Over the past few weeks, I've been thinking on-and-off that there are too many useless comments on SE sites and that people have gotten too attached to commenting. Many comments I see fall into one of these categories:
- requests for clarifications or updates
- responses to the above requests
- fluff (thank-yous, jokes and tangents)
- half-baked answers that are only comments because the posters fear downvotes
- legitimate answers in the wrong place
Today, I read two posts that brought the issue up again. This one, as part of an unrelated discussion, considers what would happen if comments were restricted. This one suggests rewarding good comments more.
Maybe, instead of rewarding good comments more, we should be more aggressive in getting rid of bad comments. As I wrote in an answer to the first post, too many people forget that comments are intended to be second-class content. (That's based on Jeff's approval of this answer, Robert's answer here and assorted other official-type remarks.)
Many of the example comment types I mentioned earlier can now be addressed in ways they couldn't have been just a few weeks ago.
- clarifications and updates
- Anyone can and should now edit posts (with the suggested system) to incorporate these. Once that's done, the comments that led to them can be deleted.
- answers in comments
Mods can now convert these into real answers.
- Good answers should be reposted as real answers.
- Half-baked answers should be cleaned up and posted as real answers if possible. If they're unsalvageable, they should be deleted; keeping them around just pollutes the site.
- Fluff should generally get deleted, although I agree that we should keep some fun around.
If we get people on board with these behaviors, most comments should become useless after a few days, which is just fine for second-class content.
My first thought for a solution was to run a job every week/month/quarter that would delete all comments more than n days old. In addition to wiping out useless requests and fluff, this would force users to change their behavior. People will think about and write comments differently if they know that all comments will eventually go poof.
Unfortunately, that plan would eliminate the rare good comments along with the bad, and would be problematic for discussion-oriented sites like MSO and Programmers SE. My second thought was to only run the script for comments with fewer than m votes. Unfortunately again, votes aren't a reliable indicator of long-term comment usefulness, and changing voting habits would be even harder than changing mindsets about comments.
Another idea would be making "vote to delete comments" a rep-based privilege, but that would probably just cause havoc.
I have no better plan yet. That's why this is a discussion and not a feature request. Thoughts?
What I meant by requests for clarifications/updates:
- Michael writes a post.
- Rebecca comments to say "hey, what did you mean by Foo?" or "could you include code?"
- Michael replies with the code or something like "oh, Foo is my class that fizzes the bars."
- Someone (ideally Michael, but anyone can do it, now) edits Michael's original post to include the new information.
- The comments are now safe to delete, because the important information has been turned into part of the question or answer.