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What are your thoughts for a serious moderation policy for this site? In particular, what questions would you like answered at the meeting?

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Wow. I'm active on several other stack exchange sites and I just have to voice that I was quite surprised to see eight closed questions listed in the first page!!?! @Joe, I think your conception of moderation is bordering on a bit harsh and over-excessive. Just my $0.02.

Note: I'm just a philosophy enthusiast, not a philosophy major / degree holder, so I anticipate that questions I ask may appear foreign to the content of this site and I'm worried about its (the site's) ability to get off the ground if some of these moderation / off-topic / close-vote practices aren't held in check while until the base of questions (which truly define the focus of the site) has a chance to mature.

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    The reason you don't see so many closed questions on the front page of other sites is because there are a lot more questions asked on those other sites. This one just came out of private beta and had a very limited amount of traffic. 8 closed questions is not that many, the strange part is just that they hadn't been bumped by other questions. Asking more questions is the way to fix that, not loosening our definition of "good"/high-quality questions. – Cody Gray Jun 16 '11 at 5:03
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    I understand and I agree; however, some of those questions appeared interesting to me -- so I was concerned when so many of newest were closed. – M. Tibbits Jun 16 '11 at 5:05
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    I guess the other thing that surprised me was the number of closed questions with reasonable (and accepted) answers. – M. Tibbits Jun 16 '11 at 5:09
  • +1, @mtibbits - My answer to meta.philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/127/… might interest you. Maybe you'd like to weigh in. – smartcaveman Jul 3 '11 at 13:13
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I'm afraid I'll have to tell a story in order to provide my answer. Worse, the story is from the bad old days of Usenet. You see, back then, all groups fit into one of two distinct categories: moderated and unmoderated. The unmoderated groups were, as you might imagine, a bit of a mess. Since there was no particular way to prevent people from saying pretty much whatever they felt like, the only coping strategies available were:

a) Shouting down the trolls. (Result: flamewars)

and

b) Ignoring the trolls. (Result: a strange sort of individual moderation called the kill file )

Neither strategy worked particularly well, but for the sort of person who can deal with the sort of chaos such a system causes, it worked well enough.

The other category was moderated groups and the simple strategy those used was tyranny. The moderators (most healthy groups used moderator teams) decided which posts were published and which were rejected. Groups inevitably took on the character of the moderators, who shaped conversation with their supreme power. (Even editing was both possible and common. A post may be censored, without recourse for the sender.) As a result, a groups lived and died according to the moderators.

For many subjects, there were two groups: a moderated version and an unmoderated. (Let's ignore for the moment alt.* and other stranger lands.) Generally, the moderated group was like a well-tended garden (some greener than others), while the unmoderated group was like a vacant lot that is still used by the neighbors and the occasional passerby. Both groups worked after a fashion, but neither were ideal for the long run.

Stack Exchange is the spiritual successor to Usenet and it's taken a typically Web 2.0 (Motto: "The postmodern movement for web design!") approach to the problem. Instead of a moderated/unmoderated split, the SE system grabs "the good bits" from each system. Moderator tools are available, not to a small number of tyrants, but to the oligarchy of sufficiently trusted users. Moderators aren't a bottleneck because anyone can become a moderator with enough determination.1

The system is a bit like forming a posse in a Western: the sheriff hands out badges and guns to citizens he trusts. On a good day, it's an expedient way to enforce law and order. On a bad day, an innocent man gets lynched. It's neither a perfect nor a terrible system. It certainly works better than Usenet does.2 For better or worse, the system retains a feature from moderated groups: a site's character begins to resemble the character of it's moderators. Reckless moderators will inspire fights at high noon and careful moderators will inspire peaceful towns that welcome the occasional drifter.

Now with that background out of the way3, we can focus on the culture we should strive for. We've already seen a divide here between those who view philosophy as a free interchange of ideas (unmoderated model) and the considered analysis of ideas (moderated model). In other topics, the side of the divide a site should strive for results naturally from the subject matter itself. (Programming will tend toward analysis and Gardening will tend toward interchange.) But philosophy resists that split since good philosophy requires both interchange and analysis of ideas. The search for truth demands both working together—if you leave out one the process becomes dry and if you leave out the other it remains amorphous.

Let's turn to the most difficult and contentious moderating tool: closing a question. Right off the bat, we have a terminology problem. The interchange side of philosophy cannot bare closing a question since it cuts off the source of different perspectives. Closing the question about defining postmodern strike me as a perfect example of situational irony. While the question could be edited to be reopened4, the words "closed question" mean that the community is done with that question and will accept no further answers. It has a ring of finality to the naive ear.

Now some questions should be closed: off-topic, poorly formed, duplicate and so on. But for those from the interchange of ideas camp, closing a question is the equivalent to a death sentence. Once a question is closed it can receive no further answers and is effectively useless. Almost certainly, the question was already useless to the analysis camp since it was likely closed because it resisted analysis. To a hypothetical user only interested in new ideas all the good questions are killed off.

Many, if not most, of us here are firmly in the analysis camp, so we could decide to only cater to philosophical analysis. If so, we need to change the name of the site to reflect its stricter mandate.5 But if we take that step, we may need to be prepared to:

a) Have a smaller audience.

b) Consider a smaller range of ideas.

c) Limit our questions and answers to areas of philosophy we know really well.

On the other hand, if we want to cater to the random drifter who's passing through, we should consider establishing town rules, posting them and meeting newcomers at the edge of town to remind them of rules before they get too far into the site. The last point means always using comments first and giving the newcomer enough time to read and respond to the comments before ramping up enforcement. Everyone should be considered innocent until they show themselves to be guilty of willfully violating the rules.

As for the rules... they should be few, easy to remember and not open to interpretation. I'm thinking they should be the site-equivalent of no guns in town, no peeing in public, no cheating at cards. (I have in mind some rules, but I'll all about the free interchange of ideas so I'll stop now. ;-)


Cody: I did read the rational for closing the postmodernism question:

It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous, vague, incomplete, or rhetorical and cannot be reasonably answered in its current form.

It makes me want to punch something (I won't say what). You yourself answered the question! It was a good answer. You and I politely disagreed about the answer. You knew enough about the question to make an answer, which means that you knew what was being asked. If not, delete your own answer. If the question you answered wasn't the question that was asked, ask it and self-answer the question. Or are you just enjoying being one of the three possible answers that the question can ever get? What the hell, man! (I might be tipping my hand about what I want to punch.)

You suggest it should be closed for some other reason: "general reference". But the structure of the site does not allow that, yet. There's been plenty of time for that change, why isn't it done yet? (I don't know what I think about the reason, but this seems yet another example of the moderators meaning one thing by their actions and communicating something entirely different to their victims. It's disgusting.)

Besides that, if you're merely interested in a random "exchange of ideas", then a Q&A site is definitively the wrong format.

That, my friend, is a strawman. I'll pretend you didn't say that, if you promise to stop saying it.

Philosophy is different because it can't be divided naturally into "discovery" on one hand and "analysis" on the other. Or rather it can be divided, but the two parts can't themselves claim to be "philosophy". Its very name means lover of wisdom. Can the collector of first editions who never reads them be considered a lover of books? What about the woman who reads every book she finds at the library, but never owns one? What about the man who reads romance novels, but will never look at non-fiction? What about the reviewer who reads books for their job, but never for their own pleasure. No! The lover of books will not despise them in these ways.

I suggested a path to make this site work like StackOverflow works for programmers. I will not follow down that path. It would be a waste of my time.

(I'm doing my best to ignore the "Piss off" sound your comments made in my ear.)


Footnotes:

  1. Stack Exchange does retain some moderator tools that are limited by the owners of the network. Usenet was a decentralized system, so in theory the equivalent power did not exist.

  2. Nostalgia prevents me from saying "did".

  3. Most of that belongs on meta.stackoverflow.com. What follows is more specific to philosophy.stackexchange.com.

  4. In theory. But the same forces that closed it in the first place will not likely accept any version of the question for reopening in my opinion. (Prove me wrong by editing and reopening!)

  5. I suggest Philosophical Analysis or perhaps Logic.

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    Abstract: If we are going to leave ourselves open to all types of philosophy, we need to have rules in place to allow questions that prompt interchange of ideas without stifling those who prefer considered analysis. – Jon Ericson Jun 16 '11 at 19:13
  • I'm not sure where to put this, but I also realized that as the philosopher-to-hack ratio increases, the moderation style can, will and should change. – Jon Ericson Jun 16 '11 at 21:13
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    I agree completely. Indeed, if this is an analysis-heavy community, that's fine, but I agree that the site should be renamed. And, otherwise, always using comments first is very important. Thank you for addressing the finality and horror of closure for us "interchange" folk. – Joseph Spiros Jun 16 '11 at 21:34
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    @Jon, I really like this: "if you leave out one the process becomes dry and if you leave out the other it remains amorphous" -- that's the heart of our current debate. I agree with your reading -- we do need both at once. – Joseph Weissman Jun 17 '11 at 0:50
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    I'm missing the part where you justify why you think this site should be run differently from Stack Overflow. Because you have some feeling that philosophy is different and requires "a free exchange of ideas"? Yeah, I agree. A free exchange of ideas is important. That's why we shouldn't delete people's answers because we disagree with them. But we can and should downvote them. And none of that has anything to do with questions. Those that are poorly-asked or simply unanswerable should be closed. Postmodernism is a good example; it seems like no one reads the close descriptions anymore. – Cody Gray Jun 17 '11 at 6:31
  • It very clearly states the criteria for which it can be applied. That particular question is certainly vague, and it definitely "cannot be reasonably answered in its current form". But you might convince me that it was closed for the wrong reason. Instead, since it's a "what is.." question, maybe we should close it as "general reference". But that doesn't exist yet, and the SE-appointed moderators have been using NARQ as a substitute. Seems reasonable to me. Besides that, if you're merely interested in a random "exchange of ideas", then a Q&A site is definitively the wrong format. Give up now. – Cody Gray Jun 17 '11 at 6:33
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    @Cody: You asked for it! I've addressed you comments in the question. I'll be happy to revert the change if you find it unhelpful in any way. I'm drifting into rant mode again. ;-) – Jon Ericson Jun 17 '11 at 19:00
  • @Jon You are my new best friend. – Joseph Spiros Jun 18 '11 at 0:49
  • @Jon Lovely post. Thanks for staying cool. I also read your post on Meta where you questioned the rep. system. I had the impression, SE worked so well because the rep. system feels very natural (e.g. honour/rep is an intrinsic motivator). Here, however, because the questions are so loaded and good answers hard to determine in passing, I'm not sure it fits. Yoomoot.com had been suggested on Area51, but it's empty. – Ruben Jun 18 '11 at 12:34
  • @Jon: I've unfortunately had to be away from the site for quite some time, and I never did return to this discussion. I'm not sure we're ever going to agree, so I'm not going to try and respond once again to your specific points. But I do very much appreciate you taking the time to provide an explanation. It catches my eye that you say my comments made a "piss off" sound in your ear. I apologize for that. Apparently it's not terribly unusual that other people perceive me as offensive when I never had such intentions. I just didn't want to give you the wrong impression; I value your insights. – Cody Gray Jul 1 '11 at 12:47

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