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My answer to this question has been quite controversial, attracting several hundred positive and negative votes and a long thread of comments. An initial batch of comments was moved to chat per the usual site policy, and two subsequent long streams of comments were simply deleted with no public announcement or explanation.

Many of the comments that were deleted were very thoughtful and interesting and, in my (possibly biased) opinion, contributed greatly to furthering the debate on OP’s question and related ethics questions. The deletion of the comments thus seems quite detrimental to a high-quality discussion and contrary to the goals of the site. It not only frustrates users who have thought and attention to writing good comments, but also (more importantly) deprives the community at large of important follow-up content.

A moderator who left me a chat comment explained that they “had to” delete the comments because comments can only be moved to chat once and the comments thread was “getting out of hand” (or words to that effect).

My question: what should be done about the comments associated with questions or answers that attract a lot of attention, including long streams of comments, many of which are of high quality and highly relevant to the debate, and which continue unabated long after the initial stream of comments has been moved to chat?

If your answer is that deleting subsequent comment streams as was done in this case is the best policy, please explain why you think this best serves the purpose of fostering the most informed and high-quality discussion possible (or why it serves some other, even more important, goal that I’m not thinking of).

  • I had a FAQ about this in the making anyway which I posted in light of this discussion. It doesn’t answer your question (I will probably do so later), but it has potential to avoid this situation in the future and can be used as a resource for answers. – Wrzlprmft Jun 26 '18 at 5:49
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    I personally feel that all debating comments are dispensable. Comments that highlight serious flaws or errors or those that question legality should ideally be kept in place. Moving debating comments to chat is fine as a historical piece but ultimately answers with their votes should stand on their own. I made one of the early comments to your answer which was relatively highly upvoted but it didn't bother me that it got moved. By the way, your handling of the questions and comments has been admirable. – camden_kid Jun 26 '18 at 9:28
  • @camden_kid thanks, appreciate it. – Dan Romik Jun 26 '18 at 9:49
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First of all

It […] deprives the community at large of important follow-up content.

Almost nobody wants to read a discussion spanning twenty or more comments. This apparently even applies to comment authors – going by comments that add nothing to existing comments. In fact I would wager that the only people who read all the comments on the answer in question are its author and some moderators. The point of moving comments to chat is to make those comments visible that are the few ones that are of high interest to future readers on their own – be these existing or potential future comments.

Also, please remember that comments are mostly intended to be temporary, i.e., to be made obsolete with an edit or similar. The main exceptions to this are relevant links, but even those can be edited into the post. If you want to say something of lasting value, do not say it in a comment.

What should have happened

Ideally, almost none of the fifty-something comments following the initial moving to chat should have been posted as a comment but in chat. This is not because those comments were entirely pointless, but these comments were either very likely to incite further replies or were only of value in the context of the entire debate surrounding this answer. (Please see this as to what kind of comments I consider worthy of being comments after comments have been moved to chat.)

What should happen in a similar situation in the future

In the future, moderators should include a link to this FAQ to every moved-to-chat notice. If you post a comment after such a notice you have to live with the possibility that your comment is removed without warning. If you do not like this, do not post a comment but in chat.

Comments that do not follow the FAQ above should be removed as soon as possible to avoid the strong broken-window effect that this situation has on some comment authors (“If that opinion deserves the honour of being a comment, so does my contrasting opinion.”).

What to do with the post in question

After the initial moving to chat, not a single message was posted in chat. Any of the comment authors could have said or thought:

We are having a longer discussion here, let’s move to chat.

My comment is essentially a reply to a chat message (being a comment moved to chat); I’ll post it as such.

This comment will likely incite a longer discussion, I’ll post it in chat.

They didn’t – despite a moderator’s comment saying that comments are not for extended discussion.

On the other hand, we moderators are not completely without fault either. We could have intervened earlier or more clearly.

I exploited some special properties of the situation, abused quite a few features, and spent a considerable amount of time to move the entirety of comments into one chatroom. This is a one-time thing. Do not expect this to ever happen again.

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    Great answer - thanks for that, and for your moderation efforts. The policy of issuing a strong warning that comments might be deleted makes a lot of sense (at least given the technical issues concerning chat and its interaction with the main Q&A part of stackexchange). Hopefully it will be followed in the future and everyone will be a bit happier. – Dan Romik Jun 26 '18 at 9:37
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    @DanRomik it is really worth noting that the effort, contortions, and hoops that Wrzlprmft jumped through to merge the comments was pretty crazy. – StrongBad Jun 26 '18 at 10:38
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    It's something we already discussed, but I still think that a long stream of comments, if it's not bothersome for the answerer or the questioner and does not contain rude or offensive comments, can stay there for a much longer time and there's no need to block it immediately. In this way, given the limitations of the system, one can move most of the comments to chat. And in this specific case, it's clear that the stream of comments was not annoying for the OP. – Massimo Ortolano Jun 27 '18 at 11:43
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    @MassimoOrtolano: … but it can be annoying and even deterring for other users. Also, I see no reason why such a discussion cannot be had in chat. – Wrzlprmft Jun 27 '18 at 19:08
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    @Wrzlprmft The history of SE thus far, with widespread and endless meta discussions on comments, clearly shows that chats are much more deterrent than comments (especially here on Academia), and that there is a clear discrepancy between the intended usage of comments from the SE staff and the expected and actual usage from most of the users. So, as I said other times, please be light-handed in managing comments. – Massimo Ortolano Jun 27 '18 at 21:44
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    "Almost nobody wants to read..." - How do you know that? – Greg Schmit - Reinstate Monica Jun 28 '18 at 14:33
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    @GregSchmit: 1) Feedback from users in chat, in particular from other moderators, i.e., SE power users. 2) As already mentioned in the answers, it very often happens that redundant comments are posted under long comment threads, the best explanation for which is that even comment authors don’t read all the comments, and I consider it safe to assume that they are more interested in comments than other users. 3) +11/−3 votes on this post compared to +2/−1 votes on the answer based on the contrasting assumption. – Wrzlprmft Jun 28 '18 at 19:30
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    @MassimoOrtolano I am not sure I agree. I think most users use comments as intended most of the time, but every once in a while a user gets sucked into a discussion that they are really interested in and cannot help themselves. – StrongBad Jun 28 '18 at 20:21
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I know your answer has been controversial and you received a lot of both positive and negative comments. You have handled that, often hostile, feedback well. Your responses to the feedback have been on point. The main issue that I see as a moderator is your point

The deletion of the comments thus seems quite detrimental to a high-quality discussion and contrary to the goals of the site.

I strongly disagree with this statement. The goal of this site is not for high quality discussion, it is for high quality answers. The point of comments on answers is to help improve the answer. That improvement process might require a back and forth discussion, but the end result should be an improvement to the answer.

When reading the comments and responses, it was clear to me that you thought about the comments and were not going to integrate the concepts in your answer. Given the nature of many of the comments, that is a reasonable decision and yours to make. At that point all the comments became obsolete as they were no longer going to make your answer better. If someone felt strongly about the views expressed in those comments, they could have written an answer.

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    There's a (in my opinion) flaw with this approach. By deleting the comments, future readers do not know that that discussion took place, and that the answerer elected not to incorporate the proposed improvement. This can lead to the same improvements being proposed over and over. By moving the comments to chat, you achieve both goals. You keep the comments free of clutter, and you retain a record of the discussion in a separate place for those who want to refer to it. If the goal of the site didn't involve any element of discussion, then the move to chat feature wouldn't exist. – JBentley Jul 5 '18 at 4:05
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    @JBentley yes. My answer was specific to the to this mm incident in which a set of comments had already been moved to chat and therefore the new comments could not be moved. – StrongBad Jul 5 '18 at 13:23
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The answer is simple, of course. The comments should be moved into the existing chat. If the moderator can't because comments can only be moved once, then this strikes me as a serious flaw in the system.

I had a related issue recently. I posted a comment on an answer explaining my vote and ways to improve the answer, and the comment received several dozen upvotes. A long series of irrelevant comments followed. The entire block of comments was moved to chat, including mine. I queried that and was told that there's no way of selectively moving comments to chat. To me that seems to defeat the point of the comment system, which is supposed to be used for suggesting improvements to the answer.

I would suggest that moderators need finer tuned controls for deleting and/or moving comments, and site policies should also be finer tuned. Comments should be deleted or moved based on their individual merits, and not as an entire block (which is akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater).

As a final point, deletion really ought only to be used on comments that have serious problems (e.g. are abusive). With the availability of move-to-chat, there is little reason to delete a comment.

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    I queried that and was told that there's no way of selectively moving comments to chat. – That’s not correct. We can leave individual comments standing and at least I regularly do so (because otherwise moving to chat would just be moving the problem). – Wrzlprmft Jun 26 '18 at 5:35
  • Some moderators, however, do not seem to selectively move comments. I would say most, in fact, from what I've seen across many SE sites. I believe I've seen at least one say it takes too much time and effort for them to sift through every single comment and make the judgment calls on their worthiness, so they just always move/delete everything en masse. If there's dozens of comments that's pretty reasonable, though I've seen seemingly indiscriminate mass moves/deletes for relatively small amounts. – zibadawa timmy Jul 5 '18 at 3:57
  • The flaw you mention in your opening paragraph is an open and popular feature request: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/266693/… – Qsigma Jul 9 '18 at 10:09
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The answer by @Wrzlprmft states

Almost nobody wants to read a discussion spanning twenty or more comments.

Come on. Almost everybody wants to read a discussion spanning twenty or more comments. More people prefer to talk-and-listen than to read-and-write.

But the Will of the People is not my concern here. On the contrary I understand why a website that wants to be and remain a serious Q&A forum, must come down hard on things like comments: we are here to play "too short; didn't read" rather than "too long; didn't read".

So the official policy explicitly scorns comments, and canonizes about their lowly nature. But, whatever the SE team wants the comments to be (and maybe rightfully so), they are stubbornly much more, and re-iterating the rules and the official intent around comments will not really help. And indeed, Many-many times comments contain precious content.

In light of the above, the rule "comments can be moved to chat only once and then they can only be deleted", is a dysfunctional SE operational rule (alongside a few others).

The compromise is obvious: sure, keep pushing comments to Chat (after all if you are here to chat, go to Chat), but scrap the "move only once, and then delete" rule. Let the moderators be able to easily preserve all Chatery, without needing to go to the extraordinary lengths our brave-with-the-spear moderator went, which apparently was so frustrating that he ended it with the grave warning "don't ever expect for this to happen again". I agree. Moderators have more important things to do than perform workarounds for inefficient SE rules. The point is to have the SE team change the functionality.

This is officially a "feature" request, and I would ask the moderators to consider forwarding it to the SE crew.

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    That feature request has existed for years. Until it changes, I suggest to make rules until it changes. Moreover, even if we had this feature, it does not change the problem that adding to chat would still requires moderator intervention and we would still get debates about what comments get to stay and which get moved. – Wrzlprmft Jun 28 '18 at 5:33
  • @Wrzlprmft Sure, rules and guidance help. SE typically shows strong resistance to feature requests coming from outsiders. – Alecos Papadopoulos Jun 28 '18 at 8:38
  • If you want to forward this to the "SE crew", you can use the Contact link at the bottom of the page to do it. – StrongBad Jun 28 '18 at 20:19
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    Unfortunately, you are talking to a wall. SE is here to make money, and any effort that does not result in a net increase to their ranking on google is seen as wasted by them. – user9646 Jul 3 '18 at 13:57

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