tl;dr version: Rather than locking people out of the house for increasing periods of time, wouldn't it be better if they were only locked out of the rooms they consistently made messes in? This would allow otherwise good users to contribute in the ways they are best able to participate without allowing them to cause the problems they consistently cause.
A significant problem that suspended users and their supporters complain of frequently is that the user is awesome in some way, and benefits the community greatly. The hope is that we will consider weighing their infractions against their contributions so we can continue to extract usefulness from them, rather than throwing them out wholesale.
While I hate to open old wounds, and there is an unwritten social agreement to avoid mentioning specific people who have been banned (Primarily for privacy reasons), I feel it's important that we consider some concrete examples that did happen, rather than postulate based on what could or might happen.
Threatening emails from Jeff Atwood <-- User asked privately to change their comment posting behavior to avoid suspension.
https://stackoverflow.com/users/5640/geoffrey-chetwood <-- User suspended due to numerous complaints and flags against user's comments and other interactions on the site.
Numerous other users have been banned at various times for various reasons, including extraordinary users (one of the top superusers, for instance, and that is a site that could still use a little more help). Would these cases have been better if we could remove one or another ability, rather than removing them from the site completely?
Implement fine grained suspension that removes specific abilities related to the type of infractions they commit
- In both examples above the users in question are/were defended by other users who clearly believe their value to the community is worth the extra work and pain they cause to moderators and other users. It generally appears that their infractions do not conflict with their best contributions. In the first case, the user provides excellent answers, but had poor commenting skills. While the comments were valuable, the way they were used irritated fellow users, caused many flags, and soaked up more moderator time than allowable. In the second case the user's primary contribution was in editing and low level moderation activity, but they would frequently spar in comments in an ineffective and sometimes offensive way, requiring a lot of moderator intervention. Removing commenting ability from these two users in question would permit them to participate in the ways that they were most effective in rather than suspending them, while removing (for a time) the ability to participate in ways that were ineffective and sometimes damaging to the community.
- There are other abilities that should be discussed along these lines, such as voting for those that regularly exhibit strange voting patterns, editing posts for frivolous reasons, etc, but commenting is an obvious first test case for implementing this sort of system.
- There is already some precedence for this in the moderator flagging system - those who regularly flag items which the moderators choose not to act on are pushed to the bottom of the flag list and eventually ignored. For all intents and purposes they have lost their ability to flag for moderator attention.
- Is this worse than a full suspension (ie, being able to participate, but not fully, might hurt worse than simply being kicked out?)
- Is there validity in the idea that kicking them down the ladder would be better than just removing certain abilities? (for instance, if you can't comment properly, perhaps you shouldn't be allowed to do anything else above commenting that your reputation would otherwise allow)
- Is it fair making a user's ability contingent on something other than reputation, such as how well they use that ability?
- Is it wise to remove their ability to defend themselves in comments? (Are comments a primary feature of the site?)
- Are there abilities that should or should not be considered for this treatment? (Posting questions and answers is the primary purpose of the site - if we remove either of those, isn't that essentially the same as suspending them completely, even if it's only for a few days?)
- Specifically regarding commenting, should comment-suspended users be allowed to comment on their own questions and answers, or if someone explicitly calls them out using the @username feature? (for instance in the case of someone commenting on how the suspended user edited a question)