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OK, I'm going to escalate this to a formal complaint. The active deletion of comments that are not harmful to the site has to stop.

Under this answer, there was a brief but meaningful dialog in the comments related to programming language choice, a topic that is addressed directly in my answer. These comments were not inflammatory, nor were they attacking someone else, nor were they derogatory in any way. They weren't chatty or noisy. Strictly speaking, they weren't even off-topic. They contained useful information.

I'm not sure what has changed that has caused moderation to become so aggressive with respect to comments, but it is a moderation change, one that has taken place without consulting the community first, one that is hurting this site.

Now, I understand that there are sites on the SE network where off-topic comments are a huge problem, where comments have to be moderated aggressively. This isn't one of those sites. This is a technical site; it has nothing to do with politics, interpersonal relations or religion.

I also understand that the gold standard for comments is that they are supposed to "clarify the post, or ask for clarification." But this is a stopgap rule that is intended to shut down abusers of the commenting system, not a prescription for stopping ordinary conversations, especially ones that are relevant to the conversation taking place in the posts.

Software Engineering doesn't have a commenting problem. Quit trying to find problems where none exist!

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    If this is becoming a petition, tell me where to sign it. Could not agree more! – Doc Brown Jan 2 at 20:38
  • Related: When should comments be deleted?. I hope Thomas did not change his mind completely since 2011. – Doc Brown Jan 2 at 20:48
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    I likely have an observer bias, but my perception is that even when my comments are phrased in the form of a request for clarification ("can you say more about...", "did you try X and what was the result?", and so on) they are frequently deleted or "moved to chat". Low-quality questions that are hard to answer is a much bigger problem for me than irrelevant comments; let's focus on that. – Eric Lippert Jan 2 at 20:57
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    @EricLippert: If I see a comment in the form, "did you try X and what was the result," I'll flag it as "It's no longer needed" once the poster edits their post to say, "I tried X and this was the result." That's not to say that I consider such comments a problem, but rather that such comments have already accomplished their goal. If the poster replies to the comment (rather than modifying their post), I don't flag such comments, since doing so removes useful information. That said, I would not fault other users/moderators if they moved such replies into the answer, then deleted the comments. – Brian Jan 2 at 22:00
  • @Brian: Thanks for that insight; that sounds like a reasonable policy. – Eric Lippert Jan 2 at 22:01
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    I've seen many cases of moderators selectively deleting comments and even answers that don't agree with their personal opinions. Not so much on this SE site but on several others it's endemic. – jwenting Jan 8 at 10:12
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    @RobertHarvey I'm unsure what that has to do with anything. I've been around SE a long time on other accounts. I'm quite familiar with the horrible moderation here. – user91988 Jan 14 at 21:37
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I do feel that in many circumstances there exists a gap in our definition of what is a "useful" comment that should be preserved. Chatting back and forth I think we can all agree belongs in a chat room because most of it is non-relevant or it involves two or more people discussing aspects of the question or answer that could hopefully lead to an improved question or answer, or possibly other useful questions. These types of comments tend to outlive their usefulness though once they lead to positive edits and changes in the question or answers and generally they can be removed.

I think though a common theme that we see frequently in the Software Engineering site is that students, junior level engineers and developers or generally less experienced professionals will run into a problem where they need some guidance, and they may have some specific question that they THINK they should ask, when in reality they are cluing more seasoned engineers into a more general problem that the OP should consider, or they have a fundamental misunderstanding of some important concept.

So when this happens we are really at a fork in terms of how the community will respond. The question itself may in fact be good and valid, but a more experienced engineer will see that even if they directly answer the question, they are not really going to help the OP with their most likely problem. The question and answers are relevant, however some very important and valuable comments can be made that are hugely beneficial to both the OP and potentially others in the same plight. Those comments again, may have nothing to do with the question or answers, but are potentially important.

I know personally that if I were to blindly follow the rules then I would be expected to delete such comments, but then I think that is why community moderators have some discretion here. It is inherently subjective, so you can't always apply objective literal rules to this.

The rules INFORM our decisions but do not dictate them.

I am wrestling with the idea in my head at the moment to propose a change on Stackexchange Meta where we can classify comments and potentially segregate them in a more meaningful way so as to preserve interesting and informative commentary without it taking focus from the question and answers themselves. I just haven't organized my thoughts on it and would like community involvement here to help me figure out how this can potentially work on a grand scale before I throw it to the wolves on Meta.

I do not enjoy contributing material that may be removed without warning, without recourse, and without reasonable, common-sense rules for determining when I can and cannot say something.

The thing that I want people to keep in mind however is that any content in any form that we provide on this site is community owned so it is at the discretion of the community if a question, answer or comment should be edited or deleted. In no way is anybody arguing that you SHOULD NOT say something that you feel is important. If it is not rude or abusive or violates site rules, then you SHOULD contribute if you feel you have something valuable to say. You are not doing anything wrong here but I understand that it sucks when what you post is not being received well by the community. Understand that someone in the community flagged your comment and a moderator reviewed and made a decision about it. Nobody is actively hunting for these things ( i would hope not ) trying to "cleanse" Stackexchange and certainly nobody is targeting your content purposefully.

Falling on your sword and playing the martyr isn't going to be helpful either as it just effectively encourages division and discourages communication on behalf of the community. Lets focus our passions to how we can solve this problem.

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    The problem could be greatly simplified by simply not responding to automated flags in this way. Automated comment flags do not represent the intent of the community; they are simply triggers that the system provides that say "You might want to check this for problems." If community members are flagging my comments as chatty, irrelevant conversation, I can accept that, but that's not what appears to have happened here. – Robert Harvey Jan 6 at 18:22
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    As to the "segregation of comments," I strongly feel that diamond moderators on the Stack Exchange network spend a disproportionately large amount of time evaluating, moderating and in general ruminating about comments. For the most part, I think it's a waste of time; comment moderation by diamonds should generally be limited to controlling incivility. Comments exist for a singular reason: to provide an escape value for content that doesn't belong in posts. It's always been this way, from the network's inception. – Robert Harvey Jan 6 at 18:36
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    @RobertHarvey I can't speak for other diamonds, but for myself, I rarely take action on the auto-generated Comment flags, and usually when I do, I am deleting stuff like +1 excellent answer, you go girl!, -1 it stings when I pee, etc... Believe it or not, half of the comment flags I deal with are submitted by real human beings and those I take a little more seriously. – maple_shaft Jan 6 at 18:41
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I enjoy this site because of the collaboration with other people. Much of that collaboration occurs in comments on questions and answers.

Moderators are expected to have the following attributes:

  • are patient and fair
  • lead by example
  • show respect for their fellow community members in their actions and words
  • are open to some light but firm moderation to keep the community on track and resolve (hopefully) uncommon disputes and exceptions

To Thomas Owens and other site moderators, please remember that this is a community. Please don't take your job so seriously that you become a machine and remove all humanity from the site, because in doing so you will inevitably remove the people who have made it what it is.

I'd like to see moderators tend more towards a community-oriented policing strategy and encourage discussion than simply reacting to issues and enforcing policies verbatim.

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    To be fair, let me say I am convinced Thomas follows these expectations by heart, his work as a mod was excellent in my eyes over the last years. (That does not mean I agree here on deletion of the specific comments in stake). – Doc Brown Jan 3 at 22:54
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Speaking personally - and not directly about this case as I didn't handle any flags here or delete any comments - I don't go looking for comments to delete. I will only delete comments in response to flags, be they the automatic flags we get (too many comments, rude, etc.) or ones raised by other users.

My view is that if someone has decided that a comment should be removed - for whatever reason - then I should be looking for reasons why they're wrong and the comment should stay. If I can't find any then the the comment will get removed.

We are a community and the moderators are guided by the users. On occasion we may have to go against the prevailing views of the community, but these occasions should be rare and infrequent.

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  • Automated flags are not really a decision of the kind you describe. For the most part, they are designed to catch arguments or off-topic diatribes. – Robert Harvey Jan 4 at 15:28
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    "We are a community and the moderators are guided by the users." At present, that does not seem to be the case. Thomas Owens clearly seems to follow the rules in accord with his own interpretation, not in accord with the interpretation of the community at large. His post does not seem to indicate any wiggle room for the community to say "no, we really want to retain comments like that" in a way by which he will abide. – Nicol Bolas Jan 6 at 3:15
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Comments are not for extended discussion or conversations, even about topics addressed in the post. Comments are for three things: requesting clarification, leaving constructive criticism, or adding minor additional information that may not be easily editable into the post. In addition, once a point has been clarified or criticisms addressed, the comment becomes no longer needed and can be deleted.

If a post raises an interesting point, perhaps it should be escalated to a new question or to a chat room and linked to in a message, depending on what the point is. I do wish that it was easier to spawn chat rooms associated with questions or if there was an equivalent of the Wikipedia "talk" page for questions and/or answers, but these don't exist right now. There are limitations in the tools that we have to work with, but that doesn't mean that we should abuse those that we have for things that they aren't well suited for.

I know that personally, my moderation of comments has not changed. The moment that a flag is raised on a comment, I review all of the comments on that post per the intent of comments in the first paragraph here and deleted anything that did not meet that definition of what a comment is. Comment moderation, unlike post moderation of questions and answers, isn't something I personally do in passing unless it's offensive (which is very rare here) - every time I review and handle comments it's in response to a flag on at least one of them. I'm not sure if any of the other mods have become more strict or not, but I wouldn't suspect so.


Since no one else can see the deleted comments, I believe that this screenshot may be helpful. The deleted comments are interesting, but irrelevant to the topic being discussed. The question is about TDD being taught in universities, and the answer does a good job of addressing it. However, the deleted comments go off on what I would consider a tangent about other aspects of an academic program, such as good options for a first programming language. Although interesting, irrelevant to both the question and this particular answer.

I opted not to delete comments that are clearly about TDD in university academic programs.

We don't keep questions just because they are interesting. They need to meet our quality guidelines. Likewise, we don't keep comments just because they are interesting, but because they add value to the question and answer. I do not believe that a discussion of first programming languages and order of programming languages adds value to the topic of teaching TDD.

deleted comments screenshot

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    Can you please review the post I cited, and evaluate whether the comments that were deleted were sufficiently harming the site to justify deletion? – Robert Harvey Jan 2 at 23:40
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    OK, I have an ask. Would it be too much trouble if, when you get an automated comments flag, that you just leave the comments there unless you've identified actual harm? I understand removing chatty comments if people are talking about what kind of coffee they drink in the morning, but these were comments that actually pertained to the subject matter at hand. – Robert Harvey Jan 3 at 17:00
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    @RobertHarvey What you are proposing is a fundamental change to moderation policy that has been in place for longer than I've been a moderator here (which is nearly 8 years at this point). I don't see any reason why I should not remove comments that do not conform to the network-wide definition of what a comment is or how they should be used. There would need to be some serious discussion around why changing is better than not that includes why it's better for this site and why deviating from a consistent, network-wide policy won't lead to friction and poor user experience. – Thomas Owens Jan 3 at 17:08
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    @ThomasOwens: Well, I was a moderator for longer than you (not that this is a competition), and I can tell you with confidence that Stack Exchange has no interest in moderators removing comments that have value to others. Moderators are supposed to exercise judgement, not slavishly and mechanically conform to legalistic rules and definitions. Unnecessarily removing comments that are part of an on-topic, thoughtful dialog already leads to friction and a poor user experience. – Robert Harvey Jan 3 at 17:45
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    @RobertHarvey I don't agree - comments that do not do one of the three things do not add value. I exercise judgement when I read the post and the thread of comments attached to it, and then when I delete any comment that doesn't meet what a comment is for. It's what I've done for 8 years and I really have yet to see a good reason to change. I'm not sure what has changed that has caused this to be an issue, and I'm open to changing what I do, but I have yet to see an argument to do so. – Thomas Owens Jan 3 at 17:47
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    @DocBrown I wish the mod chat functions were better. The mod "move to chat" moves all comments on the post to a chat room. There's no way to selectively move comments. That means that the ones that make sense and should be attached to the post also get moved to that chat. Unfortunately, the available tools are a bit...limited and lacking. – Thomas Owens Jan 4 at 1:10
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    @RobertHarvey I don't agree. Your first paragraph mentions a language. But language choice and what makes a good first language is irrelevant to teaching TDD. I'd even argue that paragraph is irrelevant to the rest of your answer and could even be edited out with no harm done. And yes, the harm is severe - it sets a very bad example, for not only people here, but for people trying to participate across the network when they go to places with even more strict comment moderation than what we have here. Our comment moderation is on the more lax side compared to some sites in the network. – Thomas Owens Jan 4 at 15:36
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    @ThomasOwens: as I wrote in a different thread, I see more harm in cutting down some discussion completely than by being a little bit more liberal about what is on-topic in the comment section. For this post here, I hope you agree moving the deleted comments to chat would have been a way better action. If that was not possible for you because of missing tools, I think you had two options: leave the comments where they were, or move everything to chat (even if that means some on-topic comments were moved also). ... – Doc Brown Jan 5 at 9:08
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    And a 365 day suspension because Robert disagrees on you here? Seriously? Note the suspension blocks him effectively from not just from writing here on Meta.SE, but from giving more answers on SoftwareEngineering.SE - and that will harm the site. – Doc Brown Jan 5 at 9:15
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    If the comments are commenting on the answer (and not the question) then all the deleted one are perfectly valid - the answer describes how TDD fits in with other aspects of a good curriculum, and the comments are directly related to that, particularly his point 1. – gbjbaanb Jan 5 at 16:08
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    @ThomasOwens: though I understand your points why you deleted the comments, I see Robert and you both heavily overreacting here. That is IMHO not setting a particular good example of how such a case should be handled, either. – Doc Brown Jan 5 at 17:56
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    @ThomasOwens: "There are limitations in the tools that we have to work with, but that doesn't mean that we should abuse those that we have for things that they aren't well suited for." My issue comes down to this: if you would move some of the comments to chat if you could, but you don't want to move all of them, why is it better to delete all of them rather than just preserve them all? I mean, you clearly recognize that there is some value to them, or else you wouldn't have wanted to preserve them in a chatroom, right? – Nicol Bolas Jan 6 at 3:18
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    Will the suspension be automatically retracted when the comments are deleted? ;) – ypercubeᵀᴹ Jan 6 at 15:47
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    To all... I am stepping in. I am lifting the suspension until cooler heads prevail. I don't believe that suspension is justified, even on request. I can't recall if we ever ran into the scenario of someone asking to be suspended before, so we are treading new water. Please don't judge @ThomasOwens on this action as we really don't have a playbook for this scenario yet, – maple_shaft Jan 6 at 16:26
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    Hopefully I've adequately made my point. I enjoy contributing to this community but I do not enjoy contributing material that may be removed without warning, without recourse, and without reasonable, common-sense rules for determining when I can and cannot say something. – Robert Harvey Jan 6 at 16:57

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