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Before I start with my question, let it be said that I am not against suspensions as a moderator on Programmers. They are a valuable tool in our belt in dealing with less than acceptable behavior with users.

The current guidelines on moderator suspension are essentially that with each user infraction, the level of suspension increases many orders of magnitude from the last infraction.

  • Written warning
  • 7 days
  • 30 days
  • 365 days

To throw an example out, lets say I call a specific user "a f****** idiot" and I get a written warning. The next two times I say something to the effect of "why don't you actually use your brain for a second and think about it" and I get suspended twice more. The third time I get suspended I get in an edit war. The fourth time I maybe use foul language in a post that can be easily edited out and I refuse to edit the content of my post personally. This last action results in a 1 year ban.

This is all a fictitious example of course. My issue with the above example is that ever increasing punishments occur by the common guidelines compared to ever decreasing severity of infractions. The user learned their lesson that personal attacks are not to be tolerated. They subsided in this and committed some lesser offenses in my opinion but paid more of a price.

What kind of lesson does this send the user, someone who possibly has been a valuable contributor for years? The prior history and mod annotations follow that user for the rest of their time on the site and 500 valuable answers later they may find that one small slip up results in being kicked out for a long period of time. Why would that person be motivated to come back or help anymore?

It seems very similar and relevant to debates about The Three Strikes Law and how it doesn't work.

My proposal is that the infraction should always fit the response, and that prior infractions should be no determination in the appropriate moderator action for a specific infraction.

Essentially each new type of breach of the rules should give the moderator the discretion to issue ONE and only one warning. The repeat offense should get the appropriate punishment. If say somebody goes rage and starts defacing content with adult content, that should be an immediate harsh suspension. If after serving that time the user never repeats that particular offense but then proceeds to contribute valuable content for a while, then has a minor "skirmish" with another user, then that should be a lesser but appropriate action.

This would result in more fair outcomes and would be a better moderator guideline for all sites.

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    If you're the moderator who only figures in adding more time for small offences because the template says so then you're not thinking it through. Infractions are one thing. A concerted history of not wanting to be civil is another – random Jan 25 '16 at 13:43
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    Moderators are already not bound by picking locked in time spans, and are asked to take the history of the user into account if they have that kind of history – random Jan 25 '16 at 13:45
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    @random What I propose is that we not take the history of the user into account – maple_shaft Jan 25 '16 at 13:46
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    We must take the history of the user into account, as it is the user's behaviour that is important here, and our measure of that is their history! – Rory Alsop Jan 25 '16 at 14:06
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    You can note that this policy is akin to optimal memory allocation in programming. Increasing memory/ban time linearly in small chunks will do you no good. – Deer Hunter Jan 25 '16 at 14:24
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    "and that prior infractions should be no determination in the appropriate moderator action for a specific infraction." Do you think the judge is going to forget last infractions when you come in with your 3rd? That's not how it works in real life, I don't see why it would work any better here. Not taking past infractions into account teaches that it's really not a big deal. Do something bad, take a week off. No big deal. That's not how this works. You either follow the rules, or you leave (eventually). – ɥʇǝS Jan 25 '16 at 16:23
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I would look at suspensions not so much as a punishment for the person who is breaking rules, but as a way to protect the rest of the community from that person's behaviour.

The first suspension a user gets is not just for doing one thing wrong - they already have a history before mods suspend.

Once we get to someone who has had a 30 day suspension for being rude or offensive, when they come back if they do it again, do I think another 30 day suspension is likely to "cure" them?

No.

Do I think a 365 day suspension will cure them?

Possibly. Possibly not. But it will stop them being offensive to the rest of the community for the next year, so that is an overall benefit.

And that sequence does ignore the usual comments, messages and guidance that moderators (and the rest of the community, usually) provide to try and help sort out behavioural problems, so the progression from 7 to 30 to 365 is not a dramatic jump.

It is only a single order of magnitude progression each time.

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    You're right that this transitions from being about correcting a user's behavior to protecting the community, but I have also seen many people who didn't respond to a lesser punishment stop their bad behavior in response to a longer one. Suspending someone for a week gets some people to pay attention who were ignoring our warnings, and suspending for a month gets others to realize we're serious. I've even seen some people come back after a year's suspension and start behaving well. – Brad Larson Jan 25 '16 at 15:48
  • @BradLarson If the guidelines were clear and warnings were given with extreme clarity, then the consequences of bad behavior wouldn't just be realized by increasing the punishment, they would be realized immediately. – maple_shaft Jan 25 '16 at 16:10
  • Sure - it does occasionally happen. That's why I said possibly/possibly not. And of course we do have the option of choosing different timescales based on the particular case. – Rory Alsop Jan 25 '16 at 16:23
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    I see the wisdom now that punishment and rehabilitation of bad users is not the goal and in my pursuit of perfect justice I lose sight that as a moderator we are sometimes less of a police officer and more of a Shepard protecting the flock from Wolves. If those wolves change their ways later then that is always a great thing but the primary goal is making sure that regardless of what happens to a wolf, the ultimate goal is protecting the sheep at all costs. I am accepting your answer but thank you to everybody so far that wrote great answers as well. – maple_shaft Jan 26 '16 at 12:46
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Suspensions are for serious offenses, not for just anything a user does wrong. There is always the choice of warning users. Suspension isn't the first choice, it usually is the last one.

The suspension durations are a guideline, and we can diverge at any time if they don't fit the situation. I think the increasing durations are a good idea for most cases, but certainly not for all of them. Moderators should feel free to suspend for more or less than the recommended time if they think it is appropriate.

The easiest way to deal with users that do something problematic on the site is to just tell them to stop doing that. Reasonable users might just follow that advice and the problem is solved. Suspensions in most cases involve users that aren't being reasonable at that particular time, users that don't just stop problematic behaviour when asked nicely. Doing short suspensions over and over again would not solve the issue in such cases, it just adds more overhead and drama to the whole process.

The history of a user is a pretty good way to judge if they'll be reasonable and change their behaviour. If a user just does the same stuff over and over again, odds are they won't stop this time either.

If you're at the point where a 365 day suspension is on the table, you'll have to ask yourself if the user can be convinced to stop the problematic behaviour, or if you just want that user gone from the site. Giving out a year-long suspension pretty much means you want that user gone and see no reasonable chance that they'll change their ways. If you think there is a good chance that the user won't continue the problematic behaviour, or if you don't think the offense warrants such a long suspension, then don't suspend them for that long, but think of something else.

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To a certain degree I agree with you. The suspension time given is not always an appropriate punishment for the offense.

However I disagree with this one:

one small slip up results in being kicked out for a long period of time

If you are being suspended for a year or more, there is something very serious you have done. It doesn't really matter that half a year, or two years would have been more appropriate. You have repeatedly broken the rules, now you have to live with it.

The suspension times set are not hard rules as far as I know. Moderators can vary the suspension if they think it is appropriate. In extreme cases, users can be suspended for a very long time, almost forever. Also, if a user posts spam in the degree you describe, his account can even be deleted, and his IP blocked.

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    Perhaps it was a bad example, but an example none the less. – maple_shaft Jan 25 '16 at 13:47
  • How can you be suspended for more than a year? – EKons Sep 12 '16 at 17:26
  • Only SE employees can force such a long suspension period. – Patrick Hofman Sep 12 '16 at 18:40
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My proposal is that the infraction should always fit the response

I agree with that. However...

and that prior infractions should be no determination in the appropriate moderator action for a specific infraction.

...I strongly disagree with that.


There are a two cases to consider.

First, the case where a user keeps breaking the same rule many times. A user who repeatedly is targeting votes, is being rude or abusive to others, is self-promoting their own work without disclosure and/or in inappropriate contexts. The course of action for all of these may be different - the escalation procedure for using signatures is very different than the escalation policy for being rude or abusive. Once a user is informed of a particular rule or policy, he or she shouldn't need constant reminders or warnings. Eventually, those warnings should turn into suspensions and those suspensions should turn into longer suspensions. Eventually, you may need to even escalate higher than a moderator to a CM.

Second, the case where users break different rules. SE sites are complex communities. We are different than other online communities with respect to our standards and expectations. Although I hope that people read the Help Center and the policies, they don't always. If a person is warned once for including signatures, then another warning may be in order if they self-promote their own content. Just because you have notified them of one behavior, they may honestly be unaware that the other is a problem.

There are other things to consider, as well:

For one, interactions on other sites. Moderators have tools to communicate with each other across sites. If a user has been talked to, warned, or suspended for one action on one site, you need to take that into consideration. Some policies, like being nice or not including signatures/taglines are the same everywhere in the network.

Something else is the time since the last warning. If it's been a long time or is infrequent, then you may need to escalate a lot slower. However, if the behavior is frequent, then you need to consider it. Suspension is a way to protect the rest of the community. If someone is spamming or being rude, they are hurting everyone else on the site and if they do it often, they need a longer time-out from their contributions.

I also do think that you need to somehow weigh in the contributions of the user. You want to balance saying "hey, this isn't the kind of behavior that we want here, please go and learn from your mistakes" with their useful contributions. By no means should you look the other way to infractions, but you also want to give them every reasonable chance to change their ways.

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I was a part of a mailing list community for years some time ago. We had lots of great participants, but we had one awesome person in particular who was aggressively abrasive. He was on moderation (ie, every message vetted by a moderator) for awhile, and a number of other things were tried to help him change his behavior. He was of the opinion that the best way to correct another person was to berate them and rub their noses in their misconceptions and mistakes - but he always led them the right way and had a great deal of skill, experience and knowledge.

When, over a decade later, a compatible community on Stack Exchange came into being I was curious as I saw people from this mailing list become involved in the community.

He eventually came here as well, (and incidentally joined several other communities here) and guess what? He learned the rules and followed them. I don't know if he ever suffered moderator bans, nor whether his opinion on how best to teach others has changed.

But he's significantly changed his presentation and is fitting in well enough with the communities he's chosen to participate in.

Conversely, I've seen great people join the community, hit the ban wall, and ultimately leave because they are unwilling to change.

The point here is that the system as-is works. Those people who want to stay, can and do. Those people who are unwilling to change are not. People who have to be banned 7 times before they're no longer welcome are not interested in changing and integrating.

This proposal seeks to allow repeat offenders to stay forever with minor bans when they fail to follow the rules. For instance, a user might choose to use foul language in their posts once a week, and get a day ban each time. They get to break the rules frequently, use the sites more than 75% of the time, and they have little to no incentive to change.

These are not the users we should include in our community.

Further, it would increase the subjectivity the moderators already have to use. With the current system there's a little subjectivity, and essentially a single punishment. With your proposed system there's a lot of subjectivity and a multitude of punishments, and they'd have to be codified, tracked, and when disputed it would be a lot more work.

I don't see the benefit to this proposal. It hurts the community more than it helps it.

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In society punishments remove your human rights due to your behavior.

Stack Overflow, Inc, in no way affects your rights. Participating in Stack Exchange communities is a privilege, not a right.

As such, geometric increases in suspension times here is utterly uncomparable to studies of "3 strikes laws."

Without the studies, your argument has no foundation. Please update your feature request with data that shows this system hurts these communities, otherwise I fully expect you to find it rejected by the community.

At the moment the system:

  1. Appears to work fine
  2. Significantly reduces moderator workload by quickly weeding out bad actors

Any change should address both those points, and you've addressed neither.

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  • Punishments do little to prevent recidivism. The purpose is rehabilitation of bad actors and removing dangerous or REALLY bad actors out of society. Your reasoning that moderators should be judge jury and executioner because participation is a privilege I believe is flawed. To me, creating more work for moderators is inconsequential. I am trying to make a case that bad actors may be redeemable future good actors by making consequences more clear. Putting less discretion in the hands of moderators to dole out inconsistent ever increasing punishments (cont..) – maple_shaft Jan 25 '16 at 19:12
  • (cont)... has the risk of marginalizing and flat out removing temporarily bad actors. You are correct I cannot prove this, and my example of the Three Strikes law is a stretch, but it might be insightful to see if my theory holds true with some SEDE queries. – maple_shaft Jan 25 '16 at 19:14
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Justice is Truth tempered by Love

Old, Ultima players may recognize this statement, taken from that game virtue system.

I think that the reply here is to be found in the word: Guidance. Those are guidances, some ideas that should help you in deciding what is the "right" action to do. Not all second infractions should incur in a 7 days ban, and not all first ones should just end up in a warning. I am no mod, but I do think that you should have some form of autonomy in applying the main guidelines - that obviously doesn't means going completely against them just because, but you should still be able to do some minor adjustments as the situation calls for.

That said, while you DO have a point there - sometime two minors infractions are better than a single mayor one - it is also worth noticing that as the number of infractions goes up, then probably you would want to give history a weight greater than the single infractions taken one at time. The actual type of the infractions should matter too.

Consider this counterexample: an user that was suspended two times for voting fraud gets caught a third time. I am not sure "30 days" is the correct answer here - there is a repeated problem, and probably just giving out another suspension won't resolve much - the user need to understand that either he changes or he will have to be banned forever.

My whole point here is that I don't really know what the moderation requirements are right now and as such I don't know how committed to use those numbers you all have to be - but I wouldn't focus any change proposal you may feel you need to have around the sheer number of infractions.
The nature of the user, his history, the type of the errors he made... all of those should be taken into account when deciding.

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