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How often don't we follow a question, believing that we have the definitive solution, only to find that someone has posted the gist thereof in a comment?

Under those circumstances, I tend to feel that crafting a formal answer based on the premise would make me somewhat of an imitator or copycat at best; but more of an ape, a thief, or a hijacker in effect.

Beyond which, if I were to proceed and my answer be well-received, it may eventually come to reverse the perceived appearance and cause this comment to appear in such a negative light, which would cast a shadow on the poster -- who may be someone I respect and would not wish to besmirch in that fashion.

On the other side, we may be the one seeking a solution, and find that this comment only hints at the answer we already suspected, but were unable to resolve or fully distill ourselves; leaving us little or no better off than where we started. Worse, in fact: since our question, if posted in the similar vein it may have to be, now is highly likely to be flagged duplicate and thus never fully answered.

Suspecting that there must be others that share these sentiments, I was not surprised when my simple search for "answers in comments" returned 16 989 hits.

These are but two that attracted more of my attention:

During this investigation I also discovered the existence of the [answers-in-comments] and [answers-as-comments] flags. Further, that this behaviour is formally discouraged, even entirely unacceptable on some sites within SE. Such is not the case on those I frequent. Besides; I'm a guy. I would much rather just plug-the-thing-in-and-figure-it-out-on-the-fly than RTFM. And in this I am not alone; which makes it a reality we are all obliged to accommodate. I have dug deeper too, and find no reference to these 'extended?' flag types in the obvious place. And since I am unable to apply them to this post, I anticipate they no longer exist?

Nonetheless, I did explore and find further demonstration of the extent of the problem in these:

Personally, I concur with many contributors to these and the preceding questions: that answers in comments create multiple challenges. Most prominently, that they despair the full benefit SE has to offer on multiple, cascading levels.

Placing the solution in a comment removes it from the main stream of answers so that:

  • formal acceptance on part of the OP is impossible
  • the voting mechanism is side-stepped and its purpose frustrated
  • considerate contributors are dissuaded from reiterating the already stated answer
    • the answer is significantly less likely to be elaborated into the comprehensive solution desirable
  • responses to the comment create a messy tangle interspersed with comments to the original question
    • that detract from, rather than enhance the reading experience
    • impairing interpretation and the extraction of value
  • search hits on comments appear to be rated lower than those that hit answers (which may be perfectly appropriate), whereby affected threads may rank farther down the list of findings than the solution deserves -- and thus are less likely to be seen by those who would benefit
  • etcetera, etcetera, etcetera...

All of which contribute to seekers being less likely to discover the solution they seek, forcing them to turn to alternative sources, detracting from the value provided by SE, which reduces the reputation of the community in the world at large, and ultimately; the reach, effect, and value of the time and effort users here spend on creating the content, defeating the purposes of all parties involved.

Simultaneously, I am obliged to admit an equally strong feeling in the contrary direction!; to echo the ambivalence notable throughout related discussions. Many questions go begging for appropriate, valuable and comprehensive answers, over extended periods of time. And when we are looking for a solution, we rarely have the luxury of waiting weeks or months. We often need clarification in short order. Whatever clarification we are able to obtain. In which instance even a hint in the right direction is far more gratifying than finding nothing at all. Especially when that hint serves to confirm what we were already suspecting ourselves.

Consequently, one is compelled not merely to have sympathy for some of those that would practice this conduct, but appreciation toward them; for providing the shred of evidence or clue that allows one to help oneself further. Often the difference is tangible in the tenor of the comment, reflecting the spirit in which it was offered.

I have been pondering and speculating about this for some time. Long before finally becoming an active participant. Since I recently have, I have taken the chance to reach out, and had a satisfyingly fruitful interaction confirming my deeper suspicions, and echoing much of the discussion above. Since the last thing I desire is to cause this contributor the faintest discomfort; I am electing to paraphrase our interaction and redact their name.

My query: Apologies to the OP for this digression. @poster_of_comment: you invariably offer such insightful contributions. I am curious why you often choose to do so in comments, rather than formal solutions. Rather than speculating, I'd much prefer to get it from 'the horse's' mouth.

Response: I didn't feel like my comment was a complete answer if I didn't take the time to look up how to ... ... I don't want to post "fastest gun in the west" answers that only partially answer the question, and sometimes I'm not interested in digging up the extra details I've already looked into previously but don't have at my fingertips ... When I leave a quick comment instead of answering, it's a low effort way to nudge further comments / discussion in the "right" (I hope) direction. Or hopefully someone feeling more ambitious can take my comment and turn that into a real answer. Or maybe if I get back to it, I'll do that myself, but I've started and not finished so many answers (either because I get bored or run out of time and don't get back to it) that leaving a comment at least helps some.

In reiteration of what went before: -- to my mind, at least -- this conduct is not only entirely understandable, but laudable in such cases. And, dare I say, I was delighted to elicit this sincere confirmation that more of us really do purely desire to be helpful and of service! I can't help but empathically admire the person I have quoted, especially in respect of the attitude explained, which is specifically what I had anticipated. I appreciate the intent, and the adoption of the only solution available: in desperate times; desperate measures.

But, I contend that we need to -- and can -- do better.

Regrettably, there are undeniably also many posters of such comments who do not share the sentiments of the generous individual I have quoted. Those:

  • who have no intention of ever expounding
  • who only seek to be the first to get-in-there and 'grab' the 'lime-light'
  • who do only seek to be the "fastest-gun-in-the-west", and care little about content or service
  • who may be aware of the effect on other potential contributors detailed above, and intentionally mean so to dissuade them -- for whatever ill-conceived, hair-brained reason...
  • have not the requisite confidence in their solution to put their money where their mouth is and take the responsibility of posting an actual Answer inviting more direct responses, and rating
  • or simply want to show-off their supposedly 'superior' knowledge, which necessarily must be merely superficial, or utterly non-existent

We could speculate about further negative possibilities, the propriety of, and possible responses to this attitude endlessly, but I doubt that would be fruitful or productive.

I posit, though, that all would benefit if this conduct could be curtailed.

Over time many solutions have been suggested, but the contemporary prevalence of the problem strongly suggests that they have been entirely ineffective.

Neither does any conceivable user-side action offer any hope of a workable, let alone a satisfactory resolution. By definition; when you don't have the time to craft an answer, you don't want to waste any on clarifying this intent within your comment. Nor would it be desirable to sacrifice so many of the precious few characters you have available to this purpose.

Which brings us, finally, to my feature request; which could provide an efficient, elegant and effective solution.

The Simple, Partial Basis

1. Introduce 'Community Building' comments

Offer the poster of a comment a simple and efficient facility to indicate that their's is the generous attitude, inviting of further elucidation by anyone who feels ambitious enough so to do.

  • All we need is a simple checkbox next to the edit tool: just like that offered for 'community wiki' when posting an answer.

2. Clearly signal this intention

In consequence of checking that box: mark the comment with a label, icon, different text-style, or any such that would indicate this to readers, possibly with a floating hint along the lines of:

  • "Feel free to build a comprehensive solution based on this notion."

Immediately addressing many of the aspects detailed above, this solution would offer multiple benefits:

  • cost the poster no more than a single click
  • enhance the spirit of friendliness, cooperation and sharing on the site
  • allow us to encourage others, as is here intended
  • potentially increase the quality of answers; by drawing the attention of those that are considering posting to aspects they may not have considered
  • draw the OP's attention to this situation: that the poster feels the solution is proper and pertinent, but incomplete, thereby indicating the need to investigate further
  • remove one source of uncertainty -- and guilt for those who are sensitive to it

In short; streamline and enhance interaction in general.

3. Make this state reversible

In contrast to the wiki case, this state should be reversible, so that the original poster may revoke the signal when they gain the opportunity to build a formal response themselves.

Crafting appropriate answers in these cases -- almost by definition -- require a significant investment of time and effort. When this is not the case, the comment already clearly belongs in the undesirable category. Wherefore it would be elegant to signal this intent before embarking on the endeavour.

I, as I am sure many others, have fingers in far too many pies to tolerate any, let alone all of them to constantly be spitting notifications at me. My focus is fragile enough as it is. I am less than likely even to keep a browser running while I am at it. So, I would appreciate the ability to indicate this intent before I embark on the endeavour.

It would not be possible to avoid all synchronization issues so simply, but it may address the majority. A more robust solution would require a more sophisticated internal messaging system, or perhaps an SE mail server. I am aware of all the concerns and discussions that exists around these issues, but I bet many of us would be delighted with that!

  • DO:
    • "Feel free to go ahead!" and craft a formal proposal based on this idea, should you agree. I would love to, and may eventually get around to it, but regrettably; it ranks rather low on my list of priorities presently.

Ideally, I would prefer to see this core concept extended substantially, as I will detail below; but this would be a good start, that could already make a significant difference.

I contend that the proposed feature would be:

  • a worthwhile enhancement to SE that would
    • support beneficial intentions
    • improve cooperation
    • improve and enhance the content and service offered
    • which would elevate the reputation of SE in the world outside
  • relatively cheap to implement, at least potentially and conceptually
    • little as 1 bit in the comment db
    • perhaps one modest image file for a dedicated icon or other marking
    • rely on elements already existing in the user-interface and supporting structures
    • require minimal additional code
    • blend seamlessly into the existing flow

Would that not be worthwhile?

The Complete, Definitive Solution

Manners maketh Man.

At the same time, the core concept detailed above may offer a basis upon which to curtail the undesirable behaviour discussed and gradually, potentially teach offenders better manners. This may, however, require somewhat more intrusive and far-reaching changes to the interface.

First, it becomes necessary to complicate the core notion somewhat; though to my mind this would be beneficial and superior from the outset: More likely to be universally adopted, and thus more effective.

1. Explicitly link answers submitted in relation to a comment so marked

  • By guiding users to click on the label or other marker, even the comment itself, to launch the editor for posting their answer.
  • We need no more than a simple 'Accept Nudge' or 'Complete Solution' labeled link following the timestamp.
  • Offers the ideal opportunity to change the status
  • Will further enhance answering confidence, by offering reliable indication that the effort entailed remains warranted.

2. Anticipate, publish, and enforce timely resolution

  • Require that posts initiated in this manner be submitted within a reasonable timeframe; 6 hours ?, a day on the outside.
    • warn the intending contributor as the deadline nears
    • simply reverting the comment to the 'Accepting' state when that passes

With these elements in place, firm ground is established upon which it becomes possible to address the undesirable directly, and definitively:

3. EXPIRE these 'inspirational' comments.

Amending them in some way, or -- preferably -- deleting them entirely; when the corollated answer is validated; perhaps upon attaining a predetermined vote level.

  • This will effectively dispense with all non-altruistic posting in this regard.
  • Severe? Harsh? It need not be. I do not believe it contradicts the spirit in which such should be posted, and I doubt very much that folks as generous as the one I have quoted, would feel slighted or offended.
    • When our intent is purely to be of service, and that service is offered; is our purpose not fulfilled?
    • Showing appreciation, a modest increment of reputation, advance toward a badge, perhaps even a separate 'community builder' score, would be more than adequate for me.
    • Should this concern be prohibitive; there are countless compromises conceivable.

4. Allow correlation of answers to UNmarked comments

  • Allow the posters of well-received answers to formally link their solution to any comment.
  • Allow others to vote on the propriety of this correlation.
  • 'Expire' the comment when this score reaches a predetermined level. Clearly, this would demand more significant changes. Equivalently clearly, this would evoke much of the chagrin already surrounding answers, comments and flags. However, precisely for that reason; as a community, we already have tools available to address this aspect, and while we may not be approaching perfection, the evidence suggests that we are doing reasonably, and that we continue to improve.

5. Condemn the ill-spirited remainder

Dichotomously categorize all comments as either so inviting, or not -- by implicitly accepting that failure to elect this condition indicates the alternate intent. Providing a stable, reproducible and defensible basis upon which one may confidently and unambiguously flag what remains as offensive. For that is what it now would be. Such then may be automatically deleted when sufficient support of this view is obtained.

Naturally, this would require a counting mechanism akin to the vote attributed answers. Equally obviously, this will add further to the weight of the problems surrounding mis-interpretation; but there are more workable solutions to that also.

  • when a comment becomes so flagged; ping the poster, allowing them an opportunity to respond: either by setting this state, defending misinterpreted flagging, amending, or deleting their comment.
  • penalize posters who steadfastly refuse to comply
  • legacy comments -- posted prior to the activation date -- would have to be excluded from this process, but that could trivially be based on their timestamp.

In conclusion, I hold that all will benefit when conduct improves, and that the suggested changes would empower us to facilitate that goal -- and through that to build and enhance our community. Most importantly and prominently; by reducing the incidence of unkind behaviour, it would spontaneously improve the perceived friendliness and utility of SE, especially to the infrequent visitor -- who most likely is the more hard-pressed and likely to run into these issues, and the least likely to return on account of unsatisfying experiences. I will vouch for that wholeheartedly, having been in that position for many years.

At the very least, we may anticipate that these steps would remove uncertainty and ambiguity, improve our collaborative cohesion, confidence and security, and enhance our experience in this 'place' -- which we must like, since we keep coming back, and presumably wish to see growing; from strength to strength.

  • If man-power is the only obstacle in the way, I invite the responsible parties to reach out to me directly. I am strapped for time, but SE is important enough to me to have motivated crafting this proposal -- and I doubt implementation of the bare-bones solution will take half as long. As I am certain countless others also may feel.
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    This post seems far, far, far longer than it has to be. Can you distill it down to it's essentials? This is an issue I care a lot about and even I couldn't make it all the way through. For example, if you agree with something that someone else has already said (and a lot has already been said on this topic), simply link to that post instead of reiterating. – Rubiksmoose Jan 3 at 17:58
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    If anything, I don't like at all how this proposal addresses users as offenders, speak of penalize etc. Your aim might be to reduce unkind behavior, this proposal isn't going to cut it. – rene Jan 3 at 18:10
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This is a massive amount of effort for something that really doesn't require any change.

If somebody has posted some version of your answer in a comment, post your answer anyways. That's it.

If you feel like helping keep the site clean, flag their comment as "no longer needed" afterwards, so a moderator can delete it.

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    Bonus: Maybe that person, if they feel bad about missing those sweet sweet fake internet points, will reconsider misusing comments to post answers in the future. – Rubiksmoose Jan 3 at 18:04
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    I think Meager's solution is straightforward and elegant. I don't think that creating more compex reward mechanisms around comments is in anyone's best interests. – DWRoelands Jan 3 at 18:08
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    Sometimes I post answers as comments to off-topic questions, such as errors made by minor typos. The question will probably be deleted or closed, but I'd still like to take 5 seconds out of my day to help the OP. Also if I post an answer the OP cannot delete their [silly] question. I don't care about the points – dustytrash Jan 3 at 18:33
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I agree with meager's answer regarding your suggestions being a lot of effort for something which I, at least, don't believe is a sufficiently major problem.

If I see a comment which basically answers the question, I sometimes comment to this person to suggest they post an answer, which they have quite often done. Alternatively, if they don't give an answer in some reasonable time frame, or on a few occasions when they've invited me to answer instead, I will do that then myself.

Note that in all cases when I answer a question with a comment which hints at, or even basically solves, the problem, I will acknowledge the comment in my answer. If I am able to provide what I consider sufficient extra details, this is all that I do. However, if I feel that I'm basically just repeating what the other person wrote so I don't want to get any potential undeserved reputation for somebody else's ideas and work, I will make my answer a "community wiki" one instead.

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