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tl;dr version: Rather than locking people out of the house for increasing periods of time, wouldn't it be better if they were only locked out of the rooms they consistently made messes in? This would allow otherwise good users to contribute in the ways they are best able to participate without allowing them to cause the problems they consistently cause.

Problem

A significant problem that suspended users and their supporters complain of frequently is that the user is awesome in some way, and benefits the community greatly. The hope is that we will consider weighing their infractions against their contributions so we can continue to extract usefulness from them, rather than throwing them out wholesale.

Evidence

While I hate to open old wounds, and there is an unwritten social agreement to avoid mentioning specific people who have been banned (Primarily for privacy reasons), I feel it's important that we consider some concrete examples that did happen, rather than postulate based on what could or might happen.

Threatening emails from Jeff Atwood <-- User asked privately to change their comment posting behavior to avoid suspension.

http://stackoverflow.com/users/5640/geoffrey-chetwood <-- User suspended due to numerous complaints and flags against user's comments and other interactions on the site.

Numerous other users have been banned at various times for various reasons, including extraordinary users (one of the top superusers, for instance, and that is a site that could still use a little more help). Would these cases have been better if we could remove one or another ability, rather than removing them from the site completely?

Solution

Implement fine grained suspension that removes specific abilities related to the type of infractions they commit

  • In both examples above the users in question are/were defended by other users who clearly believe their value to the community is worth the extra work and pain they cause to moderators and other users. It generally appears that their infractions do not conflict with their best contributions. In the first case, the user provides excellent answers, but had poor commenting skills. While the comments were valuable, the way they were used irritated fellow users, caused many flags, and soaked up more moderator time than allowable. In the second case the user's primary contribution was in editing and low level moderation activity, but they would frequently spar in comments in an ineffective and sometimes offensive way, requiring a lot of moderator intervention. Removing commenting ability from these two users in question would permit them to participate in the ways that they were most effective in rather than suspending them, while removing (for a time) the ability to participate in ways that were ineffective and sometimes damaging to the community.
  • There are other abilities that should be discussed along these lines, such as voting for those that regularly exhibit strange voting patterns, editing posts for frivolous reasons, etc, but commenting is an obvious first test case for implementing this sort of system.
  • There is already some precedence for this in the moderator flagging system - those who regularly flag items which the moderators choose not to act on are pushed to the bottom of the flag list and eventually ignored. For all intents and purposes they have lost their ability to flag for moderator attention.

Discussion Points

  • Is this worse than a full suspension (ie, being able to participate, but not fully, might hurt worse than simply being kicked out?)
  • Is there validity in the idea that kicking them down the ladder would be better than just removing certain abilities? (for instance, if you can't comment properly, perhaps you shouldn't be allowed to do anything else above commenting that your reputation would otherwise allow)
  • Is it fair making a user's ability contingent on something other than reputation, such as how well they use that ability?
  • Is it wise to remove their ability to defend themselves in comments? (Are comments a primary feature of the site?)
  • Are there abilities that should or should not be considered for this treatment? (Posting questions and answers is the primary purpose of the site - if we remove either of those, isn't that essentially the same as suspending them completely, even if it's only for a few days?)
  • Specifically regarding commenting, should comment-suspended users be allowed to comment on their own questions and answers, or if someone explicitly calls them out using the @username feature? (for instance in the case of someone commenting on how the suspended user edited a question)
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This is a feature request that was surgically separated from its conjoined twin, who can be found here: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/81526/… - There are a lot of good answers in there that address this issue, which the authors are invited to move over to here. –  Adam Davis Mar 24 '11 at 20:24
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It would be easier if they just learned to behave, just like all the other users... –  Ivo Flipse Mar 24 '11 at 20:28
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Too much work for too little benefit. Ban them all, I say. The ban. To everyone. –  Won't Mar 24 '11 at 20:39
    
I could have told you that it wouldn't go well when I saw that the first guy was a math instructor. Let me tell you sometime about "Angry Grade Guy" who insisted that the system ate all the grades for his course in our CMS at midterms, despite the fact that every item he could remember appeared in his course from the previous semester and never once had he entered grades for any course prior to the last week of a semester. Further no back up of the system going back for 12 weeks had any indication that grade items had ever been created nor does the system ever delete them if they are. :-( –  tvanfosson Mar 24 '11 at 22:11
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Or maybe about Angry Email Guy, who insisted that the system was failing to send his emails despite our repeated demonstrations to the contrary, yet refused to try and send a test email to our support team because he "didn't have time." :-( –  tvanfosson Mar 24 '11 at 22:14
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Or Angry I Won't Use Your System Guy...well, you get my point. Tenure often seems to be a license for abusive behavior and, I suspect, it carries over to other areas of their lives as well. There's a real art to communicating to such a person that the problem is really a PEBKAC issue. –  tvanfosson Mar 24 '11 at 22:16
    
My opinion of SO has skyrocketed, courtesy of MO. Wow. Just... Wow. –  user27414 Mar 25 '11 at 2:41
    
I have to laugh at the one close vote for noise or pointless... hehehe... –  Adam Davis Mar 25 '11 at 12:38

2 Answers 2

up vote 12 down vote accepted
  1. It's too complicated. Timed suspension is simple.

  2. It would be a lot of development work.

  3. For the users in question, even if we had this fine granular "remove abilities", they would have reacted no differently in my opinion. In fact, I believe they would have acted out in other negative ways based on the partial removal of abilities. Ways that would not be available to them in a standard "can't do anything" timed suspension.

In general, I find that for the types of users where timed suspension is necessary, if it's not this {random event} that sets them off, it will inevitably be the next {random event} a few weeks later. There is something about these rare users that puts them on edge, and any attempt to moderate their behavior often (not always, but often) results in them spiraling further and further out of control.

Reducing or limiting the effect of timed suspension would have, at best, no benefit -- and I strongly suspect it would make matters worse.

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+1 for #1, +0 for #2, -1 for #3 ("they would have reacted no differently"? really? is it just a guess, or have you actually tried this to see if it's true?)... I guess that averages out. –  Mehrdad Mar 25 '11 at 2:47
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@mehr have you met Rich B? And scroll up to read tvanfosson's comments on the question about the behavior of tenured professors.Even in my limited experience, this is dead on. –  Jeff Atwood Mar 25 '11 at 2:49
    
1. No. :( 2. Yeah I read it. I'm thinking maybe we could just give something like a "temporary rep of 1" a try (but still let them ask and answer questions), and see how it goes. That would remove every non-basic ability (like commenting), but it's a bit better than timed suspension IMHO, since, if I've understood correctly, timed suspensions remove all abilities (though please correct me if I'm wrong). –  Mehrdad Mar 25 '11 at 2:55
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@mehr based on our experience with meta.stackexchange.com/questions/18289/… I expect they would begin a pattern of reprisal using whatever tools they had available to them. "time out" should mean time out. –  Jeff Atwood Mar 25 '11 at 3:10
    
Ah, okay, that's definitely convincing, thanks. :) +1 –  Mehrdad Mar 25 '11 at 3:11

A person (or bot or whatever) has to work awfully hard to manage to get themselves suspended by the team. I don't think, for example, that Col. Shrapnel has managed it yet. These are not marginal cases. In fact, as far as I can tell, what really distinguishes the suspendees is their reliably and far-reaching insistence on picking fights and giving offense.

Thus, I very much doubt that a more complex penalty box structure would receive much use.

I personally don't care how many muppets or sock-puppets or meat-puppets have soft spots for these disruptive characters.

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+1 for naming.. –  RichardTheKiwi Mar 25 '11 at 4:16

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