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It seems to me that is a growing trend of answering simple questions in a comment rather than with a proper answer posting. I think there are good reasons for resisting this trend.

  • An answer is more visible to people coming across the question at some later date.

  • The community can up vote a proper answer and thus remove the question from the unanswered question list.

From time to time I have converted comments into answers, but this is affected by my understanding {or lack thereof} of both the question and the answer, and doesn't always go well. So next time you feel the urge to post an answer in a comment, please take a little extra time and post it as a proper answer.

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    There is a third reason: I hate this banner saying we have 10% unanswered questions! I myself feel stupid sometimes when I answer a very simple question in a one-liner answer, but seeing this unanswered question floating around for days bugs me more. You have a big +1 from me for this! – halirutan Feb 28 '14 at 1:04
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    I feel goofy answering a simple question with a full-on answer vs comment. But not as goofy as when someone posts the exact content of my comment as an answer and gets rep... – ciao Feb 28 '14 at 7:52
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There are deeper reasons for answering in comments, than just laziness, I believe. I think this trend reflects the limitations of the SE model. What really happens is that often, one does not have the time for a proper answer, also because properly answering often gets one involved into subsequent discussions, corrections and what not - so it is a lot of extra responsibility which we are not always ready to accept, and not for every question.

Comments also often can give hints to less experienced users, who might still use those to produce good answers. So, in a way, I view answering in comments as a tool to help get more people involved in answering, and take some load off the main core of experts on the site.

This is not to say that I fully agree with the strategy to answer in comments. I just think that it has its uses, when used with care. The uses I appreciate range from posting half-baked ideas / answers, to answering very simple RTFM - style questions, to giving experienced folks with little time on the site a light-weight way to help.

I also fully agree that eventually, comments should be transformed to answers. I think that whoever posts the comment which (partly) answers the question, should make an implied promise to revisit the question at some later point, and convert the comment to a full-fledged answer if no answer has been posted. The community can also be helpful to remind such posters about such cases - like e.g. you did for a couple of my comments to questions which happened to remain unanswered.

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    My problem with this viewpoint is that less experienced users might not want to craft an answer from a veteran's comment because 1) they feel like stealing the idea; 2) they feel like the insight-part of the job was already done and they can only do the messy paperwork. One thing is certain: I had these feelings some times in the past. Perhaps we should have more clear-cut guidelines that explain why is it uuseful and not stealing. Otherwise, I agree with you. – István Zachar Feb 28 '14 at 20:29
  • @IstvánZachar Well, you see, this is exactly what I said above - we use this as a highly informal substitute for a missing SE feature. Should SE model have a light-weight way of answering, all of this would be clear and not ambiguous. – Leonid Shifrin Feb 28 '14 at 22:34
  • While I agree with @IstvánZachar in principle, is there much evidence that this actually happens enough to warrant changes in the model? – bobthechemist Mar 3 '14 at 2:03
  • @bobthechemist To my mind, more than enough evidence. But the model won't be changed, not for SE anyway. – Leonid Shifrin Mar 3 '14 at 9:16
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    Perhaps a solution is posting a lazy answer as a community wiki, so that others can edit and expand. – becko Mar 6 '14 at 13:21
  • @becko That might be a possibility, yes. – Leonid Shifrin Mar 6 '14 at 18:01
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Some related threads:

I think there is one legitimate case when a comment is more appropriate than a full answer: when the question will be closed down soon. As there's no need to bump it but the commenter still wants to offer some partial help for the poster, I think it is better to leave a comment than to make a detailed answer. This also provides a possible reason why there is a growing trend of such behaviour: because question tend to get lower and lower in quality as new users arrive en masse.

So I would advise: next time someone feels the urge for posting an answer, check first whether the question is likely to be closed soon or not, or if there is no obvious sign for that (like already cast close votes) think for a moment and perhaps even take some reasonable judgement whether the question really worths the answer (i.e. low quality) or whether it was already answered (has a duplicate).

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A related question is: what is the best course of action when the solution is relatively simple, but it's so tedious to write out yet another one of these answers that I'm not willing to do it?

  • Don't comment and don't answer? (Somebody else will come along and put in the effort to write an answer complete with examples.)

  • Write short answer with pointers that's probably sufficient for the OP to solve the problem with a bit of work, but it's by no means a complete solution? This happens a lot on other sites, but answers here tend to be much more complete, and such a "lazy" answer is bound to attract several comments calling for improvements.

  • Write that short answer as a community wiki to invite edits instead of comments for improvements?

  • Just write a comment?

I think this is the situation that made me (as well as others) post a solution as a comment in the past. Here's an actual example that I might have posted as a comment. I think in that case it's sufficient to point out the function, and there are plenty of examples in the docs, so I wasn't willing to spend time writing yet another example here.


Since this idea was first posted, I tried to post community wiki answers instead of comments in these case, but I can see many reasons why that's not a good solution either. For example: people's motivation. Earning rep score doesn't motivate me at all any more, but some people might put in the effort to write a better answer to get some rep score, however they wouldn't improve a cw for the same reason. This would be even worse than a similar effect from a comment.

  • I agree with you about the your point on the motivation / rep. I did not write this, but this is exactly why I was also thinking that the community wiki solution for incomplete answers isn't good enough, and even comments are better. – Leonid Shifrin Mar 7 '14 at 15:53

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