Off topic questions hurt the SO knowledge base, generate resentment, and are a complete waste of a moderator's time. Take this post for example:
I ran into this issue yesterday after doing a Google search. I had a very similar Virtual Box problem for a non-Ubuntu guest OS. The post was closed as off topic, presumably because it relates to Ubuntu yet was posted in Stack Overflow which is for programming. But because it was closed, the best answer didn’t rise to the top. A user like myself (or the 6,887 other people that viewed that post) had to sort through the comments for the answer. The closure of this question and all closures like it hurt the SO knowledge base by converting answers into comments. This violates a basic tenant of what I thought Stack Overflow stood for. Closed posts are no longer Q&A. They might as well be on Experts Exchange!
This isn’t a one-off example. I find numerous of these types of questions every day. I’ve started finding more closed questions in my day to day usage of SO than open ones! Sadly, even if we were to re-open all of these questions immediately the damage has already been done because answers are now hidden in comments.
Now one might argue that Off Topic posts are detrimental to the community because knowledgeable people won’t find the question in order to answer it. Maybe, but this post had plenty of relevant tags associated with it that people watch. People found it. People answered it. Ultimately this post contained the answer I needed. And if it had been in Ubuntu I would have been less likely to find it (since my problem was with a different guest OS). So how much harm was really done in the migration? Very little if any. Was closing it the appropriate response? No, perhaps a kindly moderator could have simply migrate it rather than closing it. It certainly would have been a better use of the moderator's time.
I talked to moderator George Stocker on twitter about this and he said migration of older posts has been disabled because of this policy change from a year ago Disable migration for questions older than 60 days which says migrations amounts to paper shuffling and is a waste of time. I tend to agree, although primarily because changing URL’s would hurt SEO, which is how I typically find content. My fear, however is that this policy change has prompted countless “Off Topic” closings rather than migrations, and done significant harm to SO’s content. So one solution might be to reverse this policy change. But as I’ll cover later that’s not the best solution.
One could argue that off topic posts are detrimental to users because information consumers won't find the content they're looking for. In other words I wouldn’t have found my virtualization post above. Now that’s just complete BS. The vast majority of consumers (like myself) use Google and don't give a rats ass which site a post lives in. And we don't care because “Off Topic” amounts to a categorization error. It’s like someone attached the wrong tag. Does it make sense to close questions because someone attached the wrong tag? Absolutely not. It's bureaucracy and red tape and everything I would expect out of old school forums not the enlightened Q&A forum that the SO founders envisioned.
My final point is that closing posts creates negative energy and hard feelings and resentment towards Stack Overflow. I have seen this in my office. At least three people at my company have had posts closed on them and they now have negative feelings toward SO. Moderator that close posts come off as being jerks, no matter how well meaning they may be. Having a question closed on you feels like a rejection from the leadership at Stack Overflow. Most of us (the silent masses) mistakenly believe that SO is a site for programmers. It’s a subtle distinction, and one I’ve only recently realized, that the site is actually for programming topics. But the misconception is widespread enough that it might as well be true that the site is for programmers (in which case my post above would be on topic). So let’s let it be for programmers and allow us programmers to use the tag system for how we categorize rather than some binning at the Stack Exchange level that we don’t understand or frankly want to understand. Recategorize our posts if it will help you sleep at night. In exchange I assure we will not add posts related to knitting, parenthood, basketweaving, or whatever other non-programming content SE may currently be doing.
So let’s keep SO a positive place. Let’s re-route the moderator energy applied to closing posts toward either recategorizing posts quickly, or if it’s been a while just ignoring them and spend that time being constructive, answering questions, and actually helping people. And in addition to removing the off topic category let’s re-open all off topic closed posts immediately. Enough harm has already been done. Let’s allow the community to start repairing the damage.