This is sort of an SO zeitgeist question.

I thought I might dig into the python backlog (there are 800 pages of questions) to clear out of some of the fluff - there are a lot of questions that are basic python questions, i.e. along the lines of 'how do I write a list comprehension?' They are question and answer, so short-term they serve a purpose; long term, they probably don't. Then I started wondering about why they should be closed... if you go scrolling back through pages of old questions, closed questions appear there. (anyways, I don't have rep to vote to close yet anyways, so it doesn't matter).

In any case... while I get a lot of value out of this site, there are some parts of the moderation system I don't completely understand, so I thought I'd ask - this particular question is a symptom, not really the underlying question, but maybe it will help.

The difference between these old questions that are closed, and old questions that aren't closed, appears to be nothing - they still show up in browsing, they still show up in search results. As the short FAQ says, the best answers and questions appear by voting them up or down. Voting a 'bad' question down pushes it out of visibility most of the time anyways.

What value is gained by closing them, as opposed to just voting them down?

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    Preventing unwanted answers (especially answers that aren't really answers). – BoltClock's a Unicorn Feb 25 '14 at 16:17
  • Isn't that what the voting system is supposed to take care of? – Corley Brigman Feb 25 '14 at 16:18
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    No, anybody is free to answer a downvoted question as they desire. There is even a badge that rewards having a highly-voted answer to a heavily-downvoted question, so long as the answer can be posted (which means the question must be open to answers at the time it is posted). If the question does not fit on the site, period - then it should be closed to any answers as opposed to simply remaining open with a low score. – BoltClock's a Unicorn Feb 25 '14 at 16:19
  • So why leave them open, but as closed, instead of deleting them altogether? – Corley Brigman Feb 25 '14 at 16:20
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    Closed questions might contain valuable content. Even if it's no longer appropriate for the site. Why get rid of something that has value, if you can simply indicate "this is no longer acceptable"? Other than that, closed questions are somewhat on their way to deletion. – Bart Feb 25 '14 at 16:21
  • Also, closing is a path to deletion. A question can't be community-deleted until it's closed. – Doorknob Feb 25 '14 at 16:42
  • I'm sure this is a duplicate, but my search fu is failing. – ale Feb 25 '14 at 16:47

Closing and downvotes represent two different kinds of community handling of the site. While oft similar, they are actually different axes that are traversed.

Downvotes represent quality and clarity. Or rather, the lack thereof. People downvote a post because the post isn't useful to have on the site, or because it's terribly unclear what the post is trying to present. So you would downvote things that are probably need fixing in order to be a good post in terms of quality.

Closing, on the other hand, addresses feasibility and scope. We close things to indicate that they do not belong on the site in their current state. Some of these will never outgrow this state (thing that are off-topic for the site's scope), while others can be fixed from that state (unclear what is asked, etc.). Then there's duplicate closures which are sort of an alien third plane that exists both parallel and perpendicular to this one... so let's put those aside. Putting that aside, the general eventual goal of closure is to exit the state of closure - either the post is fixed and no longer needs to sit closed, or the post is not fixed and so it becomes deleted.

Closing and downvotes intersect when, say, you deal with a post that is unclear and needs heavy fixing to be viable on the site - it may be closed and downvoted while it sits in the broken state. But that's pretty much the only intersection point, and in this point both usually are an option simultaneously, not as alternatives to each other. But if the post isn't low quality, if it remains closeable there's no need to downvote.

Stack Overflow has a bit of a history, though. In being as old a site as it has been, there's a lot of change in what the community wishes to keep and maintain, and in what the community enforces for quality and scope guidelines. There's a lot of rich history that exists on SO, though, that by today's standards wouldn't be allowed to be asked. We are faced with two choices in this case.

  • We follow our traditional methodology of close -> delete, in which we then eliminate these so that they are no longer on our site. While this is methodologically sound since the content does not fit what we would like to keep on the site, this would also destroy content that is, most often, quite useful to have.
  • We leave the items around but closed. This breaks our general protocol but serves our mission as a network, which is to make the internet better. There's helpful content contained even if it doesn't match our model - removing it means there's nowhere to host it, and until such time that there is a place that hosts it, we are said hosts.

It's not an enjoyable choice to make. But we picked the second route. They remain closed because they do not fit, but we'd be better served for now to keep them around than to destroy them outright.

The younger sites avoid this by keeping stricter terms - we avoid needing to host "old but useful" stuff on younger sites by avoiding the accumulation of useful-but-not-accepted content to begin with. So they tend to stick to "closed -> deleted" as a pathway.

  1. You cannot post answers to a closed question. For a question that either isn't answerable, or is much more likely to produce low quality answers than high quality answers (in its current state) this is very helpful. It provides an opportunity for the question to be improved without burdening it with low quality answers.

  2. It provides a strong incentive to the question author to fix the post. Telling someone that they should fix their post in comments is something that a lot of people will just ignore. Downvotes to users just looking to have their programming problem solved aren't really a deterrent either. Knowing that answers cannot possibly be posted to their question until it is improved on the other hand provides a strong incentive for them to fix their post.

  3. It allows the question to be deleted, either manually by a mod or 5 10k+ users, or automatically if it meets certain other criteria. Closing isn't strictly a path to deletion, but almost all paths to deletion do go through closure.

  4. It provides a signpost to newer users to the site that the question isn't allowable on this site. While not all questions that should be closed get closed (as you mentioned in your question) this simply means that the open questions should be closed, to help make it clearer to people like you that they don't belong.

  5. It provides a tool that can be used by the automatic post ban algorithm. When the community makes it clear that a post doesn't belong on the site that is a very strong signal, that tends to be much more reliable than just votes, to use in deciding if a user's contributions are sufficiently bad as to warrant banning them from continuing to post.

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    I'd say words cannot describe how much I disbelieve point 4's utility, but that'd be a lie since I did actually find words for that measure. – Grace Note Feb 25 '14 at 16:43
  • @GraceNote Generally I'd agree with you that deletion is better. That point was more relative to the OP's suggestion that they should instead be open and just downvoted. Having it closed is better than having it be open, having it deleted would be better still. – Servy Feb 25 '14 at 16:46

Keeping bad questions open sets a precedent and could make users think such questions are acceptable

"Well why can't I ask what the best name for my variable is? Someone asked what the best name for their class was last month and you didn't have a problem with that one, so why can't I ask this?"

Closing them shows that questions of that nature, although possibly on topic for the site, aren't suitable for the site.

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