- That (significant) screen real-estate should be used to strengthen communities with like-minded users
- Communities should be given more control over how that space can be used and what shows up on it
- If there is a need for brainless entertainment, the harm to those communities from the entertainment should be minimized
Open Source Advertising
I don't think SE should aspire to being a reddit or the like. I don't think that entertainment should be promoted over the core of creating accessible high quality answers to questions.
Right now SE uses open source advertising because they realize the value of the SE audience, and how much of a positive impact they can have on open source projects. This is a noble goal, and I'd like to think it is continued because it's working.
The same should apply to the hot questions. Like open source projects, the communities that make up the SE network require committed users with interest who can make positive contributions. This has an added benefit over the open source advertising, because it strengthens the SE network and brings more eyes and adds more value over the long run.
Hot questions currently aren't doing that. As Shog says these questions appeal to the lowest common denominator and are being used for entertainment only. The conversion rates on these new users isn't great, and while it brings a lot of eyes (and added community moderation burden), it doesn't seem to bring much long-term value to the communities that the attention is brought to.
Give Communities More Control
Like open-source advertising, let communities decide how their site should be promoted. Give at least a part of that hot questions section to an open-source advertising-esque advert for a selected community that rotates every X weeks. If communities want to promote more serious questions, or tough unanswered questions, or the most useful questions -- let them. This will grow the value of the network.
SE is based on the concept that individual communities know best what they need. That's why we have per-site metas, and per-site mods, and per-site guidelines. Not all communities may want to be promoted in the same way, and giving us the option to choose how we want to promote ourselves (or not promote ourselves as the case may be) is a natural extension of community moderation.
Minimize the Harm of Entertainment-only Questions
If you want to leave a set of entertainment questions below those adverts, that's fine. I just ask that the harm from them is minimized. If the goal is entertainment, then:
- The questions should be read-only (no posting answers without a bit of effort)
- Communities should be allowed to remove questions from the list at will
- The community moderation team should take a part in handling the added burden
If the goal is entertainment, that's fine. Don't let people answer when they click through to that page. The real harm is in the horrid answer quality as people add their two cents without reading the other dozen answers, or actually giving any thought in to the quality of their post. If you create a natural barrier between reading for entertainment, and being able to post an answer, that will do a lot to mitigate the harm.
As an example, you can create a read-only version of questions that require people to click through to the main page and re-find the question to post an answer. Those looking for brainless entertainment are less likely to go through the effort, and some of the worst offenders (one-line answers) can possibly be avoided by adding a single hoop to jump through.
Allow Removal from the List
Give trusted users (10k or 20k+) the ability to remove posts from the hot questions list. For whatever reason, if a question shouldn't be on there, the community should be able to purge it.
I would suggest allowing a tag to be added to posts that prevents it from showing up on the list, like a mod tag, but accessible to trusted users too.
CMs should Share the Burden
If these questions are going to be left around for entertainment value, then the Community Moderation team should park themselves in the chat rooms of all sites with a hot question. Smaller communities do not have as many mods as the big three, and oftentimes mods are not available to handle the flood of flags these questions can cause. Regardless of if the other two options are implemented, community managers should be enticed to come and help handle the burden of moderation for something SE wants. A moderation SWAT team if you will.
I don't mind entertainment being a nice time-waster, but it shouldn't hurt the communities it is promoting. That's just pouring salt in the wound.