A couple of events in the past few days have caused me to reflect - yet again - on the direction we're headed with regard to deletion on Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange.
First, a moderator on one of our larger Stack Exchange sites resigned. This parting was not acrimonious - he just decided he wanted to spend time doing something else. But while thanking him for his help over the past year, I was reminded of just how much we ask of our moderators... For a volunteer job, it can be a tremendous amount of work, tedious and thankless, full of difficult decisions and often only noticed when someone disagrees with one of them. A combination of janitor and babysitter, full of endless messes and demanding parents. We do all we can to make their jobs easier, but still sometimes we ask too much of them.
And then... We rolled out massive changes to how reputation is reported. In theory, this should not have been terribly disruptive - there are actually no changes to how reputation is awarded or calculated. However, changes to reputation caused by the deletion of questions and answers is now reflected almost instantly, and the source of the loss or gain indicated in each user's reputation history.
This ended up being something of a big deal.
The controversy surrounding question deletion has been around for years. Folks have argued - often successfully - that some questions should be harder to delete than others based on their popularity. At the same time, we've come to realize that popularity alone is a poor indicator of either quality or usefulness:
These sorts of posts are wildly popular with the community. The cartoon question alone had over a million views by our extremely strict view counter — which easily translates to at least two million views, possibly three million. We don’t hate fun here, but we discovered that these posts become so popular over time that they truly start to drown out everything else on the site.
Believe it or not, the rules really haven't changed much over time. The process by which questions get deleted on Stack Overflow was first documented nearly three years ago - and the controversy surrounding it passed from UserVoice onto Meta Stack Overflow and continued unabated for years... Most folks just ignored it.
But during this time, two relatively small tweaks to the system, made with the best of intentions, conspired to dramatically alter the effective question lifecycle:
The limits placed on delete voters specifically to help preserve popular questions resulted in questions that were effectively deletable only by moderators... The end-result being, it makes more sense to flag for moderator attention than to vote.
Moderator-deletion was made exempt from community override. Step #10 in the Question Lifecycle involves trusted users being able to disagree with deletion and restore a question to full visibility... But now that only works if it's deleted by the community at large. If 60 trusted users delete an extremely popular question, it can still be undeleted - but if one moderator deletes the same question, the only recourse is to publicly petition for another moderator to restore it.
We trust our moderators. But we've put them in an impossible situation
Moderators are the most trusted users on our sites. As such, we give them the penultimate responsibility for determining the worth of a question:
This is why community moderators have real power; they need that power to intervene, educate, and refocus the community’s exuberance on more substantive content. People will fight you almost literally to the death over their right to be entertained, and to entertain others...
The only users able to override a moderator's decision to delete are other moderators, and certain Stack Exchange employees - and we do so only in exceptional circumstances. If a moderator had to spend every day looking over his shoulder, expecting to be called out and questioned on every decision, they would be hamstrung - no one needs or wants that much grief.
And so making them the focal point for controversy on the most controversial questions on the site is somewhere between counterproductive and outright cruel. If the intention was to make these questions almost untouchable, the end result was to make each moderator into a proxy-voter for a group of users willing to repeatedly flag questions they don't like. Instead of seeing the names of their peers listed below the deleted question, those trusted users who would vote to undelete instead see one name. They may well have voted for this person to moderate the site, but they didn't vote for the users who flagged - and may not even have argued publicly - for its deletion.
This would be bearable if there were a few dozen of these questions. But on Stack Overflow, there are hundreds. And it sets a terrible precedent, turning what should be a collaboration between trusted users and moderators into a poisonous "us vs. them" culture war.
The continued need for deletion
There are thousands of questions asked every day on Stack Overflow. Many, many of them are absolutely terrible, and must be deleted quickly for the good of all. And as time goes on, we need to be unashamedly deleting even older, more popular questions as they outlive their usefulness.
We need both moderators and trusted users willing and able to perform this task, pulling together on the same team, or the site will never survive. Therefore, it is absolutely essential to make the hard decisions on what stays and what goes publicly, in the open, and with full participation of all those who care strongly about each topic.
One thing that needs to change ASAP is the algorithm for calculating delete votes. Moderators shouldn't need to intervene except in... Exceptional circumstances. A popular but utterly pointless question. A bitter argument between factions. Vandalism. They don't need to be acting as proxies for everyone with an axe to grind, or an inability to let go of the past.
Another is the locking used on questions that are legitimately preserved in spite of their format being a generally poor fit for the site. These need to be more obviously abnormal in their visual appearance, and should be completely frozen - no voting (on the question or answers), no commenting, no editing, no flagging. A historical artifact should be exactly that - a piece of the past, lovingly preserved. Questions that can't be locked down like this long-term should be unlocked and open... Or at least, temporarily locked for other reasons.
But at its core, this is a social, not a technical problem, and needs a social solution. Therefore, I propose the following protocols for handling controversial questions:
Users who feel a question must be deleted - or has been deleted in error - can bring them up for discussion here on Meta. They must be tagged: discussion specific-question deleted-questions, and must remain civil and focused on the worth of the question itself. Multiple, specific discussions on the same question are disallowed.
Moderators convinced by discussion of the lasting worth of a controversial question may lock it with the "historical significance" notice. At this point, it will be considered immutable - any arguments for a change to it must be raised here on Meta per #1.
Moderators should largely ignore flags asking for deletion on old, popular questions. Flags are not votes, and flaggers are not necessarily trusted users. A moderator who feels strongly that such a question must be deleted should do so of his own conviction, prepared to stand and calmly defend his decision, as it cannot be overridden by voters.
Users who disagree with the deletion of a question, but are unable to convince the community that it should be preserved on Stack Overflow, should copy the content of the question and answers, and re-post it off-site with attribution as mandated by the CC BY-SA license.
Let's work together
If we didn't all care about Stack Overflow, we wouldn't all be here on a Saturday talking about this. We may have conflicting ideas about what, exactly, is important... But let's try to keep some perspective. At some point, we're all deletionists, and all inclusionists - we merely disagree on the specifics of what should be included or deleted. So seek consensus, and if the rest of the community disagrees with you, strive to accept that gracefully.