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This sort of thing has happened a few times now...

"Hey, did you see? User X was boxed!"
"User X? Why?"
"I donno... Maybe he... " (wild speculation ensues. waffles are blamed.)

It's generally quite easy to notice when a user gets thrown in The Penalty Box. You see the tell-tale 1 when viewing questions they've asked or answers they've provided. You visit their profile page. You see that big red message. And you're curious...

The Streisand effect is an Internet phenomenon where an attempt to censor or remove a piece of information backfires, causing the information to be widely publicized.

This isn't good. It turns what should be a subtle "cool-down" period into a big public spectacle. And for what?

Worse yet, speculation leads to unease. Was the suspension really justified? Where's the evidence? What's the definition of "jerk"?


It's been two years since this tool was introduced, and nearly a year and a half since I first wrote this proposal. In that time, a number of things have changed:

  • The popularity of the core "SOFU Trilogy" sites has grown immensely, bringing many more "problem users" with it.

  • Many new Stack Exchange 2.0 sites have been created, with community-elected and "Pro Tempore"-appointed moderators.

  • Moderators can now engage users in private conversations on-site, without having to resort to email. These conversations remain attached to the account, allowing other moderators to review them as-needed. Templates are provided to guide moderators in communicating common problems.

  • The "No effort to learn and improve over time" rationale for suspending turned out to be as or more important than "Disruptive behavior" on Stack Overflow.

In addition to this, moderators have found other uses for this tool: suspending (rather than deleting) spammer accounts to allow for tracking history and... scalp-hunting. Which just goes to show, no matter how obvious the purpose of a tool might be, folks will always find other uses...

There are currently 90+ suspended users on Stack Overflow, over 40 on Super User and nearly 150 on Server Fault. In the face of this, the occasional drama resulting from the suspension of a popular/notorious user seems relatively unimportant...

But I don't think it is.

Jeff often refers to the modern-day Stack Overflow as having "big city problems", meaning it's reached a scale where the sort of intimate, hand-holding relationship between staff, moderators, and new users is no longer practical. But it also has "big city advantages" - paradoxically, you can retain some amount of privacy in a large population, while in the small town everyone knows you... In the big city, you can spend the night in jail and go back to work the next morning without any questions; in the small town, everyone remembers how you got into an argument with Barney in front of the post office last May.

SE is busily adding more small towns. Hopefully they won't stay small very long... But that inital, small-town period is crucial to their later development. Personalities clash, users unfamiliar with the SE platform stuble through newbie mistakes with varying degrees of grace, and the newly-minted moderators try their best to gain the trust of the budding community. During this period, it is vital to avoid the appearance of censorship or abuse of power.

Transparency, when it matters

After discussing this with several moderators and watching how suspension is used in practice, I've come to the conclusion that there are two three primary categories:

  1. Users who should be / will be deleted. Suspected spammers, trolls, sockpuppets, astroturfers, etc. There's no need to wear the kid gloves here; no positive contributions to the site, past or present.

  2. Users who've made a disturbing mix of valuable, and harmful contributions to the site. These may need some care; poor-quality questions, rants or inflamatory comments have probably been deleted, sockpuppets have been merged, votes expunged, leaving a public record that looks pretty good to the casual observer. And others may agree with these users' arguments, even if they disagree with the tone or manner in which they've been presented. The hope is that the suspended user will come back to the site and participate positively; any appearance of public humiliation, whether by moderators or other users, works against this goal.

  3. Users who just need a chance to cool down. This is a pretty close match to the original metaphore of a "penalty box" - a user got caught up in an argument, or came home drunk and started having some "fun" at the expense of other users, or quit smoking... Maybe their account was hacked and they can't be contacted for some reason. There's no reason they can't come back and contribute positively once they've regained their composure, but in the meanwhile they need to be kept from making a mess of the site and their own reputation.

I originally suggested a simple change: add a way for moderators to add a brief, public comment to the account, noting the reason without going into detail. "Sockpuppet voting", "Persistant low-quality", "Cool down", etc.

But that's unnecessary in the vast majority of suspensions. Indeed, even a moderator-only annotation isn't really necessary when the user is a flagrant spammer, or has already been sent a message regarding persistant abuse. The situations I wanted to address here, and still believe are worth addressing here, are the tiny handful of high-profile suspensions involving a user well-known within their site or circle, where a suspension might otherwise lead to harmful speculation.

So here's my second idea. This is what the suspension UI looks like right now:

Screenshot of current suspension UI

Moderators must enter at least a short description of the problem, even if that's just "See user-message ###". The idea is that this gives other moderators a place to start when reviewing suspensions; in practice, the user's history (containing annotations, private user-messages, etc.) is probably going to contain more important information. Here's what I propose in its place:

Mock-up of selectable suspension reasons.

Note that I'm not attempting to enumerate badness here, although I suppose I am stratifying it. The results would look like this:

Mock-up of account page containing reason

Terse. No gory details. And without that free-form text-entry to trip up a new, frustrated moderator whose goal should be to minimize rubbernecking. And most importantly, specific enough to hopefully quell speculation until such a time as the user is able to defend himself.

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(-1) for the reasons in meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/23385/… –  devinb Sep 25 '09 at 12:53
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I think this problem could be also mitigated by not making their rep 1. If the suspension was a little more secret, fewer people would notice and would make less fuss. –  C. Ross Jun 21 '10 at 10:31
    
the "big red message" contains a permalink to some pretty clear guidance as to why users get suspended. Can this be edited? Could it even be [status-completed] ? –  Jeff Atwood Apr 13 '11 at 8:23
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@Jeff: I think my primary misgiving about the current display is simply that it implies they did something but says nothing as to the severity. Since that severity ranges all the way from "tried to take their ball and go home" to "vast international network of sockpuppet-voters", that's a bit dangerous. I've tried to revise my question to provide some additional perspective on this. –  Shog9 Apr 13 '11 at 20:02
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+1 for dishwasher salmon –  Yawus Aug 3 '12 at 19:24
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11 Answers

up vote 33 down vote accepted

Your updated argument was very persuasive. Enough such that this is now in place for new suspensions. We'll be monitoring to see how this works in practice, of course.

Public reasons will be shown as

  • for voting irregularities

  • to cool down

  • because of low-quality contributions

  • for promotional content

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Nice. However, is there a "maximum" term length for suspension "to cool down"? A recent suspension (meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/89048/…) shows a 4 month ban which seems a bit long for a "tempoary" ban and a bit long for a chance "to cool down". Is it work setting/defining a temporary/long-term ban duration? –  tombull89 Apr 28 '11 at 10:20
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Odd case, but what if an OpenID is compromised? E.g. you nuke cookies, yet irregular behavior continues. I suggest adding "For security review" to the list :) Since we have flair and all, my only choice in that case would be 'to cool off', which isn't fair to the owner of a compromised account. Given the quirks that happened with MyOpenID when Amazon s**t itself ... it is a possibility. –  Tim Post Apr 28 '11 at 13:59
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@Tim good point - we should come up with some standard text for that too –  Marc Gravell Apr 28 '11 at 14:26
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@tombull: You're right, that really doesn't make sense. "Cooling down" more than a week already sounds strange. And the user was a valuable contributor, as far as I know, so I'm astonished at that period of time. But OK, after all it's none of my business. @Marc: That said, I'm still curious ... –  Hendrik Vogt Apr 28 '11 at 16:46
    
@Hendrik in this particular case, he's been "prolific" which has resulted in some value being generated, but also a very non-trivial amount of grief. Repeatedly. I honestly don't think even that long of a cooldown will make a difference. –  Daniel DiPaolo Apr 28 '11 at 17:48
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@Daniel: I've read about the repeated grief, but thought that the value was greater. What I meant: Being forced to cool down more than a week won't help cooling down more than having it for a week. So what I really wonder is why it's not a week or something like that. But I surely don't know enough about the history here. –  Hendrik Vogt Apr 28 '11 at 19:28
    
@tim I've never seen that happen in 2.5 years; let's wait for it to actually happen before making stuff up for it. –  Jeff Atwood Apr 28 '11 at 19:43
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Will you guys please stop deleting discussions! Now @tombull's link is dead and I have no idea what he's talking about! Given the recent events here, what other conclusion can I draw from this but that somebody fucked up again and the discussion was deleted in an attempt to cover up? –  sbi May 1 '11 at 7:33
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In general, it is a private matter between the moderators and that particular user. Note that other moderators have access to annotations on the account that will provide more context for the suspension.

I believe it is the reponsibility and right of the user who was placed in timed suspension to have the freedom to discuss (or not discuss) what happened to them.

It is a basic matter of respecting other users' privacy.

edit: Note that every user suspension page links directly to our official guidance on the matter:

http://blog.stackoverflow.com/2009/04/a-day-in-the-penalty-box

Please read that closely -- it is quite detailed, and explains the most common general reasons that cover 95% (or more) of all timed user suspensions.

enter image description here

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Jeff, how suspended users "have the freedom to discuss (or not discuss) what happened to them"? As far as I understand they can't post comments.. –  Shadow Wizard Apr 13 '11 at 11:39
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@shadow you'd contact them via whatever direct contact information they provided in their user page, just like any other user. The whole point of the timed suspension is to be blocked from our site based on their behavior on it... but they are not blocked from, say, using the internet or email. –  Jeff Atwood Apr 13 '11 at 11:42
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As was already explained in a comment here, this is rarely ever practical, since it requires those getting suspended to make their contact information available. Which many don't. –  sbi Apr 25 '11 at 11:43
    
@sbi see updated accepted answer –  Jeff Atwood Apr 28 '11 at 7:52
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Seeing what happened yesterday, I think there should be a short explanation about the sin binning. Otherwise, the community is going to take out its virtual pitchforks and try to find an answer.

Lack of information leads to a lot of searching into why the user was binned, countless accusations, almost no control of the situation, a general mess of things. This is not what we should strive for. It might not be obvious right now, but it will tear the community apart. There are a lot of egos here that will not take binning that easily.

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I just read a comment on another question where someone said something along the lines of "don't shout the reason for binning from the rooftop". The question he was commenting on was about why another user had been suspended; the answers and comments had some serious accusations in it. Isn't that shouting from the rooftops? You hang a person in public with no real reason and then you let people go wild with accusing that person. If they would have wanted to avoid the shouting from the rooftops they should have closed the question right from the start. –  alex Sep 25 '09 at 6:21
    
What happened yesterday? –  Brian Knoblauch Sep 25 '09 at 11:29
    
@Brian: This thread happened: meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/23347/… And the subsequent discussion was removed by a meek moderator. At least I got a pundit badge out of it, even though there's no more evidence of the amazing comments that gave it to me. –  XMLbog Sep 25 '09 at 11:32
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It should have been closed even faster. No one was giving us any details so the discussions were pointless; we were all just fighting. –  alex Sep 25 '09 at 12:46
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@alex: Closing something because people are arguing about it is a good way to make them think that you don't want them arguing about it, which makes them want to argue about it more. The best course of action is to let it happen. Either it will burn out or an agreement will be reached. If it turns abusive, then a moderator should step it to get it back to tolerable levels, but an argument, in and of itself, is the stupidest reason to close a thread of all time. –  XMLbog Sep 25 '09 at 12:54
    
I'm glad it got closed because otherwise I wouldn't have gotten any sleep last night, I would have just kept hitting F5 :) –  alex Sep 25 '09 at 13:26
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The thing that ticks me off most is that we are all sitting here completely speculating about "WHY" someone is in the penalty box. The speculation seems to always have a flavor or hint that people think the moderators have abused their power or messed up. I see the same thing happening with our police officers. We don't simply assume that they've done their job and a good one, we pick one thing and want to blow it way out of proportion and before long, we have a beast upon us.

The one and only way to solve this is complete transparency. I know that some want it, some don't. But if we all had visibility to see what marks a user has against them, we wouldn't have to speculate. To some degree, we use the "we are the community" or the "we are the world" approach here on the SO sites, but we really don't fulfill that because this process is fuzzy to most.

10K+ users can see posts that have been flagged, maybe they can also see some kind of user rating as well that shows them who is close to the box, who is in the box, etc.

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I agree that transparency is required. Our moderators here seem to do a good job (as far as I can tell), but I've been on other forums that have moderators that are downright abusive to people that aren't their best little buddies and agree with every belief they have. We want to avoid even the appearance of that behaviour here! –  Brian Knoblauch Sep 25 '09 at 11:31
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(-1) Complete transparency is a terrible idea. Because it just makes everyone else believe that the moderators did wrong. It's very easy for us to make 'after the fact' decisions about what they should have done. With thousands of users, comes thousands of second-guessers. I agree there should be more visibility, but we shouldn't be creating a situation where the moderator is expected to run their action before a jury of 1000 users, and garner consent before they act. –  devinb Sep 25 '09 at 18:35
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Transparency isn't the same thing as control, devinb. We want to see the decisions and the reasons behind them, not only let them happen if we agree with them. Let the moderators do their job, and let the community look at that job to make sure it's being done satisfactorily. And if it's not, it gives individual users to bring up objections with it or simply leave if the spirit of the leaders is fundamentally against their values. –  XMLbog Sep 26 '09 at 16:19
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@devinb Transparency helps people see that the moderators aren't doing wrong (or, it does show if they were to do something wrong). The natural human assumption is that the moderators are doing things wrong. We want to have the proof readily available that they aren't! –  Brian Knoblauch Sep 28 '09 at 11:29
    
There is complete transparency between mods (and employees are mods too). The only kind of opaque mod actions are spam flagging and answer-to-comments conversions. –  badp Mar 16 '11 at 7:59
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fwiw, the forum model is generally a terse statement along the lines of "suspended for spam", "warning for violation of TOS", etc.. in red letters by the username or offending post.

It eliminates the streisand, is clear and inarguable if the mods are decent human beings, provides some openness to the system (arbitrary and unknown penalties basically = police state) and serves as a powerful warning and steering mechanism for the community at large - the latter two of which are much more important than curtailing rumour-mongering.

I'm against naming and shaming generally, but I see value in the OP's proposition even if for different reasons.

share|improve this answer
    
the "big red message" on the user account contains a permalink to some pretty clear guidance as to why users get suspended. blog.stackoverflow.com/2009/04/a-day-in-the-penalty-box –  Jeff Atwood Apr 13 '11 at 11:04
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I am very much against this. When a user gets suspended that is their punishment. There is no public shaming of them, they are just binned.

It is only noticable in high profile cases. If a user with < 1000 reputation gets binned, no one is going to notice, so there is no reason to tag their profile. Some of the users may have made small but serious mistakes, or became carried away in the course of one discussion and been suspended. In any and all of those scenarios, the suspension is the punishment.

There will always be people who distrust authority, and they will never believe any suspension is reasonable. If you publish a reason then not only are you giving people something specific to grasp at and disagree with, you are publicly shaming someone who is already being punished.

Further, as noted by womp the terse explanation will still fuel speculation. For instance 'Banned because of abusive comments' would generate speculation about which discussion caused it. And then whether or not the person was binned for mentioning waffles. You can't open up terse explanations without generating huge amounts of discussion and curiosity.

Obviously, keeping people in the dark also does this, but it generates less because you are less likely to notice someone being binned.

EDIT

My suggestion is that there be a list of actions in the FAQ which will generally get you banned. It would shed some light on the process ("users have been banned for the following reasons:") but it would not single out users for particular shaming. It should also be stated that moderators can still suspend people for other reasons. So, you can't claim "but posting pornography isn't on 'the list'! so it must be allowed!".

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-1 OP, +1 this. If the admins really want to eliminate "rubbernecking" then don't publicly humiliate the person you're banning. –  John Dibling Apr 13 '11 at 20:23
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A bit late the party here, but I think that Shog9 is right, and that these debates happen anyway, so it would be far better to provide the information up-front.

Moderators end up 'justifying' themselves anyway:

Why user vgv8 is being suspended again

Why is 97832123 suspended?

Very frustrating user experience (see first answer)

http://meta.stackexchange.com/questions/65073/why-was-this-account-suspended

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the general guidance in the blog post, which is linked from every single suspended users' page, should suffice. blog.stackoverflow.com/2009/04/a-day-in-the-penalty-box –  Jeff Atwood Apr 13 '11 at 7:58
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and if it doesn't, deleting all traces of dissent certainly does –  jalf Apr 13 '11 at 12:39
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I can think of lots of reasons why the smart thing to do is not to publish why a person has been suspended, not the least of which is the potential liability for slander. Even if notice were to be given, where would you give it? The blog? Blogging about someone's transgressions absent some compelling interest -- like resulting changes to the fundamental rules of the site -- seems like overkill. Posting it to the front page of the site? That's hardly any better. I know, why don't we put a message on their profile that they've been suspended. That makes sense. It's not hidden, anyone can see it -- if they care enough to look. Oh, yeah, that's already been implemented.

Now we only need to quibble about whether everyone needs to know exactly why it happened. For the liability issue alone, I would caution against making a public statement unless it results in fundamental change to the system. Even then, I would focus on the resulting change not the behavior. Note that anyone who feels compelled to disagree with their ban has the whole of the internet to work with in making their position known. As far as I know none of the admins has the capacity to turn off someone's internet access or restrict them from posting an alternate forum. There are plenty of people who will commiserate with them over on Reddit. As far as I know you aren't restricted from updating your profile to add a link to your version of events if you wish.

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There is, as i mentioned, already a Big Red Box. Adding a short explanation to it - and i do mean short, not pages of lurid prose spilling all the dirty details - would be fine. Just enough to quiet the gossip. And finally, note that i'm not asking for a public discussion between the user and the moderator, a private forum for venting and commiserating, or anything else along those lines. Just a short, honest, explanation for the suspension. –  Shog9 Sep 25 '09 at 2:07
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If you leave it up to the guy who got boxed, you're only going to get half the story. Since this half of the story is almost necessarily going to antagonize the moderator team, it's in the team's best interest to supply their side, too, so that people have the full set of information with which to make up their minds about the issue. If the boxing was actually unfair, the community should know about it to pester the moderator team into correcting it. If it wasn't, then having the extra information doesn't do any damage. It's just information. It can't bite your shins off or something. –  XMLbog Sep 25 '09 at 2:09
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Last time I checked you can still get sued for short, honest explanations. Even if they don't win, it still costs you money. I'm just saying the less you say, the less likely a lawyer will think he has something to get you on. –  tvanfosson Sep 25 '09 at 2:13
    
@tvanfosson: just make the short explanation be provided by a non-US lawyer :) –  perbert Sep 25 '09 at 2:18
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@voyager -- it's actually harder to prove slander in the US than in most other jurisdictions, probably because the US has stronger protections of speech. Not that it really matters. See the Wikipedia article on defamation for more info: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defamation –  tvanfosson Sep 25 '09 at 2:23
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I'm just an Average Joe on SO/MSO/SU. I ask dumb questions, I get smart answers. I appreciate the tension between privacy of the individual and the transparency of the community, and I think we're all aware that there's no Great Big Answer Way.

However, what is a problem is having long crabby gossip threads about what's going on?! why did $joe disappear! why are there waffles instead of flair on $joe's page!

It's important to have good enough transparency that the community is reasonably satisfied there aren't Creepy Moderators Silently Killing Users.

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For your information, this is pretty much .

If you're worried about transparency, please be aware you already must explain why the user is being suspended before action is applied:

The explanation must be 10 chars long.

...and the suspension reason is permanently placed against the user for all moderators (and employees) to see:

The explanation ends up in the permanent user logs.

There are other ways in which this information is visible, also, some of which quite prominent.

So, no, you can't go rogue without all other mods noticing.

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I don't think that the problem is that other mods can't see why the user was suspended but that other users can't see the reason. Now I can see cases where it might be best to keep the reason private to mods only, but perhaps that should be the exception. –  ChrisF Mar 16 '11 at 9:07
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@Chris I just wanted to comment for the benefit of people who might believe there's any "burying" or "destroying" of evidence anywhere in the process. There is not. ...unless you have DB access, that is. –  badp Mar 16 '11 at 9:11
    
Fair enough. Perhaps move the last line to the top of the answer? –  ChrisF Mar 16 '11 at 9:18
    
@Chris I applied bold, is that enough? –  badp Mar 16 '11 at 9:19
    
I think that works. –  ChrisF Mar 16 '11 at 9:20
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@badp: I disagree that this is actually relevant to my argument, but I'm still glad you posted it - this information had been hinted at before, but I wasn't aware that the reason was maintained post-restoration. –  Shog9 Mar 16 '11 at 15:34
    
@Shog It's relevant, I think, because your proposal has already been implemented as pictured above. It's a deliberate choice, for the reasons Jeff explained, that the suspension information is kept secret. –  badp Mar 16 '11 at 15:51
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@badp: as I noted in [one of] my [many] response[s] to devinb, I assumed moderators were able to review each other's decisions, at least to some degree. This isn't about rogue moderators, it's about public perception. –  Shog9 Mar 16 '11 at 16:07
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I don't think that any information given would quiet the gossip. In a way, it will make things worse.

If they posted a terse summary saying "X got banned for Y", everyone is going to go through their recent activity to see if Y really happened. Now, instead of asking if there is any evidence, people are directly analyzing it. I think it would just exacerbate the kind of speculation you talk about, i.e.

Was the suspension really justified? What's the definition of "jerk"?

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Even without a terse summary right now, the curiosity is as high and leaves you to still go through their recent activity trying to work out what they did that might have been cause for the demotion. –  random Sep 25 '09 at 4:11
    
Right. My point is that adding "terse information" would just shortcut the analysis, but leave the speculation. –  womp Sep 25 '09 at 4:45
    
See my answer, this happens anyway. –  Benjol Mar 16 '11 at 9:23
    
@benjol see my answer, enough guidance is provided. –  Jeff Atwood Apr 13 '11 at 7:59
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