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When is it acceptable for a moderator to make a unilateral decision to close a question?

I recently had the pleasure of reading the top 1500 questions/answers on programmers.SE, and noticed an alarming trend. About 100 of these questions, all with a community vote ranging from about +10 to +300, were closed by a select few moderators for being not 'constructive'. Only around 15 questions among these top 1500 were closed collectively by non-moderators for this reason - a large difference.

The point of this post is not to debate the 'constructiveness' of the questions within the set I speak of, or to debate about the '6 guidelines for constructive questions'. There is no doubt in my mind that some of these questions are constructive. It is also clear that these questions, as a whole, are viewed as constructive by the community. As a whole, these questions and answers have probably garnered significantly more than 10,000 community upvotes. They are obviously useful to many. If they really were not at all constructive, I imagine they would be removed from the site, instead of still sitting in their same place with a little [closed] sign stifling further growth.

It is also not the point to bemoan the power of the moderator to close questions with a click. I believe that this is an important tool for some to possess, and takes much of the burden off of the user base when it comes to regulating spam, duplicates, and non-questions. I am grateful to the moderators that use their bestowed power for these reasons.

However, I do see a problem here, and the plot thickens.

An overwhelming majority of these closed questions were flagged as 'not constructive' by a single user. Yes, a single user. I won't call you out, because I don't need to. It is an easy fact to find, for anyone looking. This flag draws moderator attention, which dispatches those with the mod-hammer. It appears that a few moderators really enjoy swinging it, so the questions get closed. I feel that this is an abuse of both the flagging system and of moderator power.

I'm not really sure how we arrived at a point on programmers where this can happen. I do acknowledge and understand why the subjective question criteria exist, and although I don't feel like they are perfect, nothing really is, and i'm willing to accept them, as open to interpretation as they are. My problem rests in the fact that a moderator can easily spoil a good question, well accepted by the community, with a click of a button and no explanation, because they feel that it doesn't meet enough of the criteria, or doesn't meet the criteria well enough. In all the questions mentioned, the community disagreed with the moderator decision to an overwhelming degree.

Case in 2 points, briefly -

https://softwareengineering.stackexchange.com/questions/40477/what-is-the-worst-software-bug-in-history

This question has been mod-hammered. It has a total of +63 ups, and has been favorited by 36 users. It has been twittered about by Joel, and about this question Jeff says, "the measurement of the worst software bug, and the idea that programmers need to consider the consequences of their professional actions, puts it on the other side of the line to 'acceptable'". For this question, both founders feel it fits, and so does the community. One moderator disagrees, however, so it is closed.

(quoted from Some inconsistency in closing questions?)

If you could pose a question to a Turing test candidate, what would it be?

Yes, this is my question, and yes, it helped sparked this question. It was mod-hammered for not being constructive. I asked this question because I am working in NLP/AI, not because it just popped into my head and thought it would be useless but fun question to post here. The answers people gave helped me further understand the aspects from which a computer is generally considered to be different from a machine, information I can extrapolate from the questions listed. I can ask my robot all the answers (questions) provided by the community. To me, this is very 'constructive'. The included comment regarding the close -

"I was prepared to leave this open, but I think it's run its course."

I really don't get this. At all. I don't feel like this is the moderator's place to judge the 'course' of a question. What is the harm in leaving it open? I hate to see the most awesome community QA site be subverted by a small handful of individuals on some sort of bent that I don't understand. If this question were closed by the community, because the community as a whole did not accept the question, I still wouldn't understand, but I would accept. In these cases, however, I do not.

A more complete list -

[.. excessively long list of URLs elided, try searching using the isclosed: and votes: modifiers ..]

Again, I'm not trying to say that all of these mod-closed questions belong here. Some of them don't, in my eyes, and I would cast a vote to close. But even if I were a moderator, I don't think I would exercise my authority on any of these, especially given the overwhelmingly positive community response to them. I do feel that it is better to have borderline questions open than closed, but not even all of these questions are borderline, in my eyes. Some of them are just plain awesome! What is the harm, and has the mod-hammer been taken overboard? Is there any way we can escape the tyranny? To the offenders (no need to call you out either) - Why? Why would you ever do this? I love the SE community, but it is things like this that makes me want to bring my contribution (and questions) elsewhere. This is a community site. I don't enjoy seeing it stifled by a handful of trolling mods. I'm now seeing questions arise on the regular with a 'do not close' plea. Is there anything that can be done? Do you feel that anything needs to be done, or do you disagree in entirety?

Thanks.

Edit: 43% closed unilaterally.

  • Not really. Would it help if I explicitly stated that this was a feature request to ban mods from singlehandedly closing questions on the basis of constructiveness? – Orbit Apr 6 '11 at 20:20
  • Not really, that was asked for as well... and rejected. – Walter Apr 6 '11 at 20:30
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    +1 - the moderator closing of questions is IMHO getting way out of hand. – user1249 Apr 6 '11 at 20:40
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    @Thorbjorn If you come across a question that you think was wrongly closed, please bring it up via a flag or a meta post. I can speak for all 3 of us when I say that we're always open to reviewing whether or not we've made a mistake. – Adam Lear Apr 6 '11 at 21:38
  • @Anna Lear - the issue is not about specific questions, it is about the abundant exercise of this moderator privilege in general. – Orbit Apr 6 '11 at 21:50
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    @Orbit Fair enough. My point still stands, though. Every member of this site's community has the power and is encouraged to challenge a moderator's decision. If we see a lot of people coming to us saying "hey, why did you close question X?", then we can see how widespread the problem is and perhaps initiate a review of site guidelines or exercise more care in closing questions. We're not evil, I promise. – Adam Lear Apr 6 '11 at 21:55
  • @Anna Lear - Awesome, I really appreciate this response. It is open-minded and thoughtful. I will take your point to heart, and will bring up any question-specific issues with closing that I see, if I do see any. I realize that this is probably the most constructive course of action to take - one question at a time, if there is a problem a pattern will emerge. I apologize for my tone in this post and in subsequent comments, being irritated is no excuse for being an ass. – Orbit Apr 6 '11 at 21:57
  • @Orbit No worries. I appreciate your willingness to open a dialog here. – Adam Lear Apr 6 '11 at 22:03
  • @Anna Lear - Likewise. – Orbit Apr 6 '11 at 22:03
  • @Anna Lear, I can see that many questions are closed by moderators, where my gut feeling was that the question did not warrant closing. As you say, each question can be defended according to the given rules, so it is a bit like shooting at the messenger. I thought it over and I believe that the current ruleset and the enforcement instructions for the moderators are too rigid to allow room to maintain the atmosphere that attracted me in the first place from SO. Frankly I believe that programmers should lean a bit more like being a discussion site... – user1249 Apr 6 '11 at 22:17
  • @Thorbjorn To some degree, I agree with you. Programmers would do great as a discussion site and the line between discussion and subjective Q&A sometimes gets really blurry. – Adam Lear Apr 6 '11 at 22:19
  • @Anna Lear, ... since the subjects are - well - subjective. This means answers by definition will be opinions and comments will be opinions on opinions, or in other words - a discussion. – user1249 Apr 6 '11 at 22:20
  • I agree here also, gives me a bad feeling sometimes instead of a warm fuzzy one, when I see the [closed] sign hammered on a question that is well-intentioned and potentially valuable to programmers everywhere, for no other reason than it does not meet fully enough some 6 criteria that could not possibly cover every constructive question. I love it here, strongly dislike every other QA site. I feel like it is important on SO to crack it down to keep the data clean, but am confused by it here. – Orbit Apr 6 '11 at 22:22
  • I guess my main point is that nearly any question here could be framed in some way or another to fail the criterion, making any question vulnerable to being flagged by user <unnamed> on a whim and subsequently closed by a moderator responding, and the moderator would be properly doing their job. This doesn't compute well to me, and I feel like a safeguard could be appropriate. – Orbit Apr 6 '11 at 22:41
  • @Orbit something that has not sat well with me either, is that there seems to be a place for some of those poll-type open-ended questions, but they don't fit the rules. I think it's yet to be solved, and would require rules that can successfully filter out the bad and allow the good. – Nicole Apr 6 '11 at 22:54
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There is no need to insult other members of the site.

Moderators often act on message flags that are submitted by the members of the community. Acting on those flags sometimes comes across as acting unilaterally. My personal policy (that evolved somewhat since I first started moderating) is to wait for signals from the community. They can come through flags, comments, or close votes.

Additionally, constructiveness of the question is judged in part by the answers the question receives. It is perhaps somewhat unfair, but the guidelines for good subjective questions focus a lot on the various aspects of the answers, so that's what we go by. Typically when there's a disagreement over constructiveness of a question, we go through the 6 guidelines and check the question fits them. Sometimes questions are reopened as a result, sometimes they stay closed.

I can see from your comments that you are not interested in debating whether or not the questions that were closed were actually constructive. I don't think that's a constructive approach (no pun intended). After all, if an unconstructive question is closed as not constructive, is it really part of the problem?

I'm asking you to read through the links Walter posted in his answer. You're relatively new to the site and having some history might help you see where the answers you're getting here are coming from. Once you've done that, if you still disagree with the closing of your question (which would be fair), we can discuss that.

  • I had read all those threads prior to Walter posting them. I reread them again when he did. Again, I didn't open this question to discuss my question with the Moderator that closed it. I opened this question because I wonder why a sole individual has this power over judging the 'constructiveness' questions on a community site. The guidelines are terrible and not community driven anyway, and your tone is insulting. "if an unconstructive question is closed as not constructive, is it really part of the problem?" Yes. And what does constructive mean to you, anyway? – Orbit Apr 6 '11 at 21:48
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    @Orbit I go by the guidelines. Some questions are more borderline and making a judgement call on those is always difficult. As for why moderators have the power to single-handedly close questions... moderators are elected by the community. The theory is that the community trusts moderators it elects to make decisions. Sometimes those decisions are wrong (we're only human), and then other mechanisms (reopen votes, meta, flags) kick in to allow the community to reverse those decisions. – Adam Lear Apr 6 '11 at 21:51
  • @Anna Lear - thank you for your response. I do respect your contribution here, and while looking at the questions, I actually saw that you act in the spirit of the community and didn't really have much bad to say about your decisions, aside from the fact that you were closing yourself. I also liked your question on meta - meta.programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/855/…, not mentioned on Walter's list. My question is, why not leave this aspect (constructiveness) up to the community, as it is so disputed? Are we capable? – Orbit Apr 6 '11 at 21:54
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    @Orbit Community's involvement doesn't end when a question is closed. There are ways to reopen it (via 5 reopen votes or a mod flag), so in general if a question really is valuable to the community, the community can bring it back. Let's imagine a question closed by 5 normal votes without a mod getting involved. If that question has 50 upvotes, would you consider that closing inappropriate? If so, what would you do to reopen the question? The same ways still apply to posts closed by moderator. – Adam Lear Apr 6 '11 at 22:00
  • @Orbit As a side note, you will typically see more moderator involvement on non-trilogy sites. SO in particular has a huge user base that takes care of a lot of the moderation. Smaller SE sites don't always have enough 3k+ users to vote to close (although our numbers are growing!), which results in moderators having to step up in response to flags. – Adam Lear Apr 6 '11 at 22:01
  • @Anna Lear - Both of these points are very valid, that the community can override the moderator decision, and that on smaller sites the community must trust the moderator base to handle these kinds of issues more. I guess I was just inferring that the overwhelming amount of upvotes would constitute a reasonable objection from the get go, and that programmers.se had a decent enough sized community base to handle these types of questions. – Orbit Apr 6 '11 at 22:07
  • @Anna Lear - My goal with this question wasn't to flame the moderators, and I apologize for my remark about 'trolling mods'. I respect the contribution highly, was just skeptical that mod closes under the not constructive flag were productive and helpful to the community as a whole. I fear that it can unnecessarily restrict question growth without doing much real good. In any case, I feel much better now, in light of your responses, but am still amused by the first case in point as a good example of what I am referring to. – Orbit Apr 6 '11 at 22:14
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This topic has been discussed on this site at length. Just a few minutes looking at old posts will get you this list (which is a very small sampling):

If I cared to spend more time I'm sure the list would grow quite a lot.

The site went through a major transition from it's original purpose at the end of last year. There was a very noticable crack down on different types of questions and it caused a lot of growing pains. For the most part this site has emerged from the transition in the form you see today. Like it or not, the tightening of the rules around questions being asked probably saved this site from turning into answers.yahoo.com. Moderators on this site play a difficult role of walking the line between bringing the hammer and letting it ride. During the transition period that line was distinctly on the bringing the hammer side as it was a huge shift for the site.

The question that you asked yesterday that was closed really doesn't meet most of the guidelines in the FAQ. I would have voted to close it on those grounds as well. The fact that the question was closed as "Not Constructive" doesn't mean that the topic isn't worthy. If you were to edit that question and expand upon it (keeping in mind that your goal is to satisfy around 4 or more of the 6 guidelines), I doubt you would get much argument from those who closed it.

Lastly, it's probably not a good idea to use votes (or popularity) as an indicator of what does or does not belong on this site.

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    I didn't ask this question to further discuss the issue. I asked the question because the community has clearly expressed that there IS AN ISSUE, so this post is here to help hash out A SOLUTION. The community knows what you think about this already. – Orbit Apr 6 '11 at 21:15
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Just for the record, I flagged your question with something like the following comment:

This question clearly fails 2, 4 and 5 of the six guidelines and is gathering some really terrible answers.

  1. inspire answers that explain “why” and “how”.
  2. tend to have long, not short, answers.
  3. have a constructive, fair, and impartial tone.
  4. invite sharing experiences over opinions.
  5. insist that opinion be backed up with facts and references.
  6. are more than just mindless social fun.

Can you argue with any of those?

And so many of the answers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 to name the clearest examples) really were not useful in any way. They get votes because they are funny. Humor has a place on this site, but mostly that's in comments. Humor is also fine if it's also in a useful answer, or maybe as an answer to a question you know is doomed.

I was prepared to vote for this question, because I don't think the moderators are perfect, but your rant turned me off. Yes, there are dozens of examples of questions that are on the fence enough that they could warrant a reconsideration. I've asked some, too. But the moderators are doing a decent job and are generally fair and open when you flag it for reconsideration, address them in comments, or bring it here to Meta.

Popularity != Appropriateness. A simple correlation between popular and constructive questions doesn't make it a rule.

  • The point of this post is not to debate the 'constructiveness' of the questions within the set. It's to address the problem of moderators closing for not being 'constructive' without the consent (and often times against the wishes) of the community. – Orbit Apr 6 '11 at 21:17
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    @Orbit - I've read the question. The whole thing. Summary of my answer - Popularity != Appropriateness. Or, I guess you didn't actually read it. – Nicole Apr 6 '11 at 21:19
  • But a member of the question hit squad's opinion == Inappropriateness? Bull. Especially for a community site. – Orbit Apr 6 '11 at 21:21
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    @Orbit I addressed that too. "But the moderators are doing a decent job and are generally fair and open when you flag it for reconsideration, address them in comments, or bring it here to Meta." – Nicole Apr 6 '11 at 21:22
  • My overall point is that it this is all unnecessary, there should be a lot more discussion on meta along the lines of "hmm... as a community should we close this?" instead of , "excuse me , all these good questions got closed by a single mod without any close votes." Just. Don't. Do. It. Leave it to the community, feel free to tackle the spam. Vote, don't flag, for questions like these, if not a moderator. I would be much happier if there were some borderline q's left open than good q's closed. – Orbit Apr 6 '11 at 21:25
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As the moderator being talked about here I thought I ought to answer.

Despite the evidence you've presented I am reluctant to "unilaterally" close posts. I have a policy of usually waiting until there are 3 (or perhaps 2) close votes before adding mine as the "final" vote that will close a post.

However, there are exceptions:

  1. When the post is clearly not constructive. This is often the case for posts migrated (in ignorance it has to be said) from Stack Overflow.
  2. When there are at least 2 moderator flags on the post.

In a lot of cases if there is a single flag I will add a comment to the effect that I don't think the post is constructive. If later when I re-review that post my comment has been upvoted I'll take that into account as well.

However, I would be much happier if the people who flag the question would either vote to close (if they have enough rep) or add a comment. This gives the moderators a much better idea of how accurately their views reflect that of the community as a whole. Adding comments have the added benefit that the OP gets to see them and has a chance to improve their post either by adding more information or rewording it.

There have been cases where users have challenged my decisions and after a short conversation in the comments or via a question here on meta plus some edits to the post I have reversed my decision.

Very few actions on Stack Exchange are irreversible (question and user merging being the exception). If you disagree with a closure flag the question for moderator attention and I and the other moderators will take a look. I can assure you we do look at all flags. If the flagging doesn't appear to be working raise a question here on Meta.

I am happy to reopen questions if I've made a mistake or the question has been improved, but unless you tell us we don't have the time to review old decisions.

  • @ChrisF - I'm sorry if this message came across as an attack on you. It was not meant to be, yours are just at the top of the list. There are others. After thinking about this more, I'm finding it harder to blame you guys for this - if someone flags, and you review, find it not in harmony with the criteria, it is your job to close. I understand this, and appreciate your sentiment about flagging vs. voting. I also fully understand exception 1. Sticking to my guns, though, still feel it would be nice to see the process run it's natural course from time to time. – Orbit Apr 7 '11 at 14:37
  • @Orbit - I certainly do try to leave questions as long as possible, but there are cases where I feel I have to act quickly. But please, if you see a question that you don't think should have been closed flag it and we will review the decision. – ChrisF Apr 7 '11 at 14:50
  • @ChrisF - I do understand your sentiment here. Thank you kindly for your responses here, they are greatly appreciated, and I feel that I have a better idea of the situation now. It is not nearly as malicious as it originally came across to me as. Sorry if I have offended. – Orbit Apr 7 '11 at 15:01
  • @Orbit It should also be noted that the "featured" question, What is the worst software bug in history?, was discussed at length between the moderators at the time and wasn't him acting alone. When I was moderator, most questions that are moderator-closed underwent a similar deliberative process, and I'm sure that's still going on. – user8 Apr 7 '11 at 17:38
  • @Mark Trapp - Noted, although I feel like you are completely missing the point here. A solid majority of the questions above were closed because of your flagging. Can't you just vote instead of flagging for a moderator every time you feel a question isn't constructive? Or better yet, just let it be, if it has a positive community outlook? – Orbit Apr 7 '11 at 17:55
  • @Orbit the questions you've listed were closed when I was a moderator, involved me voting "like a normal person", or didn't involve me at all. I'm glad I could help clarify that for you! – user8 Apr 7 '11 at 17:55
  • @Mark Trapp - I don't believe you. I would be happy to explain my statistical analysis supporting my belief. Perhaps ironically, you were the one to start the thread meta.programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/1050/…. – Orbit Apr 7 '11 at 18:11
  • @Mark Trapp - One possibility I didn't take into consideration is moderator votes being somehow propagated to other moderators. Not sure if this happens or not. In any case, I propose we settle this with a duel. Perhaps a core war? corewars.org – Orbit Apr 7 '11 at 18:24
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    @MarkTrapp @Orbit Guys, the question has been (relatively?) resolved. Let's not drag it out in a comment war. – Adam Lear Apr 7 '11 at 18:27
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    @Orbit Flags are not visible to the community at large. You are not in a position to state that Mark Trapp is somehow responsible for the majority of flags. – Adam Lear Apr 7 '11 at 18:28
  • @Anna Lear - Of the first 125 questions closed on the basis of constructiveness, 100 were moderator closed and 25 were community closed. All of these questions had at least +10. Mark Trapp influenced the closing of 30 mod-closed. Other members of the comunity influenced the closing of 38 mod-closed, totaling 53 votes/flags from 30 unique users. On average, each other acting user influenced the closing of 1.8 questions. Seems highly likely. @Walter - data speaks also, 36 closed, 18 unilaterally, 9 bi, 6 tri, 3 quad. – Orbit Apr 7 '11 at 21:39
  • Not trying to mount a data offensive here, just backing up my original post and prior comments with data and information. Mistake above, meant @ChrisF, not @Walter. And I'll shut up now, I think I've said most everything I could. Apologies to all aimed at, wasn't meant to get this personal. – Orbit Apr 7 '11 at 21:55
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    @Orbit Again, you have no idea what flags were made on posts. You can't see them. So you will never know if the mod-closed questions were motivated by flags or not. Your original point was made and discussed. Let it rest now, please. – Adam Lear Apr 7 '11 at 22:00
  • @Anna Lear - Again, 'seems highly likely' from the data that is available to me. I was happy to leave it after you said "Let's not drag it out in a comment war," but then a minute later you enticed me to produce the data that I was basing my inference on. So I did, I'll let it rest now. – Orbit Apr 7 '11 at 22:13
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    @Orbit You're welcome to make assumptions based on the data you see. We're done now with this thread and this question. Thank you for bringing the issue to our attention. – Adam Lear Apr 7 '11 at 22:36

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