Last month Stack Exchange removed a site from the Hot Network Questions list across the network because of a complaint about some questions that appeared there. I'm not here to rehash that decision (there are other places for that), but I want to understand it because it affects other sites too. My concern is that I moderate a couple other sites that often appear in HNQ and sometimes generate complaints, and I want to know what kinds of question titles put us at risk too.

The original complaint included the following three questions:

  • IPS: How to approach a friend about his girlfriend asking to sleep with me?
  • IPS: How do I tell students at a school I volunteer at to stop flirting with me?
  • SciFi: Story about aliens nicknamed "Eechees" who have created a network of tunnels on Mars

A followup complaint included one more:

  • IPS: How do you tell a Facebook friend that they might be on the autism spectrum?

Something in the IPS questions was bad enough to prompt the site's immediate removal from HNQ. After things calmed down, SE declined to reinstate IPS -- so there are probably some lingering concerns there. I asked an IPS mod what specifically SE's concerns were with the questions, but that mod hadn't seen any such feedback.

My problem is that I don't see what was so terrible about these questions, which makes it hard for me to spot potential similar problems on my sites. The first two questions are from people trying to deflect or prevent unwanted sexual activity; that's a good thing, right? (We aren't being jumpy just because we know the gender of one of the people being asked about, are we?) The autism one, without the context in the question, does sound like somebody's being pushy, but in the same sense as "how do I talk to a friend about his alcoholism" or "how do I deal with the boss's incompetent brother" -- maybe pushy or assuming too much, but none of that sounds worse than many other hot network questions. (I assume the SciFi question was unobjectionable.)

The HNQ list often has provocative questions (that's a design feature). I've seen questions I considered much more problematic than these ones, but other sites have not been removed.

So, my questions:

  • What was so bad about these questions?

  • What do other communities need to be careful about in question titles?

I am particularly looking for an answer from SE, because they are the ones who took action and can take future action with regard to other sites. The rest of us can only guess, unless there was other communication from SE that people can report.

I am aware that SE can't specify a complete set of rules. That's why understanding the single case study we have is so important. We have the fact of one site's removal prompted by these three questions; while this case won't tell us everything we need to know, it can tell us something -- if somebody who was part of the decision is willing to share SE's thinking with us.

Note: there are lots of ways that the HNQ itself could be modified to mitigate against problems like this. That discussion has its own post; if you don't find your suggestion in the 65 answers already present there, please add it there not here.

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    Its a bit of a tricky thing. On one hand, many titles are literally designed to be clickbait. On the other, it seems like walking on tenterhooks wondering whether some random person is going to get offended, and yet seems completely unwilling to talk to the community in question. – Journeyman Geek Nov 25 '18 at 5:05
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    Also, I believe that the core issue that resulted in that tweet in the first place was actually pointed out to SE in a micro-study 2.5 years earlier. I've proposed a change that should hopefully prevent it in the future. – Sonic the Introverted Hedgehog Nov 25 '18 at 5:55
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    Anything a troll could misconstrue... – curiousdannii Nov 25 '18 at 7:23
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    Surely the simplest solution is to make HNQ opt in? Don't display it at all unless a user goes to his profile and enables it. And at that point we could make it clear that some questions may be NSFW or whatever other disclaimers so that going forward trolls cannot complain about HNQ content. – DavidPostill Nov 25 '18 at 8:44
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    FWIW @DavidPostill this sounds pretty much the same as Monica suggested in the answer to related feature request: Add a toggle to collapse the hot network questions list – gnat Nov 25 '18 at 11:18
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    It's impossible to identify each and every title that might be misconstrued, especially by someone who already has a huge chip on their shoulder. Even when I leave comments that I believe are helpful or ask for clarification some users take offense and accuse the comments of being passive-aggressive, overly direct or caustic. Users are continually walking on eggshells. It's +1 from me though. – Mari-Lou A Nov 25 '18 at 11:54
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    "Something in the IPS questions was bad enough to prompt an immediate removal." That's not what happened. What happened was that the titles, while fine in their natural context, were not really fine in the context of a professional programming website (ie: Stack Overflow). This was never about the "something in the IPS questions"; it was about the presence of their titles outside of IPS itself. – Nicol Bolas Nov 25 '18 at 14:34
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    @NicolBolas I meant removal from HNQ; was that not clear enough? SE has more non-software sites than software ones at this point, so if it were about the presence of non-technical sites they would have removed a lot more or just disabled HNQ on SO to keep it focused. – Monica Cellio Nov 25 '18 at 16:17
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    @NicolBolas I also asked what was actually wrong with those titles, as we've seen much worse on HNQ without action being taken. Obviously there's something about these questions that makes them give a terrible smell, but what it is is not clear to me. Some of the answers here have helped with that, though I'd still like someone who was part of the decision to respond definitively. – Monica Cellio Nov 25 '18 at 22:24
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    I think what happened to IPS was a one-off thing based on an external reaction. So as far as what made these questions bad, it's that they were sufficient to induce an external party with influence to complain about them. No other standard exists or has been codified afaik. Could the workplace for instance suffer a similar fate? I think so. Can anything be done about that? Unless you have a magic looking glass allowing you to see exactly which titles would be inappropriate by wildly differing and sometimes contradictory standards, then no. – Magisch Nov 26 '18 at 7:51
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    @Magisch but not all complaints are valid. If a tweet had complained about a perfectly reasonable Java question on SO (because the tweeter hates Java), we'd expect SE to ignore it. SE found merit in this complaint, and I want to understand what they saw. – Monica Cellio Nov 26 '18 at 13:58
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    @MonicaCellio I don't think you'll get an answer, and the reality may not be to your liking. Personally I elaborated what I think is the root cause here in another comment but I'm definitely not in that social sphere enough to be able to accurately predict. – Magisch Nov 26 '18 at 14:21
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    @Magisch if I don't ask I know I won't get an answer. (The blog post did not address it and that was the only SE-initiated communication we expected about this.) If I ask I might get one. – Monica Cellio Nov 26 '18 at 15:24
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    @Randal'Thor I must defer to your expertise. I have no idea what an Eechee is, other than what I can glean from the question title. – Monica Cellio Dec 3 '18 at 18:02
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    @Randal'Thor I intended to match "degree of seriousness" in my response. :-) – Monica Cellio Dec 3 '18 at 18:06

The general rule is, you know it when you see it. Keep in mind that we're talking about question titles being shown (and thus, interpreted, reacted to and even judged) separately from the actual question.

The tl;dr answer: It's too difficult to describe in natural language, much less something like regular expressions, which are our only current filtering mechanism for the hot network questions. A site where 'dating' style questions could be asked hundreds of different ways was just too problematic to selectively filter given our capabilities, which is why we removed it from the list.

I'm putting the following in spoiler tags because it contains multiple possible triggers, please do not remove the spoiler tags if you edit this post. The summary is, we have lots of situations where titles have proven to be problematic.

We have a site for Gaming, it's a fantastic site. When games like Grand Theft Auto release a new version, titles tend to get .. well .. problematic, especially when in-game content involves the solicitation and killing of prostitutes. We have a site for Parenting, but sometimes, titles talk about things like childhood sex abuse, spanking, or other things that tend to trigger strong emotions. We have a sites for cognitive sciences and health, where topics like suicide can and frequently do come up. We have many more examples.

We should have known that a regex-based filter for titles was woefully insufficient to meet our needs five years ago when Stack Exchange 2.0 first ventured into territory where we dropped the sort of unwritten qualifier that our sites should ideally help someone get better at their job. And back when we tried a couple variants of relationships & dating in extended private beta, it was a no-brainer that the site would definitely not be on the HNQ if made public, and that we'd possibly have to put it behind some kind of age verification check.

So it's not really the content, it's the appropriateness of advertising it based on velocity across the entire network, which includes sites that are absolutely professional in nature. And if you're an engineer looking to get your job done ....

and were a victim of sexual harassment, or currently dealing with being harassed in your workplace, or maybe you just don't want people behind you to think you're on some dating site

... the last thing you want to see on your screen is a question that asks how to tell if [opposite sex] is interested in you. This isn't about caving in to someone with X followers, this is about knowing problems when you see them and fixing things that you can when you can. If this were a one-off that I could have tweaked by sacrificing a Cadbury egg to the regex gods, I would have - but the nature of the site just doesn't lend well to that kind of thing. If it had been anyone else, we would have reacted the same way.

The solution here is to trust humans instead of algorithms.

While it's one of the most downvoted questions in MSE history, this request for commentary was extremely useful.

The solution we're looking toward is one where:

  1. Sites opt in to being on the list. Many sites really don't like being on that list. With some of our academic sites, it's actually contractual that we won't ever put them on the list.
  2. The HNQ algorithm runs, but dumps likely 'good' questions into a queue where users vote on which ones are great examples in their scope. There's also a means to nominate questions that the algorithm doesn't catch.
  3. Mods have much more oversight and control over the list.
  4. Users need to be able to 'mute' sites on the list. E.g. "Don't ever show me stuff from that cooking site, it always makes me hungry!" (not picking on anyone)
  5. CMs need a more simplified interface to keep triggers out of titles. Right now it's essentially three of us that are able to maintain that ever-growing filter. This could mean "You've been kicked off the list until you get your scope sorted out" - but at least there's an action to take

... I don't know when we're going to be able to implement that. I have it as one of our highest priorities for next year but we need a couple more PMs and developers to come on board and train up before we get into full swing.

We may just turn the HNQ off on all sidebars for now and leave it running only on stackexchange.com; removing IPS from the list certainly didn't fix anything, it just postponed the need to deal with how the system was never brought in line with what we need out of it as the network grew.

But it's not anyone's fault, it's just a question of content appropriateness, selection and placement. Despite how broken the system is, most of our sites happen to have a scope where it's unlikely to ever be an issue - that's how this managed to keep getting kicked down the road for so long. But as we venture further out of the technical realm, well, anywhere that we made an assumption about the nature of our content becomes a potential powder keg.

I don't mean this to be winded, but this isn't as simple as "we took them off the list" - this is debt. It just happens to be the first case where we weren't able to swoop in like XKCD and type in a regex as we swung from a rope to fix it quietly. And while you might be able to write a regex that could, we don't want to keep adding to that debt, at some point we just have to say we need a system that works more deliberately than accidentally.

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    I kinda like a lot of that other than "... I don't know when we're going to be able to implement that.". Those are rather scary words, cause they can mean never. Point 3 though, would make me super happy - since it at the very least lets mods help deal with it. – Journeyman Geek Dec 3 '18 at 14:06
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    I think at this point its more a "It'll definitely happen" is what I'm looking for, and well, it dosen't get forgotten for a shinier thing. – Journeyman Geek Dec 3 '18 at 14:13
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    Would this apply to the posts that get shared on Twitter as well? On a side note, why does the Twitter bot post meta questions? – ChrisF Dec 3 '18 at 14:37
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    @Sonic - I deliberately formatted that way because I didn't want the horizontal rule. – Tim Post Dec 3 '18 at 14:42
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    @TimPost My eyes skipped past it when reading it because of the formatting, and I'm sure others' may too. Also, quote formatting shouldn't be used for things that aren't quotes. – Sonic the Introverted Hedgehog Dec 3 '18 at 14:43
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    @SonictheInclusiveHedgehog might be worth respecting the voices of others in this case. – Journeyman Geek Dec 3 '18 at 14:43
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    Tim, thanks for answering, and I'm glad to hear that we're finally going to fix HNQ. What confused me is that those things in your spoiler blocks were way worse than anything I've ever seen on IPS, but they didn't produce the reaction we're seeing in the current case. Are you saying that you could handle those by regex back then? (That's a little scary...) BTW, I think you could solve about 99.99% of your "HNQ optics" problem by disabling it on SO only, perhaps only for users not signed in. Those are the folks who've probably never heard of the rest of the network or HNQ, after all. – Monica Cellio Dec 3 '18 at 14:48
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    @MonicaCellio It wasn't a question of severity but frequency. I can, with a few words, be pretty confident that I can pretty effectively regulate the list by catching a few words that are remarkably uncommon in titles on most sites. But on IPS, well, the challenge is much greater, the inference way more subtle, and the word combinations almost limitless. It just can't responsibly stay wired up to the list. – Tim Post Dec 3 '18 at 14:53
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    All 5 of the steps you mentioned should be implemented to start fixing HNQ. I'm relieved to see that the feedback post actually did get some actionable and good suggestions forward, even though it was heavily downvoted. – Magisch Dec 4 '18 at 7:49
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    Tim, let me see if I got it right. You are not going to do anything - nothing at all - until SE hires developers and PMs, is that correct? No adjustments to hotness formula, not even a cheap toggle to collapse HNQ - which alone would make things like recent twit-storm not an issue at all. @Monica I hate to be the one to tell you but you better be prepared for disappointment, because with approach like that all promises you see here are likely to be delayed indefinitely – gnat Dec 4 '18 at 10:12
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    @gnat That's not correct. We're considering removing it from the sidebar entirely until we're able to address it. Your assessment that it "would have made things like the recent storm" a non-issue isn't a view that we share, tiny changes aren't going to fix the underlying major issues with the system. From the outside looking in, this certainly appears to be much simpler than it is. – Tim Post Dec 4 '18 at 13:43
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    @TimPost "We're considering removing it from the sidebar entirely until we're able to address it" - But you do understand how outside experience with SE processes, especially as of late, prompts one to think that point of being "able to adress it" has a certain chance to never actually be reached? Especially once the problem is out of sight out of mind by hiding it away. – Christian Rau Dec 4 '18 at 14:03
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    I have read and re-read your answer prior to posting previous comment and I stand by what I wrote, nothing is planned until you hire. Sorry but I don't buy a vague mention that you may (or may not) remove it: given my past experience this sounds just the same indefinite delay of acting... – gnat Dec 4 '18 at 14:03
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    ...As for twit-storms like one about IPS and how it go if we had a toggle, my reasoning here is fairly simple: any complaints about "distracting HNQ" could be efficiently defused and handled with much less pain if you could address these by explaining that user has an option to hide it and what they complain about is only a result of their personal decision to watch HNQ. (You probably think that this would leave issues with HNQ content open and in the need to address, maybe, but you could do all that on your own terms and tempo, without pressing urgency that forced you do weird things) – gnat Dec 4 '18 at 14:04
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    Here's another good idea, which seems to have slipped through the nets: Allow mods or gold tag badge holders to prevent question from being on hot network questions list I've been digging through the archives and what I've found so far is that there have been many proposals to "fix" the flaws in the HNQ but none were taken seriously by the devs. – Mari-Lou A Dec 7 '18 at 16:34

From the way this mess unfolded, we can be pretty sure that there is no defined internal policy by SE on this topic. It was a rather spontaneous decision to remove IPS from the host questions list, not based on any previously communicated policy or principles. I don't expect SE to create a policy now, especially as they might actually change some fundamental stuff about the entire HNQ feature. Our best bet is probably to reverse engineer the potential rules from the incident that sparked the IPS removal.

The first thing we have to do is to change our perspective. We have to view this through the eyes of an occasional SO user, it does make much less sense when you're an SE mod or a very active SE user. So there is this site where you can find answers to your programming problems. It's generally quite helpful, but there are lots of grumpy people closing questions for weird reasons. I don't know that there are even any other SE sites, I don't know what the SE network is or what exactly is shown in this Hot Network questions list in the sidebar.

Now you see some titles in the HNQ list that are about people flirting and cheating. This is the point where the changed perspective is very important, and where we make some assumptions based on our experience with those topics on the internet. In this case you don't know how SE moderation works, you don't know anything about the IPS site, but our hypothetical SO visitor might be familiar with some of the darker corners on the popular site Reddit like r/redpill and r/incels (for anyone not familiar with them, I suggest not to visit them, for your sanity).

Now, when you're familiar with SE sites and IPS in particular, when you read "How to approach a friend about his girlfriend asking to sleep with me?" you'll expect some reasonable Q&A behind those titles. But if your experiences with how these topics are handled on the internet goes more along the dark corners I mentioned before, you might assume the worst-possible case that you can fit into that title. Then you might expect that behind that link is a bunch of men ranting about how all women are sluts that cheat on you on every possible occasion. Think of it as a sexism detector calibrated to much darker places on the internet than SE. There are certain common sexist stereotypes, and one of those fits pretty neatly into that title, if you don't have any context.

The problem with the HNQ list is that it has no context by design. And people will make snap judgements based on the out of context title alone. Of course that's not fair to reasonable questions about dicey topics, but it is pretty much inevitable that people will make assumptions based on the titles alone.

I don't think it's possible to have questions about certain topics that can't easily be misinterpreted as sexist or ableist when only viewing the title out of context. The best we can do right now is probably to take a hard look at popular questions about topics we know to be controversial, and then try to think of the worst possible interpretations of the title out of context. It might sometimes be possible to rephrase the title to avoid associations with common sexist stereotypes.

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    Hmm... some of us fought really hard to ensure that SE was not one of those darker corners of the internet. While fighting that fight, some of us asked to be removed from HNQ, because it brought in a flood of nastiness, but we were ignored. We finally got that noise under control, and then, after the problem was largely solved, we got booted from the HNQ. Perhaps the staff reaction should have been... y'know showing the uninitiated that their fears were unfounded, that the perception was not the reality. – apaul Nov 25 '18 at 14:38
  • @apaul: I'm not sure it would help at that point. Remember: the initial impetus and commentary came from people who, by and large, already felt that SO was an elitist boy's club. They saw the titles and had confirmation of what they were already suspected. If they already think you're one step removed from r/incels, then you're going to have to work really hard to convince them otherwise. Indeed, you're going to have to work hard to get them to even listen to you. And even if such damage control works, they'll likely retain lingering doubts about SO. – Nicol Bolas Nov 25 '18 at 23:22
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    @NicolBolas The network did, and to some degree still does have those problems. The actions taken would seem to reinforce a negative perception, by acknowledging and reacting to a misguided attack. Effectively, they made a decision to instill doubts in the community rather than take on the harder work of dispelling doubts. – apaul Nov 25 '18 at 23:56
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    @apaul: If you're going to say a thing, and you realize that saying it can provoke an incorrect-but-reasonable reaction, the most effective way to curtail this reaction is not to do so after-the-fact with some "I know this sounds bad, but hear me out" kind of thing. The most effective thing you can do is either to not say it at all or to rephrase it in a way to not evoke that reaction. After-the-fact damage control isn't good enough. Even if they managed to convince that particular person, what about the 9 other people who didn't tweet about it yet had the same reaction? – Nicol Bolas Nov 26 '18 at 0:53
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    The 9 people who didn't tweet about it could have been weighed against the hundreds of active community members... Or it could have been dispelled with a "Hey this what those questions are actually about..." In either case confirming that the misguided perception was somehow accurate was a poor way to handle it. @NicolBolas – apaul Nov 26 '18 at 1:27
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    @apaul I think the discussion (and result) about how the majority of us feels about the reaction to this has already been had, this question is about how to protect other sites from the same fate. I do agree with your sentiment, but the comment thread here isn't really about what's being asked about. – Magisch Nov 26 '18 at 7:59

I don't think a general (or specific) guideline is possible or desirable. I think there was a major breakdown in processes - and these things should, going forward, be handled in consultation with the communities in question. What we don't want is these event having a broad chilling effect on communities, when we fear if we could be next.

I don't want to say the a random outsider in question isn't worth talking to, but they're tourists. They've seen the broken down ugly old shack that's clearly a fire risk, but doesn't realise that it's a local institution with the best $local_delicacy. They want it gone 'cause they wants their Disneyland with programming questions. Now the authorities have shut it down, and it's a lot harder to find.

We cannot be walking on eggshells, wondering what a tourist feels is appropriate and what is not. This is how we get gentrification, lack of diversity, and eventually dead communities.

I get that the essential question should be "do these questions align with what we want the community to be?"

We can't and should not circle the wagons. We can't dismiss useful input, but we also can't let others dictate how people live their lives, or run their sites on a whim.

Quite honestly, the (second?) worst thing that can happen is that all this causes communities to constantly look over their shoulder worried that some random person on Twitter is going to tweet the right person, and... boom, we get kicked out of the sandbox.

I guess there's a secondary, unspoken issue though, that for many folks, Stack Overflow is...all that matters, so there's also the relationship between SO and the rest of us. Some folks are annoyed that they were seeing non-programming questions. Chances are, someone, somewhere is going to find something they don't like, and will complain about. The trick is handling it constructively

Thats to say, it's impossible to really generally say "these questions are always bad" or "these questions are always good" at the network level.

We cannot be thinking of things in terms of "will this get our site in trouble", and if we do, it's another thing we really need to fix first.

If anything needs to be done, it is to give mods and the community better tools to work out what's on HNQ, and what's potentially problematic, so we can actually make these decisions in time.

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    HNQ needs to be substantially revised and we need tools to manage it. That will take time (months to years). Meanwhile, we've seen one site get removed wholesale, and there are several sites that have hot questions that seem worse. As a mod on two of them, I want to understand the rules SE is using, even if we'd both prefer that rules and tools were different. – Monica Cellio Nov 25 '18 at 5:36
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    That's assuming there's a formal set of rules - I'm under the assumption there aren't, and these things happening having a chilling effect isn't a positive, long term effect. That this can happen without a great reason shouldn't ever be the new normal. – Journeyman Geek Nov 25 '18 at 5:39
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    @JourneymanGeek Surely the simplest solution is to make HNQ opt in? Don't display it at all unless a user goes to his profile and enables it. And at that point we could make it clear that some questions may be NSFW or whatever other disclaimers so that going forward trolls cannot complain about HNQ content. – DavidPostill Nov 25 '18 at 8:43
  • Well that's a possible solution, but identifying, or trying to identify problem questions before they happen without insight into what is on HNQ seems problematic. I suppose opting in or opting out would stop folks from seeing "problem" questions, but who really thinks they're really the problem? – Journeyman Geek Nov 25 '18 at 8:53
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    The simplest solution, given that all of the complaints we've seen originate on SO (which makes sense, it being the flagship site), would be to not show the HNQ list on SO at all until they can fix it. This time it was IPS; next time it'll be Politics or Skeptics or Worldbuilding or Islam. But we have another question to collect suggestions for fixing HNQ, and answers there are more likely to be seen than comments here. – Monica Cellio Nov 25 '18 at 16:32
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    @MonicaCellio then the trolls come browsing superuser, then ---prog--- software engineering, then maybe AU... The next thing you know HNQ is gone from pretty much everywhere. Not a good outcome methinks. – John Dvorak Nov 26 '18 at 17:46

My problem is that I don't see what was so terrible about these questions, which makes it hard for me to spot potential similar problems on my sites.

You're not the only one. I never realized the first impression titles could leave and never thought twice about any of them, until someone pointed it out. It takes quite some brain gymnastics to find out whether something can be construed as offensive. You should scratch all your knowledge about what your site is for and does, and you need to be aware of cultural differences, and of some pretty intangible things.

It's hard to write all of those down, but one phenomenon I read a little about recently before IPS was taken out of HNQ was 'self-stigma'. People sometimes have bad things happening to them. If you encounter examples of e.g. sexism in your daily life a lot, you might start to see sexism in places where there's none intended as well. So a good-natured co-worker's joke may hurt, as it reminds you of what you've been through, a question title out of context in the HNQ may remind you of sexism being everywhere online.

The first two questions are from people trying to deflect or prevent unwanted sexual activity; that's a good thing, right?

Are they? If you get served that first title, out of context, is it really about rejecting? Step into the shoes of someone that doesn't know about IPS, that doesn't read anything but the titles and has probably seen their share of sexism around. Such a mindset might not make the connection that a title of How to approach a friend about his girlfriend asking to sleep with me? is about rejecting and thus a good thing. After all, the title doesn't say anything about rejecting.

The one about wanting students to stop flirting may give off the vibe of a humble-brag (I'm so great, everyone is flirting with me!), especially when you're already in a full-blown defensive mode about the first title. Although there's no context as to gender in that title, seeing it in combination with the first one may have people jump to see another instance of sexism or at least two very unprofessional questions. Remember, these two titles appeared together, one on top of the other. Multiple very slightly off things, when put together, can be a catastrophe.

The autism question is about telling someone 'you may be autistic'. Not really a nice thing to say on the internet, where context gets lost, and especially not if you're assuming the one saying it isn't on the spectrum themselves (that context was lost in the question body) or why they want to say it. It's again a title that may easily be misinterpreted as someone with no knowledge of these things diagnosing someone because they're different.

What was so bad about these questions?

The questions, like you said, aren't bad at all. It's the titles, and them being presented out of context to people, that make things bad and worse. Taken from the feedback that's on IPS meta:

  • Titles, however, when taken out of context and put in the list ... aren't great for displaying on professional and academic sites. Things that talk about dating (especially a lack of fidelity), and other stuff .. just got to be problematic.

  • The unfortunate truth is that what is perfectly reasonable for IPS and makes for a great question isn't going to necessarily be something that everyone finds to be workplace appropriate,

Question titles are presented out of context. Not only do they miss the context of their question body and them being asked on a site about Interpersonal Skills, they're also presented to people that have no interest in seeing any of those things when at work.

What do other communities need to be careful about in question titles?

I think the biggest lesson learned here, is that whenever possible, try to have as much context and as precise titles as possible, with as little clickbait as possible. IPS still has to have a discussion on meta to hammer out exactly what that's going to mean, and I'm not really expecting a network-wide policy to guide that discussion. But there's some precedence here: Christianity was penalized and effectively excluded from HNQ in the past, but apparently having their questions become more precise and less clickbait allowed them back in.

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    (1) With three answers posted, there's little chance of getting an official explanation or guidelines from the team. They probably haven't even figured one out, how could they? Are they going to ask mods to monitor and fix any titles that might hit the HNQ for sensitive material? – Mari-Lou A Nov 25 '18 at 11:45
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    (2) It's one thing to bowdlerize or censor offensive/crude/insulting language in a title (which on certain sites may even be on-topic) those titles are extremely easy to identify but how would anyone sanitize (and why should they?) a question about someone's embarrassment or difficulty with flirting teenagers or someone whose friend might be on the autistic spectrum? – Mari-Lou A Nov 25 '18 at 11:45
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    @Mari-LouA Are they going to ask mods to monitor and fix any titles that might hit the HNQ for sensitive material? ~ Ideally, this is something the community pays attention to when new questions are posted and where they help out with edits. But then the community needs guidelines on what makes a good title and what not, which is why IPS needs to still have that discussion on our own meta. And your nr.2 is indeed also one of the reasons IPS was taken out of HNQ, the classical 'add a word to a regex filter' isn't feasible for a site like IPS... – Tinkeringbell Nov 25 '18 at 12:04
  • How would you have titled those particular questions to avoid this misunderstanding? – apaul Nov 25 '18 at 14:41
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    @apaul the one about approaching could probably have been more specific than 'approach', the one about autism might have included the detail that the asker is on the spectrum themselves... Long story short, make them more specific and precise and less clickbait. Exactly how to do so is a discussion to be held on IPS Meta. – Tinkeringbell Nov 25 '18 at 14:43
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    @apaul: I don't think you can. Those titles are not only perfectly fine, they're quite good... within the context of other questions on the same site. It's only when they're shown outside of that context that they can give the wrong impression. Text simply cannot convey many kinds of subtle meanings very well, so we often try to use more of it to make sure the intent gets across. So a piece of text which worked fine within a particular context may not work well outside of it. – Nicol Bolas Nov 25 '18 at 14:48
  • Mhmm... So make the title an introductory paragraph in order to remove ambiguity? – apaul Nov 25 '18 at 14:49
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    Rejecting or not, I don’t see how the first title is bad. Humble-brag, I can kinda see. If I squint. But the first? I have been unable to come up with an objection I would consider serious. – jmoreno Nov 25 '18 at 18:24
  • @jmoreno Perhaps the answer from Mad Scientist might explain that one better. – Tinkeringbell Nov 25 '18 at 18:57
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    @Mari-LouA I think this is a problem with no real solution and SE has acknowledged it as such. Even in the (now downvote-bombed) thread about changing the HNQ they acknowledged that these questions were not bad itself for IPS, just not appropriate for the HNQ. The result would probably be that, anything that can even cursorily seem like sexism/ableism or even feature as sexist or ableist regarded tropes is broadly unsuitable for the HNQ. In IPS's case, that just means the site is unsuitable because of its subject matter. – Magisch Nov 26 '18 at 7:55
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  • What about this four-year-old proposal (Let mods (and 10k?) know when questions go “hot” Would that have been of help? Would you or another mod on IPS have been put on alert and opted to tweak and sanitize the three "offenders"? Yet, the volatile titles mentioned in Tim Post's answer are far far more clickbaity and controversial, e.g. child abuse, sexual harassment, and suicide. – Mari-Lou A Dec 6 '18 at 19:46
  • They are all sensitive topics which are easily identified but maybe this simple (?) software component would have helped avoid this Twitter mess in the first place? – Mari-Lou A Dec 6 '18 at 19:49

Any titles that an arbitrary Twitter user with more than a certain number of followers gets offended over, apparently.

  • as a side note, it looks like your answer here fell a victim of my recent bounty where I referred it - sorry about that – gnat Dec 10 '18 at 23:12
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    @gnat looks like we both got suspended for that, which I personally find hilarious. – Ian Kemp Dec 18 '18 at 9:41

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