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19 days ago I asked a question on the apple.stackexchange site. It turned out to be a fairly niche question and got no answers, but yesterday I found the solution and, trying to be a good citizen, I went back to the question to answer it so that it could act as a reference item - a solution for people in future who have that problem.

Of course it had been automatically deleted, and needs 5 votes re-instate it (which is obviously never going to happen because it's a niche question). But clearly other people are going to have that same problem, and now they've been denied the solution their problem.

Another example: On http://jyaml.sourceforge.net there is the following notice:

Notice: I am no longer maintaining JYaml. See this this Q&A for a list of alternatives.

The Q&A referenced is https://stackoverflow.com/questions/450399/which-java-yaml-library-should-i-use

This question, and all the answers, has been deleted. The message on the page reads:

This question was removed from Stack Overflow for reasons of moderation.

(The reason is most likely is that the question asks for an opinion about the relative utility of the libraries, which is clearly a total outlandish and unreasonable thing to do, and which obviously no-one would find useful).

Two points: Much of the success of SO has been based around the perception that it is a reference resource of solutions to problems, and yet by arbitrarily deleting (not closing, deleting) questions the SO maintainers are setting out to undermine SO's usefulness as a reference resource.

Secondly, the internet is built as a network of links spanning multiple domains. By deleting Q&As, SO is consciously breaking the Internet and being a bad citizen.

So, since deleting whole Q&As is a bad thing to do, for multiple reasons, what is the driving force that makes SO believe that deletions are necessary?

[Edit: to clarify, I'm asking why deletion is the preferred option rather than removing the article from search indexes (which wouldn't break the Internet), or just making bad questions rank much lower than good questions. Deletion is such a crowbar solution.]

[Edit #2: Good old archive.org. Here's the archived version of the deleted page http://web.archive.org/web/20141017030258/https://stackoverflow.com/questions/450399/which-java-yaml-library-should-i-use

Note that it had 116 up votes and had been favourited 34 times - pretty solid, I'd say]

  • A shopping list is not a solution to a problem. That is why such questions are deleted. The items in the list are either quickly outdated and/or easily googlable. – rene Oct 21 '16 at 13:58
  • The answer can be found in this educational YouTube video: youtube.com/watch?v=2HQaBWziYvY – random Oct 21 '16 at 13:58
  • But the creator of a notable Java YAML library thought that Q&A was high quality and useful. Surely that indicates that there a problem here, Houston? – dnh Oct 21 '16 at 14:03
  • Huh - the "Uploader has not made this video available in your country". Was that a spam comment? – dnh Oct 21 '16 at 14:06
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    Re your edit. Because Stack Exchange is more worried about what is on Stack Exchange than what someone else may have linked to at some point. The whole "breaking the internet" thing makes no sense. – Cai Oct 21 '16 at 14:39
  • @Cai But if people cannot find stuff through searches, why do you care if it is completely gone or not? Reminds me creepily of how certain countries used to airbrush people out of photographs – dnh Oct 21 '16 at 14:43
  • @Cai Tim Berners-Lee designed the Internet as a cross-linked, cross-referencing set of resources. Link integrity is pretty much inherent to the basis of the web. – dnh Oct 21 '16 at 14:45
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    I'll say it again "Because Stack Exchange is more worried about what is on Stack Exchange". I'm not really sure how you come to that analogy... – Cai Oct 21 '16 at 14:45
  • @Cai OK, so if someone is putting illegal or unacceptable material on SE, yes delete it. But that's not what we're talking about here. It's just useful stuff that doesn't quite fit the guidelines – dnh Oct 21 '16 at 14:48
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    If it doesn't quite fit the guidelines it has to be deleted. That is where we have guidelines for. – rene Oct 21 '16 at 14:49
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    Useful is a relative term. Just because it's useful to some people doesn't mean it's useful to everyone. If it's off-topic or doesn't fit the guidelines then it isn't useful. – Cai Oct 21 '16 at 14:50
  • But if it doesn't show up in searches no-one can find it accidentally. Why wreck the cross-linked nature of the internet just to satisfy what seems to be an arbitrary desire. No-one has yet explained why deletion is better than the other available options. – dnh Oct 21 '16 at 14:53
  • @dnh If it can't be searched and found in any other way than the link, what's the advantage to keeping it around? Just keeping the link alive? The post will be seen by even less people if it's just removed from all searches and unable to be found directly on the site. I don't see why we should go to all that work to keep what we've already deemed as inappropriate for the site just to keep one link somewhere on the internet alive. In theory, any question that has been asked can be linked to within seconds of being posted. – Kendra Oct 21 '16 at 14:56
  • @Kendra And yet how frustrated would you be if almost every time you clicked on a link on a web page it came up with '404'? Integrity (and Google!) are the things that keep the internet usable (and even I don't use Google anymore :)) – dnh Oct 21 '16 at 15:00
  • @dnh I wouldn't be. I would just assume the link was to a bad resource or the site was down and move on to continue my search. If necessary, I would take my search to those things people used before the internet: Books. Longer and more tedious to search, yes, but it's easier sometimes to tell how outdated or old a book is than it is an internet search. I don't come to the internet thinking that everything ever posted here will always remain in the place it originated- I know better than that. The internet is a living and changing thing. Not every link is always going to work. – Kendra Oct 21 '16 at 15:03
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We used to be a lot more open to questions like that. However, as time has worn on, we've struggled with a couple of problems that they tend to cause... The biggest one is illustrated by your example: no one has edited it since 2011.

Indeed, the last edit was made only to observe that one of the recommended libraries was no longer being developed and was directing folks to that question.

So we have a problem: either nothing has changed in 5 years, and SnakeYAML is still the only reasonable choice for Java devs... Or there are other options, and the question is woefully out of date. But the chances of someone coming back to update it are... not good. We do have facilities to preserve these questions when they're maintained, but... First and foremost, we need folks to want to maintain them; in my experience, this is quite rare.

(and no, it doesn't help that yaml.org is woefully out of date too, still listing those same four packages even though two of them are dead; there do appear to be newer libraries, which you can find more about by searching Stack Overflow, but neither yaml.org nor the deleted question reference them)

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  • You make some really good points there, but none of them really answer why deletion - as opposed to removal from search results - is the best solution. SE does a very good job of recording the timeline and the dates of the contributions (how I wish that was mandatory for every page of information on the internet), surely readers are capable of judging for themselves the merit of the Q&A if it's linked to. Why be so draconian in needing to completely remove valid (but maybe a little stale) information? – dnh Oct 21 '16 at 15:47
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    Because identifying stale information - as a general thing - is much, much more difficult. We know recommendations go stale quickly; we don't want to de-list everything quickly though. – Shog9 Oct 21 '16 at 15:49
  • As a software developer evaluating resources is what I have to do every day, and it seems to me that the best solution is to give the reader the tools to make their decision (understanding that everyone's requirements are different) rather than treating them as children ("No, you're not allowed scissors" :P ) – dnh Oct 21 '16 at 15:52
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    @dnh Try to think of SO as a nice restaraunt. You go in, ask for what you want, and get a great result. If you go in there and ask for rotten tomatoes, you're going to be told, sorry, it's not something they serve. This is opposed to other sites that are a dumpster that anyone is welcome to sift through; sure, you might find a top quality, entirely uneaten meal in there, but you're going to have to wade through a lot of crap before you find it. Of course, if you're looking for rotten tomatoes, the dumpster is where you have to go to find it. – Servy Oct 21 '16 at 16:06
  • @Servy But that's the whole point of search indexes and weighting - if rotten tomatoes are not listed on the menu then you can be pretty sure that most people won't order them!!! – dnh Oct 21 '16 at 16:13
  • @Shog9♦ The stale information problem is a real problem, but surely there are many old articles on SE, in the correct format, and which are highly rated as they solved the problem at the time, which now contain outdated information and yet are left on the SE system. Or are we moving to a world where anything - good or bad - is automatically deleted after (say) 3 years? – dnh Oct 21 '16 at 16:27
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So, since deleting whole Q&As is a bad thing to do, for multiple reasons, what is the driving force that makes SO believe that deletions are necessary?

Quality.

Leaving up low quality contributions and off-topic contributions is more harmful than deleting them. We want our sites to be full of high quality information. Some questions are just not good fits for our sites. The community has adapted rules and changed them as we have found what works with our format, and what doesn't. Opinion based/list questions like the second one you mention do not fit that requirement. That one person thought the question was useful and high quality does not make it fit into our quality standards.

Keep in mind that part of what makes these sites useful are those quality standards. Without them, what is to keep us from becoming just another forum?

As for your automatically deleted question, it's more disheartening to find a question with no answer, I feel, than to not find anything on the subject, so for that reason I personally feel the automatic deletions to be a good thing. If no one has shown any interest in a question in so long, or if it has been indicated that it is off-topic or low quality, it should be removed after so long without any interaction. Your question can be undeleted if others there find it appropriate and feel it meets that site's specific standards, but that's a matter for that specific site more than this one.

I'm asking why deletion is the preferred option rather than removing the article from search indexes (which wouldn't break the Internet), or just making bad questions rank much lower than good questions.

Are you saying that we should keep content that does not fit our model or belong here just because one person anywhere has linked to it, or has said it's useful? If that's the case, I'm not sure you understand what our standards and content curation do for our sites.

If we never deleted anything that was linked to or someone somewhere found useful, our sites would quickly become full of low quality content, questions that are useful to one or two people but just in the way for the masses. We are here to be helpful to the masses, more than one or two people.

There are other sites out there that do not have the quality standards that we do. Some of them are quite notorious for the ridiculous questions and answers they get. We are not like that because we have these standards. Deletion and other curation techniques make us the high quality site that people want to link to.

Remember, if a post can become on-topic and can be made higher quality, it should be edited. If a post has no hope of becoming on-topic or fitting our scopes, it should indeed be deleted. High quality, on-topic posts do not get deleted.

Also keep in mind that deletion is not permanent- All our deletions are soft deletions, and a user with 10k+ reputation on the given site can see the deleted posts (if they have a link to them) and vote to undelete or raise a flag if it was deleted incorrectly. Incorrect deletions can be fixed.

Let me try to explain why deletion can be a good thing this way:

Say you wrote a program for work. It's an excellent program! It's high quality, has many amazing features, and you are quite proud to know that a lot of people use and love it.

Now say a new person is hired, and is put on the maintenance of your program with you. They add a new feature that they think is super useful to the program, but it's really not a useful feature, it's full of bugs, and it really does not fit within the scope of what the program does.

Do you leave the feature in but make it impossible to reach except by the one small method that the coworker has posted instructions to? Would making the feature impossible to reach by all other means make it no longer associated with your program?

Or do you explain to the coworker why the feature does not fit in the program, remove it, and perhaps suggest adding it to a program where it will fit or creating a new program where it will fit?

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  • As commented above, But the creator of a notable Java YAML library thought that Q&A (on Java YAML Libraries!) was high quality and useful. – dnh Oct 21 '16 at 14:07
  • I addressed that: That one person thought the question was useful and high quality does not make it fit into our quality standards. Depending on when that thought was made, I didn't follow that link, it could be that the question used to be on-topic (rules change over time) or it could be that the creator did not understand the quality standards of Stack Overflow and did not realize the question was off-topic. – Kendra Oct 21 '16 at 14:08
  • That is rather to the point: Doesn't it highlight a flaw in the quality standards? – dnh Oct 21 '16 at 14:09
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    @dnh how do you come to that conclusion? – Cai Oct 21 '16 at 14:10
  • @dnh If you can come up with a set of quality standards that everyone agrees with and everyone understands regardless of participation on the site, and that never need changed please, offer them up. If you're right that you can do that, you deserve a very large award for it. Our standards are community driven, not driven by one person, no matter how famous or popular. If that one creator's opinion of what is high quality and on-topic does not match what the community feels is high quality and on-topic, then that does not make the community wrong, does it? – Kendra Oct 21 '16 at 14:11
  • On the subject of the Auto-deleted question, surely it should be easier for people who do need to answer their own question to be able request undeletion. Or does SE not really care about niche questions? – dnh Oct 21 '16 at 14:12
  • @dnh You can always flag it for moderator attention, or bring it up on that site's meta if you meet the rep to ask there. That's more so OPs don't undelete questions that really should be deleted- New OPs don't always understand what does and doesn't belong on the site. – Kendra Oct 21 '16 at 14:13
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    "as no-one took issue with the format of the question" If you got a downvote on that question, it's very safe to assume that someone did have an issue on that question. That they did not voice their opinion on why they took issue with it does not mean that they didn't. As to your last comment, I will repeat for a third time: That one person thought the question was useful and high quality does not make it fit into our quality standards. It's really feeling like you're not wanting to accept what you're being told, so this is my last on this subject. – Kendra Oct 21 '16 at 14:19
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    @dnh we have tag wiki's that can hold opinionated , too broad and shopiing list stuff that doesn't fit the Q/A format. – rene Oct 21 '16 at 14:23
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    Just because someone found something useful does not make it fit for a Stack Exchange Q&A. – Cai Oct 21 '16 at 14:31
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    Ok, replace "someone" in my comment with "anyone". It doesn't matter who found it useful. If SE kept any content that was useful, well it wouldn't be SE, it would be something else. – Cai Oct 21 '16 at 14:35
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    And the whole "breaking the internet" thing makes no sense. Are you proposing no one should delete anything posted and linked to anywhere ever? – Cai Oct 21 '16 at 14:36
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    We don't want to be a reference site. We want to be a site where users find answers to their questions. And we want them to find the answer on our site. A bunch of links to libraries isn't answering a practical question. You have only found a google result that is out of date at best – rene Oct 21 '16 at 14:48
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    @dnh Ah, but in my analogy, your coworker sees the feature as useful. And other coworkers they share the information with may see the feature as useful, but if the feature is poor quality, buggy, and does not fit in the scope of what your program does, do you really want that feature in your program? Programs are not so binary either- You can develop a program with a specific purpose, and people will use it for purposes that it was never intended for. Much the same, people ask questions in formats that Stack Exchange was never intended to handle. – Kendra Oct 21 '16 at 16:07
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    @dnh Two problems: 1) If the piece of code still belongs in the program, why remove it? You may update it to make it more modern, you might add a warning in the comments on the code that it is legacy, but if it belongs and is good quality, just old, why remove it? 2) You are assuming you YAML example belonged here to begin with. Shog9 explained why that did not fit out model. We didn't remove a legacy feature that still works but is old, we removed a feature that didn't belong in the first place. It feels like you're refusing to understand what we're explaining, and our points. – Kendra Oct 21 '16 at 16:27

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