Some of you may have noticed that we've been making some changes to the Hot Network Questions on the back end over the last week or so. I'm here announcing our first round of changes to how the HNQ works and give you some ideas of why we're starting here and where we're planning to go in the future.
Before I get to that, I want to thank all of you who have participated in this discussion either on Tim's request for input back in October or over the last few years here on MSE. I spent a lot of time working through the suggestions and they really did a lot to help me prioritize what we should work on changing. Also, a huge thanks to Adam Lear who did the actual work making this happen.
Here are the big changes:
There's now a history event created the first time a post appears in the HNQ list.
This allows us to see which questions have been featured and look at data of how being featured impacts the questions and their answers so that we can continue to improve on the HNQ in the future. You can find this information in either the question's timeline (
/posts/[postid]/timeline) or the edit history (
Right now we don't have an event for a post dropping off the list. The concern with this is that questions right on the edge of the list may pop on and off the list several times, as frequently as every fifteen minutes, thus cluttering up the history. We'll look into whether we can find a neat way of achieving this but for now there's another feature that will help with this:
Questions will age out of the list after being on it for 72 hours.
There's a sense of fatigue with some of the questions that live on the HNQ list for long periods of time. To combat that, we'll remove questions that have had their day in the sun (or three days, anyway) to make way for new questions. Three days after a question is added to the HNQ list, it becomes ineligible and will be removed. This won't create a history event for now but it's something that we'd like to add in the future.
Each site can only have a max of five questions on the HNQ list at any given time.
This is a big, much-requested change and we may reduce the number in the future even further. We're starting it higher than some might want (suggestions went as low as one per site) because sites that have had a lot of exposure through the HNQ may see a dramatic drop in visits, so we need to be careful to find the right number here and possibly do some testing at different levels.
This number is also configurable on a per-site basis, so if a site wants to reduce their HNQ footprint, we can lower it even more, even to zero if a site wishes to be excluded entirely. Sites will need to go through a meta discussion before requesting this change and it will be up to the site itself to request a change rather than having the limit imposed upon it (unless we lower the maximum for the entire network). So for example, Stack Overflow can't vote to kick Movies & TV off the list entirely because they don't want to see spoilers for the last season of Game of Thrones, but Movies & TV can ask that fewer of their questions be shown so that they can devote sufficient time to those that are.
User preference to remove HNQ sidebar section globally
Your user profile settings tab got a bit more crowded today. You now have the option to turn off the HNQ List widget in the right hand sidebar. If you don't want to see the HNQ list, you don't have to! So, if this is what you've been dreaming of for years, head over to the sidebar section of your preferences and change it! The HNQ list is viewable by default for all users.
There are a few reasons we're starting with this solution:
- It'll work on every site and every device you use.
- It's something we could implement relatively quickly and get a reliable result.
There are a few things it doesn't do:
- Doesn't let you show or hide the HNQ list on different sites or devices.
- Isn't an option for non-logged-in users.
- Doesn't let you customize which sites you see by either a whitelist or blacklist.
While I'd like to solve 1 and 2 by making it possible to collapse the section in the sidebar on the page and saving that state as a cookie, that will take a bit more design work so we're putting it on hold for now. Solving #3 is likely very complicated to implement so we don't have plans for it for the time being.
Title blacklists will be configurable on a per-site basis.
Right now we rely on regex to blacklist words from all sites. This is troublesome when words have different meanings depending on context. So, we'll be able to adjust blacklists both across the network and on each site individually.
Moderators have the ability to remove questions from the HNQ List.
There are times when the hotness formula selects a question that a site would rather not have featured. Up until now, the only recourse that was available was to close the question (which may be appropriate anyway but isn't ideal when done purely to manage traffic), or to do nothing. We're putting the power in the hands of our moderators to remove questions that don't set a good example for their sites. I recommend each site have a meta discussion with guidance for moderators about when - if ever - a question should be removed.
Once a moderator excludes a question, it can't be selected again, so don't think of this as a temporary "hide this question" option. In general, we recommend that you exclude questions that attract negative attention to your sites, that is, questions that are controversial, start large amounts of debate or arguments or even edit wars. Removing a question should not be a substitute for fixing it! Remember that it may take several hours for a moderator to respond to a flag so do what you can, first:
- If the title seems click-baity or doesn't adequately describe the question, edit it!
- If the body is full of spelling or grammatical errors, fix them!
- If the body contains unnecessary detail or salacious content, see if it can be removed without impacting the question.
- If the question is unclear or broad, vote to close it. In most cases it will be better to close a question and wait for it to be improved rather than asking for it to be removed.
This tool is a big gun and should be used sparingly. Don't reach for it if you think the question can be fixed.
When moderators kick a post off the HNQ list there will be a delay of up to fifteen minutes or so as the list is cached but the question will be removed the next time it runs. In addition, an event will be logged in the post timeline and edit history that indicates when it was removed and by whom. This will help us understand what sort of posts are unwelcome in the HNQ list on different sites.
At this point in time, mods can only use this tool on a post currently in the HNQ list - they can't use it preemptively to prevent a question from being added to it.
What we aren't doing, at least, not yet
There's a lot that we're not getting to in this round of changes or that we're hoping will become less of a problem with some smaller adjustments than some of the big asks we've gotten in the last few years. We know that there's still work to do but these changes will address the most immediate needs and give us the information we need to make changes in the future that are based on data rather than anecdotal evidence.
The data will help us see how effective changes to the formula are as we make them. You'll notice that we're not changing the formula itself for the time being and that's intentional. There have been some really great and interesting ideas floating around for a while, and we may try them out and see how they impact which questions are selected and how long those questions stick around.
We investigated having a review queue for this and, for now, this won't be possible. There are technical problems but also a concern that only sites with active reviewers will ever have posts approved to appear on the list. We'd like to see how much we can improve things by following the path we're currently investigating first. Some other adjustments, like setting a minimum question age so that users can have time to edit or close a question before it is eligible to appear on the list or preventing locked questions from appearing are other options we're considering for the near future.
That's the bulk of it. There's absolutely ideas we're not implementing I haven't mentioned due to wanting to keep this post reasonably short. If you have any questions about something - whether it's a feature I've mentioned here or not - feel free to ask about it in an answer.
Yes, I've avoided mentioning IPS in this question. If you're interested in that site in relation to the HNQ, please see their meta. The TL;DR there is: if they want back in, they can get back in but it's up to them.