Moving this discussion about comment moderation from an unrelated question to here:

@all: the two comments I posted earlier this evening have been removed, but not by me. I have asked the moderators to look into this somewhat distressing development. – Pete L. Clark 2 hours ago

@pete looks like they were flagged as offensive and removed. Perhaps you can try reprhrasing in a way that others might not find as offensive? – Jeff Atwood♦ 2 hours ago

@Jeff: Dear Jeff, I've read @Pete's posts on many internet forums by now, and I think it very unlikely that his comments were genuinely offensive. – Akhil Mathew♦ 2 hours ago

@akhil I guess some people have different thresholds for what they find offensive. I would personally rather err on the side of safety. – Jeff Atwood♦ 1 hour ago

@Jeff Atwood: I have corresponded with the other moderators, who believe that we have a serious issue here. They have encouraged me to take certain actions, which I want to take time to consider. But let me be sure that I understand your last comment: when you say "looks like they were flagged as offensive and removed", do you mean that you have access to these deleted comments, as regular moderators do not? Could you please clarify whether the comments were removed by you, and how many flags they had at the time? Whether you are willing to be open about this will inform my response. – Pete L. Clark 1 hour ago

@Jeff: I have a lot of trouble believing Pete managed to be offensive. If this removal is the result of some automatic process initiated by flags, then it is probably a great example of why such an automated process is simply absurd (along with arguments based on the side of safety...). If it is not the result of an automated process, then I think someone —I don't know exactly who— owes us an explanation. – Mariano Suárez-Alvarez 40 mins ago

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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff Atwood: Is this the extent of your response to my question above? $\endgroup$ Apr 17, 2011 at 5:21
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    $\begingroup$ @pete I go through hundreds of flags a day on Stack Overflow and many other Stack Exchange sites. (To be fair the bulk of that is SO, which generates on the order of 1k flags / day). If I see a comment that is flagged, I follow the procedure I outlined in my answer -- the same procedure we recommend to every Stack Exchange moderator, on every Stack Exchange site. $\endgroup$ Apr 17, 2011 at 5:28
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    $\begingroup$ @pete perhaps the problem is terminology. We group "unconstructive" under "offensive", but I now think that leads to confusion and we should make that explicit rather than implied (and also, no need to paint an "offensive" brush). Perhaps the copy should be changed to say flag this comment as unconstructive, offensive, or spam. I'll make that change now. $\endgroup$ Apr 17, 2011 at 5:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: once more I am asking for a straight answer to a specific question. I think you are now admitting that you yourself removed the two comments of mine: could you confirm this? Are you also claiming that someone besides you had flagged them? As you see, I am seeking to understand the situation as fully as possible before reacting. $\endgroup$ Apr 17, 2011 at 6:45
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    $\begingroup$ @pete revealing the identity of flagging users is not allowed by our privacy policy. stackexchange.com/legal/privacy-policy ; sorry. I will definitely remove any non-constructive flagged comments I encounter, per my answer. (Or, edit away the non-constructive bits, when possible.) $\endgroup$ Apr 17, 2011 at 6:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: When you wrote "Perhaps you can try reprhrasing [sic] in a way that others might not find as offensive?" you seem to be implying that someone was offended by one of my comments. Based upon what you've said since then, it seems that you could at most see that someone had flagged the comment which, as you've recently said, could be done for other reasons besides finding it "offensive". So it seems that the only way you could know this is if you found the comment(s) offensive. Is this correct? $\endgroup$ Apr 17, 2011 at 6:57
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    $\begingroup$ @pete offensive isn't the correct term, as I realized when I composed my answer. What we look at is "is this flagged comment constructive?" Apologies for the error in copy (which has since been modified and deployed live now); the intent is, and has always been, about constructive comments. Actual offensive comments are kind of rare, though it does happen too .. for example meta.stackexchange.com/questions/76808/… $\endgroup$ Apr 17, 2011 at 6:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff Atwood: I didn't ask you to reveal the identity of flagging users. I asked whether anyone besides you flagged the comment. I don't see how answering this could possibly violate anyone's privacy except possibly yours. $\endgroup$ Apr 17, 2011 at 7:03
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    $\begingroup$ @pete the golden rule for comments is, "are these comments constructive?" I encourage you to post your comments as an answer to the question, if you feel they were genuinely constructive and removed in error. (But I agree, they probably weren't offensive, as very few comments are statistically speaking. Anyway, that's the wrong part of the criteria to talk about -- which is why I updated the flag help to reflect the actual guidance we give to SE community moderators: is this comment constructive?) $\endgroup$ Apr 17, 2011 at 7:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff Atwood: I was trying to gather specific information to deal with a serious situation. It seems that you have said as much as you are going to in this matter: I'm disappointed that you were not willing to answer more forthrightly. Some of the other moderators have told me that they are working to draft a formal response, which may include some assumptions about your actions whereas I was hoping for facts. For my part I will stop participating on this site until and unless significant changes are made. $\endgroup$ Apr 17, 2011 at 7:26
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    $\begingroup$ @pete that's a shame. If you -- or any other user -- feel your constructive comments were incorrectly removed as non-constructive, I encourage you to post them as an answer to the question. I was hoping you'd do so, and I'm similarly disappointed that you chose not to. You will be missed. $\endgroup$ Apr 17, 2011 at 7:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff Atwood: You did not answer the key question whether the comments were actually flagged at the time you removed them. $\endgroup$ Apr 18, 2011 at 2:18
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    $\begingroup$ What's even more ridiculous, Jeff failed to even acknowledge the question. Sorry about commenting on a year-old answer but it is really disturbing. $\endgroup$
    – user23211
    Jul 1, 2012 at 3:18

1 Answer 1


I would say first of all that the guidance in the comment flagging mouseover is a logical place to start:

flag this comment as noise, offensive, or spam

Bear in mind too that comments, particularly on meta, are lightweight and ephemeral -- they aren't versioned, support very limited editing, are limited to 600 characters, and cannot be voted both up and down.

My guidance to all Stack Exchange community moderators is that ..

  • if a comment is flagged
  • if the moderator agrees that the comment does not add to the post in a constructive way

.. it should be removed.

If it's possible to edit the comment to remove the spam / noisy / offensive bits and leave something of value, then that's also a valid option.

Now, there is some question about what "offensive" means (and noise and spam for that matter..), but aside from extreme (and hopefully obvious) examples of offensive comments, I'd also include:

  • snark
  • rudeness
  • cruelty

... and in general any comments where you have reason to believe the person who posted the comment is acting, whether intentionally or not, negatively toward other community members, and / or in bad faith. These are similarly unconstructive and should be removed.

(edit: after writing this and thinking about it a bit more, I realized we could be more clear here. We are now changing the comment flag guidance to …

flag this comment as unconstructive, offensive, or spam

… since that indeed wasn't as literal as it could have been, and it is always better to be explicit to prevent confusion.)

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    $\begingroup$ see also: meta.math.stackexchange.com/questions/1620/… $\endgroup$ Apr 17, 2011 at 5:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: Dear Jeff, I don't think the thread linked to in the comment is relevant (at all) to the present situation. $\endgroup$ Apr 17, 2011 at 13:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff, now that I know which comments were deleted, I have to say: Pete's comment starting with "@everyone else: I scratched my head for a good while about this" was very much constructive. When I saw your announcement, I also scratched my head, and I was tempted to leave a comment with the very same content (just differently formulated). $\endgroup$ Apr 17, 2011 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ @hendrik "just differently formulated" indeed, the formulation was off. I urged Pete to reformulate his comments at least 3 times, no dice. $\endgroup$ Apr 17, 2011 at 22:16
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    $\begingroup$ @akhil I think it's similar enough, particularly in that it illustrates how certain people can't see at all how anyone could possibly construe a comment as offensive when others clearly do. Or was I misreading you when you said, "I'm very confused as to how the comments could have been offensive" ? The linked question directly addresses this. $\endgroup$ Apr 18, 2011 at 10:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: Thanks for your feedback. I'm becoming a bit nit-picky, but over there you wrote "I felt there was nothing of value left after removing the non-constructive ad-hominem parts of the comments." Above you seem to imply that it was mainly the formulation that was off, but that the content was OK. Now I wonder, was that comment unconstructive or offensive? $\endgroup$ Apr 18, 2011 at 15:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff, just to point out why I find the "scratching head" comment constructive: Compare the reaction to your announcement here and on meta.tex.sx. Over at meta.tex.sx you got one answer with a total of 5 conferences. For math, I wouldn't know where to start. Just google "math conferences 2011", and you'll already find maybe 100 conferences on ams.org. To me it seems that, by posting almost identical announcements, you failed to thoroughly search for an answer before asking your question ;-) $\endgroup$ Apr 18, 2011 at 15:44
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    $\begingroup$ @hendrik the community has to be in charge of the initiative; just like a university administrator, I am neither a biologist, nor a mathematician, or a cook -- I defer to the individual departments in specifically mapping the way forward. As for the comments, I found (oddly) that the "summary" that Dr. Clark mailed Akhil (his recollection of his comments) was much more constructive. You can look at the post yourself and compare.. $\endgroup$ Apr 18, 2011 at 17:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Jeff: Thanks again for the feedback. I agree with your first sentence, but it would really have been useful if you had pointed out that this announcement went to all the "departments". (The problem with your comparison is that at a university, in all the departments you have professional scientists, and they'd all attend scientific conferences. On the other hand, e.g. a TeX conference wouldn't aim to be scientific.) As for the comments, could you please point out for me what to compare? I was referring to the text here all the time. $\endgroup$ Apr 18, 2011 at 18:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: I can't believe that you don't see what you have become! "...does not add to the post in a constructive way"? That is completely subjective! Surely you don't trust yourself to adjudicate such comments when they are directed at you personally? Yet it seems that you do. I think you are endangering the survival of math.stackexchange.com if you refuse to admit that you acted hastily. Perhaps you don't care. $\endgroup$
    – TonyK
    Apr 21, 2011 at 20:50

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