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There was a case a few days back of a user going crazy and starting edit wars in all of his 42 questions, resulting in 50-100 new revisions per question. It being the weekend, it took 1-2 hours until a moderator showed up to suspend the user.

While no real damage was done, and in hindsight instead of starting an edit war, we could have just waited for a mod to appear, I can think of cases where a user going crazy could be a real problem even for such a short time. For example, somebody posting really, really bad graphical content - say, snuff, hardcore porn, or worse. There is also the possibility of a Firesheep hijacking of a high-rep account.

Now, it taking some time until a mod can look into a flag is perfectly normal. Moderators' time zone coverage will increase over time, but you can't expect emergency-service reaction times around the clock.

I would therefore suggest the ability for three 5k+ or 10k+ users to vote to "emergency suspend" a user for, say, three hours, until a moderator can look into it. The function could be located in the 10k+ tools, visible only for user profiles that have had a recently flagged post that wasn't acted upon within 10-15 minutes. Flags would wither away quickly if three votes are not accumulated within a defined (short) time span. An emergency suspension can be cast only once for a user, after that a mod has to look into it.

Obviously, it would have to be communicated clearly that this is an emergency brake only, and that misuse of the function would have grave consequences. Making it a three-vote thing takes away much of the potential for misuse, though.

Edit: Shog9 makes a number of very good points pointing out that this is solvable already through coordinated flagging, and doesn't really need a new, potentially misusable tool. I tend to agree. Should this be deleted?

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Nice, and like you said: this could even be used to block high rep users. Or even moderators? Or Jeff himself? (But it seems direct access to the database could always undo suspensions, so possible abuse of this proposed voting is very minimal, I guess.) – Arjan Jan 23 '11 at 14:41
Related: this feature request could mitigate the low-traffic issue, at least partially. – Jon Seigel Jan 23 '11 at 17:14
@Arjan Presumably the system wouldn't let users suspend moderators, and suspensions don't affect moderators anyway (they can still do mod actions, including unsuspending themselves) – Michael Mrozek Jan 24 '11 at 3:55
I am declining this cause "Conclusion: don't give Tasers to fighting toddlers", I could not agree more. I do not think we need to close or delete, I really like Shogs response and do not want it to vanish, the request itself was good intentioned – waffles Jan 24 '11 at 7:47
@Michael, but if it were implemented, then it should also have affected moderators, and even Jeff et al, because there accounts can be compromised too, as history proves. (I admit, I did not make my point very clear —at all!) – Arjan Jan 24 '11 at 9:30

This is a terrible idea

While no real damage was done, and in hindsight instead of starting an edit war, we could have just waited for a mod to appear

Yes, you could have. In the end, the only irreversible damage was caused by so many editors rolling back changes that several questions were forced into CW-mode - the actual vandalism performed by the ultimately-suspended user could have been dealt with in minutes once a moderator stepped in. Lemme just emphasize that: the only permanent damage was caused by well-intentioned community members overreacting to the vandalism.

So your solution is to give community members a tool with which they can directly attack another user?

Tools for user moderation

Stop and think about this for a minute: there are no tools on SO that allow users to moderate other users. You can vote, flag, close, delete posts - but not users.

Being able to flag a user for moderator attention would be handy at times, and fairly benign... But you can't do that. Because you're not supposed to be focusing on the abusive user, but rather on the abuses. So you flag the posts... That's what the moderators really need to see anyway.

This requested feature would be a severe break from that content-focused moderation philosophy.

The philosophy of suspension

When the "penalty box" was first introduced on SO, its intended purpose was to serve as a wake-up call to users who had established a consistent pattern of poor behavior on the site:

When users exhibit a pattern of either …

Disruptive behavior

  • ... [or]

No effort to learn and improve over time

  • ...

… these problem behaviors have to be dealt with.

It gives moderators a way to remove a user from the site temporarily, while they contact the user and try to work out whatever is going on. It was not designed as a way for vocal members of the community to enact vigilante justice on someone they felt was dangerous or misbehaving. Even moderators are expected to use it reluctantly, as a last resort when at all possible.

With great power comes great abuse

Now, I'm sure you'd never vote to silence someone who insulted you or pointed out problems in a rude way, or down-voted something you put a lot of thought into, or wore the wrong color of hat in their bio photo... In fact, I'm sure no one currently participating in this discussion would do such a thing - you're all great people who consistently act out of principle rather than personal interests.

But there are currently 992 10K users on SO. And 2388 5K users. And although I'd love to believe that out of those thousands of individuals there are only one or perhaps two who would use a feature like this to shut down someone else for personal reasons, experience forces me to admit that there are scores of them, and probably hundreds. And that's on Stack Overflow, where normally we're all very nice people - on Math, Physics, and Knitting.SE there's a really good chance that all 10K users are complete bastards.

Conclusion: don't give Tasers to fighting toddlers

Don't give tasers to fighting toddlers.

Internet, you've failed me again. No pictures of toddlers tasing each other? WTF!

Also, leave user-oriented moderator tools for moderators, who have (hopefully) been selected for their restraint, levelheadedness and grace under pressure. Make it easy for users to box other users, and you'll find a lot more boxing going on, regardless of whether or not it's warranted.

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Good points as always, and well delivered. I will ponder this when I find the time. For the record though, harmless vandalism like what happened in that incident wasn't my point with this - it is only the emergency stopping of somebody from posting really bad stuff. The issues are the same though. – Pëkka Jan 24 '11 at 1:27
Remember that for 2,388 5kers on SO there are 9 people on Cooking. – badp Jan 24 '11 at 1:31
@badp: sure. Of course, they're all in North America too, so chances are if the moderators are sleeping then so are most of the 5K users. Worst-case? Some lousy content survives 'till morning... and then disappears along with the user responsible for it. – Shog9 Jan 24 '11 at 1:36
@Pekka: really bad stuff - like... Terrorist attack plans or child porn or Vogon poetry? I suspect it'd be offensive-flagged into oblivion within minutes anyway. Which... is probably a better response than boxing the user and leaving the offending content in the revision history. – Shog9 Jan 24 '11 at 1:42
true - that would probably work for someone on a mass editing rampage as well. If a number of users manages to act together for a boxing, they can also act together and flag everything the user does. Point taken, I hadn't taken that possibility into account. – Pëkka Jan 24 '11 at 1:48
"Being able to flag a user for moderator attention would be handy at times, and fairly benign... But you can't do that." Ahah. Nice theory. Reality is different. When a group of "excited" users group-flag another user, the mod will obey the group, and "punish" the user, for nothing. This is censorship at work. – curiousguy Aug 19 '12 at 14:44

Rather than votes, perhaps a heuristic where SO detects that a user has edited >X of own posts within a timespan Y where the change delta as a percentage is > Z triggers a throttle.

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He might also vandalize not his own but other people's posts, so that would need to be included in a solution. – sth Jan 23 '11 at 15:02
@sth - true but I guess you need to start by tackling the immediate problem rather than prematurely create a solution for something that hasn't happened yet. – Kev Jan 23 '11 at 15:05
Or, like badp suggested‌​, use the quality calculations that are already used to find bad answers et al: if an edit by a new user (say, no edit approving privs) drops the post quality score of a post "too much" (say, by more than 100), it must go through the edit approval process. Here, this could be: if there's too many quality-lowering edits from a user. (Emergency suspension does not only apply to one's own posts.) But then: I don't know if the quality calculations are that good. – Arjan Jan 23 '11 at 15:10
The immediate problem is already solved, the user got suspended. If we really need a solution for future instances of this very rare problem, I think this solution should cover as many scenarios as possible. – sth Jan 23 '11 at 15:20
@sth - I probably agree with you to be honest. The solution was mod flagging which did the job and people just need to have a bit more patience at the weekend :). – Kev Jan 23 '11 at 15:25
@Kev yeah. This suggestion is more for the (extremely rare, until now never-happened, but not entirely unthinkable) possibility of something posting some really disturbing stuff onto SO's front page - something that needs to get stopped right away and can't wait for an hour or two. The team will have to decide whether this is a likelihood worth addressing – Pëkka Jan 23 '11 at 16:39

In general I like the solution. However a couple of concerns are making me think it should not be implemented.

  1. Three 5k+ users would all have to identify what it happening. I think the chances of that happening might be somewhat rare, especially during the weekend like you are suggesting.
  2. Does this happen often enough to justify putting a process in place to combat it? I haven't have been a SO user for long, but it doesn't seem to be a common problem although I agree a higher risk issue.
  3. Having a feature that is so rarely needed will make training/information users that it exist a challenge.

An alternative solution might be an emergency block if a 10k user had X number of flags in a short time period. This way all users could help identify the issue and you don't have to add new controls to the UI.

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As for flagging a user: that is currently only possible for posts created by the user, right? In other words: if a (compromised) high rep user edits posts from others, there's (currently) no way to flag the user, right? – Arjan Jan 23 '11 at 14:45
Good points. Re 1), there is chat and Meta, and users noticed what was going on pretty fast. Also edited questions get bumped to the front page (which is why an emergency suspend is important in the first place). Re 2) no, this happens extremely rarely. In fact, if things go well, it will never be needed! But the potential for damage might justify introducing the measure. Re 3) it may be a good thing if not every user knows about it - the information would permeate into those circles that use SO frequently, like on Meta and in chat. Those people are arguably best suited to make the call. – Pëkka Jan 23 '11 at 14:48
@Arjan That is good point, but the last user to touch the post would the 10k user in this case and that could be tracked. – jzd Jan 23 '11 at 14:50
...unless some other user first rollbacks and the post gets flagged after that. (But: I'm sure some heuristics can be defined indeed.) – Arjan Jan 23 '11 at 14:51
@Arjan yeah, that's true. Didn't think about that at all - even locking as a 20k+ ability wouldn't help against a rogue high-rep account – Pëkka Jan 23 '11 at 14:52

A false suspension (i.e. one that should never have been) is harsh enough that it makes me dislike letting a handful or arbitrary 10k users vote on this. If we do this, I'd make the required count rather higher (at least 10 x 10k users) and allow 5k users to vote against the suspension.

I also think that this is going to be used rare enough such that once a threshold (3?) of votes is reached, a MSO post should automatically be created to discuss the situation. This would help grab the attention of frequent MSO followers who better understand how the site works (usually more so than a 20k user who has never visited MSO). Then they can cast more informed votes to sway the vote the best way.

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All fair points (although I think instead of creating a Meta post, the incident should rather create a mod or team flag - what went on may not be suitable for public discussion.) – Pëkka Jan 23 '11 at 17:05
@Pekka My current problem with the flagging system is you can't comment on it. So when the problem isn't immediately obvious from looking at a single post, it may be misinterpreted. How about a flag that can be commented on? The other reason I like the MSO post is that it maintains a record for post-discussion where necessary (like we're doing now). When would you not want to discuss it publically? – marcog Jan 23 '11 at 17:09
I like the automatic Meta post. For SU and SF, I'd also prefer MSO over their site-specific Meta, but others might prefer and – Arjan Jan 23 '11 at 17:09
I support the discussion thing for normal flags, but an emergency flag should never require discussion: It could only be used to stop a user from massive vandalism, or posting right-out illegal or brutally offensive content - in the extremely rare case that a mod flag wasn't answered within 10 minutes or so. If the emergency suspension gets used in a way that requires discussion about the suspension's righteousness, it shouldn't have been used in the first place and the users who triggered it probably need to be penalized for it. – Pëkka Jan 23 '11 at 17:13

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