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:
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:
- Jon ends most of his posts with a plain English summary, and,
- 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.