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We all know that comments are inadequate for discussions, the chat should be used instead.

True; but it often isn’t. Rather, length discussions do take place – after a fashion – inside the comments.

… And then they are deleted by moderators. I understand the rationale behind this, and I believe it’s the right thing to do. But on the other hand it sometimes destroys valuable discussions, and in particular painstakingly formulated arguments.

At best, this is really annoying. At worst, it costs the participants a lot of time.

Again, I realize that the obvious reply is “well, they should have used the chat” but this misses the reality of how Stack Exchange is used.

I would therefore request / suggest that the deleting moderators copy the deleted comments into a chat window and paste a link to the transcript along with their deletion message inside the comments.

That way, the argument isn’t completely lost, and can be resumed in the chat without painstakingly piercing together the thread of discussion.

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  • And BTW, we mods get new meta topics in our inbox, no need for extra notification for us. – Mad Scientist Jun 7 '11 at 16:43
  • @Fabian Oh, thanks for that. – Konrad Rudolph Jun 7 '11 at 16:45
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    The big problem with long comment discussions is that they just don't belong on SE. If you feel pain after seeing large discussions, the logical step is to stop having those discussions there. I don't have links/references handy for all the times Joel has talked about comments so I'll just leave this as a comment. Searching Meta.SO should find them, however. – MrHen Jun 7 '11 at 18:39
  • @MrHen I absolutely agree. But we don’t plan these comments as long discussions. In the present case, I was merely remarking on the logical fallacy of the answerer’s statement, which (somewhat predictably, I admit) spun off into a big discussion. The question (a different question) is: how to start this discussion in the chat (instead of in the comments) in the first place? – Konrad Rudolph Jun 7 '11 at 19:05
  • @Konrad: I usually explicitly suggest taking to chat after one or two back and forth bits. If I find myself typing up a comment that fills the entire box I take it as a sign that the discussion belongs elsewhere. :) – MrHen Jun 7 '11 at 19:10
  • @MrHen Very good! I’ll try to do the same from now on. Incidentally, this discussion should slowly move to the chat, if it were to be continued … ;-) – Konrad Rudolph Jun 7 '11 at 19:46
  • @Konrad there is no need to go into claiming "logical" fallacy. You're own opinions could be considered logical fallacy; and furthermore you resorted to insults. I suggest the mods simply say no to you and warn you not to do that again. – RolandiXor Jun 7 '11 at 22:27
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    @Roland Again, please take it to the chat. Especially the allegation of insults. – Konrad Rudolph Jun 8 '11 at 7:07
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We're experimenting with a new feature, codenamed "Get-A-Room", to offer a solution for this. It's currently active on Meta Stack Overflow only, but will pretty soon be active everywhere (with a higher threshold on meta sites than on normal sites).

When we detect that there's a back-and-forth discussion taking place between two people in the comments of a post, they'll see this:

prompt to move a comment discussion to chat

For starters, this will be (and is) optional, to just to nudge them to take it to chat; but sooner or later, we'll probably block the users from commenting further and thus force them to go to chat.

Here's the first example of a room that was created through such a link: http://chat.meta.stackoverflow.com/transcript/390

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    Ooh, that looks great. And I love the name of the feature. – Konrad Rudolph Jun 13 '11 at 8:41
  • Heh, awesome. Now I feel compelled to goad people into a comment war just to experience the cutting edge technology... – MrHen Jun 13 '11 at 19:20
  • "we'll probably block the users from commenting further and thus force them to go to chat" Well, that never materialized. Too bad. – fredsbend Jun 29 at 23:18
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I did exactly that for the comments you are probably talking about. If you need a copy of the comments I can copy them to a publicly accessible chat room. The discussion was, besides being off-topic in that place, also getting a bit too personal, which is why I don't want to just copy it to a public place. But if both parties want to continue the discussion, I can of course provide the copy of the comments.

For longer comment threads we generally copy them to the moderator chat before deleting. So we can provide the text if you need it, but we obviously won't do that for comments that were deleted due to being offensive.

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  • @Fabian I’d appreciate this. About the charge of getting too personal, I could imagine you are referring to me calling the opposition “ignorant”. I’d like to point out that this is by no means meant as an insult; ignorance is excusable (I’m well aware of my own ignorance concerning most things). But it needs to be pointed out when somebody uses claims that betray a … well, a fundamental ignorance of the subject matter, because it shows that the participants won’t find a common ground. – Konrad Rudolph Jun 7 '11 at 16:47
  • To elaborate on this, we always keep a copy on the comments we delete. – Borror0 Jun 7 '11 at 17:00
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    @Konrad: Where I come from, you might as well call someone stupid or even an idiot. There are many better word choices in English: "You don't seem very well informed." or "I think you'll find that authority X disagrees with you." Even better, consider the proverb: "By the mouth of a fool comes a rod for his back, but the lips of the wise will preserve them." I don't think it's too hard to determine who knows their stuff and who doesn't. – Jon Ericson Jun 7 '11 at 19:50
  • @Jon Incidentally, the same is true for German. But I disagree with your suggestions, they don’t convey quite the same meaning. I’m also very tempted to say that if somebody feels insulted by being called ignorant then that’s just too bad: some people will be insulted by anything, this mustn’t inhibit discourse. (For further discussions: I’m online in the chat …) – Konrad Rudolph Jun 7 '11 at 19:57
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    @Konrad: I can imagine no valid use for ad hominem here. As you say, "ignorance is excusable", but bad logic is not. What good do you intend by using words you know have a tenancy to insult? (I suppose I'm sorry I assumed you were ignorant of standard English usage. My mistake.) – Jon Ericson Jun 7 '11 at 20:26
  • @Jon Please see (and continue discussion) here: chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/message/1109612#1109612 – Konrad Rudolph Jun 7 '11 at 20:34
  • @Konrad: Sigh. The argument as I remember it was: "You are ignorant, therefor your position is wrong." Ad hominem. Wikipedia suggests this form is invalid as it amounts to the genetic fallacy. – Jon Ericson Jun 7 '11 at 20:37
  • @Konrad, where I'm from, calling someone ignorant is like saying "you're dumb, stupid, or empty-headed". I would suggest you avoid doing that to anyone else. Furthermore, just because you claim that "a wide group accepts this as truth", doesn't mean that it is the truth. Same could be argued against me, as it always is. For that reason, it's unfair to claim I'm wrong, and wrong in the sense of not true, when you could be just as wrong in that sense yourself. – RolandiXor Jun 7 '11 at 22:30
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In my experience, going back to StackOverflow beta days, comments come in three forms:

1) Clarifications of details of a particular answer,

2) differences of opinion which could be fleshed out in a parallel answer or even a separate question, but aren't for some reason,

3) and general banter with is normally of no consequence.

The first are obviously unproblematic and normally are helpful to be preserved. The third probably belong in chat if it's anything more than a little joke, compliment, or observation. The second are more complicated to deal with and depend on why the comment field was used instead of some other mechanism of communication.

(This issue is by no means new. In the Usenet days, there was a difference of opinion about how to use out-of-band communication such as email. Comments are nominally out-of-band, but since they are public, they function in-band as a rule. Chat seems to be a bit further down the continuum.)

The natural thing to do if you see an answer you disagree with is to vote it down, and vote up or write a competing question. In the long run, this will produce better answers as correct answers bubble to the top over time. It's a sort of ongoing adversarial trial system in which each side puts forward their best arguments and the most convincing are selected by a jury of the people. Note that this puts the conflict at the answer level where the Stack Exchange system is best able to deal with the edits, votes, and comments needed to produce well-reasoned arguments.

One reason for using comments rather than use another answer is that there is some tangential problem to a particular answer. In this case, the answer included an entirely superfluous skeptical about evolution that prompted a comment supporting evolution. (It also exhibited ad hominem in my opinion, but that seemed to be just the spark that lit the fire. The fact that the comment was of form #2 listed above was the fuel. Again, this is my opinion.) The trouble is that comments are not sufficient to support sort of reasoning needed to defend a substantial position such as accepting evolution. (It's simpler to use a shortcut such as ad hominem.)

A better approach in this sort of case is to provide a link to some other answer or question that deals with the issue. Ideally the link will neither need nor have further comment. Those who are interested will be transported to the proper location without the temptation to further comment.

Another reason to use comments of the second form is that you can signal disagreement without your position being subject to the sort of scrutiny a full-fledged answer would receive. I don't have much to say about this reason because I have little respect for this type of cowardice. There is no reason not to support or write an alternative answer.

The final reason is the main reason I find myself caught up in comment wars: responding to other comments of form #2. See the comments at this question for an example. I believe my initial comment was constructive to the answer, but it appeared inappropriate to another user. In turn, his comment seemed unhelpful to me. We exchanged comments that drifted from the goal of helping this answer be better. Every step on the way, I considered going to meta.skeptics.stackexchange.com, but didn't because it was easier just to add one more comment. Ugh.

So for the final type of comment, the best choice is to take it to meta as soon as possible and refrain from responding in kind. (May I heed my own advice!)

I think taking comments of form #2 to chat is a step in the wrong direction.


It's been pointed out in the comments, that an official motivation for commenting is to explain a downvote. I believe the intention was to encourage comments of type #1. But I suspect the effect is to cause comments of type #2. For instance, if you think an answer is completely off-base, you'll vote it down. Then a popup will encourage you to provide a rationale for your vote. So you'd naturally write a comment that the answer is completely off-base. Unless you are unusually considerate, that comment will be perceived as type #2 above, which I argue is counter-productive and probably not what the system is designed to produce. If so, this is really an issue for meta.stackoverflow.com.

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  • You have left out one valid reason for commenting: providing a rationale for a downvote. This is (originally) also what happened in the current case, and in most previous cases in which comments spiralled into discussions. The problem is that the original comment (downvote rationale) isn’t only valid, it’s very much desired. – Konrad Rudolph Jun 8 '11 at 8:04
  • @Konrad: That reason should fall under item #1. And it is, of course, desired. But, it's easy for a commenter to believe they are doing #1 when providing a rationale for a downvote, while actually doing item #2. Those sorts of comments should fall under the category of "constructive criticism", but often end up being one-line barbs that add only heat. Labeling an answerer ignorant guarantees that, however intended, it will be perceived as a barb or insult. – Jon Ericson Jun 8 '11 at 16:16
  • @Konrad: I see the answer has been corrected to remove its major problem. We can both agree that this is for the good. But consider: was it changed because you called the answerer ignorant or for some other reason? – Jon Ericson Jun 8 '11 at 17:10
  • The allegation of ignorance came into play much later. – Konrad Rudolph Jun 8 '11 at 17:38
  • @konrad actually as stated, the evidence supports the reason why we do not and will not require comments explaining downvotes -- it often leads to argument. – Jeff Atwood Jun 11 '11 at 9:27

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