Preamble: I had to stop listening to last week's podcast. While I'm sure it would be nice for an automated agent to pop up and say "It looks like you're writing a bad question," or to get a higher class of people asking questions, the causes of bad questions pretty much boil down to these:

  1. There's a "fast draw" answer culture that incents answering questions, no matter how bad. Particularly for new users who want to gain the rep needed for privileges.
  2. There's a disincentive to downvoting. Although you no longer lose rep as the downvoter, humans do not like to cause harm to another. (side proposal: downvoting of questions or answers doesn't cause rep loss to anyone; pure game theory would say that the world shouldn't change much)
  3. The barriers to closing questions are extremely high. Either 5 x 3000+ users (top 12% of population) have to see the question before it drops off the front page, or 5 x 10,000+ users (top 3%) have to take the time to go to moderation tools and look at questions with close votes. And clearly, this doesn't happen (or maybe questions drop off the front page too fast for the first close vote to appear).

To paraphrase the podcast, the real problem with bad questions is that they pollute Google's search results, and make SO a less attractive destination.

So, clearly, one goal is to block bad questions from seeing the light of day (or the touch of the Googlebot). But another goal is to raise the quality of people asking questions, so that they can become better members of society (and hey, maybe better programmers as well).

I think the correct solution is to use crowd-sourcing to police the site, but to reduce the barriers to entry (ie, encourage the Guardian Angels). This would take the form of yet another flag button:

  • An extremely low rep required to see/use the flag: perhaps 500, or even 250. This will provide a far larger population to police the site, while still keeping a barrier for users that haven't proven themselves.
  • A single flag will prevent the question from being seen by users that aren't logged in, or who have low rep. This will prevent the post from making its way to Googlebot.
  • This flag can be undone by a single click from another moderate-rep user. To prevent flip-flopping over contentious questions, perhaps you can use the rep of the flagging/unflagging user as a new barrier (ie, 250-rep user flags question, 500-rep user unflags it, now you need at least 501 to flag it again).
  • As part of the flag, the user must select a reason for flagging. A standard checklist could include "need to describe expected and actual results," "needs exception stack trace," and so on. There will probably also need to be a free-form field.
  • While flagged, the question can't be answered.
  • When (if) the asker returns, s/he will see that the question has been flagged, and the things s/he needs to do to turn it into a "good question."
  • If the user then edits the question, the flag will be removed. Perhaps the user will try to game this, putting useless text into the question. In which case, it should quickly get flagged again.

TL;DR: SO has bad questions because it's difficult to stop them once asked. Make it easy for the community to improve itself, and help new users to make themselves better citizens.

  • 6
    Point two is wrong: downvoting questions no longer costs you any reputation.
    – Cody Gray
    May 18 '11 at 11:23
  • @kdgregory: What @Cody's talking about is quite new (as of the 12th): meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/90324/… May 18 '11 at 11:31
  • @Cody, @TJ - I wonder how many people know that? <joke>I suspect that most users don't read the release notes.</joke>
    – kdgregory
    May 18 '11 at 11:41
  • 1
    Quite a few people know it, but indeed, not everyone. It's been suggested that we might try and make it more well-known.
    – Cody Gray
    May 18 '11 at 11:43
  • won't giving these privileges to noobs lower the S/N ratio?
    – vartec
    May 18 '11 at 11:55
  • @vartec - I don't think so. First, because users with 500 rep aren't "noobs." I don't have hard numbers, but unless you happen to be an early responder on a "bike shed" question, you're lucky to get 10 points for a valid answer. So it will take 30+ answers to reach 500 rep. Second, even if flags were applied randomly, their effect would be to reduce overall volume, not shift S/N. To shift S/N, you would need a concerted effort to flag good questions. And third, because the barriers are low, anyone can unflag an improperly-flagged question.
    – kdgregory
    May 18 '11 at 13:22
  • 2
    @Cody et al - On further thought, I think point #2 is valid, albeit as edited. There's a stigma to downvoting, even if it doesn't cause self-mutilation.
    – kdgregory
    May 18 '11 at 13:23
  • 3
    Hmm, I definitely disagree. I've been feeling very liberated recently, and doling out downvotes much more willingly. I don't feel any stigma whatsoever. Yup, overall it's been a great experience. :-)
    – Cody Gray
    May 18 '11 at 13:25
  • 1
    @kdgregory People with 500 rep may not be noobs, but they're not necessarily experienced users of the site. Posting answers doesn't always teach one about good questions. Flags like these would also have to be dismissable by (moderators? other higher rep users?) to prevent abuse, which adds extra work on people... and if you're going to do that, why not just flag as "low quality" or suggest an edit yourself?
    – Adam Lear StaffMod
    May 18 '11 at 13:43
  • @Anna - But equally, someone with 2000 rep might have just been lucky with four 500 rep bikeshed questions and have no clear idea about how the site works at all. *8')
    – Mark Booth
    May 18 '11 at 14:27
  • 1
    @Mark True, but it's not very likely in my experience.
    – Adam Lear StaffMod
    May 18 '11 at 15:37
  • if downvoting no longer causes rep loss, should there be a massive recalc to restore all the lost rep from previous downvoting?
    – warren
    May 18 '11 at 15:53
  • I also disagree with point 2. I think it's ridiculous to say that people are worried about other people's feelings, and if you were to assume that logic, you would also have to apply it to answers. Besides, with the recent changes (no rep loss for downvotes, encouragement to vote on questions [see blog], and public disclosure of your question/answer vote ratio), I think people are readier than ever to (down)vote questions. May 18 '11 at 18:55
  • I think this is clever, and I like its direction, but can't vote for it as stands. I think the proposed rep is too low. I'd say it should be no lower than the rep needed to edit questions without review (2k on SO) -- I think this requires a similar, if not stronger, understanding of the mores of the site. I also don't like this being a single vote (although your ladder idea for avoiding a hide/unhide war is good); I think two votes one way or the other, as in edit reviews, should be necessary.
    – jscs
    May 18 '11 at 19:44
  • @Anna - I describe the conditions for clearing the flag in my post; it should reduce moderator workload, not increase it. As for suggesting an edit: the sorts of questions that I would see this applying to ("it doesn't work") can not be edited. Finally, if a person who has answered 30+ questions can't tell the difference between a good and bad question, there are bigger issues.
    – kdgregory
    May 18 '11 at 20:50

Regarding your analysis:

  1. Your proposal isn't going to change that.
  2. Downvoting is easy. Downvoting questions doesn't even cost reputation any more. Downvoting bad stuff is how you get to see more good stuff and less bad stuff. Downvoting leads to quality improvement leads to less downvoting. Downvoting is good. Every time you don't downvote, God kills a kitten. Embrace the downvoting.
  3. Questions in high-view tags get closed reasonably fast. For questions in low-view tags, you can adopt the Server Fault and Super User method of announcing them in a chat room.

Regarding your proposal:

  • It's far too complex for what it does. There are already two features that work reasonably well.

    downvote close

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