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I'm a mod on Academia. One of the more common tasks I have is moving long, rambling comment threads to chat. We do this for a few purposes:

  • Make it easier for new visitors to find useful (i.e., clarifying) comments
  • Make the page generally easier to follow
  • We hate fun. Everything there is relevant to (re)moving comments as well.

The problem is, moving comments to chat is really just a tool for killing discussion. The data explorer tool doesn't expose chat features, but my experience has been that once a conversation is moved to chat discussion immediately dies. I guess this is because people hate chat, but I have no evidence of that other than people not using it.

I'm curious...

  1. whether others agree with this assessment,
  2. whether others think of this as a bug ("we should encourage off-topic discussion, in the right place") or a feature ("we should discourage off-topic discussion"), and
  3. if "bug", what we should do about it.

I'll post my own thoughts as an answer below.

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    There is also the issue that once you move a comment discussion to chat, you cannot move further comments to that same chatroom (or even to another chatroom)... you just have to delete them. – TylerH Jan 31 at 22:43
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    I'm with you right up to the point where the conversation dying is a bug and not a feature... – Shog9 Jan 31 at 23:04
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    @Shog9 - I guess I never understood why we had the whole chat room infrastructure. Sure, useful for moderation, but it's way more rich then that. Either we encourage discussion or we don't. – eykanal Feb 1 at 14:58
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    chat isn't immediately visible the same way comments are and therefore isn't as useful for scoring "i'm right and you're wrong" points. (which, i guess is a good thing) – Kevin B Feb 1 at 22:43
  • How many of these rambling comment threads are not on HNQs? The chat button works fine; that's what's broken. – Mazura Feb 2 at 20:29
  • "just a tool for killing discussion" -well, it is if that's what you use it for. If you want to curb comments, do it like RPG.SE where they call you out by name to shame you. More often than not I'm surprised by my comments that do or don't get upvotes. The kind of troll I am depends on which side of the bed I got up on. But sometimes when I SE, I can get uncooked spaghetti to stick to the wall. So that's what I do: see what sticks, because SE cleans up itself. – Mazura Feb 2 at 20:42
  • But sometimes it cleans itself up too well, and mods throw the baby out with the bathwater (aka: chat) because who want's to sort comments and get yelled at for why mine got deleted but theirs didn't. – Mazura Feb 2 at 20:46
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Summary

At least to some extent, if moving to chat killed a discussion, it was probably for the better, e.g., because it was going in circles, dying anyway, or the disputants had other motives than the discussion itself.

Alternative explanation why moving to chat kills discussion

I guess this is because people hate chat, but I have no evidence of that other than people not using it.

This implicitly assumes that people post comments because they truly care about the discussion for its own sake, helping somebody, making the world a better place, etc. But users also post comments:

  • to have the last (moderately visible) word,
  • because they cannot ignore a notification,
  • because they think their comment is very important (which is quite often an blatantly overoptimistic),
  • to spread their pet theory, view of the world, …,
  • because they want comment upvotes for badges or their self-esteem,
  • to troll.

It’s hard to estimate to how much this amounts, but considering the following observations, I expect it to be quite considerable:

  • There are some users who actually consider it important that comment upvotes are lost when moving to chat or argue with the scores of their comments against them being moved to chat.

  • Users rarely ever take the system’s offer to take comments to chat for them (that they must see in a fair amount of cases, where comments are eventually moved to chat by the moderators), even though it would give them more control and their previous comments have a higher chance to survive.

  • If the comment thread moved to chat was no discussion but a bunch of independent comments (usually a series of answers in comments and similar stuff on questions), many people just continue posting such comments, even though an asker who really cares about the issue would probably look at the chat too (and thus see potential answers in comments). There is quite some overlap to those who will not continue comment conversations in chat.

  • Stack Exchange’s gamification model has a tendency to attract such users.

If moderators move comments to chat, users who mainly post comments for the above reasons have no reason to continue the discussion, which then dies. The impact of such users is exacerbated by the fact that a discussion needs at least two people to survive. So if we consider discussions between two random users as a rough model for moving to chat and half of the users lack the motivation to go to chat, three quarters of the conversations die. Moreover, people who do not continue discussions in chat for the above reasons are more prone to have discussions that attract the attention of moderators in the first place, because they do not know when to stop.

The latter need not even be a function of the users, but of the comment threads in question: Many discussions I move to chat have already reached the point where everything relevant has been said and the disputants either bicker about details of details, are not willing to give in at all (“you are wrong”; “no, you are wrong”; …), or have completely digressed. These discussions are already on the life-support of the will to have the last word. When such a discussion is moved to chat, it is often a welcome opportunity for at least one of the disputants to leave the arena without losing face.

And now, to your questions:

whether others agree with this assessment

Yes, I do.

whether others think of this as a bug ("we should encourage off-topic discussion, in the right place") or a feature ("we should discourage off-topic discussion")

If my above explanation is correct, I would consider it a feature, however as a mercy kill of unhealthy discussions rather than as a suppression of off-topic discussions. However, my explanation above is just an educated guess – more data would be great.

if "bug", what we should do about it.

If my suspicions above are correct, a contra-intuitive conclusion would be to move comments to chat earlier in some situations, i.e., before the discussion has reached the point where at least one party does not want to continue it. I am not sure whether this would be overall beneficial though.

  • Because I'm a troll looking for upvotes on my comments, to boost my self-esteem, that spread my world view, because I think that's very important, and although I'd like to have the last word here... I just got a notification, so I gtg. – Mazura Feb 2 at 18:02
  • No one knows about 'stars' either. That's chat's currency. Also, "comments have a higher chance to survive" in chat. Yeah, like FOREVER and you need a mod to delete it. That keeps me from trolling too hard in a chat. But that's a feature ;) – Mazura Feb 2 at 18:07
  • If a chat room has been created for a question, add comment shouldn't be available on the main page anymore. - This discussion has been moved to chat. Please make your suggestions to improve the question there, and have read our Be Nice policy. – Mazura Feb 2 at 18:12
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    @Mazura: If a chat room has been created for a question, add comment shouldn't be available on the main page anymore. – I strongly disagree. The entire point of moving comments to chat is the option to increase the visibility of really relevant comments (like suggestions to improve the question), be they existing or future ones. Blocking comments completely after moving to chat prevents the latter. – Wrzlprmft Feb 2 at 18:35
  • Increasing the visibility of relevant comments isn't what happens though, unless a mod hand sorts them. Moving a +86 comment into chat removes that meta(1) information, and probably someone will post just it again anyway, and then it's less visible. (1) : A plus 86 comment where all the other votes everywhere are in the single digits, ought to make you stop and think for a moment about what the community really wanted to say. I hate Qs that I can leave a one line LMGTFY link with context, but those are the best comments: read answers if you want; here's the Wiki page you need. – Mazura Feb 2 at 20:18
  • Honestly it's usually an honest response (just worded poorly. Asking of you to do the duty of showing your research, to keep the signal to noise down, to make for good SE) - Get back to me after you've read that page. Now, what's your question? – Mazura Feb 2 at 20:20
  • I agree with everything you said. I'm still unsure whether using a "mercy kill" (good phrase) rather than an outright "stop talking people" is needed. I.e., why maintain the chat feature if it's just where chat goes to die? Still, thanks for posting, good summarization of motivations. – eykanal Feb 4 at 0:05
  • And the last point is the one covered by me in my latest post: pings are removed when comments are moved to chat. – rus9384 Feb 6 at 18:37
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This is a problem that should be addressed through UI fixes to make chat more accessible.

One option would be to have two tabs under each answer, "clarifying questions/comments" and "related discussion", with Xk (10k? 15k?) mods allowed to move comments back and forth. To those who would protest that this would create more work for mods, we already have to do this all the time with the "move to chat" feature, and it's a lot of work. I imagine this would make things easier.

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