We have previously discussed that we don't want comments to be used for answers, but we also seem to not want under-developed answers either.

This leads to a problem where we need a reasonably clear set of criteria for determining if a post should be an answer or a comment, otherwise some posts may leave some people thinking it should be a comment while others think it should be an answer.

What criteria should we use for determining if a post should be a comment or an answer? Should we (or do we need to) have a middle ground where either option is ok?

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    AJ, is there a recent specific motivation for this meta question? That is, have the mods seen increased flagging of comments-as-answers, or increased discussions in comments about asking a comment to be posted as an answer, or increased pushback when requested to write an answer instead of posting as comment, or...? – scottbb Dec 12 '17 at 1:00
  • @scottbb Yes, yes and yes. – AJ Henderson Dec 12 '17 at 3:34
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    I suspected as much. – scottbb Dec 12 '17 at 5:34

It's not obvious, but the Help Center actually does have (some limited) guidance about when and when not to comment. While the Help Center's Privileges pages feel a bit like an unused, forgotten card catalog in a library in the age of internet search, they are nonetheless part of the Help Center. The Comment Everywhere Privilege page has guidance on when and when not to comment:

When should I comment?

You should submit a comment if you want to:

  • Request clarification from the author;
  • Leave constructive criticism that guides the author in improving the post;
  • Add relevant but minor or transient information to a post (e.g. a link to a related question, or an alert to the author that the question has been updated).

When shouldn't I comment?

Comments are not recommended for any of the following:

  • Suggesting corrections that don't fundamentally change the meaning of the post; instead, make or suggest an edit;
  • Answering a question or providing an alternate solution to an existing answer; instead, post an actual answer (or edit to expand an existing one);
  • Compliments which do not add new information ("+1, great answer!"); instead, up-vote it and pay it forward;
  • Criticisms which do not add anything constructive ("-1, see previous comments you scallywag!"); instead, down-vote (and provide or up-vote a better answer if appropriate);
  • Secondary discussion or debating a controversial point; please use chat instead;
  • Discussion of community behavior or site policies; please use meta instead.

Personally, I don't think much more guidance needs to be made: it is just guidance or recommendation after all. The guidance works best when the gentle hand of the community members politely ask people to move "answerments" to actual Answers, and the commenter creates a full-fledged Answer.

I'm not sure how much additional guidance should be provided. Over-specifying the cases runs the risk of overcomplicating the situation, and creating extra cover for "but why was my comment deleted when comment X was left alone on question Y" scenarios. Too-specific rules beget rules-lawyering.


Full disclosure: I have violated all but the "-1, scallywag!" Criticism anti-pattern above, in comments, on multiple occasions. I am not immune from temptation to violate the guidance on occasion. I think it's important to note that the "policy" is more guidance or recommendation than dictum. Guidance/recommendation allows the community to steer behavior from amongst the populace, rather than be dictated to from on high.

More importantly, it allows for the exceptions to prove the rule:

  • Encouraging comments to first-timers. "Hi [new user], welcome to Photo.SE. This is a great answer! I especially liked [point X that you made]." I do this from time to time to hopefully provide some encouragement for a new user. This is contrary to the Compliments admonition above, but it serves a short-term use. If I were diligent and vigilant, I'd go back and remove the comment after a few days / weeks.

  • Fun. Sometimes, there are some real gems in the comments. Good ol' fashioned (and well-meaning) internet snark sometimes is gold. This is probably the canonical case of comment exceptions that prove the rule. Gems are the most brilliant in the absence of a bunch of shiny junk rocks. They should be allowed to shine.

  • Secondary discussion: I have done it many times. If it's apparent that there's going to be a bit of back-and-forth between me and another commenter, I'll actually actively churn out response comments, in order to more quickly trigger the "Please avoid extended discussions in comments; Consider moving this discussion to chat" option. Then I'll move it to chat, and flag the entire discussion chain to be deleted. Win-win.

Note that the first and last points are transitory in nature. They are short-term violation of the guidelines, followed by cleanup.

  • At the same time, most of these scenarios are expected that clean up occurs at some point. That's still a mod that has to come through and clean it up. I removed some posts which appeared to be answers in comments that were ignoring that that isn't what comments are for (and counter to the specific meta consensus of why it's a problem) so I cleaned them up but then the argument was brought up about whether it really constituted an answer. I guess maybe it will have to stay as just being a judgement call, but I'd like some more community thoughts to make it feel less arbitrary. – AJ Henderson Dec 12 '17 at 6:24
  • @AJHenderson I can certainly understand the frustration. Ideally, mods' jobs in this regard should fall more towards responding to flags on comments, and doing cleanup after the answerment was asked to be moved to an Answer, etc., rather than doing the "dirty work" themselves. On the margin, I suggest leaning towards erring on the side of cleaning out comments, rather than leaving them to cruft up. I'm sorry that the answer boils down to "use your judgement. Good luck!" But that's why you get paid the big bucks. Oh, wait.... =P – scottbb Dec 12 '17 at 14:13
  • Yeah, and in fairness, I'd except "we don't think there is a better option just keep doing what you are doing" I suppose. Just as long as the community is on board. The question was raised objecting that it seemed arbitrary, so I wanted to at least see if the community had any insight or particular desires to see things a certain way. – AJ Henderson Dec 12 '17 at 14:17
  • There's a Q&A about editing the Help Center: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/279879/… - In addition to the "Tour Badge" there should be a "Help Reader" badge that shows someone skimmed the help pages and can then post or enter phone #s / URLs in their profile. Rules could be edited or emphasized and people ought to follow them, that way when the mods come to work there's not a lot of unnecessary work to do. I'm OK with the rules as-is and I'm OK with some refinements, as long as everyone rows the same way. – Rob Dec 12 '17 at 16:15

Any attempt to sufficiently answer the question, should be posted as an answer rather than a comment, regardless of whether it's a good answer or not. In the latter case, the better course of action would be to spent some time improving it to make it more acceptable, rather than to post it as a comment.

Remember that in the stack* system, questions and answers are the meat and potatoes of the site and comments are just condiments. Comments earn no reputation and cannot be made by new users. They are really only there to support the primary use of the site, which is to make, refine and improve good questions and answers.

When a low quality answer is posted as a comment, nobody receives credit and you get the awkward situation where the original question asker cannot mark it as "accepted". The original comment-maker may not return and other people may be unwilling to repost it as an answer lest they be seen as taking credit for someone else's work. Nobody can edit the comment itself to improve it and there's no way to comment on a particular comment except for the confusing method of @-tagging the author of that comment.

All in all, even a bad answer is better as an answer than a comment. If it's too bad to stand as an answer and there is no way to improve it, deleting it is a better solution than to post it as a comment; posting a bad answer as a comment does not make it any more appropriate.

What is completely acceptable as a comment is asking the OP for clarification on the question.

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    You had me all the way up until your first item of acceptable comments: If you feel you have a partial solution but not enough to sufficiently answer the question. I'd argue that a partial solution that doesn't answer the question is roughly the same as a bad answer, and should be posted as an answer. From mattdm's comment to AJ's answer: "In my experience, when someone takes that answer they thought wasn't good enough to be an answer and makes it into one, it gets voted up, not deleted." – scottbb Jan 8 at 19:54
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    It seems like allowing (or even not discouraging) partial answers in comments would just wind up in several situations where lots of comments piecewise answer the question, which doesn't seem desirable. – scottbb Jan 8 at 19:56
  • @scottbb I've removed reference to that dot point from my answer because I agree I didn't put that very well. The type of "partial solution" I had in mind was, for example, when you know the problem is something to do with pam.conf but you have no idea what. I don't think you can post that as an answer. But I didn't express that very well above. – thomasrutter Jan 8 at 23:00
  • I completely hear ya, and I suspected roughly what you were referring to with that idea. Hell, I've done it myself. I suppose it's hard to define the type of non-answer comment that's acceptable, vs. one that's not. – scottbb Jan 8 at 23:04
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    Also, note that a wrong or low-quality answer can only be downvoted if it's posted as an answer. Since votes are what we use to guide people to the best answers, it's essential that answers are posted as answers. A comment with a few upvotes looks like good advice; an answer with a few upvotes and a bunch of downvotes looks like the bad advice that it really is. – David Richerby Jan 10 at 17:12

I think this is straightforward. This is a question and answer site, and we should focus on questions and answers.

Comments should be treated as transient. They should seek to clarify or otherwise improve the question or answer they're responding to.

If something is of high quality, it can stand as an answer. If it's not of high quality, it shouldn't be above the accepted and upvoted answers.

Comments can't be properly voted on, which defeats the collective mechanism for surfacing quality on the site. But that's just part of it — they also can't be edited to fix typos, update links, or anything else. They're not first-class objects on the site, and that's by design.

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    +1. This highlights my biggest issue with allowing comments to stand as answers: it subverts the reputation system of SE, the purpose of which is to promote and highlight the best answers ("best" as determined by the participation of the community). Proliferation of short answers as comments elevates the chaff above the wheat. – scottbb Dec 12 '17 at 0:44
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    @benrudgers a comments policy that was established without empirical evidence that it was needed. 1. The policy is basically SE universal. "Empirical evidence" is both unnecessary and superfluous in this case: it's the intention of the SE organization to discourage answers in comments. It's explicit in Help Center, and signposted in the blank comment boxes. The policy is soft-sold, allowing each SE community to have exceptions to prove the rule. You are arguing to change one of the M.O.'s of SE: the burden of providing empirical evidence is up to you. – scottbb Dec 12 '17 at 3:42
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    @mattdm The problem that makes this less clear is that people may have observations about the question that don't really cross over in to being answers. There is probably benefit to having these observations in comments as it will help contribute towards flushing out answers, but this also opens up a grey area that makes it hard to determine if someone's comments are an abuse of comments or not. – AJ Henderson Dec 12 '17 at 3:45

I think we should be more flexible in allowing and encouraging under-developed answers for a variety of reasons.

For example, so much usage is moving to mobile - and few will be typing out thesis length answers on a mobile device.

If you can answer even some of the main point of a question and add value - I think it should be an answer.

I don't personally have a better idea than "if it can be posted as a meaningful answer that covers the majority of the question being asked, then it should be an answer".

That is, however, still unfortunately quite subjective in trying to determine if it is an answer or a comment and doesn't even particularly lend itself to identifying an acceptable middle ground for either option to be valid.

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    In my experience, when someone takes that answer they thought wasn't good enough to be an answer and makes it into one, it gets voted up, not deleted. – mattdm Dec 12 '17 at 0:17
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    @benrudgers I mean... if people don't want to participate helpfully in the way the site works, there's not all that much can be done. – mattdm Dec 12 '17 at 1:30
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    @benrudgers except that the reward for writing something that is half way to an answer isn't deletion. If it answers the question, it should be posted as what it is and it won't be deleted. The problem is people repeatedly ignoring the way the site is supposed to work. We don't leave long discussions in comments even if they are meaningful. We clean them up. Repeated misuse of the mechanisms of the site is a reason to address problem behavior via deletion or stronger actions if necessary. – AJ Henderson Dec 12 '17 at 3:37
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    If people really want to make the site and internet better and want to participate constructively, they should be willing to follow the guidance of the community they are participating in or work on changing attitudes rather than simply ignoring the community's desires. – AJ Henderson Dec 12 '17 at 3:39
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    @benrudgers also note that I didn't say anything in this about deletion. I don't think that we should be immediately deleting every single time someone first posts an answer as a comment, but if they are consistently doing so then it needs action to be taken to correct the behavior (or a meta discussion needs to happen to stop worrying about answers as comments entirely). Either way, it isn't currently clear if someone is following the previous guidance and that's what I'm trying to flush out here. – AJ Henderson Dec 12 '17 at 3:43
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    @benrudgers I'd like to point out, again, that the usual course of action isn't for mods to delete "answerments". The vast majority of the time (that I can observe, as a non-mod), a community regular politely asks or encourages the commenter to post their comment as an answer, and links to the SAAC-PRTU meta discussion. Usually, the commenter posts the answer, and usually, the answer is better/more complete than the comment, and usually, receives upvotes. This is the way the community works. – scottbb Dec 12 '17 at 3:49
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    @scottbb - there have recently been some mod deletions of answers as comments in response to some repeated use of comments for answers by the same users, that is part of what prompted wanting to further clarify what is or isn't ok as a comment from the community because as it is now, reasonable opinions could differ on what is proper usage of comments. – AJ Henderson Dec 12 '17 at 3:56
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    Even if it doesn't cover the majority of the question being asked, it should be posted as an answer. Questions that encourage partial answers are probably too broad anyway. – David Richerby Jan 10 at 17:14

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