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We have amongst others:

Personally I have used the last seen field a lot. It has never been to check how often etc. people are on the site(s), albeit I am sure some do – and as we know, big-tech etc. are among these. SE included – which makes the removal kind of leveling the information to the elite only. (Do mods etc. see this field? Another question, I guess.). One thing for sure: this information is tracked nonetheless. Hiding it from you does not make it disappear. If one uses Gmail or the like for it then, duh.

But in relation to the myriads of other uses like “has my comment likely been read”, “how to help this new user”, “is there any point in answering this narrow-scoped question” etc., as for the latter answering old questions where the questioner has not had any activity the last N months, or even days, is skipped faster than a heartbeat now.

Quite often as well, it is in relation to clarify questions; something that feels like pulling teeth at times. You ask for some information – wait and check if the user has seen the comment, wait some more. After N days you post an answer nonetheless in hope the questioner someday comes back, or you ditch it altogether if they very likely have seen the comment, but they did not respond with anything.


I do understand that people do not like it. Heck, I even think it is good that people do not like it. But, and there is a big but, the use of it is very helpful in a Q&A site. That's simply part of the nature of the beast.

So what should we do about this?

I strongly believe that the SO community can come up with a better solution than removing it altogether. I throw out a few of the top of my head suggestions and likely someone can come up with better suggestions.

  • Last seen N days ago
    • Limit the information to N days. Say a user has not visited for 30 days; then say not seen for 30 days, 31 days...
  • Opt out
    • Let the user opt out of showing last seen, optionally implementation-wise with a shown nonetheless if above N days.
  • Opt in
    • Just as with cookies. If not set by the user, show a dialogue asking if this information should be visible.
  • Dialogue after N hours
    • If not visited for N hours, show a dialogue with options such as “status online”, “status hidden”, ... and the option to set this status on the profile page. Keep the status without dialogue if manually set.
  • Opt out at N reputation
    • Make the field an opt-out after reaching, e.g., 50 reputation.

Conspiracy theory

I have to throw in a conspiracy theory to spice things up. OK, heh, not as much as a conspiracy as an example of the negative effect it can have.

I have seen an influx of new users asking questions. Perhaps I have been away for too long, or not noticed it in the same way before, but there is a lot. The issue with quite a few of these is that there is numerous that ask a question and never visit the site again. (Noticed before removal of the last visited field.)

When active users see this, some take questions with a pinch of salt. This of course likely has an effect on the Q/A ratio. By this one theory is that this field was not removed due to privacy, but in an attempt to raise the answer to question index.

However: I believe this can have the opposite effect. Quite often as well, new users ask questions, check in later, and then check in even later to see an answer. Without the last seen, potential answers go unwritten because one assumes it is likely the user has not visited for N days.

It has as much to do with respect for the time of the ones answering questions as to the time for the ones asking questions!


OK. Enough of that. Q&A sites are dating sites. Questions (and answers) are linked to the person that pushed them into the wild. Just like hunting bears, (not that I would hurt those furry puppets), is knowing how long ago the bear crossed that hillside.

Without this it's more like a mailing list with a somewhat nice UI.


Thank you all! (post scriptum)

Thank you all for thoughts, views, speculations, ideas et cetera en masse!

I post this as an “answer” as I do not want to add more clutter in “the post”.Revised after feedback. The point is that I do acknowledge and value the discussion.

  1. Thought was to give this a somewhat light tone. Sorry if it it did not come across as intended :).
  2. Was not meant as a “these are the arguments” – I have some, but also admit a lot of the use has been on auto pilot where arguments can be hard to describe.

There is a lot of good points brought forth from all corners. My thought and belief has always been, in this kind of matters, that one should encourage an open debate and willingness to actually listen to, criticize - both harsh and soft, be passionate about, fight for, try to convince, argue good, argue bad, throw out thoughts and ideas dumb, good, brilliant – but not the least accept that we are tuned differently.

One thing is for sure: this is a topic with a lot of good points in all camps – and the intention is in no way to close or conclude anything – besides once more emphasizing this is a topic with a lot of good arguments.


The “site”, (it's a lot broader, but not sure what to call it), is a community, - a conglomerate of themes. We have mod's doing an incredible job and the fabric (y'all) contributing to the enrichment for generations for all from assembly coders to ... ____.Most things is assembly in a way?! Part of my reason for saying all thisSuddenly having a feeling of being a pink cloud philosopher; but let it go. is that I hope the entities surfing the upper layers of this ecosystem see discussion, and perhaps more pre change discussion, as a value that both enrich but not the least acknowledge the users (aka the fabric).


p.s.p.s: Have decided to “simply post” more often then is in my nature. So I jump off the wagon once again.

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  • 6
    "Does mods etc. see this field? " Yes, and it is explicitly stated so
    – Journeyman Geek Mod
    Aug 23 at 0:56
  • Why would the "last seen" field determine whether you answer a question? Your answer might help other users (and non-users), now and in the future. After all, that is the goal of SE...
    – wimi
    Aug 23 at 17:33
  • 6
    @wimi for those who prefer to clarify matters in comments (ideally, followed by edit) prior to answering, I guess this could matter much. Afterall answerers are volunteers possibly having other jobs and their time to spend on clarifying the question may be limited
    – gnat
    Aug 23 at 17:42
  • 2
    What about making " last seen feature" available for high reputation users of the site and make it as a privilege , this way activity of site will also increase as lot's of users will try to gain that privilege and either will ask or answer. The reputation cap from my point of view should be above 25k. Aug 25 at 17:33
  • 3
    @SwiftPushkar Sure. Though I think 25k is rather high (in my opinion). Depends on site as well I guess. As I commented elsewhere I wish I had let the Q mature a bit more in my mind before posting ;P, but idéa is to throw out suggestions on a compromise. Aug 25 at 17:48
26
+50

Unfortunately, we've not been given any official explanation for why the "Last seen" field was removed for everybody except the site's diamond moderators. I've always found it challenging to deal with an action that I don't offhand agree with when I don't know the reasons why it was done. If I knew this, I might even agree with the decision. Otherwise, if I'm going to try to convince the other person or group to make a change, it's difficult to give an appropriate rationale since there's a good chance I'm not actually addressing their main concerns. Instead, I can only just guess and try to deal with what I suspect the reasons are.

Regarding this change, animuson's comment states

We've actually had quite a few complaints in the past that a "Last seen" indicator public visible is a creepy and intrusive thing to have on a user profile. So I imagine the disappointment will be very 50/50 here. ;)

I surmise this is the main reason for the change. Although I believe this is a valid concern, this field is also useful for curating in multiple ways, such as described in the question here and in various answers of Some changes to the profile while we make it responsive. As such, I suggest implementing a compromise.

First, though, note that although the "Last seen" value was stated to within a minute or even seconds, it was actually only approximate. It was not always updated whenever the user took an action, e.g., posting a question/answer, commenting, editing a post, etc. Also, on quite a few occasions, I've noticed this value for a user is even well before the time of their post. I don't know of any official explanation for how this value is determined, including what granularity is used. However, since I don't recall seeing any "Last seen" value more than about 15 minutes before the last action I know a user has made (e.g., when they posted their question or answer), I assume this is roughly what the granularity is.

My suggestion is to increase this granularity period to about N hours, for some N = 1, 2, 3, etc., for use in time periods up to one day. For example, with N = 2, then for up to 2 hours, the "Last seen" value would show "2 hours ago", for between 2 and 4 hours, it'd show "4 hours ago", etc., up to 24 hours. After that, it'd show the same value as what the network profile account tab (if available) shows, e.g., "yesterday", "7 days ago", "1 month ago", etc. I believe this removal of apparent accuracy (i.e., up to within seconds or minutes) and the increase in granularity reduces the privacy concern, but it's still accurate enough to help ensure curators can mostly continue using the "Last seen" value as they were before.

Update: I didn't recall it at the time I originally wrote this answer, but PM 2Ring's earlier comment to animuson said

But if you insist that the old "Last seen" data is too much of an invasion of privacy, then you could just round the last seen time to a larger quantum, eg the nearest 6 hours or nearest day.

This suggestion is quite similar to what I propose here. I was just reminded of this by PM 2Ring's comment.

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    I have a slight suspicion the company intends to ignore this issue until it goes away by itself because others will eventually get tired of posting the same thing over and over again, so the chances to get an official response are quite low. Aug 23 at 14:27
  • 5
    @OlegValter: The official answer was a "shrug from God" - some people complained and felt like this was an invasion of privacy.
    – Makoto
    Aug 23 at 17:04
  • 7
    @Makoto yeah, well, what I mean is that the continued requests to bring it back (in one form or the other) will likely be ignored to make them go away - I am yet to see any response since animuson's comments. It is so painful to see that the company continues to jump at any call and beckon of people complaining when it aligns with the worldview of decision-makers with an utter disregard for the opposite opinion. If that keeps up, I swear the next thing we are going to wake up missing are closures, and the next to go are DVs as I am pretty sure they get complaints about them all the time. Aug 23 at 18:25
  • 3
    @Quasímodo well, yeah, I've been (as I assume many do) doing this more and more during the past months. I am sadly seeing a sharp divide between what is being said and what is being done. And I understand that there are multiple parties at play, and CMs are likely doing their best to try to reconcile things between them, but, pragmatically speaking, not much has changed in terms of improving relationship with the community apart from mostly empty jestures. Aug 23 at 21:38
  • 4
    @OlegValter But “last seen” is not actually gone. It’s still visible (albeit with less granularity) in people’s network profile and it is apparently still available through the API. My guess is that they’re not going to talk about it until they’ve decided what they’re actually going to do going forward. The removal of it from the profile was obviously not thought through very well and now that they realize that it’s more complicated than “some people think it’s creepy” it would be foolish to make the problem worse with more hasty actions or off-the-cuff comments.
    – ColleenV
    Aug 24 at 20:23
  • 4
    @ColleenV - I understand that (and we have a userscript that restores the metric in full by using an API), but that's likely wishful thinking on our part. A proper conduct would be to reverse it alongside the other change (they did restore the "member since", after all) and start thinking what to do next afterwards. As things currently look, though, is that there is animuson's comment of the form "people complained, we took action - who are you, again?", and that's it - does not look like they are considering anything to me. And if they do, there is a clear failure to communicate that to us. Aug 24 at 20:37
  • 1
    @OlegValter All the more reason for them to keep mum until they have an actual plan. You’re probably not going to respond favorably to anything less than reverting than change, but it’s apparent some of the community doesn’t want that change reverted. Anything they say before they have a clear path forward is just going to make things worse. The account age was not controversial like last seen. I am going to be patient because they’re trying to fix a mistake, and it’s better take the time to fix things once if you can instead of rushing and having to fix it 10 times, upsetting everyone.
    – ColleenV
    Aug 24 at 20:47
  • 3
    @ColleenV I don't know - we've been asked to be patient again, and again, and again. The third time one gets asked to do that... it just does not work anymore, kind of like in the cautionary tale about a boy who cried wolf. There is just no trust that things will get better. A clear sign of that would be a complete reversal or at least an official explanation of the reasons in a well-worded post with an explicit apology for rushing things. That would show good faith. As for now, all we have to go off of is a somewhat arrogant comment and a clearly controversial change. So I hope that at least Aug 24 at 21:02
  • 2
    ...someone at SE (like CMs) read all this and care about communities enough to try to pass all this along to those who make those decisions: this was bad conduct and they should start again. Actions speak much louder than words. Aug 24 at 21:03
  • 1
    @OlegValter I understand. But, mending a relationship needs effort from both sides and often assuming the worst is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
    – ColleenV
    Aug 24 at 21:35
  • 3
    @ColleenV well, I understand that too, and thought the same way for quite a while, but I am becoming more and more disillusioned about the perspectives of this by the day. You know, it's pretty hard to stay optimistic when you do not see any progress being made. Latest Aaron's post was a step in the right direction after the disaster the one before had been, but that's still only the first step, so I think some tough love won't hurt anyone. I know what happens when folks become too warm and fuzzy about what they are doing going unchallenged. Aug 24 at 21:53
  • 3
    @OlegValter So, unsurprisingly, I’ve been shown to be too optimistic. I don’t regret it though because it cost me nothing. Being pessimistic about things I have no control over costs me whether I turn out to be right or wrong. Once I’m in a bad mood, I tend to stay in a bad mood. :)
    – ColleenV
    Aug 25 at 20:17
  • 4
    @ColleenV ironically, I have to say that I've been too optimistic too. The "step in the right direction" was just undone by another unilateral and weakly justified removal (but I am sure you already saw it). Don't like being pessimistic too, but it takes a harder toll on me to see high hopes get crushed by reality than shrugging off something as "didn't not expect anything better". Sigh - so painful to see all of this. Aug 25 at 20:32
20

Here's a "small site" take on this whole situation.

Over on Anime and Manga, we have contributions from contributors who have long since left the site or the network.

It's useful to see if they're still around or not to get a sense of how healthy (or unhealthy) the site is.

The workflow for seeing if someone would answer your question is a fairly moot point; I just want to know if the people who amassed some thousands of rep on the site are still around.

2
  • 2
    Yes. This is another good point. I regret (rather much) I did not let my question mature more before I posted it (which I sometimes do). TBH it was a little over midnight after 3 days with almost no sleep /me blush. Point is that there are a myriad of reasons and a compromise in some way likely would be of very good value for the consortium. Aug 25 at 17:13
  • 4
    That's limited, off course if a user logged in yesterday or last year there's a significant difference in probability the user will accept and upvote an answer to their question. So I'm seriously more inclined to answer users who have some recent activity. And their logging in doesn't mean they'd comment or review or do anything that would show in the activity tab. So there is a definite interest in the "last seen" field.
    – bad_coder
    Sep 3 at 21:26
9

Checking if a user has been active to determine whether they read your comment is an anti-pattern. Just because I was online at a certain time doesn't mean I read my inbox messages, or that I'm in a position to reply just then. It also doesn't indicate if I actually can or want to respond.

What you actually want there is a notification that a user has explicitly read a comment, you're just using the "last seen" as a proxy for that. This kind of notification can be useful, but in general I find this type of feature annoying because it adds a bit of pressure to respond quickly. If there is no way to check if a user has read a comment, you can have the polite fiction that the other user probably just hasn't seen your comment yet even if in reality they're just not in the mood to reply right now.

In the end it's always a bit of a gamble when you interact with a new-ish user on whether they will abandon their question or not. But it also shouldn't matter as much for good and interesting questions, it mostly matters for questions that don't have enough detail to stand on their own. And we always answer for more people than just the original asker, even if they never come back other people will read the answer and hopefully find it useful. Of course if you answer questions that are extremely specific and not of interest to anyone else you have to live with the risk that the user simply won't come back.

You also don't know if a user has set up email alerts for inbox messages, which I think is even the default for new users. And in this case using the "last seen" as a proxy for whether they will see your comment is entirely wrong anyway.

I think it is a good thing to remove the ability to check whether a user was online very recently even for this use case as it emphasizes the SE idea that the questions and answers matter more than the users. And you can still use the post itself and any previous comments by the user to judge how likely they are to interact and respond.

I think a way to distinguish if a user is active at all anymore is a valid request. But I don't think we need any granularity here, a simply "user has been active in the last 30 days or not" flag should work for this purpose. I also might want to make this global and not per-site, as for the question whether they're likely to interact if you comment or post on an old question of theirs that is the relevant point, whether they would see the ping in their inbox, not if they have been on that specific site.

I'm againt any kind of preference for this, every additional preference has a cost and we don't want to just pile them on.

1
  • 3
    A lot of fair points. Though; it's only used as an approximation it's a bit hard to paint a clear picture due to all the varying factors in regards to a question. If a comment asks for very simple information like how big is the file?, which OS do you use?, what does the command XY say?, and what not. If user have visited the site after such a comment one can assume they likely have read it. If they do not update or respond N days after that either give a generic answer, - not to the detail one might want, - or simply forget it and move to other questions. Aug 23 at 23:41
4

There's a fairly flawed premise for one (but not all) of the arguments for bringing back the last seen field:

"I want the user who asked the question to be able to select my answer as the correct one, and freshness matters"

While the 'obvious' goal is to find the 'right' answer to a question for the user to ask it, we have a slightly forgotten goal of "building a knowledge base" or "helping the next guy with these issues".

To borrow a bear metaphor: while not getting your face eaten by a bear, or more traditionally a leopard, is laudable, if you see bear tracks, it might be worth posting a warning that there could be bears there.

Freshness matters a little less than folk assume, and one can quite happily post a new answer to a decade-old question to enrich the commons.

0
-2

You say there are new users who ask a question and then go away. It has always been like this and always will be.

This is not a problem.

You are not answering a question just for the questioner, you are answering for the community. Assuming the question is good, it will instruct other users in the future, irrespective of whether the OP actually sees any Late Answers or comments.

The Last Seen value of a poster shouldn't affect how you respond to their post.

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    Maybe it shouldn't affect posting a full answer, but it can affect posting a comment, for example, asking to clarify. Only the OP can clarify, and knowing they were last seen 10 years ago would save you from wasting your time writing a comment. Aug 23 at 10:36
  • 5
    I have to disagree with “This is not a problem.”. It is a problem in various of cases, the most important being clarification of questions. And, if I'm being honest - simply courtesy. You ask someone to give of their time to answer you, sometimes using a lot of time. Asking a question and turning the back is simply extremely rude imo. Sure one can help people "down the road" or what ever, - but then it also becomes a question of - “do I really bother with this Q where user is a muzzleloader seemingly not even caring if an answer is posted or not”. Sep 3 at 21:07
-3

To restate what has been said elsewhere, the "All Actions>Sort by Latest" is the closest "replacement" for all general purposes. In my opinion, it makes more sense.

For high-rep users who may or may not be actively contributing: we don't care when the user last viewed a page on the site. They could be inactive and they may have simply reached there while going through Google search results. There is a fair chance that an effectively inactive user would find themselves in this position and choose not to open any pending notifications. We similarly don't care about when they last voted: they could have got there from Google results, voted on the post that helped them, and moved on without checking old responses.

For new users: you shouldn't have to worry about whether they're around to accept your answer or respond to your comment. If it's a question worth answering or comment worth posting, your content will have value to future viewers and should be posted irrespective of the OP's activity. An answer will help future askers and a comment will help someone else edit the post to improve it (or encourage future curators to close/delete, if the request for clarification is a huge deal).

We care about their last publicly visible action, whether it's a review, accept, or comment. That's the guarantee that they're interacting with the content of the site in a significant manner.

Overall, I don't see the strongest of reasons for removing the metric, but I don't think it is a huge loss and it is not worth so many meta posts.

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    While you say things like "we don't care", it's fairly clear that a substantial population of highly-engaged users do care. Do you mean that "we" shouldn't care?
    – bobble
    Sep 5 at 4:40
  • 1
    I agree with this answer. "Last seen" doesn't really tell you anything useful: it could just be that a long-open old tab out of 20 open tabs has refreshed itself. Latest action does tell you when the user actively engaged. And perhaps more importantly, it's intuitive that leaving a comment or making a post leaves a publicly-visible trace that you were here; and it's not intuitive that simply visiting a page (or letting an old tab reload) leaves a publicly-visible trace that might mislead someone into thinking you're deliberately ignoring them. Sep 6 at 8:47
  • 1
    I think the request in the question would be better served with a feature request for a feature purpose-designed for the particular use cases. For example, something equivalent to Whatsapp's two ticks for whether your comment was seen by the person/people it pinged. Then the discussion would be more focused than asking to continue to use a side-effect of something that makes some people uncomfortable for a use case it wasn't designed for. Sep 6 at 8:50

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