"Don't make me use my brain" edition:

How do we correctly convey the intent behind close voting on SE 2.0 sites and encourage question improvement, with particular focus on natives (i.e. non SO-pedians)? Are there any technical measures we can use (some are highlighted, with relavent links, in the "essay" bit).

"I like reading essays" edition:

So this discussion has been rumbling around a bit all over the chatosphere wherever I go, so I thought it was time for a meta post. I'm a moderator over on an excellent site that you should all visit (and ask sensible questions having read the FAQ, of course. You should also totally visit our meta) as an additional background.

One of the things I've learnt from this experience is that if you close someone's question, then they get quite upset about that, particularly if they're not experienced SO users. It's the SE equivalent of slamming the door in your face.

I don't personally see close voting that way and that is not how I understand its purpose. If I have it right, the purpose of close voting is to "stop" or "hold" bad questions until such a point as they are either improved or eventually deleted (if not). The question is, if that interpretation is right, how do we go about conveying it?

My major concern is that we are possibly doing two things - putting new users off when their questions are closed and not encouraging users to close questions. There also seems to be a problem distinguishing between "this is not a question" and "this is not a question that is suitable for Stack Exchange".

There have been a number of discussions on this topic:

  1. On the podcast there was a discussion about dis-disincentivising pointless questions. That focuses on preventing people answering the questions, or rather, editing or closing before answering, the idea being you should be either closing or editing and you shouldn't benefit from answers on a closed question. Opinions vary.

  2. This request was put in on wordpress.se's meta for the ability to handle something slightly different - timed close votes, or "improve your question or it will be closed". This is borne out of another issue - users do not like straight out closure, apparently, and would much prefer a warning. It was also borne out of the moderator issue - how do we track/respond to re-open requests.

  3. A request for warning was sort-of made on programmers, albeit as part of a wider issue. Specifically,

    Content should no longer be blocked without prior warning.

    blocked? That's the wrong word, I feel, and it's use and the fact closing appears that way is slightly concerning in my opinion.

  4. Holding questions has been discussed here and a new user raised their feelings of the close vote system here. In true meta fashion, it was both popular and unpopular.

So, the way I see it there are several possible solutions:

  1. Moderators/users always leave comments. I usually do, unless it is absolutely, blatantly obvious why a question is rubbish (e.g. spam). It's still clearly upsetting people though and "force users to leave comments" is never a popular option. There was a question on that recently somewhere too.
  2. We change the close messages. They're fine as they are, but how about adding a little bit of extra text, maybe with a link to this (perhaps copying it over to SE.com wth permission and generalising it in case of 410s?). We would also need to, I think, imply some sort of temporary wording in there and a big, obvious link to the edit page preferably with the words "improve" on.
  3. We rename "closed" to "temporarily closed".
  4. We implement some form of holding queue for these questions.
  5. We implement Jack Bauer ("Dammit, you're running out of time!") style closes. See above.
  6. Something else? A different level of closed for "rubbish" vs "probably could improve"?
  7. A way for the OP to signal to privileged users (3ks?) that they've edited their question and would like it re-opening, with the option to dismiss? Yes, we have a questions with re-open votes in the 10k-tools, but could we make it more prominent (like suggested edits is)?

I'm not sure which is best - I think perhaps a little more user education via an altered close message might be the least contentious and by far the easiest to implement, as well as having the least impact on new user introductions (there's a danger with new question queues that not enough new questions are approved, etc). I also do not have numbers, just various pieces of feedback, to back any of my various assertions. So I am interested in what you think. So, thoughts? Is there something that will allow us to easily allow questions from new users (v important) and encourage them to improve when faced with an experienced user(s) (to the format) closing their question whilst maintaining our current (excellent) ability to close "noise" an keep "signal"?

  • Related: Could we please be a bit nicer to the noobs?
    – user149432
    Oct 14 '11 at 17:54
  • Note that my "put new questions in a sandbox where they can't get answers at first" suggestion (in 4.) was targeted solely at Stack Overflow with its 4k+ new questions a day - not so much the Stack Exchange sites that are still in the process of forming a functioning community.
    – Pekka
    Oct 14 '11 at 18:39
  • @PopularDemand that's exactly what I'm getting at - I did search, but that didn't appear. Maybe a close is needed then - how ironic! Pekka - yep ofc. I've included it because it's relevant, but probably not the approach for small sites.
    – user142852
    Oct 14 '11 at 19:06
  • 1
    Also for the record - my "delayed close" suggestion (2) was formed in context of 2.0 site where questions growth outruns answering capability (currently we are 11th in traffic, 17th in number of users and last in percent answered).
    – Rarst
    Oct 14 '11 at 19:08
  • 2
    It's not always just new users. I've seen 10K SO users under the impression that closure is permanent.
    – Troyen
    Oct 14 '11 at 20:09
  • If one of my questions has been closed (and has earned probably some negative points), why should I reedit it and make someone reopen it when I could simply post a new better written question and delete the old (with all the negative points)?
    – xanatos
    Oct 16 '11 at 13:07
  • 1
    In the end, I think 90% of the times closure is permanent (but I think it would be beautiful to have some stats on it). I'm still a bit angry that this question stackoverflow.com/questions/7312437/how-are-these-clouds-made/… was closed 25 minutes after it was opened and from then it wasn't ever reopened.
    – xanatos
    Oct 16 '11 at 13:14

I'm all for explaining in comments and on meta the reasons why a question is closed, and I'm for working with people who have demonstrated a desire to improve their question (i.e. good faith actors), but I'm not on board with bending over backwards to try to save every single question.

Many questions are terrible. They can't be saved and/or the person asking them has no desire to save them. The perceived value behind Stack Exchange is that you get answers to problems quickly: that in certain cases, it's better than Googling. Many users don't have the time or inclination to try to decipher all the rules and requirements: they'll just go somewhere else or waste their time complaining.

And contrary to popular belief: that's fine. Stack Exchange is not the only game in town and it does not have to cater to everyone asking a question. Everyone's welcome, but Stack Exchange is only able to provide answers that outclass other solutions because of those pesky rules and guidelines.

To mix metaphors, if a user honestly wants to learn how to practice the Zen of Stack Exchange, there are tons of Mr. Miyagis waiting in the wings to help them out. This type of user shows initiative by asking others—in a constructive manner—why their question got closed. They don't throw a hissy fit about censorship or getting blocked, and they don't just leave never to be heard from again.

So lets cater to them. Forget creating holding queues, changing the verbage to "temporarily closed" (it really isn't temporary if nobody improves the question), and "timed closures". Let's just add more information about how to get a question re-opened to help those who are actually interested enough to learn more about why their question was closed.

Instead of just explaining in the close notice what's wrong:

Closed as not constructive by Mark Trapp, John Doe, Seymour Skinner, Joey Ramone, Hunter S. Thompson

This question does not meet enough of our six guidelines for constructive subjective questions. All questions should be practical, answerable, and of some educational value to the greater community. Chatty, open-ended discussion questions diminish the usefulness of our site and push other questions off the front page.
See the FAQ.

Replace the last line (See the FAQ) with a link explaining how the user can get their question reopened:

See how you can get your question reopened.

Which would link to a page that explained a few things:

  • Why questions are closed instead of left open (see English.SE and Programmers.SE for examples)
  • General tips on how to improve a question so it can be reopened (perhaps a link to or copy-paste of How to Ask
  • What recourses users have to appeal a closure (link to meta, flagging FAQ)
  • I like this. It keeps the "closing edge" and the point of closing around whilst explaining to those users who do care why their question was closed. I agree - there's an enormous volume of closed stuff that is never going to be rescued, it's true.
    – user142852
    Oct 14 '11 at 19:10
  • I like that this justifies me going on close spree... Which makes me think that maybe I should not like it. :)
    – Rarst
    Oct 14 '11 at 21:02

Many technical solutions have been discussed but I've seen few I liked.

I think the only thing that can be done with the current tool set is direct communication in the form of comments to accompany as many closings as possible.

A nice "Hi, welcome to xyz! Your question is a bit broad. On xyz.SE, we try to ask questions that are specific to ....." will go a lot towards making a new user feel welcome even though their first question gets closed.

This takes a lot of initiative and social skill from the small circle of mods and high-rep users who initially define and shape a new community, but it's the only way I can see!

  • +1 - Those "welcome to xyz" are indescribably important in my opinion. Oct 14 '11 at 18:48
  • back in October I requested a "questions can't be closed by a diamond mod unless the diamond mod has left a comment on the question" feature for SE 2.0 sites -- not sure what happened to that, but it needs to get implemented if it isn't already. Checking. Jan 3 '12 at 9:41
  • @JeffAtwood The Pro Forma Comments user script makes doing that incredibly easy. Perhaps the features it offers could just become an official feature for moderators? It just uses local storage for a library of boilerplate comments.
    – Tim Post
    Jan 3 '12 at 11:00
  • 2
    @JeffAtwood Why should moderators have to repeat the same advice given by other community members commenting before closing a question? And why is this a restriction on moderators—who have been entrusted to do the right thing and comment when they feel is appropriate—and not on say, the community, who can close without feedback all day long? Silently creating restrictions like this is far less effective than explaining to and encouraging moderators that feedback is necessary when closing questions.
    – user149432
    Jan 3 '12 at 12:00
  • The Pro Forma comments script is indeed a great tool. I think it is seriously worth thinking about integrating it into SO's core, with nice pre-canned messages.
    – Pekka
    Jan 3 '12 at 12:01
  • 1
    @mark to me this depends on the question volume; clearly not needed on SO (and perhaps not even on SU,SF) but on smaller sites that need new users it's essential to provide feedback on closed questions. Remember that mod closures can be 1 person whereas community closes take 5 people. We'll adjust the code so that it ensures someone left a comment. Jan 3 '12 at 12:20
  • @the pro forma comments script is nice, but IMO when we added the actual description of the close reason next to the close itself, which links to the specific section of the FAQ (remember, that is new-ish) that really should suffice most of the time. I believe pro forma comments script predates us adding the longer text and faq links to the closures. Jan 3 '12 at 12:23
  • 2
    @JeffAtwood Community raises a flag when a mod closes without a comment on the post (on beta sites)... I believe that is sufficient (perhaps extend to all SE2.0). Jan 3 '12 at 15:13
  • @Jeff yeah - whether pro-forma comments are worth incorporating into SO's core (because SO is the place where they are often needed independently from actual closings) is a different discussion I guess. I may start a feature request some time
    – Pekka
    Jan 3 '12 at 15:25

Personally, I don't think social problems can be solved by technical measures.

New users, community members need a pinch of ambassadorial behavior. That's not to say that the community has to give it to them... but I think something as simple as a "Welcome to StackOverflow; your question is likely to get closed because..." can go a long way with some new users.

Some users already write comments to that effect, and good on them. Other users don't, and that's their prerogative.


Perhaps a badge for commenting on those questions one votes to close?

Or a badge for leaving a comment with the words "Welcome to StackOverflow" in them on a new user's first question?

  • 1
    I want to note that my "delayed close" suggestion is not trying to solve social problem. It is trying to solve (moderator) workflow problem where questions with insufficient details take comments and multiple visits to properly resolve.
    – Rarst
    Oct 14 '11 at 18:32
  • @Rarst - Hmmmm... Fair point. Do you think I'm off the mark enough that I should just delete my answer? Oct 14 '11 at 18:42
  • I think it's fine, reminds to keep a balance between automation and overly dehumanizing the processes :) For the context on WPSE we have issue with growing pile of unanswered (we currently have worst answered percentage in network :( so I am looking for a ways to deal with that.
    – Rarst
    Oct 14 '11 at 18:59
  • we aren't really in the business of explicitly welcoming people to Stack Overflow, rather, they need to prove that their questions have merit and follow the many, MANY signposts we have about reading the faq and How to Ask. This is different on smaller sites which need new questions, but Stack Overflow doesn't need more new questions, it kinda needs.. less bad ones. Jan 3 '12 at 12:35

A perhaps unpopular premise: we don't need more questioners on stackoverflow.com. We have more than we know what to do with. We are much more concerned with limiting the impact of people who won't ever play by the rules than we are concerned with possibly scaring off a person capable of learning from his or her mistake. Some new people read the hints that are jumping out of them off of the screen. Those people do fine.

Tools/flags has been over 200, and steading growing, for days. The person-power is not there to put even more detailed attention into poor questions in the hopes of helping more people get it right the second time.

  • While I agree the Review page is getting overwhelming, I've found most of the review flags for low quality answers, aren't really accurate and it could be trimmed a lot. Oct 14 '11 at 18:22
  • 1
    Anybody else reminded of The Mask of the Red Death by this mentality? Oct 14 '11 at 18:22
  • 2
    Note that (if I'm reading it right) the OP is talking about other SE sites, not Stack Overflow proper.
    – Pekka
    Oct 14 '11 at 18:31
  • 5
    I hear where you are coming from but this issue is mostly for 2.0 sites (esp betas) that are trying to drum up question volume and willing to put the work into editing. We need to close because we need to curb badly written questions (we're trying to SET a standard) but we don't want close to be understood as a death sentence.
    – Caleb
    Oct 14 '11 at 18:42
  • @Caleb If that's really the topic, I should just delete this answer. It's 100% stackoverflow.
    – Rosinante
    Oct 14 '11 at 19:30
  • @Rosinante: It's in the title of the question. This was born in the TL when ninfingers and I were talking about our close woes on the 2.0 betas we mod. SO might have a different problem. I know they like to forge the software there and push it down the stack, but the 2.0 sites also face different issues by nature.
    – Caleb
    Oct 14 '11 at 21:42
  • correct, but this question is clearly about new SE sites which have a radically lower question volume. So I do recommend deleting this. Jan 3 '12 at 9:25

I think Pekka's solutions you linked to aren't really viable because they stop answers from being posted, and the problem isn't about getting answers, it's about getting poor questions.

Otherwise, I like the idea of a timed close. If you do that the problem will be that if the question isn't edited sufficiently, then it may be hard to get it reclosed. We'll have to create another queue in the Review page for timed close expired posts, so they can be reviewed again.

  • It's one and the same suggestion, posted twice, receiving 16 upvotes one time and 15 downvotes the other time. Just to whine a bit. :)
    – Pekka
    Oct 14 '11 at 18:23
  • I like the solutions except for the no answers part. Oct 14 '11 at 18:33
  • yeah. Maybe I'll resurrect it without that some time - it might still be worth it.
    – Pekka
    Oct 14 '11 at 18:40
  • The problem is that bad questions encourage bad answers. We need to specifically shut down the answer mechanism (close) bad questions until they are good questions that will encourage good answers.
    – Caleb
    Oct 14 '11 at 18:44
  • @Caleb, I've seen plenty of good answers on bad questions, there's even a badge for that. Oct 14 '11 at 18:47
  • @LanceRoberts: I've seen them all the time too -- but mostly on sites that have established expertise. Experts can turn around bad questions, but it's easier to do so when your subject matter doesn't invite non-experts anyway. If you have hords of non experts throwing in their 2c opinions on every question, you have to set the bar higher on what questions you leave open. Bad questions do attract bad answers. The turn-arounds are the exceptions (which is why the badge exists).
    – Caleb
    Oct 14 '11 at 19:16

It all depends on why we close questions. The usual reason is to keep the quality of the question queue high. None of us wants to see the same uniformed questions asked over and over by hit-and-run askers who can't be bothered to read the FAQ or search for similar questions. Nor do we want to have lots of people wast their time on poorly specified questions or see spews of answers to trolling questions.

However, there is a nugget of truth in the old chestnut, "There are no bad questions." I've always understood it to mean "Don't let the mechanics of phrasing a question stifle your curiosity." To me, the current "close" mechanism turns that concept on its head. If there's any curiosity behind a close-worthy question, it's squashed as comments, votes and pre-close answers turn against it. The less technical the site, the more jarring the "close" process is likely to seem.

I think changing terminology could help. Encouraging constructive comments would be good too. And the message on a closed question could probably use work.

On the technical side, introducing a "soft-close" (which might replace the current close) could do the trick. In retail, some stores don't close abruptly at the end of the day, but rather close the doors to new customers while letting current customers finish their shopping. It gets the job of closing the store done without customers feeling hurried. A soft close on StackExchange could mean that people already involved with a question (by commenting or answering) can still provide answers, but people who have not participated before closing time are locked out. The upshot is that the asker loses the wide field of experts by asking bad questions, but still has a chance of having their curiosity satisfied.

Perhaps users with high enough reputation could answer questions even if they haven't participated. Presumably, they will be able to give good answers to even bad questions. In fact, a more complicated system might be for each "close" vote to ratchet up the reputation needed to answer (or even see) the question. This would turn the binary "close" or "open" into a sliding scale of "closedness".

The technical suggestions are bound to have unforeseen consequences, so I reserve my right to oppose them in the future. ;-)

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