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I've had a bit of a grievance with the moderation on Stack Overflow for a while. It tends to go like this; a newcomer will ask a question that quickly gets downvoted and closed because they've failed to realise some nuance of how we like questions to be asked.

This concerns me because it's the first experience that many people will have of asking a question on the site, and it's a very negative one. They may not even dare ask another question for fear of being flamed. Rather than help the user ask a better question, people tend to be rather ruthless and kill it straight away.

Over the years the community and the moderators have seemed to become more and more aggressive with this approach. Back in the olden days we used to embrace the odd exception to the rules and the community seemed to have a sense of humour.

I understand the community needs to protect itself from a deluge of low quality questions and answers, but people seem to lose sight of the fact that we are here to help people, and it deeply saddens me.

I did a Google search today for "Power operator in C#" because I couldn't remember if there was one in the language or not. This SO question was the top result:

https://stackoverflow.com/questions/7291392/power-operator-in-c-sharp

This question isn't very high quality, but that doesn't mean that it isn't worth while. The question has been closed as not constructive, but I found it very constructive as it answered my question straight away. The view count on that question is over 5k, so lots of other visitors have presumably also found it constructive, yet it remains closed for no good reason.

Another example is this question:

How can I emulate "classes" in JavaScript? (with or without a third-party library)

This question (asked by myself) has had over 2.5k views and has sat there happily for almost 5 years until it got closed the other day for also not being constructive.

I think the definition of "not constructive" needs to change as some perfectly good questions are being closed as a result of it, and I don't think that's a good situation to be in.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not flaming the moderators, they do a mammoth thankless task. I'm just concerned about the site becoming less useful because we're becoming too strict about questions.

I'd like to see things improve on Stack Overflow but who do I talk to? Who do I ask?

Does anyone else think that things are getting a little strict around here or is it just me?

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    I know this question is at risk of being flamed / downvoted, but hopefully that will help highlight my point. Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 17:42
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    We're not strict enough? I agree. Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 17:42
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    Downvotes on meta do not mean the same thing. They simply mean the downvoter deisagree with your post. Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 17:43
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    Do you have any idea how often this exact sentiment gets raised here on Meta? The most recent was yesterday: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/182960/…
    – jscs
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 17:44
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    Your first example is a bad one. It asks why the compiler team did not make the operator. How can we answer that unless someone just happens to be the writer of the compiler.
    – Josh Mein
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 17:45
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    Your first example is closed because barring the fact that MSDN actually answered it, it asks for pure speculation from users here. Only the developers could answer that, so it's not really anything the community here could answer. The only thing the SO community could do is reiterate what developers have said, simply state that the developers have said nothing, or speculate on why they think it's that way.
    – animuson StaffMod
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 17:45
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    @JoshCaswell I tend to use SO more than Meta, but if this issue keeps getting raised then something should be done about it. Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 17:45
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    A big part of this is that it's all fun and games when a site is small and manageable. But given the enormous size the site has now, a stricter enforcement of the boundaries is simply necessary. And even so, we still have a vast amount of crap on the site. That this perceived negativite aspect keeps getting raised, doesn't make it a problem that needs to be solved however. Heck, it doesn't even mean it's an actual problem.
    – Bart
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 17:45
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    Or, you should look around to see what's already been discussed, the same as you would do on SO.
    – jscs
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 17:46
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    @DoctorJones That does not follow the definition of constructive as used for the site.
    – Bart
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 17:49
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    @DoctorJones: And the third result is the actual blog that talks about exactly that. I'd say by that question existing, we're actually making the Internet a worse place by making users click through to a closed SO question in order to inevitably get to that result, when that result could be higher in search without it there.
    – animuson StaffMod
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 17:49
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    If you have some idea of how things should be changed, that's great, you should post it. These "I think things might be wrong, maybe, and they should be somehow different from the way they are, but I'm not sure how" posts are completely useless Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 17:50
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    I disagree with the assertion that "it's the first experience that many people will of the site", my experience is that most people's formative encounters come from search engine referrals as a reader, not asking questions. That's exactly why moderation is needed because it tells search engines and readers what does and doesn't work in this Q&A format.
    – Flexo
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 18:01
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    @Doctor the resources for learning how to write a better question are there. They get pointed in every new asker's face. There's tons of blog posts, how-to's, FAQs, the new help center. It is simply not possible to provide personal tailor-made assistance for everyone at the rate people show up on the site and ask bad questions, plus I think you'll agree that helping people who didn't read the FAQ with the same mistakes over and over is not an activity that anyone is going to enjoy doing for free over any prolonged period of time.
    – Pekka
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 18:05
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    Nicol Bolas has already put this rather well: «You've mistaken Stack Overflow for a help site. Stack Overflow is a knowledge database. [...] Now, if you have a [...] question asked by someone who doesn't really understand what they're talking about [...] someone else who has the same question won't find it [...] Helping you in a way that doesn't help anyone else is an anathema to what we do here.»
    – jscs
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 18:08

5 Answers 5

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a newcomer will ask a question that quickly gets downvoted and closed because they've failed to realise some nuance of how we like questions to be asked.

Sure, that can happen. Asking good questions is hard. And we uphold a quality standard to the best of our ability. Given that this is not your average forum (heck, it's not a forum) this might all be a bit more difficult for new users.

it's the first experience that many people will of the site, and it's a very negative one.

If you're on the receiving end I'm sure it's not a positive one. It's not how you thought your participation on the site would take off. Thing is though, we don't let users post their question without providing them information about the site.

The site is full of instructions on what we are about, the types of questions we deal with, those that are not a good fit, and heaps of other information readily available, or even forced upon the user before they can ask their first question.

Rather than help the user ask a better question, people tend to be rather ruthless and kill it straight away.

Yes, because bad questions don't belong. They should not even be answered. That said, in most cases the community seems to leave at least one comment. The closure messages provide additional information. And closed questions are not dead questions. Edit if you can and they can be reopened.

Over the years the community and the moderators have seemed to become more and more aggressive with this approach. Back in the olden days we used to embrace the odd exception to the rules and the community seemed to have a sense of humour.

Welcome to a site with over a million active users. We're HUGE. A bit of chit chat, some good laughs and other fun things work just fine in a small group. But on a huge site it doesn't work all that well and tends to lead to noise. Moderation is necessary. And the larger we get, the more aggressive (but not rude) we need to be about it. And even so, the site still has a fair amount of crappy content posted to it each and every day. Which might be a sign that we're not aggressive enough.

but people seem to lose sight of the fact that we are here to help people, and it deeply saddens me.

No they don't. Users by and large get the help they are looking for. Even when they post questions they should really not be posting. Being on the receiving end of a closed question it might not look like that. But the community does help. And it does so very actively and efficiently.

Does anyone else think that things are getting a little strict around here or is it just me?

You're certainly not the only one. This perceived issue comes up time and time again. But it's a narrow view of the site and usually based on the argument that "if it's interesting or valuable to me, it must be good for the site". And unfortunately that is not always the case.

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  • «That said, in most cases the community seems to leave at least one comment.» I would personally estimate that 3/4 of the questions that I vote to close as either off topic or not constructive recieve at least one answer before being closed. People get the information they seek more often than not on SO -- which is exactly the goal -- even when the question doesn't really align with the guidelines.
    – jscs
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 18:18
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    @JoshCaswell Yep. It's frustrating sometimes though. Especially when prefaced with "Your question really doesn't belong on the site, but ..."
    – Bart
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 18:21
  • Oh, for sure. I will occasionally comment when I think the answerer should be a little more attuned to site stewardship.
    – jscs
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 18:32
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As for being agressive

I can admit that I'm a sinner myself. But this is how it goes. You first get to the site, and you are all happy and sunshine, and you help people, and you feel great. And then someone asks a question that can be searched on Google in about 4.2 seconds. So you tell him that, in a comment, mind you. Maybe even post an answer for it.

But then another user arrives, and asks an equally lame question, and then again, and again and again AND AGAIN, with no end in sight. So yes, we become aggressive. It's a defense mechanism we develop to keep whatever's left of our sanity. We're not proud of it, but it's a natural process. We do need "youngsters" like you to remind us why we're even here to begin with once in a while.

Is it really that harmful?

A question being closed, unlike on forums where "Closed" means "End of Discussion", only means that we don't want any new answers on it. It's not dead, it's still there, you can still vote, comment, edit and even reopen it.

How can I improve the site?

Saw a closed question you deem not worth being closed?

  • Rally support from your peers, it only takes 5 votes to reopen, same as close. Go to chat, find people who think the same, and reopen it.
  • If you think the closure is * blatantly* wrong, on a level even someone who isn't an expert in the language can recognize, consider calling a mod using a flag.

Who do I talk to?

Right here on meta is where you talk. Yes, even if the issue has been raised before, and dismissed before. Your concern is just as valid.

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  • "But then another user arrives, and asks an equally lame question, and then again, and again and again AND AGAIN, with no end in sight." Who is forcing you to answer those questions? Why can't you just move on to the next question?
    – user241759
    Commented Nov 15, 2013 at 12:42
  • @user2952774: I don't answer these questions. I close them as duplicates and continue. However, it doesn't make it less tiring to see them over and over and over and over and over. Commented Nov 15, 2013 at 13:26
  • The question was mostly about closing the "don't belong here" questions, and your answer is only about duplicates. Yes, duplicates are closed, well, as duplicates. The problem is that way too many questions are closed as "too subjective", "not constructive" (itself often quite subjective), "doesn't belong here" (often not constructive, considering the "close and migrate" feature could use a lot of improvement, so lots of questions end up just closed).
    – Septagram
    Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 8:26
  • @Sept I attribute that to a huge influx of newbies in the past years, people whose English isn't their first language, so reading all the rules and requirements is tiring for them. People who don't bother with grammar and spelling, because it's too time consuming for them. If you feel that a question on Stack Overflow was wrongfully closed, please raise the issue on the specific site's meta. Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 8:39
  • Bad grammar is definitely not a problem in my book. It's actually fun to be a Grammar Nazi for a few minutes and edit the broken question, so there's no reason why such questions should be closed. But what bothers me really is I feel a general bias towards closing a question instead of salvaging it through edit or migration. It takes just 5 votes to close a question, and there's no option to vote against closing, so for a question to stay open, someone should come back and vote for reopen, when usually no-one (with The Power) cares anymore.
    – Septagram
    Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 9:08
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    Of course there is a bias, there's no significant reward for editing, the current migration system is a joke, and closing it takes 2-3 clicks, thus being the easiest solution. When you repeat an action hundreds and thousands of times, the path of least resistance is usually the one you end up on. That's the point of my answer. Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 9:14
  • You are right... I continued arguing because I confused your answer (and thus the context in which I viewed your comments) with an answer just below. I'm sorry about that... During the recent months the closing thing is becoming a bit too personal for me, though I'm not even a newbie. Some are definitely closed for the right reasons, but it's just odd how I can't seem to get it right, thought I'm trying, and used to get it right before. I wonder if there are others who feel the same way...
    – Septagram
    Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 9:45
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we are here to help people

To the contrary, we are here to create good question/answer pairs. The mission statement on the help page says:

Stack Overflow is a question and answer site for professional and enthusiast programmers.

The questions and answers come first. It is true that those will help people, but that is a side-effect.

Over the years the community and the moderators have seemed to become more and more aggressive with this approach. Back in the olden days we used to embrace the odd exception to the rules and the community seemed to have a sense of humour.

When the site was smaller, this was an option. We could spend time on a poor question, teaching and coaching. However, the volume of questions demands a more efficient approach. If we see a bad question, we can't spend an inordinate amount of time coaching and tweaking. The wheels must remain greased; the noise must be removed.

This is not a problem because the help documentation has been repeatedly expanded and refined over the years. All of the useful information that was once manually communicated on each bad question has been codified and published for all to see. The cost of repeating it on bad questions is high, especially when the time could be better spent producing useful answers.

Finally, and perhaps most harshly, it isn't primarily about the OP. Look at the view count on any good question. Good questions can help hundreds or even thousands of people. If an individual (who couldn't bother to read the documentation or take the time to form a good question) is put off by the efficient approach, tough. We have bigger fish to fry.

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    Helping people is not a side effect. That's like saying people wear glasses so that the light focuses on the correct part of their eye, the fact that this helps them see better is merely a side effect.
    – user241759
    Commented Nov 15, 2013 at 12:44
  • I would say that while the question volume excuse kind of works for Stack Overflow, it doesn't work at all for all the companion Stack Exchange sites. I've now lost all the hope I had for Programmers, and this is mutual - the last something like half a dozen questions I've asked there have been downvoted and closed. It's also curious how downvoting a question has a penalty (though barely existing), while closing it, having a vastly more severe effect on the OP, is free.
    – Septagram
    Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 8:37
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Define "Closed"

While I understand the basis of your question is that young, poor questions on SO are given no time for love, is it possible you misunderstand what Closed means?

From the help section on closed, paraphrased, simply means those questions aren't accepting new answers.

Of the two examples you've cited at the time of this post, one has a chosen answer among multiple answers, and the other has significantly enough answers to satisfy the question (asked by a user with enough reputation to know better than to not pick an answer).

You can still edit, comment and vote on the questions, and they still exist for search and knowledge purposes.

Certainly the word "Closed" could be redefined as something akin to "Locked to New Answers" for those unwilling to search the help section, but there it is.

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First.

I'd like to see things improve on Stack Overflow but who do I talk to? Who do I ask?

Here on meta.

Now.

This (your opinion) comes up regularly. And it always receives the same treatment because :

New users coming here asking their first questions: There are so many tools provided to the new users to make sure they are guided the right way. We even have a new help center that could not be more clear. These guidelines are discussed here everyday to make sure they're up to date, valid and clear.

Moderation is not too strict on Stack Overflow. In fact, it could be a little more because there are too many bad questions.

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  • I'd love to know what's wrong with my answer. Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 18:03
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    You know that voting on meta can be different, right? It might be that people don't agree with something you said - for example, that moderation should be even stricter. (Full disclosure: I did not vote on your answer in either direction.)
    – Aaron Bertrand Staff
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 19:25
  • I do. I even said so above.(comments) Thought, when reading Please don't be concerned if you receive downvotes – members of the community may simply disagree with your bug, feature request, support issue, or the nature of the discussion. I asked myself if the different meaning was only for questions. After all, answers can either be right or wrong. With that in mind, downvoting an answer should come with a comment. Although one might argue that answers on meta are more likely to contain opinions. Anyway your right the downvotes must be because of this part. Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 19:28
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    I didn't read all of the comments elsewhere, sorry, I just saw your comment here (don't expect that people will read all of your other comments even if they're on the same page). "the nature of the discussion" does not seem exclusive to questions at all. And I disagree that an answer can be right or wrong - we all have the ability to decide whether we think an answer is good/bad, not right/wrong. Also you will never get anywhere trying to convince the community that everyone has to explain their down-votes.
    – Aaron Bertrand Staff
    Commented Jun 5, 2013 at 19:32
  • "Bad questions" in your opinion. "Bad questions" in your opinion. "Bad questions" in your opinion. If you feel a question is bad, don't answer it.
    – user241759
    Commented Nov 15, 2013 at 12:47
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    I downvoted this, it's a terrible answer. Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 14:11

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