset of trolls and sadists who get their rocks off on being genuinely mean to people who are genuinely doing their best. But the point is that they're a small group, and they generally make themselves known very quickly, which means they can be dealt with quickly... trying to get rid of them by carpet-bombing comments as a whole seems like an extremely misguided and wasteful effort. – Ian Kemp Jun 27 at 18:37
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    @IanKemp Removing rudeness isn't censorship; it's making the Internet a better place. Censorship is when you remove speech because of a position it takes. And yes, if people persist on being rude and snarky to others, they're going to be asked to leave. That's how SE works. – HDE 226868 Jun 27 at 18:49
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    @HDE226868 if they remove snarky comments and at the same time let very low quality content like homework dumps proliferate then it looks pretty much like censorship to me. Kind of hitting people with a stick and in the same time punishing them when they say "oh sh!t" in response to hits – gnat Jun 27 at 20:17
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    @HDE226868: Your presence on Stack Overflow is minimal, so your vision is considerably narrow. SO has problems that most SE sites only see in their most terrifying nightmares. That being said, comments are not how we stop homework dump questions. – Nicol Bolas Jun 28 at 3:45
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    @NicolBolas This post is on MSE, not MSO... I'm pretty sure that HDE has tons of experience with comments on sites other than SO... I know this because one of the sites we moderate has one of the most strict comment policies on the network and we've deleted over 20K comments in the course of a year. Please, remember that there are 170+ sites here that aren't SO. – Catija Jun 28 at 3:48
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    @HDE226868: "I'm also active on sites like Physics, which deals with this a lot." And I'm saying that, until you've had to sift through the JavaScript or PHP tags to find something to answer, you have no idea how bad it can get. It's the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing it. – Nicol Bolas Jun 28 at 4:08
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    @Catija: "Please, remember that there are 170+ sites here that aren't SO." And please remember that any solution has to work on SO. And SO pays the bills for those 170+ sites (Jobs, Teams, etc.), so if policies start coming down that ruin SO, the other sites aren't going to keep up with the losses. I don't think it's unreasonable to give SO at least veto power over these kinds of things. – Nicol Bolas Jun 28 at 4:09
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    @NicolBolas That's fair... but I'm not seeing anything here that will "ruin SO". In many of the answers I see, I see people who are reacting negatively because they're being asked to tone down the condescension they've gotten away with for years with the arguments that "it's too hard" or "I'm just being who I am" or "there's no way to enforce it". It is hard and enforcement will be spotty, particularly initially. That doesn't mean it's not worth trying to do it! Let's try to be better. Make the internet better... why is that a bad thing? – Catija Jun 28 at 4:17

Absolutely concur. We had a lot of conflict issues on RPG.SE, but then we made it clear that Be Nice applies equally to:

  • Questions
  • Answers
  • Comments
  • User profiles
  • Chat
  • All of the above on Meta too
  • Mod messages/responses (yes, several folks have found out that if they respond to a mod message with a stream of invective they get pushed right up to the next rung on the suspension ladder)
  • Flags
  • Anything else your hot little hands can type in to the site
  • This holds for the mods too; fear not, the community is eager to hold mods to an even higher standard than the average user, and mods intervene in each others' content when needed.

And this helped a lot. Community members now clamp down on incivility in chat, flag comments that aren't just outright insulting but are passive-aggressive incitement, and similar. We haven't had anything like the main and meta flame wars that used to simmer and flare up because people have found out they can't just keep being "mildly offensive" all the time without consequence. Makes it a nice and professional place.

Who decides if it's "mildly offensive?" Just like everything else, the community and the mods, working together using flags, chat, meta, etc.

It is true, doing this drives some users away - some who are chronic problem users, and some who just don’t agree with the SE philosophy on comments etc. However, as our site continues to grow strongly, it seems to us that it is then made more welcoming to those who do want polite Q&A. There’s always Reddit and dozens of other sites for those why want to say whatever they want whenever they want; there’s obviously benefits and drawbacks to the SE approach and it’s not for everyone.

But in our case, the community prefers it (see also: What to do about comment misuse?). And when people dissent or want to change how it works, they can take it to meta, and if the community agrees or demurs it’s fine - but when they then want to cause trouble across main and meta with continual passive aggressive commenting because they didn’t get their way, we action on that. No new user finds people arguing on their question welcoming. Some folks find any moderation “Not Nice,” but that’s a philosophical difference that I don’t think is supportable within the overall SE philosophy and goals.

I believe this approach can scale; as people learn the rules and become more civil the need for actual enforcement has reduced on our stack - the one thing that is an issue is the lack of SE support for comment deletion by anyone other than mods. Our community does a good job of flagging, closing, editing, and so on in general. Some kind of flag/review queue/downvote/whatever mechanic for removing comments would make this perfectly scalable. Apparently multiple flags will now delete a comment (not 100% clear on the exact functionality), which is helping, but as we're a smaller stack multiple flags on the exact same comment is a high bar (I wonder how much it's happening, actually, I am not sure how to tell). One of our biggest mod jobs is comment removal at the moment, as others can only flag. But that's something SE can help us with functionality-wise if they're serious about this approach.

There seems to be a lot of discussion about how RPG.SE is tough on comments in general, which is true - but not super relevant to the question at hand. Should we let comments be "Not Nice"? Obviously, no, we should not. If your site wants to allow answers in comments or discussion in comments or whatever that's a separate topic. But can we really justify saying any part of the places people communicate here on SE shouldn't be nice?

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    Who gets to define "mildly offensive", I wonder. – Ian Kemp Jun 27 at 7:26
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    This answer is very specific to RPG.se. It is almost certainly not relevant for Stack Overflow, which is much larger and has a much different audience. tl;dr a one-size-fits-all approach is probably not going to work. – Ian Kemp Jun 27 at 7:54
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    @IanKemp only in so much that theyt've achieved something that SO hasn't? I don't feel like the concepts wouldn't scale. – Pureferret Jun 27 at 8:19
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    @Pureferret there is a huge misconception about Stackoverflow not having achieved that. Stackoverflow is the most popular programming Q&A site. There are millions of developers using this site, being happy the way it is. For some strange reason, site owners/moderators decided to address the loud whining of a minority in a way, as if this site was an unsuccessful failure. More than often, people complaining about rudeness on SO are rude themselves, thinking that Stackoverflow was some kind of helpdesk that has to answer their questions like paid servants. Did RPG.se have similar issues? – Holger Jun 27 at 8:33
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    As an ex-user of rpg.se I personally do not like the over-eager moderation that goes on on that subsite. While they might have got rid of any 'mildly offensive' content they have simultaneously got rid of almost any discussion or dissent. 'Be nice' should also apply to moderation! – Carl Onager Jun 27 at 9:17
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    The most important thing that has happened on RPG.SE is that you got rid of comments! This makes it a much better, cleaner, more focused site compared to pretty much every other exchange. – pipe Jun 27 at 9:44
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    As another ex-member of RPG.SE, I always found it way less welcoming than SO. Because no matter how snarky a comment on SO may be, it does leave at least a hint of something actionable. "Did you google that?" at least leaves me with a breadcrumb to go further, I can google it. And maybe edit my post with what I find. A downvote with no comments does no such thing. One cannot possibly know how to improve, so it's rejection in it's purest form. The site might look nicer for the casual observer, but that's just a coat of paint. That does not mean it's welcoming. – nvoigt Jun 27 at 10:06
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    It is true, doing this drives some users away - some who are chronic problem users, and some who just don’t agree with the SE philosophy on comments etc. However, as our site continues to grow strongly, it seems to us that it is then made more welcoming to those who do want polite Q&A. There’s always Reddit and dozens of other sites for those why want to say whatever they want whenever they want; there’s obviously benefits and drawbacks to the SE approach and it’s not for everyone. – mxyzplk Jun 27 at 11:20
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    @mxyzplk The growth appears to have a correlation to the release of a particular product in 2014, so I'd be careful about leaning on "continues to grow strongly" as having any other root cause. That said, I can attest to how the site's community moderation has improved since I joined, and how vigorous both the community moderation effort and the diamond mod effort have been to trying to keep Be Nice across the board as you listed in your answer. nvoigt's frustration is shared by many users, both current and former, in re the mechanic of silent downvotes that is embedded in the SE model. – KorvinStarmast Jun 27 at 13:30
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    @Flyto it has been stated by the site owners/moderators several times. The majority of all users come from a search engine for a specific problem, read existing answers and leave without actively participating at all. For a site earning from displaying advertises to those users, that’s fine. It’s a success. Of course, the minority actively participating and creating the content, is important, but it’s not the poor questions that attracts the users. I really like politeness but “be welcoming” suggests that only one side has to be polite and it’s not the side that helps this website. – Holger Jun 27 at 14:13
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    Yah, I agree. RPG.se is a terrible example of how to handle comments. It would be better to disable them entirely than go that route. – Ross Ridge Jun 28 at 2:22
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    The few interactions I've had with RPG.SE have put me permanently off ever contributing there. – Magisch Jun 28 at 8:55
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    I'm also a "virtual non-poster" on RPG, but I browse it from the HNQ list regularly (pretty much every time it appears on that list, which is frequent). I've been consistently struck by how nice it is that comments are focused, on topic, and purged of the usual back-and-forth chatter that is so common on other stacks. Yes, yes, I know... it's ... gasp!... censorship!!! But despite the frequent immediate reviling of anything that can be described as censorship by many, it's helpful to the overall tone of the site. – Beofett Jun 28 at 12:31
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    @KorvinStarmast There is a difference between comments being managed and comments being purged. At least three times I left a comment, went grocery shopping and my comment vanished without a trace before I was back. I have no idea why... and I will never know, because it was purged quickly so the site looked nice, without leaving any hint for me. Sure they are not permanent, but sorry, they should stay at least until I had a reasonable chance to read the reply, or alternatively at least notify me why it was deemed necessary to delete content. – nvoigt Jun 28 at 16:30
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    @KorvinStarmast My "absence" will likely continue because RPG.SE does not feel like a community. Of all the places on the Stack Exchange network I would have thought that the one for role playing games would have been the most inviting, what with the frequent questions about how to deal with people around a table (wait a second, isn't that Interpersonal Skills!?). Instead its the least inviting of any SE site I've ever participated in. It literally boggles my mind. – Draco18s Jun 29 at 1:46

Rather than answer in comments, I'll address the perception problem

I am borrowing two ideas from @Erik von Asmuth and @Troyen in their comments under the question: if the problem identified by Jon Ericson is one of perception and impressions left on casual and new users, then SE can change the optics of the comments under questions and / or answers. Erik suggests that the question is an XY problem, and Troyen points in the same direction. I think they have a point.

Problem definition cited in the question, quoting Jon E:

To casual visitors, question comments are more visible than answers

A possible solution to the optics problem is to by default hide comments. The user won't see them until you click on "comments" or some such text as we do with links. It might be simpler to unmask comments by default when one logs in.

  • Whether one has to be logged in to open comments under this idea, unless it is the persons question, is a usability question that probably needs to be sorted out if this gets as far as a feature request.

  • If one is moved to comment, one more click or keystroke is not too much to ask, so please don't object on the grounds that it's too much effort to click one more time.

    I also suggest that anyone who asks a question or writes an answer by default sees or views the comment/suggestion. While this answer may be pointing toward two features to consider, not one, it may not be. I consider how to get a question asked, so that may already be folded into basic functions and not need further work.

What problem does this proposal solve?

It addresses the perception problem cited by Jon by doing what SE says is does as it presents it's questions and answers to those who visit the site: optimize for pearls not sand. I have been told time and again, as have others, that the Questions and to a far greater extent Answers are what matter in the long run; comments are ephemeral.

From a visual presentation sense, hiding comments removes the disconnect between what is shown on the tour page next to the following declaration, and the reality as shown on many SE sites.

This site is all about getting answers. It's not a discussion forum. There's no chit-chat.

Chit-chat is all over the place, in comments, on multiple SEs.

  • I notice this clutter particularly on Workplace, SSF, History, and Aviation when I participate on those SEs, but I have seen it on others that I'll not name as I am rarely visit them.

What will be seen initially by the cited casual user if this suggestion is taken for action is what is advertised in the tour:

  1. A question and some answers, or

  2. A question that needs an answer.

    The comments are available if one chooses to actively get involved in a given question or an answer. For example, if SteveTheStacker is a C-Sharp expert, he may want to engage on a C-Sharp question, and be likely to dig into comments as part of the process of offering an answer, or posting a comment to a question or an answer.

What are a few drawbacks?

  1. This won't address any optics problems perceived by regular users, as they'll be able to see comments as usual. This is probably not a problem that optics can fix anyway, for the regular user, which this meta question points to in various ways.

  2. It requires time and dev effort which is a finite resource. Perhaps this isn't that big of a drawback. This answer points toward a feature request; if Jon and the corporate leadership think that what he has described is a problem that needs solving, then applying resources to solve it, at least the perception piece, is within their power and perhaps furthers overall SE/SO objectives that drive traffic to the SE sites.

  3. A final drawback: a casual user would not see a comment that warns anyone reading "that's wrong, you forgot about (X) or (Y)" as well as a comment like "this is a highly up-voted answer that is wrong because of (Z)" ... while the latter is a rarity, I've seen a few examples. This drawback can be mitigated by hiding comments on questions, but not hiding them on answers. Thanks to @Wildcard for the comments and points on that.

Making another rule, or a style guide, for comments doesn't solve anything

There is already a Be Nice rule that either is or isn't followed by the SE faithful. If that rule isn't enough to prevent snark and rude comments, how will yet another rule do so? People, or some people, already aren't following a site policy if Be Nice isn't happening. Fixing the optics doesn't require that really hard thing of convincing people to change their behavior. What it does do is clean up the visual presentation of the Q's and A's to the casual user. Result?

Less noise, more signal for the casual user looking for questions and answers about (fill in the topic here).

If this has been tried before ... then never mind

As I am fairly new to SE, I may simply not know that 'We've done that before, Korvin, and here's why it didn't work.' If using a default to hide comments has been tried and has been bad for some reason, it may still be a worthy idea that needs a slightly different implementation.


Addendum: I see that Tim responded to my comment under the question.

And yes, we've tried various strategies of hiding comments, toggling what's hidden and expanded and stuff and .. unfortunately .. the kind of stuff that causes the most problems is far too often up-voted.
Hiding all comments by default could help, but the ugly is still there if you expand it. And, well, remember - comments get seen by people, and those people have very negative reactions to them (and don't come back, or even join). So hiding them is an after-the-fact work around that doesn't solve the immediate case we need to address. – Tim Post? 59 mins ago

To follow up on some @TimPost comment points:

  • "not even join" would seem to be resolved if the ability to see comments requires a log in, which is not the casual user that Jon seems to be concerned about (90+ percent who visit just come and go, right?)

  • I did address in the answer that I didn't see this dealing with frequent users, who are not the class of users for whom this is Jon's concern.

    the kind of stuff that causes the most problems is far too often up-voted

    Yeah, I can see that as a piece of this problem that masking can't address, but that's an 'in-house' bit rather than 'casual user' bit.

    So, maybe try it differently, or maybe not.

I am glad to find out that something like this has been tried before, so no feature request for now. Thank you, @TimPost, for the feedback on that in comments.

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    I'm glad you included drawback #3. I think it's far more important than you think. – Wildcard Jun 29 at 23:54
  • @Wildcard As I digested more of the other answers and their comments I am considering moving that to number 2. In theory, the stack method moves the good and correct answers to the top via voting, so that the effect of this problem is minimized, but if people asking questions are working on a short time horizon -- self imposed or otherwise -- they may get a quick and incorrect answer that an alert needs to be provided for -- comments can let that flag be raised. Do you think I ought to fold that thought into that answer bullet, as a sub bullet? – KorvinStarmast Jun 30 at 13:06
  • I have no opinion on how you format this answer—I think it communicates clearly—but although I upvoted it, I think drawback #3 (the hiding of comments warning of answer incorrectness) is a showstopper level fault. Put it this way: If your proposal were a featured Meta question instead of an answer, I would expect to find that drawback in the top voted answer in large bold letters. – Wildcard Jul 2 at 19:56
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    Hiding comments on questions by default, but not on answers, seems much less objectionable. – Wildcard Jul 2 at 19:57
  • @Wildcard OK, I'll look to fold that into the answer. Good points all. – KorvinStarmast Jul 3 at 12:39

Aren't you afraid that this policy will encourage the Don't comment, downvote! behaviour, which will be just as intimidating for newcomers as unwelcoming comments are? Commenting on a bad post already exposes the commenter to a possible follow-up discussion that most would prefer not to have. Now the commenter will have to find a polite way of telling the OP that their post is bad, or simply downvote and move on.

As a newcomer, would you rather get an anonymous downvote, or a comment saying "Why don't you run it and see" or "Why are you using Tool X when you could use Tool Y instead"?

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    i would like to see downvotes require a comment – albert Jun 27 at 19:54
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    @albert The last time I commented on why I downvoted, I received 4 downvotes on unrelated posts in short order... – Charlie Brumbaugh Jun 27 at 20:15
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    @CharlieBrumbaugh And if everyone had to comment when downvoting, I bet you wouldn't receive them. – Dmitry Grigoryev Jun 27 at 20:16
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    @albert what? 'incredibly hostile' no. It's not a tirade of profane abuse, (something not unknown as a response from new users to comments explaining why their questions are bad), If I downvote with no comment, OP's don't know who am, cannot revenge-downvote, cannot hurl direct abuse, cannot inappropriately flag and cannot blog/tutter the comment, without context. New accounts can no longer be sufficiently trusted to 'Be nice', and so I no longer give them a knife and turn my back:( – Martin James Jun 28 at 7:44
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    There's been a lot of discussion over the years about making comments mandatory for voting. I suggest you look into them to see a thorough review of why it's considered a poor idea. In a nutshell it would lead to a lot of useless comments solely so someone can downvote a question. For less technical sites where whether an answer is useful or not can be pretty subjective, a well written comment explaining a vote can cause protracted arguments in the comments and lead to no improvements to the post. – sphennings Jun 28 at 12:10
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    @albert oh - you fell into that trap! By all means, set up a site, email or chatroom/whatever, where links to those questions can be posted, and the hand-holding provided by yourself and others who feel the same way. I hope there's lot of you, else you will be doing nothing else 24/7 on SO questions alone. If you haven't already seen it, here are a few examples of snark++ that you will have to put up with: meta.stackoverflow.com/a/366733/758133 – Martin James Jun 28 at 14:38
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    The only explanation/reason for a down vote you should ever expect is available if you hover over the down vote arrow. Someone's opinion is This question does not show any research effort; it is unclear or not useful and they are under no obligation to justify their opinion and demanding one is just a form of passive-aggressive public shaming. Public shaming clearly violates the "Be Nice" policy. Maybe the hover text needs to be more in your face? – Jarrod Roberson Jun 28 at 18:10
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    @downvoter care to explain? is just as rude/abusive as "did you even bother trying?!" but it is accepted as an ok comment rarely do any flags against those comments get acted on and remove them. They are useless noise at best and passive-aggressive public shaming at worst. Those comments are even more problematic because they are rude/abusive to those that maintain the site and provide the valuable content for free. SO powers that be seem to think that those that look at ads are the most important users, instead of those of us that have made the site content why it is worth visiting! – Jarrod Roberson Jun 28 at 20:17
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    As a newcomer, would you rather get an anonymous downvote, or a comment saying "Why don't you run it and see" or "Why are you using Tool X when you could use Tool Y instead"?, neither, they do not want to think, they want a highly tailored spoon fed answer, not some "snarky" comment that implies they are 1. lazy or 2. stupid for doing it the way they are doing it but high rep elitist @holes that will not give them what they want. Comments like you propose get complained about as being the problem, that is why I rarely comment other than some boilerplate from an autocomment. – Jarrod Roberson Jun 28 at 20:21
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    @JarrodRoberson Personally, I couldn't care less about people who want to be spoon-fed: they will likely never add anything of value to the site anyway, so what is the loss from scaring them away? What I do care about is people who are honestly unaware of options like running something in a debugger or using Tool Y instead of Tool X. Those could learn from a comment (even if it's snarky), whereas a downvote only sends them the GTFO message. – Dmitry Grigoryev Jun 29 at 5:45
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    Say what you want, but when I get the first downvote on an answer that has maybe 20 upvotes, then I am curious what that person’s thoughts are that made them downvote. So yeah, I would appreciate an explanation, not to disrespect their opinion but to actually know how I could further improve the answer. – poke Jun 29 at 8:37
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    @allo "Why don't you run it and see" or "Why are you using Tool X when you could use Tool Y instead" are constructive by my standards. I don't want to post such a comment in good faith only to see it deleted and have a warning from a mod that I'm being dismissive / condescending / unwelcoming. – Dmitry Grigoryev Jun 29 at 8:59
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    "Why don't you run it and see" accuses the poster of being lazy (or can be read this way). Just phrase it "Try to run it and look at the result"? You do not really want to know the "why", you are asking because you want to tell them "you did not what I expect you to do". So do not ask "why don't you X", but suggest "Try to do X". This is much less likely to be perceived as impolite and quite a constructive suggestion. If the user actually had a reason "why" he did not ran the tool, they will tell you. If there was no reason, they will just run it. – allo Jun 29 at 9:02
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    @allo I don't feel the question "Why don't you use Tool Y" is necessarily Socratic, I want to know the reason why the OP is stuck with Tool X. So now I have to check my comments for issues which are not intuitive to me. Even if I use your advice, someone will decide that "Try using Tool Y" is "disrespectful" since it's "completely ignoring the actual question" about Tool X. So in the end I'll stick to downvotes and the OP never gets to learn that Tool Y exists. – Dmitry Grigoryev Jun 29 at 9:27
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    @JarrodRoberson Interesting point that you raise here Those comments are even more problematic because they are rude/abusive to those that maintain the site and provide the valuable content for free. *SO powers that be seem to think that those that look at ads are the most important users, instead of those of us that have made the site content why it is worth visiting! Yep. Someone is making a buck off of your voluntary contribution, and mine. That's part of the SE business model. (Can you fit that point into an answer? I think it covers some of what Tim is asking about... or not) – KorvinStarmast Jun 29 at 16:00

How do you enforce this?

You don't often see condescension like did you even Google it? as an answer, at least not one that stays around very long.

The reason posts may have such quality standards is precisely because there are people policing them with great vigor. Do you plan on doing the same with comments? This takes resources, maybe better spent elsewhere.

How do you tell users they're commenting wrong?

  • Avoid unnecessary sarcasm (which, especially online, is almost all sarcasm). There are ways to get it right, but it's hard, and opportunities to nail it are rare
  • Avoid subtle put-downs and rhetorical statements like "Did you even try Googling?" or "Are you too lazy to run it and see?"
  • Avoid accidental misinterpretation of your comment by being deliberately explicit about your intent. For instance: "I'm not asking rhetorically; I really want to help you with this, I just want to be sure you also searched for 'foomatic'" is a lot better than "Did you even search? what for?"

People won't understand they're commenting wrong unless there is feedback. How would you send the feedback?

Comments are second class, and for good reason: they're not the point, the Q&A are. Everything has a cost, I don't see how comments can be held to the same standards as the Q&A without sacrificing the quality of the Q&A.

  • 1
    Right now comments can be flagged as no longer needed. If a sufficient number of flags are raised on a comment it will be removed without requiring moderator intervention. If a group of regular users commits to flagging comments that don't meet community standards they can take the majority of the workload away from the mods. If comment sections are kept cleaner it will set a better example to newer users about how to behave in a particular exchange's comment section. This will result in some users complaining about their comments "mysteriously" being deleted but that can be handled on meta. – sphennings Jun 27 at 13:50
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    @sphennings What you said reiterated the post pretty much. "If a group of regular users commits to flagging comments" then they've spent time and effort doing something that isn't supposed to be the focal of the site. "This will result in some users complaining about their comments "mysteriously" being deleted" this doesn't scale, at all. People need to know clearly and quickly without further effort from the community they did something wrong. Holding comments to the same standard as posts requires more of this. – Passer By Jun 27 at 14:01
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    Many tasks require the involvement of regular users that isn't the focal point of a site. All community moderation task meets that criteria. We actively encourage users to participate in these tasks once they've earned the privilege. There will always be people who respond poorly to policies being enforced. It's easy to create a writeup explaining why the policy exist, providing examples of what comments will be flagged and encouraging newer users to participate in flagging. This can be linked to on any meta post asking why a comment was removed. Pasting a link scales relatively well – sphennings Jun 27 at 14:28
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    Getting the community to contribute to the moderation effort is a core SE system principle. There's a little blurb in the help center and the tour about "this site is moderated by the users" (Beyond that response to your comment, the points that you raise in your answer are pretty good and got the +1) – KorvinStarmast Jun 27 at 15:31
  • @KorvinStarmast I understand it's moderated by the users, I'm not advocating against that. I'm just saying, holding comments to high standards is great, but it's a tradeoff. – Passer By Jun 27 at 16:02
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    I see your point, I just figured that as any of us increases in rep, we are asked to, or expected to, contribute more to the community mod effort. You are right, though: in the X minutes one has today to drop by an SE, how much time on an answer and how much time to keep the quality standards up. Fair point. – KorvinStarmast Jun 27 at 16:11
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    @KorvinStarmast 'Pasting a link scales relatively well'...'idownvotedbecau.se/' links have been cited as rude and unhelpful: links are no good either. – Martin James Jun 28 at 8:15
  • @MartinJames I am not sure that I understand what you are telling me in that comment. Is the link I provided bad, or are you indicating that when one posts a link in comments one is being rude? The "posting a link scales relatively well" remark was from sphennings, not me. – KorvinStarmast Jun 28 at 12:45
  • @KorvinStarmast 'remark was from sphennings, not me' sorry, my bad:( – Martin James Jun 28 at 16:18
  • @MartinJames No problem, it got me thinking so that's a good thing, even if by accident. 8^) – KorvinStarmast Jun 28 at 16:20
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    @MartinJames - for those looking to be offended they will always find what they are looking for no matter what. Even the absence of comments is offending to them when they get downvotes or ignored ( no answers ). – Jarrod Roberson Jun 28 at 18:06

I want to lay out my perspective here because it seems to be quite different then what this post is implicating for new users.

I'm not a particularly new user anymore, but I used to be just 2 years ago. Back then I made a lot of blunders in my early SE life, and I got called out for it, I found that unusually refreshing and respectful of my time and efforts.

I was a new developer back then, and had heard about stack overflow from finding answers there. Elated, I decided to answer some questions myself. I rarely attracted downvotes, but sometimes I got comments like these:

Useless answer, essentially translates to "It doesn't work because your code is wrong, once the code is correct it should work"

Now that'd be quite "un-nice" under the new policy, would it not? But it was the most helpful comment I'd actually gotten at that time, my 2 previous answers just went ignored without any votes (up or down) or any comments. That was discouraging. I was elated to have someone take the time and evaluate my answer, and even though their comment was somewhat lacking in proper tone, but it was valueable in shaping my understanding of what kind of answers would fly on stack overflow.

In the following weeks and months I got many comments that were sometimes rude, sometimes snarky, sometimes demeaning of my abilities as a programmer, yes. But they were above all topical. They helped me learn and correct my shortcomings.

I would hate to see comments like these deleted before I could read them, or even worse, never posted. Not because I'm a glutton for getting insulted, no, because I found the guidance and actionable criticism presented in them to be easily the most valueable part of my early SO experience.

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    +1 Guidance and actionable criticism. Well said. This is the kind of point I've seen @nvoigt make with some frequency as a value added feature of comments. – KorvinStarmast Jun 28 at 13:41
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    Yes that's exactly what I mean. If the comment exists, at least I can decide if I want to take something home from it or if I feel offended (or maybe both, or neither). Comments that are deleted or avoided because I might be offended is not what I'm looking for on a "professional" site. My priorities are on a solution to my problem, not on feeling good and warm and fuzzy. If getting a solution means I also get some snark, bring on the snark in buckets. I can simply chose to ignore that. I cannot chose to ignore having no solution to my problem though. – nvoigt Jul 3 at 9:50

It would be much more productive to try and address the real issue. The entitlement attitude that an apparent majority of new users seem to have now and how they crap on anyone that tries to help them succeed on the site, no matter how neutral or even polite the comment is.

They need to be reminded at every opportunity that are receiving a free service/help and to be polite and appreciative of those trying to help, no matter how the help is worded.

It is extremely obvious that those looking at ads are valued much more than those generating the content that the ads are placed in.

The powers that be need to be reminded that without the content from the contributors in the first place there would be no reason for anyone to visit the site to see the ads.

Unfortunately the entitlement attitude is what the official StackOverflow blog re-enforces with recent blog posts by people in a apparent position of authority providing plenty of confirmation bias to those looking to be offended in the first place.

  • Most of them are not hostile! They just don't know the rules. Often they are also thinking, we are like a telepathic automat, knowing automatically everything about their problem and not only what they've shared with us. Often they don't know, which is the correct site to ask. For example, as I was a newbie, I knew the existence both the SO and the ServerFault, but somehow I intuitively tought, that they are using actually the same question database, just with somehow different filters! So it had been the most logical. I believe since then, this is how the SE should work. – peterh Jun 29 at 10:38
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    I call this the generation Google. This entitlement attitude shows in the expectation of ready-to-use solutions rather than pointers or explanations, even though many a question is too vague to provide more than pointers and explanations. I regularly read documentation and books, something that seems unthinkable to some of these new users with entitlement attitude (or certain rookie colleagues). Sometimes I wonder how well certain "professionals" would fare in a week-long internet outage. But not all new users are of that kind, of course. – 0xC0000022L Jul 2 at 9:30
  • Playing devil's advocate here: Why are you still here? You don't need to hang out on a site with a bunch of entitled new people! It's not like you get paid to stick around! – Yoshiyahu Jul 2 at 18:09
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    @Jarrod agreed! "Be nice" is a good concept -- until it is taken too far, and then it simply encourages bad things like help vampirism. – AresAvatar Jul 3 at 15:33
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    @Yoshiyahu Talking about being nice...I also feel pretty much the same as the above, it is not uncommon to be abused for helping in moderation. We might be around for other purposes. – Rui F Ribeiro Jul 3 at 16:05
  • // , Remember, giving power to police language on the basis of "I feel offended" isn't just a bad idea. It's the SO policy. github.com/tomdionysus/foaas/issues/107#issuecomment-223773664 – Nathan Basanese Sep 7 at 23:58
  • @Yoshiyahu - go look and see how often and how recent I answer any questions but my own ... that and Compiling! – Jarrod Roberson Sep 8 at 5:34

If we're going to delete "not 100% welcoming" a little bit too snarky or however else offensive comments which despite being not ideal contain useful information, I want to be able to see those deleted comments to access that useful information.

Maybe as a reputation threshold privilege. And hide the potser's username to save face.

Because I'm already suspicious and don't trust what some overly eager moderators or users might consider "too unwelcoming" and sacrifice potential answers or good leads for being 100% nice and welcoming all the time.

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    We're talking about comments here, not answers. If a comment contains useful information it should probably be posted as an answer (minus the snark). Moderators do have the ability to edit comments. – ChrisF Jun 27 at 15:08
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    @ChrisF sometimes people leave answers in comments and nobody bothers to post an answer with that content. And if it's not deemed nice it may be deleted. Since we can't make contributors repost their comments as answers, and mods don't have an ability to convert comments to answers, this is a tricky situation. – user1306322 Jun 27 at 19:42
  • Heh, I just took two answers in comments and posted an answer from them in this very meta. I feel that I owe them each some rep as a finder's fee, or at least as collaborators. – KorvinStarmast Jun 27 at 20:45
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    @ChrisF Not all useful information in comments are answers to the question. In fact, they shouldn't be. Useful comments can be things like explaining why the question is too broad, or how it's unclear (i.e. different possible interpretations), or explaining why an answer is wrong, inputs that break it, security vulnerabilities it has, etc. Those are all issues that the commentor is hoping the author of the post they are commenting on will fix, but that only said author can actually fix. It's also not something that belongs in its own answer. – Servy Jun 27 at 21:59
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    “Moderators do have the ability to edit comments” – I’ve never seen a comment actually being edited. They just get deleted. – poke Jun 29 at 8:27
  • @poke I have had a comment on an SE edited recently; I am not sure that is a solid use of mod time ... but it is a feature open to the diamond mods. – KorvinStarmast Jun 29 at 22:18

I could not agree more with this take on holding language in comments. I had created my Stackoverflow profile a long time back, but one of the main reasons I refrained all these years from posting my own question or attempting to answer one is because of fear of being called out stupid!

So I totally agree with the statement:

to casual visitors, question comments are more visible than answers. We know from talking to people who don't contribute that one reason is because they see discouraging comments on the site. In sum, leaving a negative comment on a bad question:

encourages the OP to ask again and discourages anonymous users from asking a question.

The first question I asked did get a downvote and a negative comment. But the commentator adhered to your point of

Lead by example by spending 50 - 100 more characters to deliberately show that you at least considered how someone would receive your comment

I accepted the comment and made the edits leading to an upvote and an enormous amount of encouragement. That helped a lot given the fact that I was questioning if it was even worth trying (Stack platforms can be brutal).

If I am allowed I would like to offer my newbie perspective to this and add one thing to the list.

  • Taking reputation of OP into consideration while offering comment.

Which the person who commented on my did and helped me try to stick around. I am definitely not suggesting that moderators go easy on every newbie on the site. But I do feel like a lot of times there are mistakes due to lack of experience of posting in the site. So the next time a question/answer annoys you and you are in verge of saying things like mentioned by the OP in this question

"Did you even try Googling?" or "Are you too lazy to run it and see?"

Taking a glance at OP's reputation might suppress that temptation and you could phrase it a little more nicely.

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    Taking reputation of OP into consideration while offering comment. I'm pretty sure people do this already, but not in the way you're suggesting... – shmosel Jun 27 at 7:26
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    I'm used to having my reputation taken into account from time to time when I ask questions. It looks something like somebody asking me "How can you have 50k rep and still not know this?!?!?!" :) – Mark Amery Jun 27 at 8:48
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    Taking reputation of OP into consideration while offering comment I have been told that this is contrary to SE policy by a diamond mod at another SE. FWIW (I agree with your point on that). – KorvinStarmast Jun 27 at 15:26
  • This definitely does hold true for both cases where the reputation could be high or low, depending on that you could be a little or more nicer I guess,thanks for pointing that out @MarkAmery – prakriti Jun 27 at 17:28
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    Good points. I tend to post comments as if the person is in the room with you. Everyone is a lot nicer in person...IMO. – Chris Catignani Jun 27 at 20:01
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    @MarkAmery I tend to view it as "this guy has contributed a lot, let's see if I can help in return" or "this person hasn't contributed anything, i'm not going to bother." – Andy Jun 28 at 0:26

Let me address just this one suggestion:

Flag not just comments that clearly cross into the territory of being rude, but also those that seem more like condescending / mean-spirited 'jabs' than actually attempts to help someone (use "Other" if it seems problematic, but doesn't quite fall into obviously rude)

Speaking just from personal experience, my threshold for flagging comments is significant because I know a human has to deal with those. I think it would be really helpful to be able to downvote comments. This would have the following effects:

  • People's threshold for calling out bad comments would decrease.
  • The post author and the comment author would be able to see that the comment isn't universally approved.
  • People would be more careful about the content of their comments.
  • Moderator burden would decrease.
  • It would be easier to find comments that truly need deleting.
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    This will never happen. Repeat after me, everyone: "Comments are second-class citizens." – Nathan Tuggy Jun 28 at 4:48
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    You're not the boss of me, @NathanTuggy! – David Moles Jun 28 at 19:23
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    @NathanTuggy If comments are second-class citizens, why should they get first-class attention by the moderators, when a simple down-vote might be better? – Flimm Jun 29 at 10:31
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    @Flimm: I would like to be able to downvote comments. But any time any proposal is made to improve comment functionality by anyone except SE staff (and sometimes even then), that same tired line will be repeated. – Nathan Tuggy Jun 29 at 19:44

Without quality standards effectively enforced, Stack Exchange is just a forum.

Disciplining quality maintainers without any commensurate effort to address the problem is a choice to have lower standards. (The wizard is a nice thought but not going to help with this.) I don't like that choice, but it's consistent with the recent direction, and the community that remains here in 2018 is accepting of that.

It's a pretty good forum. And a polite forum is better than a rude forum. But the old claim that it's something different and special is no longer plausible.

So I guess I approve, now that we've given up the dream.

  • With the last sentence, did you mean to say "given up the dream"? And if so, was that perhaps a somewhat sarcastic conclusion to the answer? Or am I misunderstanding the last part entirely? – S.L. Barth Jun 27 at 14:00
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    @S.L.Barth Fixed, thanks. It’s ironic, but not sarcastic: if we can’t be anything better, let’s at least be a good forum. – Something Bad Happened Jun 28 at 18:09
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    I'm not happy with that change. I like quality standards. – Wildcard Jun 30 at 0:07
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    I also share this sense that we're giving up the dream. I remember being really drawn in by Joel Spolsky's slogan: "we hate fun!" (later, Atwood added nuance to it). The dream was that the site would be about being useful to lurkers, and that we were willing to sacrifice users' fun in order to make the Internet a more useful place. – Flimm Jul 2 at 15:03

I think the big difference between comments and posts is how people approach them, and that's why the expectations have seemed different. Answers, for as long as SE has existed, have had a clear, enforced purpose. If you post an answer that doesn't attempt to provide a solution, you can expect to be told—loudly—that you're doing it wrong, and pointed in the correct direction.

There's even enthusiasm from a lot of users in making sure that our answers section stays clean, and free of non-answers—even newer users understand that jokes, questions and chit-chat aren't welcome in answers. Some people dedicate a lot of time to reviewing posts and flagging posts that don't fit the clear definition.

But comments are different. While we do have a clear definition of what they're designed for, there isn't the same amount of pushback when you start posting other things. As Journeyman Geek points out, most snark and condescension doesn't count as requesting clarification, and isn't within the clear purpose of comments. I don't sense the same amount of interest, however, in enforcing that. If you do get it wrong, you might not even know. You don't get any notifications or pushback from others or the system; your comment is just... gone.

Comments tend to have the appearance of being "anything that isn't an answer" rather than "requests for clarification". The system just presents you with an empty box when you post a comment, and the expectations aren't as clear.

If we want to hold comments to the same standards as posts, we need to make the expectations clearer. Let's make sure that the purpose of comments is made clearer, and I think that it'll be harder to legitimately post snark. If we can make changes to the system to make comments less "free-form text box" and emphasise that comments have a very limited purpose in the system, we can do a lot to reduce snark.

Essentially, this is your "Refrain from commenting" approached from the other angle—what if we redesign the system to discourage inappropriate commenting? I definitely think the 'request clarification' link is a promising idea, but I wonder if we can do more. Even that didn't have a huge effect on reducing comment flags. Maybe we need to do more to let people know they're going wrong before the problem is too serious to fix easily.

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    The problem is that moderators or site owners don’t see comments as pure “requests for clarification” either. Otherwise, Tim Post♦ didn’t suggest to add the phrase “I'm not asking rhetorically; I really want to help you with this,…” before a “request for clarification”. Either we accept it as communication between humans which doesn’t always fit into mechanical categories, or we do not ask for comforting the questioner with rhetorical phrases before the actual request. – Holger Jun 27 at 8:25
  • Indeed; no-one seems to share the exact same idea about what a request for clarification or a comment should be, @Holger. Most people agree more or less what an answer is, though. Of course you're right that nothing perfectly fits into the labels we make up. For example, I personally would still see Tim's comment as requesting clarification, but then again I also wouldn't see any problem with just asking directly so long as you were polite, nor would I demand others do that. Just as with answers, you are free to say quite a lot; I just think we should be clear that comments have a purpose too. – Aurora0001 Jun 27 at 8:40
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    "Comments tend to have the appearance of being "anything that isn't an answer" rather than "requests for clarification". " +1000 – Nathan Tuggy Jun 27 at 17:03
  • @NathanTuggy another +1000. I concluded that some while ago and, so far, I've not seen much to contradict it:( – Martin James Jun 28 at 8:17
  • @NathanTuggy +1 to your comment, and if I go back to "optimize for pearls not sand" it would appear that once a question has answers, and has matured, comments aren't even sand, but mostly "the sound of the ocean roaring" which is in opposition to what is advertised at the tour: "questions and answers, no chit chat" – KorvinStarmast Jun 28 at 13:37

Something similar has come up before and there are a few things worth remembering. There's a similar question on requesting a style guide to avoid condescension.... Here's the joke. I had a dissenting opinion on where the line would be. The author found me condescending, as did another user. I found the author condescending too. We might... all be right. It's just a very hard thing to judge.

The lines are hard to draw, and some that can be apparently condescending can end up being useful. It's possible we're all well-meaning folks, or all terrible, or somewhere in-between. It's a bit of a fuzzy issue deciding whether something like this crosses the line or not. This can potentially be a problem.

Kinda ironically, sometimes the obviously simple solution, the one that seems almost too simple is correct, cause we're sometimes a bit reality blind. Frustratingly, these are the hardest. Did you try googling is inappropriate, sure, but I've had situations where I had to, very carefully, ask a condescending sounding clarification and ended up solving the problem. Case in point..

enter image description here

I think though, you guys already have a solution that works well - that ... we shouldn't have comments at all.

(Wait what?)

We need clarifications. In a sense, we've always done comments wrong. That people even use comments as chat, or a way to do anything other than ask about ways to make a post better, kind of goes against the low noise ethos of SE.

We've all done it wrong, sure, but this approach is probably a lot clearer than and easier to get for most.

I think a good rule of thumb really is "Does this directly help clarify a question or answer?" - and bring the focus back to the signal, rather than "is this nice"

"Did you try googling it" or "did you read the manual?" is noise. "There seems to be an error there - did you try changing this" is signal. "This is in the manual, page 25" ... can be a useful comment, but really should be an answer. So, we don't want "not nice comments", both cause they're not nice, and cause they're noise.

Now, I understand, and appreciate the intent of trying to tell folks to be nice in comments. On the other hand, I think keeping an eye on what we need to do - kind of works better.

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    "There seems to be an error there - did you try changing this" is signal. It's not clarification, though, is it? On the other hand, "Did you read the manual?" can be clarification, although it would be more explicitly phrased as "Is the problem that you haven't read the manual, that you don't understand the manual, or that you do understand the manual but what it says doesn't work?" The more explicit phrasing could probably be made nicer, but that's separate to the signal/noise distinction. – Peter Taylor Jun 27 at 9:50
  • True - but it can also be a part of helping a user step through a problem, which can be clarification - which is what happened in my example. Also, if you need someone to understand what's in the manual, that should be an answer. – Journeyman Geek Jun 27 at 9:53
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    From someone expert, "which sections(s) of the manual did you consult" strikes me as a clarification request when clarifying what the problem is. An expert will tend to be well versed in the manual/documentation, and if one can identify the problem (looked in the wrong manual, or wrong part of the manual) then answers will be better able to direct the querent, and all having a similar problem, to the right part of the manual in an answer. (I used to run into this problem in a training and education environment quite a bit: which book were you looking into for that answer?) – KorvinStarmast Jun 27 at 13:13

I think the issue is that we tend to think of comments as second-class, but the page layout privileges question-comments ahead of answers.

As it stands currently, the 'most-important' (usually upvoted) comments are shown directly under the question, while the answers are formatted well below the comments. For many users, this means that comments fall 'above-the-break', with no need to scroll to read them.

Meanwhile, our main content, the answers are formatted below the comments! Even our best-voted answers can end up below-the-break, requiring scrolling to see for many users.

Secondarily, at least on SO, I see a lot of partial solutions and problem solving in the question comments. This makes the casual, anonymous user find what they're looking for in the comments. They never have a reason to even look for the answer section.

What this means is that one of two things has to happen:

  • We moderate comments (at least question-comments) as strictly as we do answers
  • We change the Q-and-A layout to make answers appear in some way ahead of or equal to question-comments
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    Comments can never be equal to answers. They're not indexed, they're not user-moderatable, and they can be deleted at any time. – Makoto Jun 27 at 14:59
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    But is this a technical restriction that can't be overcome? Or just because it's a significant change? – Zarenor Jun 27 at 15:09
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    @Zarenor it's a numbers problem. How many reviewers would it take to keep up with the inflow of comments such that we can have a queue to review "problematic" comments in the same way we do answers? We can't sort them by votes, since they can't be downvoted. They can't be edited, so even a good comment with a little snark would be entirely lost, losing the good parts. Even if both of those two things were allowed we'd still have the number problem. That's of course ignoring how subjective this particular initiative is and how likely it would be that reviewers get it wrong. – Kevin B Jun 27 at 15:16
  • @Makoto, to be clear: you're saying that the first of the "two things" proposed in the question cannot happen, so it must be the second. Is that correct? – Peter Taylor Jun 27 at 16:25
  • @PeterTaylor: No, I'm implying that neither can happen. Comments aren't indexed so they can't be searched on, thus making them inferior to questions. Comments aren't community moderatable, thus they are inferior to questions. – Makoto Jun 27 at 16:26
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    @Makoto, I'm confused. I would summarise the answer as "Comments are inferior to answers, but the UI emphasises comments over answers. Therefore either comments need to be promoted or the UI needs to be changed to correctly reflect the relative importance". It's clear that you agree that comments are inferior to answers. But since you disagree that the UI needs to change, does that mean that you disagree that the UI currently emphasises comments over answers? – Peter Taylor Jun 27 at 16:56
  • @KevinB That's exactly the point behind the one I'm making. I don't see any possible way to moderate that much content. I'm trying to make the point that a UI change is a good idea, because the other option isn't feasible. I'm trying to make this point, so we can set aside completely the argument over whether we can trust the moderators that, ultimately, are us, ourselves. It seems the disagreement in this thread is whether we can trust the moderators, and that shouldn't be the issue here. – Zarenor Jun 27 at 19:01
  • @Makoto We agree that comments are currently inferior to questions. I'm saying to UI should change to be more reflective of that. Or, alternately, we should moderate them to the same standard of language as answers, and we should probably index them. The comments exist, it's not a technical problem to scrape existing comments and index them (it may be cumbersome, but I don't know the layout of the data). It is a problem to moderate comments that rigorously. I don't know how we could pull that off. – Zarenor Jun 27 at 19:05
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    @PeterTaylor: No, I feel like the UI definitely makes more of comments than it really should. Comments are genuinely the red-headed stepchild of Stack Exchange, and we really should stop acting like they're more important than they are. However, changing the UI won't change the perception of what the comment box is. I did have some ideas which were definitively shot out of the sky on how we might be able to at least mitigate some of the pain, but...I don't think that's going anywhere anytime soon. – Makoto Jun 27 at 19:27
  • @Zarenor: We should definitely not index comments. They are literally the noise which inhibits our signal. There's too many of them to moderate, in all reality. At this point I'd favor complete removal of comments (except on Metas) more than I'd favor reworking the UI to hammer home the point. – Makoto Jun 27 at 19:28
  • @Makoto I don't think we can just eliminate comments - it would decrease noise, but it makes it extremely difficult to steer someone who asks a low-quality question (for any reason) towards editing into a better question. If we just propose edits for them, we likely seem rude, and may not actually know what they're trying to ask. We want to encourage more users to join the network and be good contributors, not just close-vote low quality questions. – Zarenor Jun 27 at 19:37
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    @Zarenor: No amount of comments on a bad question will make it into a good question. You cannot commentate your way out of a requirements dump. 90% of questions for which we get 100% of our flak for are requirements dumps. Of the 10% that aren't, we have to work with the misperception of the goal of the site (which is someone thinking that we have the capacity to teach them a technology versus help them with a problem). – Makoto Jun 27 at 19:44
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    @Makoto Your first sentence displays your attitude perfectly, and I almost didn't bother to read the rest of your comment. I watch questions on SO that go from a dupe-vote or close-vote question to a relevant or useful question all the time. I also (and certainly more frequently) see comments get a question nowhere. The people who repeatedly ask questions that go nowhere, sure, we're not likely to be able to help them. The few who can make a good question? We need to continue bringing them in. If you're so jaded as to dismiss 'bad' questions out-of-hand, I'm not sure how to help you. – Zarenor Jun 27 at 19:48
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    @Zarenor: Honestly, I was once like you. I felt like we needed to welcome in everyone and address every question. Then I became more of a professional in my field and reflected on the quality of questions on Stack Overflow. I started to see the patterns in how users interacted with the site. If that's an attitude, then I have to wear it how I wear it. However, I will state this: at a minimum I am interested in helping those who make an effort to help us help them. I see this as us merely disagreeing with how to help. – Makoto Jun 27 at 19:56
  • @Zarenor well, if there were numbers available, I'm confident that those cases where 'questions on SO that go from a dupe-vote or close-vote question to a relevant or useful question' would be massively outweighed by the number of questions where any attempt at helping is ignored, flagged or rebutted in 'be non-nice' fashion:( – Martin James Jun 28 at 7:56

Potentially controversial opinion - but while I'm all for encouraging nicer and friendlier comments, I'm not really sure what this post achieves. It's basically a fair few paragraphs that just say "everyone be nice in comments too!", which, as said above, is a policy that's in place already.

It feels very much like we're trying to pat ourselves on the back here for noticing that comments can be offensive as well as answers, without really doing anything else about it.

If we really want to start stopping these kinds of comments, then surely it needs to be a much more active system - i.e. warnings after x offensive comments in a particular timeframe, "comment" ban for x+3, outright ban for x+6, etc. (Numbers just pulled out of thin air. Details of such a system should of course be open for discussion.)

Such an active system doesn't have to be of the "ban" type of course - it could disable comments entirely on questions that start to receive a negative score and push people into a chat room instead where they can try to engage with the poster in a better way.

I'm not saying either of the above are necessarily things that should be put in place as described, but surely there's more effective things that can be done here.

Otherwise, the best case outcome I can see is we get a small army of people being a bit nicer for a while in comments, everyone pats themselves on the back and says "look, we did something about the be nice thing", and then within a few months everyone forgets about it again, and bingo - we're back to square one.

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    The problem here is that flags are being accepted as rude or offensive without any consideration of whether they're valid or not. A couple of new users decide to flag your comment asking for more details or a clearer question as rude or offensive, it gets deleted automatically, and you get a tick that can get you suspended. The whole problem with the blog post that started all this (and every subsequent post afterward) is that it empowers all of the newer users to gang up against the users who do most of the moderation here because they – Ken White Jun 30 at 1:53
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    [continued] can act with pretty much carte blanc to get someone suspended. And the user who is being flagged (often unfairly) gets no notice of the issue until they get a private moderator message threatening suspension for rude behavior. I can personally attest to this, having experienced it recently when users started flagging canned responses that I've used here for years. – Ken White Jun 30 at 1:55
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    @KenWhite As per my post, I'm not necessarily advocating a banning system - I also suggested a possible alternative which would stop comments on low quality questions, and I'm sure there's many other things that could be considered as well. (As you say, banning systems definitely have their issues.) My point is that something active needs to be done if we actually want the problem of genuinely unfriendly comments to be solved. – berry120 Jun 30 at 6:39
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    My comments were expressly about If we really want to start stopping... and mandated actions after x+ something flags. When the flags are accepted without consideration just because of numbers, then new users take control because they can quickly get all of the ones who make an effort to moderate or urge improvements suspended or banned. New and low rep users are being promoted to site bullies and overlords based on the newer policies, which is simply ludicrous. – Ken White Jun 30 at 18:32

I'll preface this by saying that I'm only active in a handful of tags on a handful of sites, and they may not be representative, but given that...

For many questions from new users, the initial question needs a bit of work to turn it from un-answerable into fairly good. That work can currently only be done through comments or close votes.

For me, I'm always having to search to find the friendly language with the right help centre links for these clarification requests. Sometimes I'm in a hurry and just tap in something short instead of all that work, and quite possibly those come across less welcoming.

What would make my life easier, and hopefully the site more welcoming, is more "canned queries" for common question clarifications. These should have friendly language in, and useful relevant links, and will need to vary by site. They may also mean we need to vote to close less at the start, which also isn't welcoming.

To help make things look friendlier (since comments show up obviously to browse-by users), they could easily be hidden from non logged in users. That way, other people trying to help can see the clarification has been asked, to avoid piling in, the question user can get a more welcoming and also more useful request for the clarification, and we'll find it quicker to help so we'll help more!

On a StackOverflow Java post, the canned ones might be for things like:

  • You've mentioned code in you post, but not included it. Could you please add a minimal, self contained example showing the problem? (help link)
  • You've included a stacktrace, but the line numbers don't match your code. Could you please tell us which lines in your code match the stacktrace? (help link)
  • You seem to be using a really old version of the library, are you constrained to stick with that old one (complete with known bugs), or can you try upgrading?

On a Travel post about visas, it might be:

  • Can you please let us know your country of citizenship, and the country where you live if different? Visa rules do vary dramatically based on these two facts
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    for Stack Overflow, you may consider stuff listed in Repository of useful pro-forma comments (it even refers a StackApps script that saves from manual copying these) – gnat Jun 28 at 8:19
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    I'd argue for canned comments defined in each tag wiki, so the community for each tag can create them accordingly tot he tag specificity – Tensibai Jun 28 at 14:52
  • canned comments are impersonal and unwelcoming. – Kevin B Jun 28 at 15:17
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    @KevinB: Anything other than an artisanal hand-crafted comment founded on an expert psychoanalysis of the poster and asking exactly the right question to inspire the necessary flash of insight without the need for any self-reflection, investigation, or perceived challenge is impersonal and unwelcoming. It is very fortunate for Stack Exchange that such comments are so easy for every reasonably dedicated user to write, and so quick and efficient for everyone else to read. Why, we don't even need up, down, close, or delete votes, really. Just comments. – Nathan Tuggy Jun 29 at 0:47
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    @NathanTuggy do you think that, on a site that handles highly-techical issues, it might be better if the skilled and experienced users just commented the first thing that their trained minds can come up with, on the grounds that it's likely very informative? Asking such valuable volunteers to do more than use the skill they.... nah, never mind, lets go back to spending most of the time analysing the poster, that's what is apparently wanted:( – Martin James Jun 29 at 8:08

Don't we have a be nice policy that is site wide and for all? It's not just be nice when answering, or commenting on a question/answer. Or while in chat.

The issue is IMO enforcement of the policy in general. We have flagging, and that helps, but the ultimate enforcers -- the moderators, need to set the standard. Power users on a particular stack can help with this too.

My experience here thus far is if you have a lot of rep (that number varies site to site), the be nice policy is more pliable for you.

Equal enforcement of the be nice policy is what is needed here.

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    if you have a lot of rep (that number varies site to site), then most sanction/enforcement measures will discriminate against you:( Suspending a 1-rep burner account for a week has no effect whatsoever, and the account users can post grossly abusive comments without any penalty at all. High-rep users have somethng to lose. Those at greatest risk of unwarranted enforcement action are high-rep users who apply a lot of moderation and so are most likely to get a number of inappropriate flags:( – Martin James Jun 27 at 16:17
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    @MartinJames I have seen several times on a couple of stacks where high rep users post some pretty abusive stuff and are coddled by the moderators versus earning a nice time out. – Mister Positive Jun 27 at 16:21
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    @Neo please link those examples:) – Martin James Jun 27 at 18:26
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    @MartinJames No way sir. – Mister Positive Jun 27 at 18:34
  • @MartinJames In the past year, I have received two time outs, one for a month, though I doubt that I am the case Neo is referring to. – KorvinStarmast Jun 27 at 19:24
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    @Neo OK, I understand that - you don't want any 'meta effect' to add further downvotes to the, (probably bad), questions. Unfortunately, some might then say that you don't actually have any evidence of such behaviour. What do you suggest, then? How can you demostrate the behaviour you describe? – Martin James Jun 28 at 8:05
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    If I was interested in pushing it, a MODERATOR could definitely review the question/answer that I am referring to and see the data. Comments and such are not really deleted when we mere mortals delete them. At any rate this really has zippo to do with the question or my answer. The question relates to standards and how they are applied to Answers, Questions, and comments. I say we have them already, and they just need better enforcement. @MartinJames – Mister Positive Jun 28 at 11:06
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    ..and I say that the enforcements/sanctions currently available are discrminatory to the minority group of curators. – Martin James Jun 28 at 16:24

[[ let's not!! ]]

A comment should not be upheld to the same standards as a post - for a few reasons:

  1. it serves a different purpose(to clarify not to provide an answer)
  2. different text editing-tools
  3. different text-length.

If a message doesn't serve its purpose should be flagged and eliminated.

Before starting, I would like to point out a big issue with the premise presented by of Jon that you quote and is the following:

If there is "a negative comment on a bad question", I assure you that the "bad question" was deleted before it can be seen.

To test for that, ask people where they have seen a "negative comment" not directed to themselves, on a question they do have. You would again reduce yourself to anecdotal evidence. Negative comments on bad questions simply doesn't effect potential askers because they were seen on the site, but because the askers, understandably upset, decided to give more visibility to it by referencing it whenever they consider it relevant. But that problem is beyond the main point. Lets talk about solutions.

If the problem is that people leave comments on questions, how about if we don't call them comments anymore? Robert was mulling with the idea of changing the UI name for the comments. Maybe that's a solution for the comments on questions, no? Granted, is a cannon to kill a mosquito, but some mosquitoes can't be killed even if you use one.

Other solution would be to prevent bad questions all together. Following the premise of Jon, maybe the algorithm should err more on false positives and be more stringent on what it considers a no "bad question", that would works towards preventing folks of understandably frustrated, lashing out against a poor question.

Another solution is maybe we don't actually are negative when we offer feedback... maybe we actually are offering positive feedback that's just shown negatively because that's what we interpret. Remember, sarcasm doesn't work well with written communication, it isn't a stretch to say the same about feedback. How about if you get random comments from a site, manually tweaking them making them more or less negative, and show them all to some guinea pigs and ask them how they see that feedback and how they would have offered the same feedback if it was them. That would at least set the goal towards what actually can be achieved. Remember, war on concepts aren't winnable, because concepts are too abstract to be actually conquered.

  • Is it just me or does anyone else think there's a fundamental problem trying to use AI to solve human negativity? Censorship, manners, politeness, rules of communication—my prediction is that none of these things will be fully resolved by computer programs, ever. Perhaps there is too much attention being put on the tiny fraction of negative comments? – Wildcard Jun 30 at 0:11
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    @Wildcard if anyone actually watches the UK ministers making rude comments, you have to applaud them for the ingenuity. is rude, yes, but unless you know some difficult words and their meaning, you will never feel that they were rude to you. – Braiam Jun 30 at 1:26
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    Indeed. And in fact, my comment was partially inspired by the blog post The Purpose of Technology. I think it describes a lot of the trouble Stack Exchange runs into when they try to SOLVE comment sarcasm. – Wildcard Jun 30 at 1:58

This is a small suggestion for a larger issue, and not meant to be an exhaustive analysis or solution.

Background:

I like the analysis here, and it makes sense to me. And, I agree with the objective of encouraging users (including new users) to contribute to the site, versus disappear in response to perceived hostility.

As a contributor to the site (mainly SO, and a couple others), I often empathize with the snarky comments in response to bad questions. I have no doubt that I've been guilty of posting snarky comments myself. Another thing I've been guilty of (not recently, but definitely not never) is up-voting snarky comments. In the moment, these actions can feel rewarding.

In retrospect, when the frustration has faded a bit, it feels less good to have made such comments, and to have validated others who have done so.

Small suggestion:

This is a minor (very minor!) contributor to the landscape of the current issue: comments can gather up-votes (ie internet points) and these can lead to badges (more internet points). And, in my experience over the past years (feels like a decade, but not yet...), snarky comments often gather such internet points. When I read the post analyzing this issue, I realized that it can feel like the site is (unintentionally) rewarding the behavior we hope to discourage.

Don't get me wrong, constructive comments are very helpful and ought to be encouraged - I always read the comment thread as if it is part of the question and/or answer, it is very valuable, and the up-voted comments are a great way to draw my attention to the best places first. So, I'm definitely not advocating for getting rid of voting on comments. But, it feels like a mechanism to discourage up-voting on snark would be useful.

Proposal: Penalize up-votes on comments which are eventually deleted as rude or snarky.

I don't pretend to have a perfect mechanism in mind, but I think it could help.

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    I think the real problem is that comments can't be downvoted. That means upvotes are often just an indicator of the attention a comment has received. This has a snowball effect, because upvoted comments have increased visibility, resulting in even more upvotes. Downvoting would counter this effect by allowing a consensus on the actual value of a comment. – shmosel Jun 27 at 7:19
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    @shmosel We should have a QA system for comments too. Let's go fractal-y. /sarcasm – yo' Jun 27 at 9:54
  • @shmosel if you see an inappropriate comment, please, flag it. If it's no good that it gets greater visibility, is potentially no good that it gets any visibility at all. Deletion is the only key. – Braiam Jun 29 at 22:48
  • @Braiam I'm not specifically referring to inappropriate comments. There are many comments that are well-intentioned but wrong or misleading. And there are comments of debatable value. I think the community should be able to express a consensus rather than forcing mods to intervene over every perceived violation. It works pretty well for questions and answers; why can't it work for comments? – shmosel Jun 29 at 22:57
  • @shmosel that's why the "no longer needed" flag was added. To ease the aversion of flagging. That's why I'm using the word inappropriate, to cover all context, not only the ones where someone might feel offended. – Braiam Jun 29 at 23:00
  • @Braiam So in your opinion, I should be flagging every comment I disagree with? – shmosel Jun 29 at 23:02
  • @shmosel no. You should be flagging comments that in the context, adds no value, as they aren't needed anymore. – Braiam Jun 29 at 23:03
  • @Braiam Would you say my suggestion adds no value? Should it be deleted? – shmosel Jun 29 at 23:16
  • +1. "and these can lead to badges" - I'd like to see all these 'helpful' comments that people got badges for. 90% of them are snark; 10% LMGTFY. – Mazura Jun 29 at 23:34
  • @shmosel Do you believe they add no value? That's the important thing. Not whenever I do, but if you do. For me, I wouldn't be surprised if tomorrow the whole comments table was dropped. There was nothing of really importance there since all of it resulted in edits on the post, right? – Braiam Jun 30 at 1:20
  • @Braiam I know at least 11 people found value in it. It would be as useful to know how many people didn't find value in it. The opinion of some vigilante flagger or moderator are far less relevant, IMO. – shmosel Jun 30 at 1:30
  • @shmosel there has been since the inception of comments that they should have downvotes too, which has met with the strong opposition that comments weren't supposed to be permanent, so voting is irrelevant. Thing is that most people don't get that. In meta is kind of different, but in main any comment can and will be deleted at any time for any reason. If you feel that your comment is so valuable it should be edited into the post. – Braiam Jun 30 at 1:53
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    @Braiam Most commenters don't get to decide what should go into the post. In any case, I'm not saying voting is critical. I'm saying allowing only upvotes creates an imbalanced perception. – shmosel Jun 30 at 2:00
  • @shmosel which can easily be solved by action on the source of the imbalance. You don't counter upvotes with downvotes (or viceversa), you shouldn't try to counter anything. You saw a problem and acted in a way that solves the fundamental problem. "if you see an inappropriate comment, please, flag it". That's the way you solve the problem. Downvotes don't do that. – Braiam Jun 30 at 2:13
  • @Braiam You're talking about a different problem. We're going in circles. – shmosel Jun 30 at 2:15

To casual visitors, question comments are more visible than answers. We know from talking to people who don't contribute that one reason is because they see discouraging comments on the site.

I'm going off on a tangent here, but it strikes me that this double problem (wrong focus on comments rather than answers, discouraging content of comments) could also be solved in a way totally separate from applying the "be nice" policy:

Let comments expire & auto-delete them after a set amount of time (days, not months).

Comments don't serve the same function as answers, but are sometimes used for that purpose. Comments shouldn't contain information that's valuable in the long term; that information should be in the posts themselves. (How often do you see an answer where the comment actually helps you more than the answer itself? Happens a lot to me, and I've always felt that there's something wrong about that.)

Comments might be a good means to point out a flaw or a missing bit of information in a question / answer. They should be followed by action: fixing the flaw in a post, or moving a valuable bit of information from the comment into the post. Once that's happened, comments may safely perish. (Of course, it would take people some time to realise the change, and to learn that they should just edit a post instead of leaving an edit comment.)

Auto-deleting comments would then affect mostly the social interactions that aren't directly relevant for the post's content. Of course, while this would help get rid of snarky, discouraging comments quickly, it would also mean that you no longer get the positive, funny, engaging comments that you see all across SO. It would all be about the posts.

I realise this might be perceived as a rather drastic change, and I'm sure I'm missing some important considerations, but I wanted to throw the idea out there.

(P.S.: Expiration and auto-deletion of comments could be tempered by comment votes, which might extend the expiration time of a comment either by some time factor, or indefinitely.)

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    This is a very attractive idea, but I'm afraid it has some critical flaws. First, some few comments are used to critique non-obvious problems that make an answer counter-productive or dangerous. Expiring these, ever, is a terrible outcome. (A classic example on SO would be a comment that points out an SQL injection vulnerability on a [php] answer.) – Nathan Tuggy Jun 29 at 0:52
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    Some other comments are just snarky enough (or insightful enough) to be interesting and not snarky enough to be flagged readily, so (unless literally anything anyone could ever imagine to be snarky is deleted robustly), they are likely to collect upvotes and expire only very late, if at all. Finally, a number of temporary comments have an uncertain lifetime, as they are asking the post author to do something that no editor really has the right to do, and expiring these (which may not have many, or any, upvotes) is a problem. – Nathan Tuggy Jun 29 at 0:52
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    @NathanTuggy, I'm upvoting your eloquent statement of the problems with this proposal in the hopes that my upvotes will prevent your comments from expiring. ;) – Wildcard Jun 30 at 0:13
  • I fully agree with the above comments. The proposal is of course far too crude to be implemented as is. I do think however that there's merit in questioning the long-term value of some answers, and letting them expire in some fashion. I'd love to see that basic idea being picked up and refined further into a workable solution. – stakx Jun 30 at 8:00

I can't agree with the dissenting voices here hard enough or fast enough. There is no measuring stick by which everyone can agree "this was not rude."

One of the truest things I can say about everyone I've ever had the opportunity to talk with, online and off is this:

No matter how I explain my thoughts, everyone gets upset

Every time. "This is what my thoughts were at the time..." "This is what I thought I heard you say..." "Because of X my brain jumped to Y..."

I never even get to finish my sentence before I get jumped on for being an a$$hole or an idiot. "HOW could you POSSIBLY think that was true?" "But I didn't say that." "Why would you even think that?"

Every time I've ever seen anyone else try and explain their thought process, they get jumped on before finishing their sentence for the same reasons.

There's a reason that my signature on several forums goes something like this:

Apparently I am a utter jerk whose sole purpose is to make your life a living hell and insult you. If you think so, just report me, because odds are I was only trying to help. If you accuse me of being a jerk, I'm just going to report you instead.

I have received dozens of private messages from people who read that and went "I get it!" because my post had been nothing more than Use X() or a link to documentation or similar and figured out that I wasn't being a jerk! I was just communicating everything they needed in a small package.

Have I posted actually snarky things? Oh, absolutely. Usually when a known help vampire is disregarding every attempt to solve his problem because "the [development team] makes everything complicated, so I'm going to do it my way instead." (Then why are you here asking for help?)

But no, most of the time I post the bare minimum of what's needed to convey the information I'm trying to get across. It's what we ask of people in their questions, no "hi" no "thanks" no complete projects, just the bare minimum to explain the problem and the shortest code necessary to reproduce the issue.

Why should comments be any different? And besides, including that flowery language is just going to upset another group of people for being too patronizing. I've seen it happen, both online and in meat space.

People, fundamentally, do not care what you think.

No matter the context. If you're volunteering information they did not ask for, they don't want it. And if they did, it's still your fault because now you're "getting defensive." As soon as they've got it in their heads that you're being rude or disrespectful, you can't change their minds. You've already lost.

And because of that, Stack Overflow cannot get those potential users back. They already think we're jerks, no amount of flowery language and aggressive moderation of perceived harm will change that. They'll just point at the moderators as having "rudely deleted their [comment, post, question]" instead, or find some other imaginary slight against them "because they're new."

Bring on the down votes, retaliatory "you're wrong" comments, and the like. All it does is show how right I really am: you don't want to hear the truth about your own psychology and just how predictable you are. And no, I'm not trying to be a troll, all I'm doing is pointing out is a pattern. You'll start to recognize it in every argument you ever try and peacefully resolve and only to make worse soon enough. Yes, even this very statement will attract those same remarks for the same reason. Remember, I am a complete and utter jerk whose sole purpose is to make your life miserable.

Any typos? It's because mobile because my Internet broke; just fix them

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    Pre-emptively declaring you're right and everyone who disagrees with your just doesn't want to hear the truth is pretty much admitting that you have no case. And for what it's worth, I've had plenty of online conversations with people that didn't end in the manner you claim. – Nicol Bolas Jun 28 at 3:52
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    "Usually when a known help vampire is disregarding every attempt to solve his problem" Why are you engaging with "a known help vampire" at all? Once you realize someone is unreasonable, disengage and move on. How is being snarky at them helpful to the site? – Nicol Bolas Jun 28 at 3:53
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    Clearly you are mis-interpreting what is being said in this answer. It says nothing of the sort "Pre-emptively declaring you're right and everyone who disagrees with your just doesn't want to hear the truth". – Kevin B Jun 28 at 16:15
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    @NicolBolas I was not, I had the help vampire muted. What I did was post a gif of Steven Colbert eating popcorn. And Kevin interpreted my comments correctly. I did not preemptively declare myself right. I preemptively declared that people would object without listening and that doing so prooves my point that people object without first listening. – Draco18s Jun 28 at 16:38
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    @Draco18s: That's still pre-emptively declaring that you're right, because you're assuming that any objections would come "without listening". Shocking though it may be to believe, it is perfectly possible to read your entire post, understand it, and still object to it. – Nicol Bolas Jun 28 at 17:31
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    TL;DR - those looking for offense will find it everywhere, so what they say does not matter because what you say does not matter. – Jarrod Roberson Jun 28 at 17:42
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    @JarrodRoberson No, closer to, "those looking for offense will find it everywhere, so what you say doesn't matter." That is, removing snark won't help. It is an unsolvable problem. – Draco18s Jun 28 at 18:01
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    @NicolBolas and Draco18s, you both have valid points. The piece you are both missing is acknowledgements. Whether in written communication, verbal communication or any other type, the function of an acknowledgement is to convey your understanding and receipt of a communication. When this is omitted, the effect created is the feeling that you aren't listening. – Wildcard Jun 30 at 0:23
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    (And SE comments are a terrible medium for acknowledgements, because you must combine your acknowledgement with your response, when they are actually distinct items. Verbally, it is much easier to fully acknowledge, ensure the acknowledgement was received and that the other person feels understood, and then state something else as a new communication.) – Wildcard Jun 30 at 0:24

From what I read and see, the main course of action that will satisfy most users seems to be simply hiding more and more comments as the question ages.

If there's many comments, we already use this system: Only those with enough upvotes will be shown, and all other be hidden.

By expanding this to all cases as opposed to when there's too many comments, the visibility of "unuseful" comments is drastically dropped, and the perception problem mostly solved.

The only case where this approach fails is when a snarky comment actually gets upvotes (which is, for no-effort-questions, mostly the case). This however is an expression of character of our community (or rather a part of it), as those upvoting users probably see a no-effort-question just as offensive as other the snarky comment.

However, even in this case, I see no reason to take any action: A snarky comment is also an indicator of what went wrong, and gives a person to ask for how one could improve his question (which is again not the case if the question is closed).
Even for new visitors, a no-effort-question should still be obviously a no-effort-question. People who actually want to post no-effort-questions (sadly) won't be scared away by that, and the bulk of the probable future community members will see the point of the comment.

Thank you for this post! Making StackExchange more approachable for new users and tolerable for long-time users is a great initiative. However, I think that the suggestions for behavioral changes could be improved. Skip to the bottom for a TL;DR.

General Utility

  • Avoid unnecessary sarcasm (which, especially online, is almost all sarcasm). There are ways to get it right, but it's hard, and opportunities to nail it are rare
  • Avoid subtle put-downs and rhetorical statements like "Did you even try Googling?" or "Are you too lazy to run it and see?"
  • Avoid accidental misinterpretation of your comment by being deliberately explicit about your intent. For instance, if the question is about 'foomatic': "I'm not asking rhetorically; I really want to help you with this, I just want to be sure you also searched for 'foomatic'" is a lot better than "Did you even search? what for?"

Many of the answers have the biggest problem with these items on the list, and for good reason! Sarcasm is a powerful tool! Used effectively, it provokes thought in the listener/reader; used carelessly, it can simply becomes a pointless slight.

The problem is not necessarily with sarcasm, but with helpfulness. I think we all would rather ask a sarcastic, but helpful person a question than a polite, but incapable person for help. To quote Magisch:

To add to this, when I was a new user I liked it a lot more when people gave snarky criticism on my content then when nobody bothered to react or respond at all.

The real issue is in the examples above is not sarcasm or putting people down, but rather being helpful. For example: "Did you [even] try Googling?" is not a helpful question. It leads to one of two paths:
1) No. What should I Google?
2) Yes. What should I Google?

Anyone who asks this question is not being helpful. They know both outcomes before they ask, which wastes the time of the asker and any future readers of the question.

As an alternative "What did you search for?" and "Did you try searching for XYZ?" are helpful because they are an open-ended question. By making room for dialog, there is potential to assist future readers who may have a similar train of thought. I know I've found myself in the keyword conundrum many, many times. (And often the StackExchange question becomes the Google result.)

  • Lead by example by spending 50 - 100 more characters to deliberately show that you at least considered how someone would receive your comment

Please don't do this! I would prefer comments be concise and to the point. I'm searching for an answer, not reading a novel! Unless extra text will help the original author or a future reader, please do not be verbose or comment at all!

Community Opinion

  • Flag not just comments that clearly cross into the territory of being rude, but also those that seem more like condescending / mean-spirited 'jabs' than actually attempts to help someone (use "Other" if it seems problematic, but doesn't quite fall into obviously rude)

As was said above, some of the most upvoted comments are the jabs, sarcasm, and rude comments. In this way, the community has spoken! A lot of people (myself included) love the humor these can generate. Putting a smile on my face is valuable.

  • Refrain from commenting if you're not willing to make an earnest attempt to check for tone. Remember, comments under questions can be more visible than answers, and we're all accountable to the perception they create

While reminders to be friendly are always good, I often fail to notice if my tone is bad when I'm tired or frumpy. Unintentionally bad tone happens. A pattern of repeatedly rude and unhelpful behavior is something for the mods to sort out.

  • Try not to provide full answers in comments; if you end up working a problem out in comments, please move it to an answer. We know you're trying to help, but the system expects answers to questions. If we're reiterating that comments are ephemeral (and they are), we have to caution against leaving good information in them that needs to last, too

I think we can all agree on this point.

Conclusion (TL;DR)

The StackExchange community should determine if contents of comments are appropriate by determining if they add value to the site. Value can be defined as the following:

  • Being helpful to the original poster and/or future readers
  • Adding good-natured humor to an otherwise dry and technical place (can easily include sarcasm)
  • Something that has upvotes (most of the time)
  • Your characterization of sarcastic comments seems inconsistent to mee ... first you say " some of the most upvoted comments are the jabs, sarcasm, and rude comments. In this way, the community has spoken! A lot of people (myself included) love the humor these can generate" but then you talk about "good-natured humor"--do you not consider it contradictory for a comment to be simultaneously "rude" and "good-natured"? – sumelic Jul 2 at 18:14
  • It's all a matter of intent. Perhaps I am alone in this, but I say rude things (jokingly) to friends and family all of the time. Racial slurs, personal attacks, and hate speech are, by nature, done out of ill-intent. – Yoshiyahu Jul 2 at 18:22
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    I wouldn't say you're alone in that, but usually comment-writers and OPs on Stack Exchange are strangers, not friends or family members... – sumelic Jul 2 at 18:24
  • True, but, for example, a joking jab at a PHP developer from an ASP.NET developer could be rude but good-natured. There's a line which shouldn't be crossed. Most people know it when they see it. (Poor mods have to figure it out.) – Yoshiyahu Jul 2 at 18:27
  • @Yoshiyahu: "Putting a smile on my face is valuable." It has no value to me. It has no informational utility to users. So why should I care? "a joking jab at a PHP developer from an ASP.NET developer could be rude but good-natured." Text is a medium that is exceptionally poor at communicating with such precision. When it comes to text, it's best to be plain and direct, to avoid things that only work if the other person is in your personal headspace. – Nicol Bolas Jul 2 at 20:10
  • @NicolBolas If I came across as saying that snarky-ness should be frequently used, I communicated poorly. I would like people to use it more carefully. My argument is simply that while it can be used poorly, it can also be used effectively. As such, I'd rather see a powerful tool properly used rather than not used at all. – Yoshiyahu Jul 2 at 20:24
  • @NicolBolas "No informational utility to users?" While in the crux of a frustrating problem, sometimes all it takes is a small comment that makes you chuckle a little bit, breakaway from your current mentality, and become a little more effective at problem-solving. As much as we may the admire unceasing efficiency and precision of machines, most humans will never be able to become like them. – Yoshiyahu Jul 2 at 20:27
  • @Yoshiyahu: "My argument is simply that while it can be used poorly, it can also be used effectively." But if you can communicate the same information without it, and it requires extreme care to do so correctly with it, and the downside of using it incorrectly is substantial... why bother? – Nicol Bolas Jul 2 at 20:33
  • @NicolBolas Joking aside, which do you feel is more important: giving people answers or provoking thought to lead them to answers? Both have a role on this site. But if the official rule is the former, I am completely in the wrong. – Yoshiyahu Jul 2 at 21:11
  • @Yoshiyahu: The trap in your thinking is that you're focused on the OP. The OP is supposed to be irrelevant; what matters is the question. You don't talk to that person. You answer the question. That's what helps us build a searchable database of knowledge, so that the next dozen people with the same problem don't have to ask questions. You're treating Q&A like a personal interaction; it's not supposed to be. – Nicol Bolas Jul 2 at 22:42

Why not simply get rid of the "comments" all together? As some meta and blog posts show, SE never wanted them anyways... and they still seem to be problematic today.

Known problems

Let's recap the main problems caused by comments:

  1. As discussed here, "be nice" is often a problem (I'm skipping the why as this can be rooted in both language gaps as well as failed sarcasm.)
  2. Comments introduce noise. Too often they are used for extended discussion (with a tendency to go off-topic) which is what chatrooms are for.
  3. Comments are abused to provide answers — which tend to end with a "thanks, got it" comment and an abandoned Q without a real answer.
  4. While the main SE message at several metas, in the help centers, and in the blog is that comments should be considered to be temporary, they practically are not temporary — which opens the gates for 1 to 3 above being permanent issues.

The Q&A site !== forum solution

Assuming we're still targeting this to be a Q&A site and not want to slowly let this mutate towards an average forum site, I'ld like to propose to drop comments and replace it with a section called "clarifications" (or something like that) which is initially hidden behind a link (click to view and use).

Do not handle that new section as the current comments thing, but rather as "clarifications to be incorporated into the question/answer to make it better and more clear" section.

Think along the lines of edit suggestions, but with the ability to communicate with the OP if this or that is what OP means, or if OP can clarify something specific which then gets edited into the Q or A. Do not allow anything besides such clarifications. Simple, easy, done.

You can even adapt SE gamification by "rewarding" good clarifications when they get edited into the Q or A, while "disrewarding" noise, answers-posted-as-comments, etc. so that users are discouraged from abusing clarifications for anything else besides constructive clarifications.

As far as I understand, that was why SE one day decided to enable comments: to clarify. But as it frequently shows by causing various problems (including "be nice" issues), a comment section is the wrong tool for clarifications.

From my point of view, it's about time for SE to stop using a "comment" hammer (and all the problems that come with it) , where we actually only need a specialized "clarification" screwdriver.

TL:DR

In the end, I guess what I'm proposing is to drop the comments and simultaneously expand the "edit suggestions" functionality with a "clarification request" section.

Doing so would provide a better tool to enhance the quality of Q&As, while — at the same time — keeping any related noise (may it be good, bad, or even off-topic) away from public view.

Careful... Better define scope a little more.

The language standard in posts refers to more than just negativity and obscenity. We also disallow "Thanks" and similar 'fluff' in posts.

I can't be the only one who thinks that, for a non-trivial percent of questioners, moderator action being taken based on a flagged comment where they thought they were just being polite, would be off-putting, at least. I believe that a part of being nice is sometimes allowing others to be nice to me, in the way they are comfortable. Are you suggesting that we flag comments that don't abide by the 'no fluff' standard of posts?

I don't think you are. But, the title, at least, makes this point ambiguous, and the remaining question text does not yet explicitly address this.

In order to make this answer 'votable' by meta standards, I will tack on at the end my opinion that I think that social niceties add to, and not subtract from, the be nice policy's aims, they increase the sense of satisfaction the answers receive, and they positively impact the perception the anonymous users will have of the site. Therefore, I do not believe they should be disallowed or flagged.

  • Indeed. Let's remember that editing or deleting or downvoting someone's question or answer is itself not "being nice". It's often a slap in the face, and whether it's deserved or not, it's not going to go down well. A comment is much "nicer". – Michael Kay Jun 27 at 11:19
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    @MichaelKay I think that demonstrates the disconnect rather well; all of those are core quality curation abilities, and are important to perform. If keeping the site clean isn't, "being nice", then we might as well just shut down now and let the newbies overrun it. – fbueckert Jun 27 at 14:41
  • @MichaelKay I am not sure I understand your comment, or how it relates to my answer. You might be right, but if I do understand you correctly, I disagree wholeheartedly. I think one of us is misunderstanding each other. – CWilson Jun 28 at 1:47
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    @fbueckert I think do understand your position, that "Thanks" comments should in fact be flagged and removed by moderator action, because any moderation line that is 'gray area' is unenforceable in the long term. I think I need more convincing before I agree, but I am happy to concede that this is a reasonable argument that bears further discussion. – CWilson Jun 28 at 1:50

I agree with this in principle, but feel that it will be problematic to enforce and potentially create a burden for mods.

I hate dealing with comment flags. I find them the most time consuming to handle.

Simple outdated flag? Still have to read everything to make sure it is OK to remove.

Offensive flag? Have to read everything because other comments that may address it.

Delete a comment in the middle of a thread? The comments may not make sense anymore.

Nuke all the comments or move to chat? May need to edit in some first.

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    One of Tim's suggestions is to reduce the comments by simply not making them in the first place, which would ideally reduce the number of flags we have to deal with. Even if it wouldn't, I'd kinda rather deal with more flags than just have harmful stuff lying around the site. But that's just me. – HDE 226868 Jun 27 at 1:07
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    It seems like it's a burden we're obligated to shoulder. It's not like the role of moderation (community or diamond) is supposed to be to only deal with the easy stuff, to only deal with posts and not comments. So yeah, it's work, but we should've always been doing it. (And if it becomes less socially acceptable to behave this way hopefully it'll end up being a smaller burden than it initially sounds like.) – Cascabel Jun 27 at 5:07
  • @HDE226868 WHich is nice in theory, and not bad advice, but how do you enforce or monitor or measure that which isn't done? One of Tim's suggestions is to reduce the comments by simply not making them in the first place, which would ideally reduce the number of flags we have to deal with How do you know that this is the policy or guidance that is successful, since there isn't any measure of its operation? – KorvinStarmast Jun 28 at 3:04
  • @KorvinStarmast You educate people, make the policy better-known, lead by example. Maybe that's going to be harder on the larger sites, but on most of them, it's not difficult to reach the majority of the community. Communication matters; let's try to talk with each other about this. – HDE 226868 Jun 28 at 3:07
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    @HDE226868 I do not disagree with your long term goal: I share it. My question is how do you measure it? What are you metrics? Leading by example is a good thing, but it has come up short to some extent with our Be Nice policy. To expect that adding a new policy, and leading by example on that as well, that something different will result strikes me as overly optimistic. As I noted in a coomment under Rand al thor's answer, each particular user (me included) has to one day confront that 'must post!' impulse and have that 'aha!' moment. You can't legislate that from the top down. – KorvinStarmast Jun 28 at 3:20
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    After reading 31 answers... So, this is PSA that states nothing new, and the only answer succinctly providing potential problems worth discussion is DVed to being second from last. Leaving us with, Umm, yeah. If you could just not make bad comments, that would be great. – Mazura Jun 29 at 23:49
  • I feel that this answer should have been a comment. (I didn't downvote it, though.) Perhaps others feel as I do? – Yoshiyahu Jul 2 at 18:32
  • I honestly don’t understand this answer. Sure, a culture shift might mean more flags, and more flags might mean more work. But I didn’t run for moderator because I thought it would be always easy and never tedious. If this would truly create a burden for your mod team, then ask the higher-ups for another election to get more people who can shoulder the load. – J.R. Jul 3 at 9:10

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