If you were on SO/Meta yesterday, you probably saw this question:

What is the underscore actually doing in this Java code?

The question caused a wide divergence of opinion from users. It spawned a Meta post on whether it should have been closed, and at one point was both 1 vote way from being reopened and 1 vote away from being deleted:

share | edit | reopen (4/5) | delete (3/4) |flag


Though the question of whether the question should have been deleted is mostly resolved (answer is no), the question has gone through close-reopen at least three times in one day. It's currently being in the process of being reopened once again.

I'd also like to point out that no substantive edits (other than perhaps the title) were made to the question during the close-reopen cycles, so it's not like the question was being improved much in any way. It seems like the close-reopen threshold of 5 is just broken when this type of situation arises.

If a question is causing such a wide divergence of opinion, shouldn't there be some automated process to lock the question? Or must we rely on moderators to do something? In particular, this question has attracted several answers during the times it was open (some of those answers have been removed), and no one can post answers when it is closed. It's like a traffic light.

I'm not sure how often this type of question comes up, but I'd like to solicit comments in particular for any automated way to handle this issue that we could turn into a feature request, perhaps.

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  • That one had plenty of moderator intervention. This one is just being a community-controlled traffic light. – Andrew Mao Mar 27 '13 at 16:33
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    @Mysticial The pair of socks is ranked 18th in this query Apparently this one is more than twice as bad – Some Helpful Commenter Mar 27 '13 at 16:51
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    The pair of socks is quite an embarrassing broken window. I almost (still voting to close this one) feel bad for closing questions merely because it exists. "Your question is closed because it is awful and unpopular; the trick is to troll for rep with awful questions that are popular." – user7116 Mar 27 '13 at 17:23

My first reaction is... So what? Let folks have their vote. If a question is legitimately controversial, I don't see any reason why 10, 20, 40 people can't all have their say in the form of voting to close or re-open. Since no one can vote to close (or re-open) more than once, the length of the "war" is limited by the number of folks who actually take an interest in the question.

That said, it can (and has) reached the point where it's a distraction - this is the second round of discussion here on Meta, after all. The question is answered; it's a trivial question which probably wouldn't have gotten anywhere near this much attention if someone hadn't jumped the gun trying to close it down.

I'll lock it for a week. Anyone who still cares about it at that point can continue where they left off. In the meantime, if you think it's Too Localized or whatever, get your arguments out of the way here on MSO.

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    I think this is the best solution. If people care this much they can remember to go reopen/reclose it after a week. No one will care that much at that point. – ɥʇǝS Mar 27 '13 at 17:42
  • Yeah, lock it for a week so everybody will forget it and then we'll have another horrible example of a question that we'll need to later explain away. Good strategy. – Anthony Pegram Mar 27 '13 at 17:50
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    You could start by explaining the problems with the question in the existing thread on the topic, @Anthony. – Shog9 Mar 27 '13 at 17:58
  • Other folks already have already been there and done that. – Anthony Pegram Mar 27 '13 at 18:03
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    Evidence suggests they did a terrible job of it, @Anthony. If you're honestly worried about having to "explain" this in the future, you might want to get your story straight now. – Shog9 Mar 27 '13 at 18:05
  • Although the two Meta discussions are certainly a distraction, neither of them should have been posted in the first place (especially the first one). I don't like having to lock a question just because people jumped the gun on Meta. – yannis Mar 27 '13 at 18:10
  • You want to ignore George Stocker's answer here and you want to ignore Mooing Duck's answer in the other topic. That's fine. I voted to close and delete, although I think that given the latest trend around here, perhaps that's a waste of time. You don't seem to like us doing that. – Anthony Pegram Mar 27 '13 at 18:11
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    Give me one good reason why that question needs to be deleted while two discussions are currently in progress regarding it, @Anthony. Your inability to differentiate between things that probably don't need to hang around long-term and things that need to be shot on sight is a problem. If you can't correct it, then the responsibility falls on me. – Shog9 Mar 27 '13 at 18:20
  • I don't like it either, @Yannis - but I don't particularly want to delete the meta discussions at this point, so... My hope is that some of the folks behind the first one at least learn something from the counter-productive nature of their efforts. – Shog9 Mar 27 '13 at 18:25
  • So does that lock whatever votes were cast at the time or will they fade away? – Lance Roberts Mar 27 '13 at 18:44
  • Vote-aging does not behave differently on locked posts, @Lance. That said, there's nothing on the post right now that ages. – Shog9 Mar 27 '13 at 18:50
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    Meta discussions notwithstanding, SO should be able to moderated independently. And I will always favor shooting it on sight, because if it isn't deleted immediately, then it will be forgotten until somebody uses it as example #1 of why their next bad question should be allowed. And further, with 5 million questions and hundreds of thousands of users, who cares. Delete at will. They're all duplicates anway. Bah. I've offered my two cents, I'll offer no more replies or resistance on this. – Anthony Pegram Mar 27 '13 at 19:06
  • Well... That's probably reason enough not to hold out hope that anything short of just killing the 20K "early deletion" priv will have any real effect. So it goes... – Shog9 Mar 27 '13 at 19:08
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    @Shog - change the early deletion privilege to only apply to questions with a score of, say, -3. Then we can still nuke spam, but not questionable, controversial questions like this. – Adam Rackis Mar 27 '13 at 19:32

Typically if questions are in the spotlight and getting repeatedly closed and reopened, a moderator will put a timed Lock on the post to prevent any interaction with it for a set period of time.

To quote from the FAQ post about Locks:

When should a post be locked?

Posts should generally only be locked in cases where something seriously bad is happening. In particular, where the ongoing updates and edits are actively detrimental to the system.

Some examples of when a post might be locked include:

  • A question or answer where repeated voting or editing is happening in a way which attempts to game, hack, or otherwise abuse the system.
  • A question that gets opened and closed repeatedly many times without achieving community consensus on whether it should stay open or closed.
  • A question that, for whatever reason, continues to attract flame posts, spam, or other inappropriate answers.
  • A question that is repeatedly vandalized by its asker; for example, to drastically alter the meaning of the question that invalidates existing answers, or to obliterate/obscure the question.

By the time the lock expires, most people have forgotten about that post and have moved on, or have reached a consensus on meta or in chat about the final state of the question. (Typically posts don't get that many close/reopen votes without attention on either meta or chat).

I wouldn't like to automate this process as it could incorrectly leave the question in the wrong state, and think that a post getting closed and reopened enough times to warrant a lock happens infrequently enough that an automated solution is not necessary.

But if was ever determined that some form of automation was needed, then perhaps the system could raise an automatic flag after a question has been closed and reopened X (3?) times within Y (7?) days so a moderator can investigate the post and determine if a Lock is needed.

  • I'm not so sure that's a valid use for a lock... Locks are reserved for when something bad is happening, a re-open / close war is annoying, but I wouldn't call it bad. – yannis Mar 27 '13 at 16:40
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    @Yannis Does't the lock notice say something like "this post has been locked while disputes about its contents are being resolved"? I'll have to see if I can find the exact message, but it looks like exactly what locks are supposed to be for – Rachel Mar 27 '13 at 16:43
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    People voting (to close / re-open) is not content dispute, it's just people exercising their right to vote. The content dispute lock is for edit wars. Also, the historical lock, while it might be the end result of a really long re-open / close war, only applies to questions that have been around for a while and have a bunch of incoming links. And it's supposed to be permanent (a short time historical lock is technically possible, but against the premise of the lock). – yannis Mar 27 '13 at 16:46
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    The trouble with locking is that, it's "stronger" than a close. It blocks everything: edits, votes, new answers. In a case like this where there's a war between those who like the question vs. those who don't want it to get too popular (with a massive amount of votes), locking the question is anything but a neutral decision from a moderator standpoint. – Mysticial Mar 27 '13 at 16:48
  • @Yannis See the update to my post. I'm referring to a regular lock, and not a historical lock (there are separate FAQ pages for both of them, and I mistakenly linked the Historical Lock page in my initial post, which may be why you're confused) – Rachel Mar 27 '13 at 16:48
  • Re your edit: The emphasis should be on "something seriously bad is happening" and "repeatedly many times". A lock is really the nuclear option, it stops edits, votes and comments. The only time you should consider a lock is when the only other option is deleting the question. – yannis Mar 27 '13 at 16:48
  • What do you mean by automated locking «could incorrectly leave the question in the wrong state»? – jscs Mar 27 '13 at 17:00
  • @Josh We would have to specify to auto-lock the post after the Xth time it's been closed or reopened. If we say "lock posts after they've been closed 3 times", then nobody could edit the post or try to get it reopened (or it might actually be a valid question and should be reopened). If we say "lock this post after the 3rd time it's been reopened", then it prevents anyone from closing the question in the event it really should be closed. Such a system would be too easy to abuse too, forcing a question to get Locked in a specific state by gathering the attention of enough like-minded users. – Rachel Mar 27 '13 at 17:07
  • @Rachel The same problem exists with a mod initiated lock, which is why locks are reserved for when something seriously bad is happening. Nothing seriously bad is happening with this question, we can't call a moderator to intervene every time people have different opinions about a question (assuming of course they are expressing their opinions constructively). – yannis Mar 27 '13 at 17:09
  • Nobody can edit or try to reopen/close the post when it's locked anyways. The only possible interaction with a locked post is unlocking, which has to be performed by a moderator. – jscs Mar 27 '13 at 17:09
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    @Yannis If regular Locks are indeed not meant to be used for close/reopen wars, then perhaps the FAQ Page for them should be updated to not include close/reopen wars in the list of when to use them. – Rachel Mar 27 '13 at 17:12
  • Abusing an autolock that triggered after, say, three rounds of open/close would require a conspiracy of fifteen people, since the same five can't re-close or re-reopen. That seems unlikely to me. I am on board with your argument that this is almost certainly rare enough as to not require automation, however. – jscs Mar 27 '13 at 17:12
  • @Rachel The "something seriously bad is happening" is not optional, it's right there in the opening sentence. Everything that follows assumes that something seriously bad is happening (and has been happening for a while). A question getting closed and re-opened a handful of times is not really concerning, especially when the relevant Meta discussion is ongoing. – yannis Mar 27 '13 at 17:14
  • @JoshCaswell Yes, the lack of editing capabilities is one reason why I would want a moderator to intervene and place a lock instead of it being automatic. This way, only questions which are actively being discussed and a consensus being worked out get locked, and not just some random question which has over time been closed and reopened a few times. – Rachel Mar 27 '13 at 17:14

Personally I think it should be closed, because I believe it to be too localized, or a duplicate. If you consider what could happen if we don't close it, we could legitimately have 15,000 other questions about what is tantamount to 'legal identifiers' in Java. Can you imagine a question like the following?

I just began to learn Java.

My friend who is helping me study just sent me this and said 'figure this out'.

Unfortunately I am unable to read this. It looks like Perl to me.

class ︴{︴ ︴;︴(){︴=this;}} 

What does it mean?

Ad infinitum.

We can't close it unilaterally because there's no call for it. With 45 upvotes, people agree with Shog9.

Now that it's yo-yoing, there is some call for intervention, but what are our options?

  1. Close it, and attract more attention to it, causing it to yo-yo.
  2. Close and delete it, attracting a firestorm of controversy over moderator abuse
  3. Lock it, and hear about it through meta (ultimately that will result in being unlocked by a member of the community management team, since it appears the SE inc., view is that it's ok -- goto 1)
  4. Do nothing.

There are no good options here.

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    I don't really think the duplicate suggestion is unreasonable; shame no one's actually making any effort to go that route. 20 close votes so far, and not a single for Duplicate. – Shog9 Mar 27 '13 at 17:36
  • @Shog9 If it gets re-opened again, I will; at this point I don't want to clear the delete votes. – George Stocker Mar 27 '13 at 17:39
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    @Shog9: perhaps we didn't think it rated being kept around as a dupe magnet. Do I really have to search for dupes of poor questions like that every time? – user7116 Mar 27 '13 at 17:51
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    You didn't have to do anything, @six. There are countless simple/beginner/homework questions on SO that maybe get an answer, maybe get a few views/votes, maybe end up being useful to a handful of other students with the same problem... I deleted a hundred or so last night that didn't get any of those and were just collecting dust. The only justification I've heard yet for getting so worked up about this question is that it got a few votes... Well, shucks, good work fixing that problem: now it has 10x the votes it started with. – Shog9 Mar 27 '13 at 18:35
  • @Shog - The only justification I've heard yet for getting so worked up about this question is that it got a few votes... Well, shucks, good work fixing that problem: now it has 10x the votes it started with. I'm convinced reports of overrated questions hastening the end of the world are at least slightly exaggerated -_- ... – Adam Rackis Mar 27 '13 at 19:28

The question caused a wide divergence of opinion from users

The Meta question about deleting it is (very) negatively voted, and the top (and highly) voted answer says: "Good question, not too localized, let's keep it open". Yes, a few people disagree that the question should stay open, but I think consensus is clearly on the side of keeping it open.

Or must we rely on moderators to do something?

If you check out the question's revision history, you'll notice three diamonds have already visited and edited the question, but didn't do much more. And why should they, nothing particularly bad is happening there. The close - re-open war is getting a bit annoying, but:

  • It's a 19 hour old question that's actively being discussed on Meta, lots of eyes on it
  • For all you know everything is settled now (or you may unwittingly restarted the whole thing with ;)

I'm not saying the community shouldn't do something about it, just that there's no reason to bring out the big guns (yet?). Asking a moderator to intervene when all that's going on is people constructively debating the question's merits would set a very bad precedent.

  • I wasn't asking a moderator to intervene, I was just wondering if there was a way to handle this automatically (with policy implemented in software) or if the close-reopen wars are just how it should be. – Andrew Mao Mar 27 '13 at 18:22

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