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Preface: I believe that this question is somewhat in line with this other Meta question about troubleshooting questions in 2023.


While calling out another user who chronically posts “answers” (such as this one) that are clearly comments asking for clarification or additional details the user retorted:

“You never heard of an evolving answer?”

Screenshot below.

enter image description here

This seems to be 100% CYA nonsense; an excuse fabricated to justify incorrect usages of the “answer” posting functionality. The user in question has over 434,000+ rep and has been a member of this site for 13+ years.

I have never heard of the term “evolving answer” used to excuse a comment being posted as an “answer” like this. And checking through official SuperUser page on answering questions I see utterly nothing that references “evolving answers.” I have always understood that an “answer” is an actual answer and that comments are often used to request clarification and such as clearly explained in this official SuperUser explanation of comments

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).

To me, an “evolving answer” does not exist and this user is simply making things up in an attempt to justify their posting of a comment as an answer.

That said, is there such a thing as “evolving answers” on Super User and perhaps other Stack Exchange sites? If so, can official guidelines please be shared to back up this “evolving answer” concept?

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  • I am heading out the door, so I'm gonna leave some clarifying commentary that definitely isn't an answer in the comments (!)- there might or might not be such a thing as an 'evolving answer'; but the line between a debugging tip, and the thing that leads someone to find the problem itself can be thin indeed
    – bertieb
    Mar 4, 2023 at 20:17
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    An additional observation: with time comes experience, and some use those to enhance their QA abilities (the soft skills, knowledge and presentation ability). Others might use that time / experience to work out how to 'play the game' better
    – bertieb
    Mar 4, 2023 at 20:20
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    @bertieb You said it! And I completely agree. Mar 6, 2023 at 17:13
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    For fellow users who want to 'play the game' better, here's another trick: 1. Post a plausible looking answer and hope for an upvote. 2. Maybe the answer is wrong, sometimes it's only partially wrong (or all right by chance). One plausible fragment is enough to make people hesitate before voting down. Comments or answers that prove your statements wrong (possibly with links to documentation) may appear along with few downvotes. It's your right to keep your answer as-is even if it's proven wrong. Move along. 3. Net profit: a single upvote is +10 in reputation, each downvote is only -2. Mar 6, 2023 at 18:30

3 Answers 3

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Well yes and no.

Answers shouldn't be speculative and in general provide a fully formed solution to the best of one's abilities for resolving a problem.

There's this odd little tradition in singapore called 'choping' - where people call dibs on a seat in a food court, this feels a little like that.

As a 100+ K user (and frankly at this point, not really caring about reputation) - I'd rather ask comments and guide folks to an answer, and get nerd sniped than worry about how many accepted answers or upvotes I get at this point

That said, solutions evolve over time

Sometimes what looks like a stub answer at first ends up getting built up. You go "I KNOW THIS!" then realise there's more nuance. You wake up in the middle of the night, in a cold sweat, with an epiphany gnawing on your mind like a small terrier. You come across a new feature that blows your mind that happens to solve a problem more elegantly than it did before.

THOSE are good evolving answers - not a series of 'try this this and this' until you know it solves the problem. Comments are meant for initial 'dorm room spaghetti' debugging (throwing things at a wall and seeing what sticks) and refining a solution till you believe that it has a reasonable chance of solving it - then adding value in the why.

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  • Thanks for the insight and as far as “choping” goes, I do that in the U.S. when I go to a café and want to hold onto seat. As far as a legit “evolving answer” goes, I think this answer I posted here for a question on installing Autoconf, Automake and related tools on Mac OS X qualifies. Initially I answered explaining how to install from raw source code but then I shifted the answer to “Just use Homebrew to install these packages and move on with life.” To me, that is an answer that has evolved over time since the approach to doing this has changed. Mar 5, 2023 at 1:28
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    I have an answer on SFF I keep updating as the show lore does. 😅
    – Journeyman Geek Mod
    Mar 5, 2023 at 1:57
  • Ha! Pretty sure it’s this answer to a question I posted about the Mandalorian and helmet removal, right? Mar 5, 2023 at 2:10
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    Yup. And I'm pretty sure there's going to be a lot more edits coming up ._. . NOT cause its an incomplete answer, but cause the primary source material is still evolving.
    – Journeyman Geek Mod
    Mar 5, 2023 at 2:13
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No, no, and absolutely NO.

Stack Exchange sites are not forums, but question and answer sites. That means you ask a single, well-contained, specific, narrowly answerable question, and someone answers it.

The question that was asked did not meet any of these criteria, and should have been closed. And the reason it should have been closed is precisely because it attracts open-ended answers of the type that you have mentioned.

Sadly the level of user moderation on Super User is abysmal compared to other sites like Stack Overflow, so objectively unsuitable questions like the one mentioned generally don't get closed, but are left open to attract objectively unsuitable answers.

Just because someone has farmed over 400k rep by breaking the rules, doesn't mean their viewpoint deserves any credence. Use your votes and flags to ensure the site is moderated correctly, and if a certain user continually shows up on moderators' radars, they will be dealt with accordingly.

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    LOL! “Sadly the level of user moderation on Super User is abysmal compared to other sites like Stack Overflow, so objectively unsuitable questions like the one mentioned generally don't get closed, but are left open to attract objectively unsuitable answers.” This is a hilarious claim given how filled this Meta site is with folks complaining about their question being closed. Mar 12, 2023 at 13:33
  • I'm not sure where you got that impression from. I'm constantly frustrated by questions being closed unjustly (IMO), most often because OP dared to suggest that their problem may be solvable using software. On the other hand low quality questions relatively rarely remain unclosed.
    – gronostaj
    Mar 13, 2023 at 19:56
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Report on my evolving answer :

My answer did pinpoint the problem as bad RAM with my suggestion to run MemTest86. A pity that it was deleted by a moderator, so the poster put up his own answer. I still think that my deleted answer described a good and useful procedure.

The current state of the post is :

  • There are 11 comments on the post. It's probably approaching the state where a moderator will sweep everything under the carpet into a conversation.
  • My answer is smeared over 4 comments.
  • I never got any feedback on my answer that was converted to a comment by a moderator, probably because the poster didn't understand anything in view of its format.
  • The comments have reached a chaotic stage where it became hard to distinguish answers and responses. Luckily I tutored the poster on the @user syntax.

My own conclusion, and my private criteria of when to use a comment or an answer when not enough data is available for giving a final answer:

  • If the question(s) to the poster are simple enough and fit into one comment, it should be used. I usually separate the questions in this case with an enumerator.
  • If there are several questions to be asked and putting them all into one comment without any structure will be confusing for the poster, an answer should be used, but only with the expectation of reaching a conclusion.
  • An answer that only got negative responses from the poster and led nowhere should be deleted by its author.
  • Too much and too quick an intervention by a moderator should be avoided, as it may actually hinder a solution from being found.

In conclusion, I would think that some moderator should undelete my answer, but delete still all the comments below it. This will allow me to clean up my comments from below the post.

EDIT

I have copy-pasted my deleted finally-evolved answer to a new answer, which was upvoted and accepted by the poster.

By the number of downvotes, I can see that many people have totally missed out on the message I'm trying to pass in this example.

All I'm saying that there exist some unwritten rules that some moderators have imposed on our SU site. These rules do not, for example, exist on SO, where many answers would have been converted to comments by our moderators.

Some unanswered questions I have are :

  1. Why should incorrect answers be kept on our site? Or by extension, should all answers except the accepted one be deleted as not answering the question?
  2. Why should answers that provides a procedure for finding the solution be considered as unsuitable, to be converted into a comment? Mine is an example.
  3. When there are many comments under a post and it gets harder to follow who said what, wouldn't it be clearer if they were divided among answers, rather than continue in this spaghetti?
  4. Is sweeping too many comments into a conversation, or deleting them, a solution to what I call comments-hell?

All these questions I had hoped to demonstrate with this answer, but evidently I have only encountered discord.

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    my private criteria of when to use a comment or an answer when not enough data is available for giving a final answer your private criteria are irrelevant. The site rules are completely and unambiguously clear as to when to use a comment, and when to use an answer. You violated those rules, the moderators acted correctly, and you need to grow up and learn your lesson if you want to remain a member of this site - because the moderators have zero incentive to continue to tolerate your rule-breaking.
    – Ian Kemp
    Mar 12, 2023 at 11:30
  • @IanKemp: Whoa, less aggressiveness please. I'm not breaking any written rules, and anyway you're 13 years and a few hundred answers of mine too late (and some of them are pretty highly upvoted).
    – harrymc
    Mar 12, 2023 at 11:39
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    (1/2) The questions needs to have a question, the answer should have an answer, and we routinely close and delete answers that don't. Your information was good, but I agree with the others on this particular answer and topic, with this caveat: A change in phrase could have made your comment into an actual answer. You presented it as suggestions and options that really were comments. If instead you present it as "Your RAM is likely the problem. Assuming that's the case, this is what you should do to confirm and/or resolve this." Just as questions don't have to be perfect, but still questions Mar 13, 2023 at 16:44
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    (2/2) so your answer doesn't need to be perfect, it just needs to be an answer, and sometimes that is a matter of wording. Mar 13, 2023 at 16:45
  • @music2myear: Thanks for taking the time, but I can't understand something: My answer was not about RAM, it was a general procedure for locating the reason for the crashes, software and/or hardware. The software part didn't pan out, so I added a hardware part that found the RAM problem. My orientation may be different : I'm looking to give advice to help solve posters' problems, which is why deleting an answer that could help because of format or wording seems a shame. The emphasis on format might diverge from our prime reason for being here.
    – harrymc
    Mar 13, 2023 at 17:09
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    “I'm looking to give advice to help solve posters' problems…” You helped the original poster on an equal level when your answer was a changed by a comment. “The emphasis on format might diverge from our prime reason for being here.” Format conveys importance. Comments can help as well. I often provide useful comments to off-topic questions. What exactly is the “…prime reason for being here…” then? A system where reputation score is being gamed based on the content of others. The only difference between a comment and an answer is answers allow one to earn reputation. Comments just help others. Mar 14, 2023 at 13:14
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    @Giacomo1968: "The only difference between a comment and an answer is answers allow one to earn reputation. Comments just help others." I realize I'm new and don't have a lot of say here, but I disagree here. Any time I'm looking on any SE site and see a mountain of comments, I skip most or all of them (including most of the ones in the very block I'm commenting in now). Answers are more readable, more helpful to the user, and much more likely to make a positive impact. By making an answer rather than a comment, the content is now more easily seen by the OP and future readers.
    – ArrayBolt3
    Mar 17, 2023 at 23:30
  • @ArrayBolt3 “Any time I'm looking on any SE site and see a mountain of comments, I skip most or all of them (including most of the ones in the very block I'm commenting in now).” Please read where in the original main-site post I state that comments can then be made into answers if the original poster indicates the advice in the comments work. (1/2) Mar 18, 2023 at 0:21
  • Comments are confusing and hard to read for most anyone casually browsing SE sites, but for the original poster who posted the question the comments are often a useful back and forth that assists with debugging with others in the community who might have potential answers. Simple as that. If you are not 100% sure of an answer or are asking for clarifying details, that is exactly what comments are for. And when the dust settles and there might be an answer? Then repost and expand those comments into answers so everyone can read and enjoy. (2/2) Mar 18, 2023 at 0:23
  • @ArrayBolt3: I agree. I have lots of experience here, and comments are confusing for posters that are used for forums like redit where there's no distinction between answers and comments. I've had cases where posters waited for answers and didn't read comments, so I had to post a "Not an answer" answer to get their attention. Other posters lost track when there were more than one person posting comments. So answers are not just for reputation, they are also for communication.
    – harrymc
    Mar 18, 2023 at 9:47
  • My answer that was deleted was in a post where the question was how to find what the problem was. The moderator apparently wanted me to immediately tell that the problem was RAM, rather than give a procedure that could locate the problem. I think that this moderator was off-subject.
    – harrymc
    Mar 18, 2023 at 9:53
  • @harrymc Your deleted answer was converted by a moderator into a useful comment. A comment the original poster of the question acknowledged in another comment so they clearly did not find it confusing. (1/2) Mar 18, 2023 at 16:40
  • @harrymc They found it helpful enough that they then posted their own answer clearly stating your comments helped them. And I even commented to them that you (harrymc) should be encouraged post an answer. All this supposed “confusion” empirically does not exist in this case. Except your own posting here that refuses to accept that comments were indeed very useful here. The comment system works.(2/2) Mar 18, 2023 at 16:43

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