As I go at length in this answer, I believe the recent kerfuffle over the comment system stems from a misunderstanding of the comment system's purpose. I would like to request that the FAQ be amended to include an answer to a question somewhat like "What kind of comments should I leave?" and "What kind of comments should I not leave?"

The current (implicit) policy (consisting of merely guidelines that the community may interpret, rather than hard rules) behind the comment system I believe is that comments are primarily intended to provide clarifications to questions and answers by identifying errors and ambiguities, and that any contributions of substance should, be either edited into the original question/answer whenever possible or fleshed out in a wholly separate answer, with exceptions made for short (essentially chat-like) contributions of length less than a paragraph of 600 characters.

Corrections to any misreading (if any) of the FAQ and suggestions for how the policy should be worded are welcome.

is this comment appropriate? –  BBischof Dec 10 '10 at 18:50
It is a chat-like contribution of length less than a paragraph of 600 characters, so yes :-P –  Vladimir Sotirov Dec 10 '10 at 22:27

2 Answers 2

Detailed protocol for comments will tend to create "etiquette war" metadiscussion on the main site, with comments, FAQ links, and harsh words continually posted over whether particular comment styles are FAQ-compliant.

Also, the standards for suitable commenting will vary between main site and meta, causing more conflict of the same type in the meta, or requiring still more elaboration in any FAQ.

I think that having a comment feature and letting the usage pattern develop naturally and informally is better than trying to regulate it.

"I think that having a comment feature and letting the usage pattern develop naturally and informally is better than trying to regulate it." +1 just for this. Using not-so-common sense, I think, is much better than having to write up a bunch of dictates. –  J. M. Dec 10 '10 at 19:09

A problem I think is that there can never be a definite delineation between what ought to be a comment and what ought to be a new answer. The phrase "contribution of substance" is almost by definition something subjective. Early on in the community there has been some instances when individuals judged that it is best to essentially re-post a previous answer (by someone else) because adding 5 or 6 omitted steps is a "contribution of substance". While I personally don't think adding those steps goes toward clarification in any significant way, I can see how for users less involved in mathematics, those 5 or 6 steps can go a long way to make the answer more understandable.

Now, if a user already has 2000+ rep, then it may be argued that the best thing to do was to edit the original post and include those steps. But for the most part, users with the power to edit other people's posts, at this early stage in the community, tend to precisely be those individuals for whom those 5 or 6 steps are obvious and it wouldn't occur to them to edit in the clarification.

I think to define exactly what should or should not go into comments is a Herculean task, and one for which it is unclear whether there can be a resolution. Given that any definition you make will probably involve some subjective qualitative judgement, I think it is better/easier to just leave it ambiguous like it is now.

I think we should be very cautious about adding "extra steps" to other people's answers. At the same time, I don't think that it's worthwhile to post a "new answer" for something that is just an obvious (to me) extension of an existing answer. So I use comments for simple clarifications or extensions. –  Carl Mummert Dec 14 '10 at 3:24

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