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Currently, new users who repeatedly ask extremely low quality questions, as defined by various hidden metrics, eventually get a "question ban". They can still use the site, but they are not permitted to ask questions.

This is enforced at the IP level, and is permanent.

The argument has generally been that the threshold of the hidden metrics are so low that it only catches the absolute worst of the worst. The people who cannot be educated as to how to ask questions properly or to do even basic research. I believe Jeff is on record as saying that they simply do not want such people here.

I find that there are a few problems with this.

The first is purely technological: an IP address does not uniquely represent a human. Every time there is a perma-question-ban, there is a tiny chance that someone else adopts that IP address in the future, comes to the site, and is told that their question is not wanted, despite never having been here. Something as simple as moving into a new house can do that.

Yes, it hasn't happened yet. But every perma-question-ban increases the chance of it just a bit. As the number of these bans increase, it will eventually happen. Maybe Stack Exchange will have been overtaken by some new technology that makes it even easier to get questions answered. Or whatever. But given things as they are, there is the small chance that someone will be question banned through no fault of their own.

That is, admittedly, a minor point. A far more significant point is this: people change.

Generally, low-quality questions are asked for one of the following reasons:

  1. The person is rather immature. They don't really know any better and aren't interested in being corrected by others. This typically afflicts the young, though admittedly there are some surprisingly immature netcitizens out there.
  2. The person is ignorant. They don't know enough about what they're talking about to be able to ask actual questions from the community. Them getting question-banned generally requires repeated attempts to engage the community in their ignorance, so some degree of immaturity or pig-headedness is often a factor.
  3. The person is simply a buffoon.
  4. The person isn't a native English speaker.

The thing is, #1 and #2 are all solvable. Not by us of course; we still have standards and a website to maintain. But these are all solvable, as with many things, simply by the passage of time.

Consider the immature asker. Most of the time, this is a young person, perhaps 13-15 years of age, who picked up some programming book and maybe did a few tutorials online. They have a little knowledge, and we all know how dangerous a little knowledge can be. Thus, they encounter a problem and come here to drop a question on us.

A bad question. Maybe a lot of bad questions.

But here's the thing: that 13-year-old is going to grow up. Sometime around the 17-20-year-old range, they start to understand more about the subject matter. They understand more about how to ask a question, how to do research on their own, etc. They are now capable of asking real, viable questions.

But they can't. All thanks to a couple of incidents from years ago that they can barely remember (assuming their IP address hasn't changed, of course).

My point is that people who ask bad questions don't always stay that way. People grow up, learn more, and learn to speak English better.

What would happen if we went from permanent question ban to, say, 1 year? Would it negatively impact the value of the ban?

I don't think so. Or if so, then not by much. If a bad user is question banned from the site, then they're gone. They leave; generally, question banned users don't hang around. And odds are, they're not going to be sitting there, counting the days until their ban from that site they asked 3 questions on a year ago expires. They got their hint and are gone, probably to some other community.

The only people who would return are those who either were directed here by a search or were interested in joining back up again for other reasons. If a year has passed, it is now possible that such persons have reformed on their own. And it is possible that they have not.

Let's say that 25% of the people who were question banned return after one year and ask again. And of those 25% of people, half of them actually ask reasonable questions. In which case, the question-ban-for-a-year system will only be 12.5% less effective than the current system.

To be fair, both of these numbers are invented out of nothing. But putting a time limit on the question ban would have the effect of allowing a person (who manages to hold onto their IP address) to mature and become a productive asker of the community.

So the question is this: should we allow for the possibility of a former bad asker to mature on their own, by imposing a time limit to the question ban? Would making the question ban finite (but still lengthy) weaken the system too much, or are we missing something without it.

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Its permanent unless the one who is banned improves their reputation (answering questions properly). So if you stay inactive after the ban, then yes it is permanent. –  Gabe Dec 19 '11 at 14:13
Wait what?! We have permanent IP level bans?! Please don't. If we're going to do IP level bans they should be temporary. –  Ben Brocka Dec 19 '11 at 14:13
I would add a fourth criteria for low-quality questions: the person asking the question does not natively speak English. These people may be intelligent users who simply have not had the opportunity to take a good ESL course. –  jwiscarson Dec 19 '11 at 19:56
@jwiscarson: Noted and added. Thanks! –  Nicol Bolas Dec 19 '11 at 20:00
I appreciate this! I literally just started learning Python and obviously have some stupid questions (so basic, they aren't even asked sometimes) but I am learning. I am trying to be more careful of what I ask, but I'm sure I'm nearing the question-ban range since all of my questions have no upvotes (or downvotes either though). Eventually, I'm hoping to gain a bigger perspective on Python and hope I still have the ability to ask worthy questions. –  Ason Jun 27 '12 at 23:51
@AllysonKim: If none of your questions have downvotes, and none have been deleted, I seriously doubt you're "nearing the question-ban range." Granted, they don't tell us the exact formula, but they have said that it requires downvoting. Significantly. –  Nicol Bolas Jun 28 '12 at 0:47
@Nicol Bolas: Well that makes me feel much better about this question-ban then. Thanks for the correction; I will try to ask better questions regardless. –  Ason Jun 28 '12 at 16:12
I have a ban for asking too many questions, how long does the ban last? –  tomwrong Aug 1 '12 at 13:23
@tomwrong: You don't get a ban for asking too many questions; there's just a limit to the number of questions everyone gets to ask per-day. –  Nicol Bolas Aug 1 '12 at 20:06
Only 1 of my questions had a downvote and I still got a question ban. How does this happen? –  Rohit Shinde Aug 8 '12 at 3:05
"Yes, it hasn't happened yet." lol. You don't know that. Probably has. –  djechlin May 5 '13 at 14:22

6 Answers 6

If they start providing awesome answers the question ban will automatically be removed.

Having looked at a lot of these users odds of a mythical reform approach 0.

Also, the IP level bans only affect new users, established users are not impacted by this.

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So, what would happen in my case (see my answer), some users are providing good content and then there will be at some point a user with stupid questions, all on the same IP? –  stema Dec 19 '11 at 9:23
If you are an established user the ip ban does not touch you, if a mate from work burns the work ips, a new user in your company can always simply answer a few question, gain a bit of rep and trust, and bypass the ip check, which is by design, email us if there is a non theoretical problem –  waffles Dec 19 '11 at 9:29
@waffles that's still a massive barrier to entry for new users, and they surely won't intuitively understand any such procedure. Why don't the bans ever expire? If someone is going to post tons of stupid questions they'll probably give up quickly after they can't, they're not likely to check every month to see if they can post yet. –  Ben Brocka Dec 19 '11 at 14:15
So, how exactly is an inexperienced person going to provide answers that they simply don't have the knowledge to know? It's like asking a thirsty man to donate water if he wants a drink; you can't get blood from a stone. And let's not forget that on the more heavily trafficked tags, questions are answered with amazing speed. They may not find any opportunities to contribute. –  Nicol Bolas Dec 19 '11 at 17:18
-1 IP bans are broken, or I should say, evil: if you IP ban me, a lot of people are going down with me (ie: potentially everyone working for Oracle, folks who shared my home IPs, etc.). And if you are on DSL, IP bans are 100% meaningless. Not only you can't effectively ban me, but the poor chaps who get assigned my IP are now banned for no reason. –  NullUserException อ_อ Dec 19 '11 at 20:04
And isn't SO's motto that you don't have to answer questions before you can ask any? Why are we punishing users for someone else's mistake(s)? –  NullUserException อ_อ Dec 19 '11 at 20:06
@NullUserExceptionอ_อ email me directly if you know of a single instant where the ban is in place and is unfair, you are up in arms to protect people from a theoretical problem. This is acting the right way 99.9% of the time or even more. I am willing to accept 0.01 percent of collateral non fatal damage. –  waffles Dec 19 '11 at 21:03
@waffles Since I do have an established account, I don't know of instances where this ban is unfair. I am just questioning the usefulness and efficacy of IP bans, both in deterring bad askers and not generating collateral damage. –  NullUserException อ_อ Dec 19 '11 at 21:34
@waffles: "Having looked at a lot of these users odds of a mythical reform approach 0." Have you looked at these users a couple of years later? One point you and I and everyone reading this were them. The only difference is that SO didn't exist back then. –  Nicol Bolas Dec 20 '11 at 10:44
@NicolBolas well, I was never in that bucket, nor were you. Even in high school. It takes a very special person. In fact these bans do not exist in the smaller sites cause it just is so damn rare. .... rare is common place at SO scale –  waffles Dec 20 '11 at 10:51
@waffles: "This is acting the right way 99.9% of the time or even more. I am willing to accept 0.01 percent of collateral non fatal damage." And how does having a reasonable time limit on the IP ban somehow stop the 99.9% from working? All it does is reduce the "collateral non fatal damage" even further. Why is that a bad thing? Collateral damage is always bad (that's why it's called "damage"), and if there's a way to remove it without affecting anything else, well, why not do that? –  Nicol Bolas Dec 20 '11 at 10:51
@NicolBolas I am not going to divulge the exact implementation of our banning mechanism so these clowns to not game it ... but we handle this stuff already –  waffles Dec 20 '11 at 10:58
I am trying to give good answers nowadays. But I am not sure when by question ban will be removed. Can anyone provide any insight? To @NullUserExceptionอ_อ also –  Starx Oct 20 '12 at 7:33
@Starx: My SO account has been banned too , for asking too many questions............just don't know when it will be removed........Need Suggestion!!!........Thanks. –  MD. Mohiuddin Ahmed Mar 15 '13 at 22:46

I think a time restriction is needed. And 1 year is still too long.

To my opinion, a ban on IP level is not effective. I can tell only for Germany, but here you will only have a permanent IP as bigger company or organization (or if you are willing to pay for it). And I am not sure if the problematic users are coming from there.

Additionally my company has only one or two IP addresses and uses NAT and there are about 100 developers, I know at least one other colleague that is a SO user (a good one so I am not afraid that our IP will be banned). But what will happen if the company will get some day, e.g. an inexperienced student, who manages to get banned on SO from his workplace?

Most other (private) users, who are customers of the big internet providers, will get, at least every 24 hours, a new IP address.

So, for pure technical reasons, I would say don't ban IP addresses (at least not for ever).

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Arm, are you sure? I mean I can only speak for UPC and Austria, but every UPC client does have a static IP unless something on the products or modem changes. It is not not advertised as that, but it is that way. –  Time Traveling Bobby Dec 19 '11 at 8:35
I am a t-online customer and as I know, they force a reconnect every 24 hours. I think to make it more difficult to e.g. host a server at home (for the "normal" internet surfing prize) –  stema Dec 19 '11 at 8:39
Easy, tell your hypothetical student that if he gets your IP blocked, he gets fired :) –  Benjol Dec 19 '11 at 10:21

The issue with the IP addresses possibly representing another person at some point in the future is a weak argument:

  1. Take the number of people on the internet
  2. Then take the fraction of those people who have IPs coinciding with IPs blocked by Stack Exchange
  3. Then take the fraction of those people who are interested in the information Stack Exchange has to offer
  4. Then take the fraction of those people who also try to ask a question
  5. Now compare that number to the number of questions asked per day on Stack Overflow

I'm willing to bet the farm that the final number is exceedingly small: so small it's a largely theoretical concern that doesn't add any weight to the argument.

But in all honesty, Stack Overflow doesn't need more questions: it needs more answers. And this theoretical population isn't blocked from providing those.

Which brings us to your other argument, on providing a way out for people who made some bad choices early on in life and are now potentially functioning members of the Q&A community.

Putting aside extreme cases where perma-bans are actually permanent and unfixable (I mention it only because I'm sure SE has such a thing and I don't want to make a universal claim, not because that's what we're talking about), when a person is blocked from asking any more questions via the automatic system, they can get out of it on their own: they just need to start providing high-quality answers.

If a person is reachable and they just had a bad run at first, they will almost certainly dig their way out of the question ban hole after a few high-quality answers. The deeper the hole, the longer it'll take, but it will happen.

Of course, there's the flipside to this: if they provide low-quality answers, or never bother to switch to answer-mode, they'll never be able to ask questions again.

That's fine: being a user on Stack Exchange is a social contract. People are supposed to pay it forward: someone who is incapable or unwilling to provide useful answers in exchange for getting their questions answered isn't someone we want here. If they change their mind or find the ability, they of course can come back into the fold.

If they don't, that's fine too: they'll find some other community that'll allow them to leech off their experts.

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My ISP only owns 256 IP adresses, so the same IP is shared by thousands of customers. This is not an issue here on SO, since it's not really popular in Paraguay, but it is on other sites. –  Dennis Dec 19 '11 at 12:17
I don't agree with Jeff's notion that questions are less important than answers. In any ecosystem, there will be producers and consumers. Each needs the other to survive. And like in most healthy ecosystems, you generally need more producers than consumers. There will always be more people who don't know things than those who do, more askers than answerers. Someone who doesn't know things cannot answer questions either, because they don't know things. –  Nicol Bolas Dec 19 '11 at 17:15
-1 For the same reasons I downvoted waffles's answer. –  NullUserException อ_อ Dec 19 '11 at 20:10
-1 for the good reasons given by @NicolBolas. –  Martin F Mar 21 at 20:21

I'm fairly sure a permanent ban can be lifted via an email to the team. This would allow the non-buffoon to demonstrate their newly found non-buffoonery, or the new occupant of a house to explain what an idiot the previous resident was. Nothing is really permanent in computer land.

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We're getting a bit theoretical here but: How would the new occupant of a house with a fixed IP address even know how much of a buffoon the previous occupant was? If they're new to 'our' site and get that message having never visited the site before they're surely much more likely to conclude that we're either idiots or jerks and take their question asking business elsewhere. And telling them to answer questions first is no help. Why should they spend time in purgatory for someone else's offences? –  RobM Dec 19 '11 at 12:01
Excellent point. I don't know what the message text looks like to a banned questioner, perhaps it could be more helpful? I know how much of a buffoon my house's previous owner was because I have spent time and money undoing all their stupid DIY... –  jrturton Dec 19 '11 at 12:03
@jrturton: The response is designed to be unhelpful; that's how Jeff wants it. It's designed to be a polite way of saying "GTFO". The reasoning from Jeff is that such persons are irredeemable; effort spent to inform them of why they're question-banned is therefore wasted. They don't deserve anything more than a basic "We are no longer accepting questions" response. –  Nicol Bolas Dec 20 '11 at 10:48
@NicolBolas - Maybe "Jeff" has outlived his usefulness? Maybe the "mad professor" needs a time out for his own good? ;-) –  Martin F Mar 21 at 20:35

The ban can be lifted by giving legitimate answers. I've been banned before, and after answering some questions and getting upvotes, the ban was lifted.

But banning an IP is a pain, if you have several programmers working in an office who all use meta, the IP ban would punish those who didn't need the ban.

So, should people have to make more reputation in stackoverflow in order to ask questions on meta? IP bans are issued so that people can't just make new accounts to ask questions, but... what if the requirement of reputation earned in stackoverflow (the reputation required to use meta) was increased so that even if you made a new account, you had to work before you could use meta again?

That solution would sort of be a punishment to newer users who haven't done anything wrong, but I see it as a lesser evil. Slapping around IP bans is something that I think shouldn't be done.

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How does this differ from waffles' answer? –  ChrisF Dec 19 '11 at 14:05
@Scrooge I put some more stuff in it... –  Gabe Dec 19 '11 at 14:22

Another issue that arises with IP banning (and it has happened before) is when a corporate IP gets banned, affecting more people than just the buffoon. It doesn't happen very often though (it is a similar problem to when some users find they cannot ask any more questions in a certain timeframe).

In addition to a set amount of time, personally I would throw another metric into the mix before unbanning them: they must have answered x number of questions and received a minimum of y number of upvotes (and possibly z number of accepted answers). This metric shows not only an increase in knowledge (and maturity), it also promotes a better and more balanced use of the site.

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It doesn't take a genius to state (rather simply, i know, but it has some truth): There are two types of people, those who Ask and those who Answer -- both are useful. –  Martin F Mar 21 at 20:41
You are technically correct @Martin, but unhelpful. The difference between those who ask and those who answer has been long established, and this feeds directly into what drives the site. Read this blog post by one of the site founders and you might understand where my answer is coming from. Most of all, please realise that no matter how pleasant and forgiving in disposition you are, crappy questions do not benefit the site one little bit. –  slugster Mar 22 at 5:06
@MartinF You might also be missing the context when voting on a question/answer this old - this question would primarily have been talking about Stack Overflow (this was on meta.stackoverflow.com back then). This problem is not necessarily present on the sites you frequent, but over time it has been a big problem on SO. –  slugster Mar 22 at 5:08

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