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I recommend that SE give individual sites the option of permanently barring unregistered guest accounts from posting answers.

Granted there is a long-standing policy of allowing guests to post answers without account logins, for example, as shown in the answers here (all between 5 and 10 years ago):

By way of justifying the re-request for this feature, note the following: The kernel of each of the answers above (saying in each case that guest answering ability would be retained) come from the SE founder Jeff Atwood in 2011 (9 years ago as I write this). Since that time, the SE network has expanded significantly. In 2011 SE started with only 33 sites; Jeff left one year later; now SE has 176 non-meta sites as of this writing (an over 400% increase). The blog in 2016 specifically noted that the network was adding sites that, "push the boundaries of traditional Q&A".

The essence of Jeff's mark on the issue, in 2011, was this (emphasis his):

I found in my years of blogging at Coding Horror that the value of one person happening by with some gold nugget of absolutely the right information you need vastly outweighs the cost of ongoing moderation of anonymous posts.

My observation is that this stance is entirely focused on the issue of technical coding problems, in the question-and-answer format, such as seen on Stack Overflow or Jeff's older Coding Horror blog. In these cases there is quite likely to be a relatively clear-cut, narrowly technical solution to a specific problem that may help the original poster of the question.

But this is much less likely to be the case for many or most of the other sites that SE has added, since Jeff left, many of which are self-admittedly not in the traditional Q&A mold. Many other sites tend to deal with much more subjective areas, which may have a wide range of philosophical opinions toward them, and are more likely to attract the interest of ideologues who feel motivated to regularly push their opinions into a variety of otherwise unrelated questions, lowering the quality of the site as a whole.

Case study -- On one of the SE sites I frequent, there is a long-time guest poster who remains without a registered account. They post an answer to almost every question asked on the site, putting forward the same counterproductive position to everything asked there, regardless of topic. In addition, their posts and comments are usually rude and/or dismissive of other posters. They are almost always downvoted to the bottom of the list, but: (1) this takes time and energy from other people on the forum, (2) points are spent by readers of the site on the downvotes, (3) the fact that this poster always posts as "guest" means that they can recycle the account back up to zero reputation at any time, (4) new posters cannot identify or see past history of this user, (5) moderators are stumped at how to contact/communicate with them, and (6) they are not subject to any possible ban.

This situation has been an ongoing problem at Math Educators SE without resolution for at least the last 3 years. A similar recurrent case has been happening at Music SE for at least a year and a half now. I see comments that Sound Design SE and Photography SE also have the same experience.

In short: By remaining a perpetual "guest", a visitor can effectively spam every question on a site with some ideologically-inspired viewpoint, and avoid all of the normal moderation and tracking mechanisms. While this would be hard to imagine on a purely technical site like Stack Overflow, in 2020 it's a daily occurrence on the wider array of more subjective Stack Exchange sites.

I'll also recommend that you read this question from 5 years ago, where a moderator of one of the SE religious forums provides different but complementary reasons for the same idea -- but which SE Community Management, in comments, seems to consider distinct, because it doesn't explicitly ask for moderator-controlled decision-making, or use the word "permanent" in the feature request.

So I'll argue that Jeff Atwood's original position may have been useful for the initial Stack Overflow and closely related technical Q&A sites, but no longer holds for the majority of sites on Stack Exchange. Please give other sites the option of prohibiting unregistered guests posting answers, on a permanent basis, to be used at the judgement of members of each individual site.


Note: Previously this question was marked as a duplicate of one of the links above (Can unregistered users be blocked from answering on some sites?). However, in comments there, the SE Community Manager (Catija) drew a distinction between what I'm asking here and the one there:

I think you're confusing your request with the one here... this request does not in any way ask that a moderator be able to turn it on and off... it only asks that it be possible to have it blocked - and it is possible, we [the company] just almost never do it.

Another staff member (Tim Post) further emphasized that SE has never to date considered turning off guest answers for any site on a permanent basis:

I've been involved in abuse mitigation for the last 6 years and we only flip that setting on in extreme cases where someone (or something) is flooding a site with spam, harassment or gibberish. We've yet to encounter circumstances that would cause us to consider a scenario where the setting would be enabled permanently.

Again, I'm asking that moderators of individual sites get full authority to turn off guest answers on a permanent basis. If I'm reading the SE Community Manager's comment correctly, then this question is not a duplicate of the linked question (at least in the eyes of SE network administration). This question was therefore re-opened on that basis.

  • The biggest concern/problem I have is that you're asking us to block something entirely because of one bad actor... and that's... um... just not how we do things (in general). Ask for help figuring out how to block that user or contact them to ask them to stop or ... other things but blocking all unregistered answering because of one person is a very extreme step to take. What other things have been done to address this? Have you asked for help from the mods? Have they reached out to the CMs? – Catija Jun 22 at 15:36
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    @Catija: Those questions seem orthogonal to the fact that the issue should be up to each individual site, users, and moderators to decide. I think that the premise of Atwood's original position that a single fixed policy suffices for all the sites on the network (at the time, a much smaller network) is the root of a lot of mischief. The 4th linked item in my question, the similar request from a moderator of the Christianity site, has an entirely different but complementary set of observations on anonymous answers being of nearly no value. – Daniel R. Collins Jun 22 at 16:54
  • The way site-specific configuration changes typically work is that they're discussed on the site meta, then an SE employee implements the result of the discussion. The request as you previously phrased it simply asked for giving sites that option, and didn't explicitly state that you want site moderators to configure it directly. The ability already existed - community members can agree on the site meta, then the SE team could (theoretically) change it for them as per the outcome. – Sonic the K-Day Hedgehog Jun 23 at 19:34
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    @SonictheMaskedWerehog: I don't think that's a completely accurate assessment. SE staff have also asserted that (a) in addition to site consensus, SE itself would need convincing that the reason is valid, and, more importantly, (b) "We've yet to encounter circumstances that would cause us to consider a scenario where the setting would be enabled permanently" (Tim Post), the permanent state being I thought clearly implicit in my question all along (as well as the other one linked above, to my reading, but SE staff disagrees on that). – Daniel R. Collins Jun 23 at 22:09
  • Those questions seem orthogonal to... Those questions are also important, though. If there is another way for you or your moderators to handle that "one bad actor" then you should try that IMO -- try to work "within the system" or framework or defaults that the site inherits from SE. – ChrisW Jun 24 at 14:42
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    @ChrisW: I suppose "what can be done about a spammy recurrent anonymous guest" would be an interesting separate question, because I'm not sure what way or framework exists for that. – Daniel R. Collins Jun 24 at 22:42
  • I think it's unanswerable i.e. confidential but is something a moderator could discuss with a CM. – ChrisW Jun 24 at 22:57
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    There is a similar situation with posts by a "guest" account on Music SE (see this Meta discussion). – user313042 Jun 26 at 6:52
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    @Brahadeesh: Good example, thanks for that. – Daniel R. Collins Jun 26 at 15:13
  • @P.Mort.-forgotClayShirky_q: No. That's about questions. This is about answers (and also comments now that I think of it). E.g.: See Jeff Atwood's answer in the 2nd link of my question, which distinguishes between the two. Or just log out and check any Stack Overflow question: there's a "Your Answer: Post as guest" form at the bottom of the page. – Daniel R. Collins Jun 26 at 21:12
  • I'll point out that the "What mechanisms now exist to deal with malicious guest posters?" question was asked here, but to date, no viable answers have been given: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/350559/… – Daniel R. Collins Jul 25 at 16:54
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Yes, this should be done.

As a proposal for voting, I suggest that the answer be "yes"; site moderators should have full authority to shut off unregistered guest answers on a permanent basis. Briefly recapping the observations in the question and also the related (but officially distinct) question here:

  • Jeff Atwood's original 2011 policy was appropriate for a technical coding site like Coding Horror, Stack Overflow, Super User, or Server Fault, but overlooked all the other sites that SE would grow to include.
  • On other sites with more subjective topics (the majority of the current SE network), guest answers have effectively no value whatsoever, are in almost all cases troubled by multiple critical problems, and are a time-sink for site visitors and moderators to deal with.
  • The capacity for guest answers allows regular spam-posters to avoid the standard voting, history, identification, and moderation tools available.

Therefore, site moderators should have the freedom to shut off guest answers on a permanent basis, in consultation with each site's community. In fact, I imagine this should probably be the default for most sites on the current SE network.

| improve this answer | |
  • One of the answers on a linked question suggested that some supporting stats may be useful; it seems they would also be useful both for motivating this feature being accessible to moderators and for moderators to use in support of their decision. – Bryan Krause Jun 24 at 16:50
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    @BryanKrause: Seems reasonable, but that suggestion has been there for 5 years at this point and doesn't seem to have produced any progress one way or the other. I would trust individual communities and moderators to know what's best for their sites at this point. – Daniel R. Collins Jun 24 at 19:52
  • I think some of the data might be SEDE-accessible, though I may be wrong about that. Hoped my comment might be noticed by someone with sufficient SEDE skill. – Bryan Krause Jun 24 at 19:57

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