I am currently incredibly frustrated at the highly variable standard of moderation on Stack Overflow. The question that has sparked this question is here:


This question was a real train wreck of a question. The person asking the question was (is) astoundingly confused. Myself and Andreas Rejbrand attempted to help the person asking the question.

Andreas answered the question excellently and gave a very clear and concise implementation of the floating point modulus operator. The person asking the question appeared to have no firm grasp of basic mathematics and offered up comment after comment of cryptic nonsense. We tried hard to make sense of this nonsense and help. I personally added a number of comments containing ideone links that demonstrated the output of Andreas' function. And demonstrated that the output was what the person asking the question should expect to see.

At the same time an answer was posted that suggested an implementation of floating point mod(a,b) of Result := 0.0 which seemed to me to be thoroughly unhelpful. I can understand the frustration that led to the answer being posted. I flagged as not an answer. This flag was declined. Does the moderator that declined that flag really believe that 0 is the answer to mod(a,b) for all a and b? Do I not understand what flagging is meant to be used for?

Presumably the same moderator that handled my flag then deleted all the comments to Andreas' answer that actually contained useful information to the person asking. This is inexplicable to me.

I can see that it would have been legitimate to close the question as too localized or not a real question. I would have understood that moderator response. But to delete all the useful content and leave the joke answer beggars belief.

Here we have a real person with a real problem that we were trying to help solve. The moderation spoiled those efforts. Moderators should not do that.

Over recent months I have become more and more disillusioned with the variable standard of moderation on Stack Overflow. The majority of moderators do an excellent job in my view, but sometimes the moderator's actions are exceedingly unhelpful. At the moment I feel that I would be better off not flagging at all. Because by flagging posts that deserve flagging I run the risk of a moderator coming along and ruining a question.

This is pretty much a rant because I'm cross at what has happened. If I have a question to ask it would be why did this happen and what can be done to bring about a more uniform standard of moderation?

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    Comments should not be the sole repository of useful information. If something useful comes out of a comment conversation it should be edited into the question or answer. – ChrisF Dec 9 '11 at 20:37
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    @ChrisF In an ideal world, in a good question, yes. But the reality of this question, and the person asking it, is that was simply not realistic. I feel strongly that even those asking poor questions deserve help. – David Heffernan Dec 9 '11 at 20:38
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    You should encourage said person then. Even edit the information in yourself. – ChrisF Dec 9 '11 at 20:39
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    @DavidHeffernan SO is for specific, self-contained questions. Back-and-forth discussions should be taken to chat. – user154510 Dec 9 '11 at 20:44
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    @Matthew Well, I wanted to help this poor individual. – David Heffernan Dec 9 '11 at 20:45
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    @DavidHeffernan I promise that it is possible help people in chat :P – user154510 Dec 9 '11 at 20:46
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    @Matthew My overwhelming experience of SO chat is that the other person is never there. In this case I think the inability of this person to follow the ideone links that demonstrated correctness of Andreas's code suggests that chat would not have worked. – David Heffernan Dec 9 '11 at 20:50
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    Usually answers that are not useful should simply be downvoted. – sth Dec 9 '11 at 21:00
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    You were trying to help the guy in comments? That's admirable, but it's not the purpose of comments, and ultimately it's unproductive. Helping someone who posts bad questions by leaving comments only encourages them to post more bad questions. That question and the answers that were posted are such a train wreck I don't even – user102937 Dec 9 '11 at 21:11
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    @Robert: Please don't say that. What's the purpose of comments if not to – Jon Ericson Dec 9 '11 at 21:21
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    Personal meaning you spent 6 paragraphs describing this yawn-fest of an incident which could have been spent, I don't know, linking to other examples to prove that this is actually an ongoing problem and not just a spontaneous explosion of nerd rage. – Aarobot Dec 9 '11 at 21:31
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    @Aarobot Well, I could have linked to my other meta questions. "Nerd rage"? "Yawn fest"? That sounds personal. – David Heffernan Dec 9 '11 at 21:33
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    @MatthewRead: Chat wouldn't have worked in this case, as the asker has an 1-rep account, and you need at least 20 to go to chat. – Paŭlo Ebermann Dec 9 '11 at 21:42
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    @JonEricson See this. Comments are for minor clarifications and so on; not extended discussion. – user154510 Dec 9 '11 at 21:49
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    @DavidHeffernan The same reason SO closes posts as off-topic, and so on. We can't be both a site for specific and objectively answerable programming problems as well as a site for tutoring people in basic mathematics. You always have the option of something like email if you want to continue a discussion, it's up to you and the user. – user154510 Dec 9 '11 at 22:24

I was the moderator who declined the flag.

Addressing your answerable points.

This flag was declined. Does the moderator that declined that flag really believe that 0 is the answer to mod(a,b) for all a and b?

There is a difference between the answer and an answer. This difference (as far as StackOverflow is concerned) is at the sole discretion of the person asking the question. They mark an answer as accepted if they believe that a particular answer is the answer that addresses their question.

When you flag as "not an answer", it states:

This was posted as an answer, but it does not answer the question. It should possibly be an edit, a comment, another question, or deleted altogether.

This is for answers that are completely off topic. While Marcus' answer is snarky, and possibly altogether wrong, it is an answer to the question at hand.

This is the difference between a bad answer and not an answer.

Speaking generally now about the difference between bad answers and not an answer, your best option here is to downvote it.

Regarding the deletion of the comments:

Presumably the same moderator that handled my flag then deleted all the comments to Andreas' answer that actually contained useful information to the person asking. This is inexplicable to me.

I did that as well. The comment stream triggered Community's "more than 20 comments in three days" flag, at which point I observed the comment stream.

Within the comment stream, there are:

  • Multiple references to external code links
  • Directives that others "ask questions but then don't listen to the answer. Follow the link."
  • Another directive asking someone to not "make us try to read your mind"
  • Back and forth about why specific inputs/outputs were not coming up as expected

Comments should not evolve in this manner; if they do, it means that something fundamental has broken down in the communication, or possibly, that the post is inherently flawed (the answer, or the question).

That said, chat would have been the preferred forum to continue this, and when a resolution was obtained, the answer (and possibly the question) edited to reflect the consensus reached among you.

Even if chat cannot (which is the case here) or is not utilized, the question and answer could have been evolved as more details were made available to it; the entire comment stream should not consist of artifacts that are no longer relevant.

As responsible members of StackOverflow, we contribute to the ecosystem by indicating what content needs attention, but that does not absolve us from cleaning up our own content.

That obviously was not done here.

This is pretty much a rant because I'm cross at what has happened. If I have a question to ask it would be why did this happen and what can be done to bring about a more uniform standard of moderation?

Agreed, on the rant part, but at the same time, there is more guidance to moderation than you might be aware of (I can't make that determination for you); as moderators, we try very hard to maintain a consensus of opinion about how to approach situations on the sites we moderate, but at the end of the day we are all individuals with possibly differing opinions on how best to moderate.

TL;DR/cool story bro version

  • The comments were a crap show and deleted because of that. The question was closed and deleted because the comments were getting out of hand and because of the joke answer.

  • If you don't like an answer that answers the question, regardless of the form it takes, downvote the hell out of it, do not flag it.

  • The moderators are constantly attempting to evolve along with the site and collaborate constantly to deliver a consistent standard of moderation, but we are individuals, not Community.

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  • Thanks for your answer. I appreciate it. I'm sorry for ranting. I was definitely out of order doing so. I regret shooting without gathering my thoughts. I ought to know better. I do still feel that you got the comment deletion wrong. If anything should have been deleted it should have been the question since that was the root of the problem, but we managed that ourselves. I honestly can't see the downside of leaving the comments there. What harm were they doing? What would have been the downside to leave them there? – David Heffernan Dec 9 '11 at 21:58
  • Others have pointed out that the person who asked the question did not have the rep required to participate in chat. If that is the case (I don't have the rep required to view the question pertaining to this discussion), then what is the correct recourse? – jwiscarson Dec 9 '11 at 22:00
  • @DavidHeffernan: It happens, don't worry about it. =) The downside to too many comments is that it generally creates a great deal of noise (and that's what I felt was done here, without the focus being put back on the question and answer); the focus on StackOverflow is to provide targeted direction for specific programming issues; comment chains that go too long and OT draw us away from that focus. Evolve the question and answer, not the discussion (that's what chat is for, if possible). No need for thanks, I promised transparency in my nomination bid and I'm going to deliver it! – casperOne Dec 9 '11 at 22:03
  • @jwiscarson I acknowledged in the post that chat was not applicable here; in the same paragraph, I said that the post that the comments are attached to should evolve (through edits) and that people participating in the chats should be responsible and delete the comments as they become irrelevant. – casperOne Dec 9 '11 at 22:07
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    I see now -- I was still reading the original revision of your answer when I posted my comment. I guess I see your proposition (editing questions/answers to reflect details revealed through comments) as reasonable under some circumstances, but difficult for a normal user to abide by in other situations. Particularly since so many new users seem to ask one question and then intermittently participate in its evolution, does that leave other users to edit the original question to reflect the new details? – jwiscarson Dec 9 '11 at 22:16
  • I take your point about evolving answers and deleting comments. I could have done that and it would have been a better way to help. Sometimes it is hard to see this in the fog of such a question. Well, that's my excuse anyway. – David Heffernan Dec 9 '11 at 22:18
  • @jwiscarson makes a good point of it being hard to write an answer that refers to comments rather than the Q – David Heffernan Dec 9 '11 at 22:19

Do I not understand what flagging is meant to be used for?

In this particular case, I think so. Any given answer may be incorrect, inaccurate, unhelpful, etc. but is still an answer nonetheless. The "not an answer" flag (at least to me) is more applicable to answers such as:

  • I have this same issue. Did you find a solution?
  • Just Google it.
  • Thanks for answering my question, here's more information about my question...

and so on.

I definitely don't think it should be the job of the moderators to remove incorrect answers. That's what the voting system is supposed to accomplish. The moderators are too few and far between to police the accuracy of information, they have enough to do just to police the applicability of posts.

Does this result in the occasional situation where a mod subjectively should delete something but errs on the side of caution because he/she isn't sure? Absolutely. And that's fine. Better to let the community decide than to delete with extreme prejudice. In the greater realm of the internet this particular community is very good at policing its own content like that.

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  • My issue was not that the answer was incorrect (which it was), it was that the answer was facetious. How should it have been flagged? – David Heffernan Dec 9 '11 at 20:44
  • @DavidHeffernan Is there evidence it was facetious and not just stupid? If there was, you would need to put it in a custom flag reason. To a mod going through the queue it would just look stupid. – user154510 Dec 9 '11 at 20:46
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    @David Heffernan, by downvoting it – DForck42 Dec 9 '11 at 20:46
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    @DavidHeffernan: Perhaps just as "other" with a short description. It's entirely possible that the first moderator to respond isn't even familiar with the subject matter at hand and doesn't immediately see the problem. At first glance I don't even see it as facetious, though definitely as unhelpful. – David Dec 9 '11 at 20:47
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    @Matthew Comments to my deleted answer suggest very strongly to me that it was facetious. I take your point that I should not expect a mod arriving cold to understand the nuance. – David Heffernan Dec 9 '11 at 20:48
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    @DavidHeffernan By the way, Matthew Read's suggestion of using the "Other" option and (briefly) explaining the situaion has worked very well for me in the past. And I agree, that answer was definitely sarcasm. – Josh Darnell Dec 9 '11 at 20:51

Does the moderator that declined that flag really believe that 0 is the answer to mod(a,b) for all a and b?

You seem to believe that if you find your fellow professor is incorrect in his writings, the proper course of action is to complain to the janitorial staff.

You also seem to believe that many independent volunteers, with varying degrees of knowledge and experience, who spend a few minutes here and there trying to help keep StackOverflow clean, should appear to the removed observer to be a single entity whose every action is only matched in the perfection of its deliberate execution by its consistent application of the site's rules.

Either you are going to get over these preconceived notions or you are going to continue to be unhappy with the quality of moderation here.

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  • "You seem to believe that if you find your fellow professor is incorrect in his writings, the proper course of action is to complain to the janitorial staff." Sometimes it is. Otherwise why would flagging exist? Why would the janitorial staff exist? – David Heffernan Dec 9 '11 at 21:19
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    @DavidHeffernan: We clean up the trash. We are trashmen. You eat too much cotton candy and get sick in the hallway, we can fix that. You cannot expect us to 1) read a post 2) determine if the post is accurate and 3) delete it if it is not. If the post is not correct, that's why we have downvotes and comments. This is not at all hard to understand and accept, if you realize that we are volunteers with varying degrees of knowledge and experience who only spare a few minutes here and there to help moderate the site. Think about it and then think about how much you pay for this service – user1228 Dec 9 '11 at 21:21
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    @DavidHeffernan: Oh, yes, that question was. But that's just vomit to clean up. Determining if an answer is incorrect is not our job as moderators. It just isn't. – user1228 Dec 9 '11 at 21:24
  • It was my opinion that the flagged answer was sarcastic. I accept that I should have flagged it better. I take mild offence at your point about volunteers. I too volunteer a lot of my time to Stack Overflow. It's not just moderators that contribute. Stack Overflow thrives on the efforts of its users and not just the diamond mods. I fully accept and understand that it is hard for a moderator to arrive cold at a question and not understand the technical details in the short time they spend there. In that situation it is surely acceptable for the mod to do nothing. – David Heffernan Dec 9 '11 at 21:27
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    My problem with the answer was not that it was incorrect but that it was facetious. I can see that I flagged it incorrectly. – David Heffernan Dec 9 '11 at 21:28
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    I take offense at the fact that we moderators do our best, yet continuously have to justify our actions and confess our failures. No, I lie, I don't take offense because I'm okay with the fact that life ain't fair and the world isn't perfect. It would have been much better if you had stated why it wasn't an answer. "This answer is facetious" would have gotten way more traction. I assure you it would have resulted in 100x more attention to that flag than "not an answer" did. As always, the more information you give us, the better. – user1228 Dec 9 '11 at 21:36
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    Clearly I am out of line ranting and raving here. I'm sorry. I should have taken an hour and then written a more measured post. I do have a feeling that if there is friction between users and moderators then it could be mitigated by better communication between users and moderators. The flagging system leaves little room for feedback. But perhaps I'm expecting too much and need to chill out. I just really hated the fact that my hard efforts to help a poor confused individual were erased. Just as you do I give my time for free. – David Heffernan Dec 9 '11 at 21:40
  • @DavidHeffernan: Communication is nice, but if the moderators communicated with every user who wanted to share a piece of their mind about the site they'd have no time for actually moderating anything. I'm afraid the way sites like SO work is and always will sit firmly in the territory of "less bad than the alternatives" and "usually good enough". – McCannot Dec 9 '11 at 21:47
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    @DavidHeffernan: Hey, so it goes. I would love to have more feedback options when handling flags; I'm sure we'll get some additional options and tweaks in time. I completely understand your frustration over the fact that we (and when I say "we" I mean moderators other than me!) didn't handle this one well, and wasted your time. We actually do care about keeping the amount of time wasted by our users down to a minimum. If good users feel like they are wasting their time, they will take that time elsewhere. – user1228 Dec 9 '11 at 21:51
  • @DavidHeffernan Just let me note here that Won't's style may not be what you're used to. Don't take it as personally as it seems if you read it straight. He's a good guy, but also a no-BS kind of guy. Or at least that's my impression. I also tend to enjoy sarcasm :P – user154510 Dec 9 '11 at 21:54
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    @MatthewRead: You are completely wrong. I am a complete and total jerk. – user1228 Dec 9 '11 at 21:55
  • See? Gold every time. – user154510 Dec 9 '11 at 21:58
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    @MatthewRead I could hardly take offence at anyone talking straight consider what I wrote in this question. I'm pretty much a straight to the point type of person so that's fine with me. And Won't's answer and comments were excellent and very helpful to me. – David Heffernan Dec 9 '11 at 22:02
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    Harumph. I thought the line about users taking their time elsewhere was much more worthy of a +1 than "I am a complete and total jerk." – user1228 Dec 9 '11 at 22:05

The moderators are human. That's really the answer to your question.

I think I would disagree with some details of the question you link - the answer you flagged is probably not a good answer, probably unhelpful, but it is an "answer", in the sense that we generally mean here. It seems that the way the flag was handled here is consistent with the current standards of the site.

I can't speak for any examples which might be contrary to the above.

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    Stackoverflow, like Soylent Green, is made out of people. – Keith Thompson Dec 10 '11 at 9:35

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