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I recently deleted a few comments (mods, you can see them here) which had been flagged as off-topic. Briefly, the OP had asked a question, a community member answered, and then a separate discussion took place in the comments about a different academia-related topic. I removed the comments that weren't immediately related to the question. The answerer took issue with my removing the comments, as he had put work into finding the answer.

My question here is: did I act inappropriately in removing those comments?

  • Isn't there an option to migrate comments to chat? – Mechanical snail Feb 21 '14 at 0:08
  • @Mechanicalsnail - Unfortunately, no... that would be very useful, and would mitigate so much of this issue. – eykanal Feb 21 '14 at 0:59
  • I don't remember if it was you, but at least one time I felt that comment removal at this site is overzealous. First, IMHO some of my comments were not off-topic (maybe not evergreen, though). Second, as the author is not announced of the deletion, it is simply confusing (was I censored? or is there something broken with SE? or did I put this comment only in my dreams?). – Piotr Migdal Feb 24 '14 at 10:26
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Yes—and no.

Yes, you acted inappropriately in the sense that the discussion was still very much ongoing at the time. I would not delete informative comments so quickly—you have to allow people the chance to read them at the time that the discussion is going on. Otherwise, you could remove useful information which might actually lead to improved questions or answers.

However, if you had waited a few days before deleting the comments, then I would suggest that no, such behavior is appropriate. In the long run, Stack Exchange sites are not just about answering people's questions, but providing long-term curating of the answers. Extended side discussions that are not germane to the topic at hand detracts from that mission and should be removed when no longer pertinent to the discussion at hand.

Of course, we don't want to cut off relevant communications among users of this site; such "off-topic" discussions can always take place in chat rooms.

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    I appreciate and support this answer: I agree that such comments will not be eternally useful. But if you delete my communication while I'm communicating, then it is very disruptive and does not make me want to volunteer my time and expertise on a site like this (which would clearly like to have more involvement from career academics, not less, unless I drastically misapprehend the situation). – Pete L. Clark Feb 17 '14 at 22:57
  • @PeteL.Clark: I think we're in agreement on that point. I've also restored the deleted comments for now, based on the above reasoning. Again, we're human—mistakes happen. If you think something was deleted that shouldn't have been, let us know. – aeismail Feb 17 '14 at 23:12
  • I would simply add that there is a process of training here. Many people are used to forums where comments go on and on. Before removing comments which might be relevant, we should remain the author of the comment to update their question/answer so that the comments can be removed later. At @PeteL.Clark wrote, deleting mid-conversation would be frustrating for anyone. – earthling Feb 17 '14 at 23:51
  • Thanks to everyone for the civil discussion, and I apologize for interrupting the discussion. For now, it appears that aeismail already restored the deleted comments, so no harm done there. I'll pay closer attention to timestamps before acting on those flags next time. Thanks! @PeteL.Clark – eykanal Feb 18 '14 at 2:05
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    @PeteL.Clark - I would like to make one thing clear... the votes here have clearly shown that the deletion was appropriate and the timing was not. In that vein, if this would occur again, deletion would occur again (after a reasonable amount of time). I notice that you're still active on this site today; please note that your continued participation in this community equates to your implicit willingness to work within this theory of moderation. – eykanal Feb 19 '14 at 18:28
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    @eykanal: My interpretation of the answers here is that there has been a sincere apology on behalf of the moderators and a recognition that the precise deletion event that took place once should not and will not take place again under the same circumstances. Your last sentence seems a bit convoluted to me: but yes, from my continued participation on my site you can correctly infer my willingness to participate on the site, which includes a willingness to be moderated by its moderators. Certain actions that moderators might take in the future could affect that willingness...clearly. – Pete L. Clark Feb 21 '14 at 6:26
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I'm coming late to this party, but I am puzzled by the desire to remove comments. If a comment thread starts getting excessively involved, the system automatically encourages people to move to chat. If they still don't want to, is that so terrible ?

I agree that a comment might reference an edit that once made makes the comment moot. But in such cases I've often highlighted the edit as an update, so that the comment continues to make sense.

I've also deleted my own comments when I felt they were no longer necessary. But I wouldn't delete others comments unless they crossed the line into abusive/obnoxious/spamming behavior.

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    Comments are for constructive criticism or transient information. Allowing extended discussion both detracts visually from the site, as the page can get very long, as well as makes site visitors need to read through a long chain of often unrelated commentary to see if any of it adds to the answer. If you want to improve the answer, suggest an edit; if your answer is very different form the existing, post your own. (Do note that this is relaxed on meta, long conversations are common here.) – eykanal Feb 20 '14 at 15:10
  • Note that my opinion has nothing to do with me being a mod; I flagged comments as "off-topic" before I was a mod, and I continue to do so on other SE sites where I'm not a mod. This is just my opinion. – eykanal Feb 20 '14 at 15:11
  • which brings up a point: my understanding is that if enough flags accumulate on a comment, it gets deleted. If so, why not just let that happen ? – Suresh Feb 20 '14 at 16:31
  • Because if there's a thread with 15 comments, what's the likelihood that five users will care enough to go through and flag every single comment? For that reason mods assist with the handling of flags. – eykanal Feb 20 '14 at 16:50
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    In my view, that just means that people don't care enough. So I'd leave it. I do have a laissez-faire attitude to modding. – Suresh Feb 20 '14 at 16:51
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    I don't know if I agree with that... IIRC, site engagement is somewhere on the order of 10%; 10% of visitors will actually register and vote, and 10% of those will actually become active members of the site. That doesn't mean only 1% care, it means only 1% will do something about it. As a mod, I'm trying to keep it nice for the other 99% also. (Note: I made those numbers up, but they'll do for estimates; if anything, they're both probably high.) – eykanal Feb 20 '14 at 21:10
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    @eykanal But longer comment threads are folded by default, showing only the most upvoted comments. So no-one, except for people who explicitly want to see the full comment thread, se extraneous comments. – Piotr Migdal Feb 24 '14 at 10:30
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    @PiotrMigdal - That only bolsters the point; long comment threads can cause useful content could be hidden by default, and the casual reader would never even know he's missing an important part of the answer. – eykanal Feb 24 '14 at 14:33
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    it won't be hidden if it gets upvoted. And it's not hard to do one click to see the full thread and upvote something. – Suresh Feb 24 '14 at 16:15
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I can see aeismail and Pete's answers, but in my opinion we need to keep comments short or the site becomes a chatroom (which we also have, of course!). In the example given, the number & length of comments mean that many newcomers will probably not scroll down enough to see answers below Pete's.

And the right time for clearing comment is the current time, because a) most people view the question when it's still active, b) we may not get around to doing it later.

In short, in my opinion: having a prolonged comment discussion should only be very temporary, and should only lead to improving the question or existing answers. If the comments come to a useful conclusion, it should be incorporated into the answer. In all cases, the comments should be removed as soon as possible, by their authors.

  • I upvoted this answer as well. I hope people hear me when I say: I would be very responsive to requests to move my content elsewhere. – Pete L. Clark Feb 19 '14 at 23:16
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Let me respond to Charles' answer.

  1. Thank you for including the link to the source of your excerpted passage about comments. That makes clear that it does not originate with this site and is not directly espoused by the users of this site: it is a message from some of the creators and adminsitrators of the hardware that explains how they intend it to be used.

    However, any particular SE site is a group of people allied around building information and answering questions in a certain focused area. Like all communities, we have the right and obligation to make our own norms. If these norms diverge too far from those of the SE administrators...well, we can cross that bridge if/when we came to it. We came very close on MathOverflow.net, but after a long period of time, the SE administrators agreed to some very site-specific features and philosophies. Note that this was done in part because of the MO community being clear that certain things were necessary in order to ensure their long term commitment to the site.

    I disagree that this passage should be used prescriptively across all SE sites. Some people at SE would want it to be: that's their perspective, which obviously carries a good deal of weight...as does ours, since both parties are equally necessary in order for the site to exist at all. But from a factual perspective it is clear that this "ephemeral" notion of comments is not the one which is practiced on MathOverflow.net, and to a lesser extent not on math.SE. Just to give an example, on MO the primacy of comments is so extreme that there are many questions which are only answered in comments. (In my opinion this is too extreme, and I have sometimes left community-wiki answers to such questions just to make sure that questions get answered in the technical sense. But I'm describing how things are at the moment, not how any one person wants them to be.)

    What follows most strongly from the previous paragraph is

  2. There is certainly no uniform agreement across all SE sites on the precise purpose and usage of comments. On any given site this is something that evolves culturally: all users participate in it, and respond to what they feel is "inappropriate" participation by others. No one person on academia.SE gets to say what comments are for and how they should be used. Thus I am disappointed that Charles tried to do this in his answer:

    Hence, the proper form of communication on this site should have been: just-learning should have a left comment to Pete L. Clark asking to join a chat conversation to discuss about the top journals, and this comment should have been deleted once the conversation had started.

    Please don't phrase your opinions as telling me and others what is the "proper form of communication". That is for all of us to judge. For my part I do not use the chat features of the site. I do sometimes contact people via email off the site, and since my email address is available they are free to contact me. When I make comments, I have chosen to do so. One difference is: comments are public; emails are private; chat is somewhere in between (I think; anyway it is not available to those who are reading the content that prompted the comments).

    Can comments get out of hand? Yes, of course. It has happened to me on many sites, including on this one. In the sites math.SE and mathoverflow that I have participated in (and, I don't want to make a measuring contest about this, but I do have very extensive participation on these two sites, as anyone can check; in particular, I believe that I can claim to have as well-formed idea of what I want to use comments for as almost anyone), sometimes comments spiral out of hand by either (i) getting personal or (ii) getting confrontational / impolite. In such situations it is great to have moderator intervention. My understanding is that moderators spend a lot of time (on certain sites, anyway) intervening in such matters, and that seems like the best use of their time.

  3. Concerning idea that comments which range off-topic from the question/answer should be deleted, I respond: it depends what is meant by off-topic. If it ranges outside of the scope of the site, then yes, it is a good time to curtail the conversation. However, if it just switches from one on-topic issue to another: well, that's what happens when professionals are having a profitable interaction. To me that is exactly the sort of positive interaction that sites like this are supposed to be encouraging. If you disagree, that's your right, and it's your right to try to act on it. But there are various ways to do that. You could act on it by leaving a comment saying, "Hey guys, maybe you'd like to move this discussion to...." In the case at hand that would have been a very appropriate and positive contribution: probably the OP should have asked a new question. But my point is that a short exchange in the comments is a positive move in the direction of such a new question. Flagging the comments and then deleting them is an incredibly negative move to make. This brings me to:

  4. I get personally as well as professionally annoyed when my speech is deleted without a record made.

    I am an academic mathematician, and though in many ways the latter is more definitive of my professional identity, in other ways the former prevails. This is such a time: valuing others' speech and writings is a sacred principle of academia. Academics agree that censorship is bad more strongly than they agree on almost anything: this was passionately argued for in Milton's Areopagitica in 1644 and has been well-accepted in the Western academic world more or less ever since. To me there is almost nothing which is more offensive than simply removing my text. (Seriously: if you want to respond to my comment by saying, "Hey, you asshole, why are you wasting my time and cluttering my page. Nobody cares!" then not only am I not that much annoyed by that...but it is much more likely to get me to remove or reformulate my comment. When you delete my comment, I think you are almost denying my personhood and wonder why I should even be associating with you.) This idea is well-understood on the two math sites mentioned above. It would be pretty ironic if this academic principle were felt less strongly on academia.SE....but let's see how people feel about it, I suppose.

  5. We do need to push back in contemporary fora when our concepts of personal and academic freedom are being comprised. It is clear to me that the founders of SE do not value these freedoms as strongly as I do or most academics do. Those who have known me for a while know that several years ago (SE cofounder) Jeff Atwood deleted two of my comments on meta.math.SE. I said then what I said now: if that continues to happen, I must leave. Jeff Atwood was at the time very uncompromising, and I did take a break from contributing to that site...during which time I honestly think that my action was felt and taken into account. Jeff Atwood quickly became much more reasonable in his efforts as a "policeman" (his word; I think it's silly) on math.SE....and in fact he is no longer associated with the company at all.

  6. Charles also writes:

    No user is forced to contribute, and no user gains from contribution, apart from the collective gain of getting great answers to great questions. It is perfectly fine to question decisions made by mods, and to offer new solutions to solve problems, but someone threatening to stop contributing if they don't get it the way they want is not helpful.

    Whoa there: you are really devaluing your product. Users can gain from contributions to this site in the following other ways:

    1. They can get their questions answered in a timely manner by an expert audience. [Questions are contributions, and getting your question answered when you need it answered is much different than the collective gain of an agglomeration of answers.]

    2. Users can gain experience about how academia works in a worldwide, field-independent context, whereas most academics' (I mean me...) day-to-day life is mostly confined to their department in their university in their country. This is one of my main reasons for being active on this site: I have a lot of experience with my corner of academia, but I know very little about how HCI people do things or how people do things in India. Knowing this will be both directly and indirectly valuable to me: for instance it could make me a better department chair in the future.

      [In order to get the most benefit out of interacting with academics around the world and the academic spectrum....you need to actually let us interact a bit. The idea that anything other than "The answer to Question X is Y" is idle chit-chat is really not helpful in this respect.]

    3. Participation on globally active sites like this promotes me, my department and my university. My activity on MO and math.SE has done more for graduate admissions at UGA than anything else I have done or could do...I can really see the difference it's made.

    4. Dually to the previous point: participation the site puts students in contact with professors: maybe by participating on this site I meet a math student in a faraway land who turns out to be really promising. My contact with this student could be really helpful for her (and hers for me). Please think about that when you delete comments between me and other students and young mathematicians.

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    I appreciate that you have your particular approach to how you use this site (as you describe in (2) and (6)), but please do not confuse your usage of this site with how the community has come to use the site. You found the comments section a good place to have a one-on-one conversation, and the community disagreed with that approach.... you can see that by the upvotes on the earlier answers. Please be open to other models of usage for this site. – eykanal Feb 18 '14 at 20:35
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    @eykanal: The community did not disagree with the approach in any meaningful way that I can see: there was one person who flagged the comment and one moderator who deleted it. That's a very low threshold for permanent deletion of content. And most of the reason I am posting this answer is so that other members of this (admittedly, small) community can respond to it. This site is still in a "beta" phase, which I take to mean that it is still defining itself. Under certain definitions I would like to participate. – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 21:24
  • ...If almost no one upvotes or comments in support of this answer, then it will be more clear how the community feels. – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 21:27
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    @eykanal I fear a little bit of a double-standard in the logic of using 'voting' to indicate anything. If anything, I'd say that the community at large is quite silent on this matter. There are a few moderators in favor of deleting comments, Pete is strongly against, and there are a few others (like myself) who essentially support Pete's argument without reservation and have said so. More specifically, I agree with Pete's objection to your conflating "moderators felt" with "the community felt". As I suggested earlier, if the community "feels", let them flag comments, or otherwise say so. – Suresh Feb 23 '14 at 0:09
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    @suresh - Regarding the voting issue, again, that's how SO works.... via the voting mechanism. If someone wants to have a say, they can register their opinion by leaving posts or voting. Silence indicates indifference, and we cannot infer anything beyond that. Given that (as of the writing of this comment) the top answer on this thread has +11/-0 while this answer has +8/-6, I'm guessing that this answer is not as strongly supported by the community, while the top one is. Regarding flagging, I have nothing to add beyond my comments on your answer above; I think we'll have toagree to disagree. – eykanal Feb 23 '14 at 2:12
1

In complement to the other answers, from How do comments work?:

How do comments work?

Comments exist so that users can talk about questions and answers without posting new answers that do not actually answer their parent questions. Comments are often used to ask for clarification on, suggest corrections to and provide meta-information about posts.

Comments are intentionally short, having maximum length of 600 characters, and allow only limited markup. URLs in comments automatically become hyperlinks. Each user may post only one comment every 15 seconds.

Comments are disposable: unlike posts, there's no revision history, and they can be deleted without warning by their authors, by moderators, and in response to flags.

When should comments be deleted?

Comments are temporary "Post-It" notes left on a question or answer. You should not expect them to be around forever: Once a clarification has been made, an edit added to the post to include new information, or the issue in the comment is otherwise resolved, it is subject to deletion. In reality, many obsolete or chatty comments remain untouched due to the high volume of comments posted, but this does not mean that they can't or shouldn't be deleted in the future.

In the case mentioned here, the comments were not made to ask for a clarification or suggest a correction, but to ask a new question, quite different (the original question is on acknowledgment, the comment asks about top journals). Hence, the comment should be deleted, and the conversation should be made in the chat, or a new question should be asked (although I would suspect that the corresponding question would likely be closed, due to its opinion-based form). Note that the search does not work on comments, making this information basically inaccessible to other users interested in the topic. Either this information is useful for many users, and should be converted into accessible content, or it is not, in which case it should be deleted.

Hence, the proper form of communication on this site should have been: just-learning should have a left comment to Pete L. Clark asking to join a chat conversation to discuss about the top journals, and this comment should have been deleted once the conversation had started.

There has been some discussions on the past on the possibility of contacting directly another user (Contacting/Referring to another member of SE outside of a comment thread), and this has been declined, for the reason that Stack Exchange is by design avoiding social networking features.

Now, we can discuss about what should be StackExchange, and how we can improve it, and perhaps in this particular case, it could have been useful to have an option to automatically turn the conversation into a new chat room, instead of just deleting the comments. Perhaps it could have been smoother to first leave a message indicating that the comments are off-topic, and to delete then only when another solution has been found. But in the end, deleting them was the right decision with regards to the site.

--

On a side-note, I personally find particularly non-constructive the attitude "if this is the way it works, I will stop contributing". No user is forced to contribute, and no user gains from contribution, apart from the collective gain of getting great answers to great questions. It is perfectly fine to question decisions made by mods, and to offer new solutions to solve problems, but someone threatening to stop contributing if they don't get it the way they want is not helpful.

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    "On a side-note, I personally find particularly non-constructive the attitude...." I disagree. This is a community of people, with agreed upon norms which change depending on time and the needs of the community. If a member of the community feels that a certain behavior is prohibitively undesirable, it is much more constructive to mention that than to simply withdraw from the community without explaining why. I claim that this is in fact healthy behavior. – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 19:14
  • I disagree with several other things in your post as well. If you are interested, let me know and I will leave an answer rather than a sequence of comments. – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 19:15
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    @PeteL.Clark: If you want to change things, then offer change, be constructive, don't threaten to leave. If there are other things you disagree on the way comments are managed (which is global policy, not only Academia.SE), then please raise a new question on meta, that's the way to do it. Any constructive criticism is always welcome :) – user102 Feb 18 '14 at 19:48
  • I have just left a very substantial answer, which I hope shows that I am committed to fully engaging with these issues. In particular I responded to your assertion about "global policy" in my answer (tl;dr: you're right, but global policy need not supercede local policy; it's for us, in part, to decide). About threatening to leave: as I also described, I did it once before and found it to be "constructive" in the sense that the situation improved on the issue. – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 20:28
  • With respect to threatening to leave: I am well aware that if one makes this threat too many times one turns into Eric Cartman. This is the second time I've done it, on the same issue as the first (and in which time I did leave for a while while things improved). – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 20:29
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    @PeteL.Clark - I personally find your threat to leave both distasteful and vacuous. Your threat is not to either me or my fellow moderators, but rather to the community who set the policies which we enforce. You state that your previous departure (which I assume was related to this and this) was constructive; that scenario was wildly different from this one, for more reasons than I care to list. Suffice to state, Math.SE is run far differently than any other SE site, this one included. – eykanal Feb 18 '14 at 20:55
  • @eykanal: It is not a threat per se: I am communicating what I feel is necessary for me to say. "Suffice to state, Math.SE is run far differently than any other SE site, this one included." Yes. Should it be? – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 21:25
  • And in what sense is my potentially leaving the site "vacuous"? – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 21:28
  • @PeteL.Clark - It's vacuous in that it is entirely unilateral, and therefore completely devoid of any ability to effect change. For myself and Charles, at least, your threat adds nothing to your argument, and I would venture that to be true for the rest of the community... we'll see. Regarding your other question, you use the word "should"; that's irrelevant, it simply is. We are definitely not aiming to mimic how Math.SE is run here, if that's what you're asking. – eykanal Feb 18 '14 at 21:37
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    @eykanal: There has already been some change. I also honestly don't understand how the word should could be irrelevant. Surely you are not suggesting that academia.SE could not possibly be run in the same way as mathoverflow.net (which you seem to neglect in your answers, despite the fact that it was one of most successful of all SE sites) and math.SE: of course it could be. Doesn't it depend on what the community wants? – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 21:49
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    I also don't understand why my actions are guaranteed to be devoid of affecting change. They are unilateral as yet: most actions start that way. Previous actions my part did effect change on other SE sites. The real question is here is whether the present community cares and how they feel. (The other question honestly is: is the current community large enough to make it worthwhile to take any strong actions? It all seems a little teapotesque at the moment.) – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 21:55
  • @PeteL.Clark - "Your actions", generally speaking, may effect change; see this very thread for proof. "Threatening to quit", specifically, is completely unproductive and will not cause any change. – eykanal Feb 18 '14 at 21:59
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    @eykanal: I agree that this thread is proof of positive change: let's linger on that agreement for a moment. For me, the "threatening to quit" (not my words) is a way of communicating the intensity of my feelings and describing necessary conditions for a site that I will participate in. Since I assume that the majority of the users of the site don't know me at all, I agree that "Oh, no! We can't lose Pete L. Clark!" is not a plausible reaction. That is not the response I am looking for, if that's what you're wondering. – Pete L. Clark Feb 18 '14 at 22:16
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    I think conflict in comments is too infrequent to justify making any generalized decision about the types of comments this stack permits. Personally, I think we ought to be permissive in this regard. It seems to me that, protracted, and sometimes off topic, conversations in the comments sections are conversations that are being enjoyed by the parties. If enjoying this stack is important, then that's reason to be permissive. If enjoyment of the stack increases its membership, and if increased membership is desired, then we have another reason to be permissive. – Hal Feb 19 '14 at 19:30
  • @Hal: I understand your point, but it's a dangerous slope. On a related topic, we have had plenty of conversations about whether closing off-topic questions was not pushing away new users, and some people argue that we should be as permissive as possible, in order to attract as much people as possible. However, doing so will also drive away users who don't want to be in such a noise. That's the same thing for comments, some users don't want to see Ac.SE becoming a conversation board, and being too permissive might drive them away. See meta.academia.stackexchange.com/a/809/102 – user102 Feb 19 '14 at 20:22

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