In my interactions on this site last night, twice in one hour I spent time and effort putting content on this site, and both times that content was nullified or erased by immediate, unilateral moderator intervention.
This started with a question that was closed by one person as "unclear" while two other people were answering it. That one person then proceeded to explain precisely what steps the other two people could do in order for her to reopen the question. When moderators unilaterally close questions and then administrate the reopening process, they take away the agency that is supposed to lie with all sufficiently experienced users of the site. Whether questions get closed or reopened is supposed to be a vote, after all. The model of a site in which moderators feel that they know better than the other users which questions should be opened or closed and act immediately and unilaterally to me is strikingly different from the other SE sites on which I've been one of the most active participants over a period of five years: too much so for me to want to participate.
I then expressed concern over unilateral moderator closure in a comment recorded above (and described how my time was wasted by the closure). This comment was deleted within an hour without being responded to. In my opinion, it is alarmingly disrespectful to remove someone's comments while they are engaged in a discourse with you and others -- comments which express civil, reasoned criticism of your own recent actions in a way which obviously has a larger scope than any one question. I'm not going to argue that anymore: I think that the moderators here understand this opinion and just disagree with it. I am also not going to further argue that "comments need not be permanent" is very, very different from "Any moderator who feels in the moment that a comment is no longer relevant or on-topic -- even if the comment pertains to them or to something they have been directly involved with -- can freely delete it without consultation or notification of the commenter". I am aware that the current SE party line is Comments are ephemeral, and I think that people here are aware that I and many other users find that position to be highly obnoxious: deal-breakingly so in some cases. If you want to delete my comments, ask me first: that way, at least I get a chance to preserve my own text for my own use!
I feel a bit like I have a World of Warcraft avatar who is a math professor named Pete L. Clark. I can play whatever character I want, but I am still subject to the local and changeable metaphysics of the site, just as any orc (or whatever: in case it's not clear, I have never played WoW) would be. The similarity between my SE avatar and its controller may well have lulled me into a category error: I think of this site as being part of my professional life. Because of that I expect to be treated as I would in my professional life (which is not with any kind of royal respect, but in fact with the same courtesy that all academics are accustomed to, no matter their seniority). Every once in a while I get singed by a fireball and realize that this is not the real academic world. When that happens, I think the only sane response is to log off. I will now do so for a period of time. If anyone wants to have further discussion with me, I will be happy to have it in the real world, where my name is also Pete L. Clark, I am a professor at the University of Georgia, and my contact information is publicly available. My only requirement is that since I use my real, professional name, I ask you to do the same, in order to receive a response.
P.S.: Since this will be my last content posted on this site for (at least) a little while, let me say that I do not think that ff524 is a bad person, a bad academic or even a bad moderator. The first two things I really don't know about but the available evidence is to the contrary. For the last, I think that 99.5% of the time she is an excellent moderator: she puts in so much time and effort into this site. The moderators here do a lot of great work: they just seem to fall into the practice, from time to time, of doing too much. When you spend time doing something that nullifies actions, deletes content or wastes the time of some other experienced, committed user, you're spending your time working against someone else. From one academic to another: it's so easy to work against each other, and the effect is always one of at least partial cancellation of time and effort. Please just do a little less: this leaves room for other people to be involved in a way which feels meaningful to them, and after all there is always more academic work to do.
Added: Thanks to all those who have responded. I wanted to further respond to some of these issues.
There is an issue contained in the very title of this post. When do comments become "obsolete with respect to the question they're posted on"? This is not obvious. In the case at hand, I think that comments which discuss the history of closing, editing and/or reopening a question do not soon become obsolete: certainly not in the space of less than an hour and while the question is experiencing all three of these activities. The sentiments expressed in comments like these -- should the question be closed again, etc. -- may or may not be supported by others who come across the question later. Expressing carefully and politely why you think a question should be closed, for instance, takes time and effort. I don't think it should be deleted immediately after the question is reopened.
The site has a mechanism for users to express that comments are obsolete: they can flag them for that purpose. (Unfortunately users cannot see how many flags a comment has and thus cannot precisely express the opposite opinion. They can upvote, which is not exactly the same thing.) The comment in question was there for well under an hour and had received one upvote. How many users flagged it as obsolete? If the answer is more than one, then that is something I will have to take into account. But if the answer is none, then that means that moderators are taking it upon themselves to decide what content is acceptable for the site or when an interchange has run its course. That's certainly unnecessary, and to me it's unacceptable.
EnergyNumbers wrote "Comments are designed as ephemeral."
I have two issues with that statement. My comments are created by me, so I get to say whether they are designed as ephemeral. I have been clear that they are not. What is probably meant is that the platform was designed so as to make comments ephemeral. I don't think that is quite historically accurate: I have been using SE sites for more than five years, and the push to limit the number of comments is much more recent than that, but that seems more like a quibble. The point is that the platform itself doesn't want anything. This site was created by a specific set of users for a specific purpose, so we get to decide how to use it. There are several other SE sites -- highly correlated to be the ones most closely tied to academia -- where comments are handled in the way I am used to. So it is obviously our choice how to treat comments: it is not an issue of "design".
D.W. wrote that I have misunderstood something about how SE sites work. He doesn't explain exactly what I've misunderstood or why he thinks that. In my line of work, it would be a little less than collegial to suggest misunderstanding so casually. All I can say is that I've been involved with four different SE sites over a period of five years. The idea that I simply "don't get it" after all this time simply does not seem very plausible to me...so much so that I do not feel compelled to further defend myself or rehearse the depth of my experience here (you can certainly see it for yourself).
However the comment that "It's entirely standard for moderators to unilaterally close or re-open questions; that is not illegitimate in any sense. The moderators job is to act to enforce the site policies, as set by the community." seems at the very least to lack nuance. Yes, it is entirely standard for moderators to unilaterally close certain questions: they should (ideally: this is a service they provide for us, after all) do this when it is completely clear that in doing so they are enforcing the site policies. They should not take a role as people who understand the on-topicness or off-topicness of a question better than any other experienced individual user. But that's what has happened. Other users have called attention to the problematic nature of this, and there has not yet been any response.
I am aware that I (or someone) could write a script that would save my comments. Or this could be done in other ways: I could create a separate account Pete_L_Clarks_Comments, direct every comment to this account, and in this way have the SE engine automatically mail me all my comments. I think this is a bit of a hack and a use of a site that would be at least somewhat disruptive to other users, so I would hesitate to do it, but I suppose it is an option. But doesn't it say something that the site already has all this infrastructure for others' comments to get emailed to me, but it doesn't even save my own comments?? I find that totally bizarre. Also this approach would not alert me to the deletion of my comments. The fact that I am not even alerted to the removal of my content is very jarring.
Others have emphasized that the model pursued by the moderators here is similar to that of most other SE sites. They have said this so much that I feel that I should reply: yes, I know. Not all SE sites though: I have been active on MathOverflow, math.SE, mathematics educators, and the moderation style is the one I prefer. To all accounts the same holds on the tcs site (I say this because one of the formerly top users on our site is Suresh Venkat, who is a moderator on tcs. The last time these issues came around, he expressed great surprise that on-topic comments ever needed to be deleted. I note that he is no longer very active on this site). Many people seem to hint or occasionally implicitly say that the moderators have to behave as they are or the site could not thrive. I think it's clear that is not the case. It is our choice.
I don't think we know how the majority of users feel on this issue, because the majority of users are not at all active on meta. We had a recent poll on "winter bash", and the number of participants was obviously a tiny minority of the total number of users of the site. The people who show up to vote on meta may be those who are used to frequenting SE meta sites (that includes me). For instance one of the answers to this question is from someone who has zero questions and three answers on the main site. He is certainly entitled to his opinion, but it is coming from someone who has put in a lot of time on SO itself and orders of magnitude less time here than I have. So my honest appraisal of the community response to these issues is: the community as a whole does not have strong feelings either way. I haven't heard anyone say that they would not like to participate in a site in which deletion of comments is done more rarely and gingerly than is currently the case.
I find the sentiment "I'm also pretty uncomfortable with setting a precedent where threatening to leave becomes a way to influence site policy" a bit surprising. My leaving this site could only be a "threat" if my contributions are so valuable that leaving it would jeopardize the site's well-being. I think that is clearly not the case: I am one of the most active and highly reputed members of this site, but not the most and not uniquely so, and my particular areas of expertise are represented by others. Rather I think that when someone has been a member of a group for a long time and had a significant amount of group interactions, it is the honorable thing to do to vocalize any discontent they have with the group that reaches the level which makes them seriously consider leaving the group. That is what I am doing here. If no one else feels the way I do about these issues, then the mere matter of my departure is no great tragedy to anyone. I am slightly disappointed not to have heard from anyone about these issues "in real life". It would be nice to hear personally from people who are involved in doing what they certainly think is in the site's best interest. I would like to think of the serious users of this site as being my academic colleagues.
It seems that I still have some things to think through.