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Two things have changed recently.

  1. A lot of new users have begun using the site. Not surprisingly, they're not seriously reading the tour or the Help Center. And none of them save one are showing up here in Meta.

  2. Almost all of them are getting seriously down voted and/or closed.

As an example, consider: Moons day vs year

  • No, it's not a great question.
  • Yes, it was probably asked by a non-native English speaker.
  • Yes, it's most likely asking a Real World question about Earth and its Moon.
  • No, (by the time I'd arrived) the user of reputation 1 hadn't even taken the tour yet.

@AlexP and @EscapedDentalPatient chimed in with good comments even before the Community BOT stepped in to indicate the question didn't meet SE's minimum standards for a question. But that didn't stop three down votes, two close votes, and a closing hammer from @L.Dutch.

Should the question have been closed? I'll admit... probably. It should have been closed as "needs more details" or "needs more focus." Of all things, it was closed as "not about worldbuilding as defined in the help center."

Are we finally closing Real World questions? I'm all for it. While I initially supported the Real World Question policy, I've since come to despise it as I believe it's significantly led the Stack away from it's imaginative roots to become Physics-lite. However, I'd like someone to actually say that's the case (and delete its link in the Help Center) before I jump on the bandwagon and start playing my banjo.

But the negative votes... I'll grant, the question obviously indicates insufficient research into basic terrestrial astronomy — but we don't know anything about a user with a reputation of one and not a single badge other than the English looks suspiciously like a 2nd language to me.

I'm all for beating the snot out of users with 30,000+ reputation. I've taken a few punches myself. But by that level of experience they should know better than to post a question that will draw the ire of the Community BOT. I'm even willing to slap users above 2,500 rep pretty hard because, honestly, they should be figuring something out by that time. But brand-spanking new users?

I consider myself the most ruthless community moderator on the Stack. I've been rightly blamed for being arrogant, overly zealous, draconian... you name it. But it's really rare that I down vote anything and fairly uncommon that I VTC a user under 2,500 reputation without first asking them to improve their question with frequently lengthy comments as to why and how.

So, folks, what gives? Why the sudden effort to take a steel-edged ruler to the knuckles of users who don't understand why the rulers, why the steel, or why the knuckles? I can't even guess why the tidal wave of new users has come in, but that's not a bad thing. But I don't understand why we're treating them so harshly.

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    $\begingroup$ Every time I see curation efforts being equated with physical violence and abuse, it's exactly like being repeatedly hit with a cudgel. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Nov 2, 2023 at 12:22
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    $\begingroup$ I'd like to say, I don't find you're the most peculiarly harsh reviewers. After all, you're one of the few ones who often make a point of giving a chance when closing the 1st question while still issuing a warning... $\endgroup$ Nov 2, 2023 at 14:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Tortliena Your kindness is appreciated, but I don't have trouble with the reality that I'm a stickler for rules. But I am bothered by the trends of the last few weeks. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 3, 2023 at 3:09
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    $\begingroup$ @VLAZ Dude! If I can't use physical violence as a metaphor for community toxicity toward new users, then this is really the wrong stack. Yah? $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 3, 2023 at 3:10
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    $\begingroup$ "toxicity" is yet another kind of language that I don't think should be used. It is toxic in its nature. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Nov 3, 2023 at 7:52
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    $\begingroup$ @VLAZ How do you think it should be called then? If it helps you bear with what can seem be a personal attack, know that behaviors (including tox... Nefarious ones) are conditionned both by the individual and the system they evolve in it. League Of Legends is notoriously (in)famous for that (look for "why League of Legends is " + forbidden word?" to know more). $\endgroup$ Nov 3, 2023 at 10:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Tortliena it's not about personal attack. The problem is that the charged language frames the conversation in absolutely the wrong direction. The framing changes to "this is abuse". Instead the network has been built with the assumption that curation activities are normal. Not abuse, bullying, toxic, nor in any way similar to actual physical violence. I know it's trendy to over exaggerate problems but in a serious discussion like meta the charged language moves the conversation to a place it shouldn't be. Moreover, it dilutes the very essence of words like "toxicity". $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Nov 3, 2023 at 11:36
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    $\begingroup$ @VLAZ What word would you use then to describe a situation where rookies get heavily criticized during their 1st contact with a community then? (N.B.: Bullying, toxicity and abuse apply both to physical and mental aggressive behaviors. In fact bullying and toxicity is a lot more about social and psychological undermining attempts) $\endgroup$ Nov 3, 2023 at 11:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Tortliena I'd focus on neutrally asking. Rather than framing it such that answering is likely to read as "I enjoy causing pain". To the best of my knowledge, regular curation tools are not used with malicious intent in the majority of cases. I'd rather keep this as the default assumptions in all discussions. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Nov 3, 2023 at 15:42
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    $\begingroup$ @VLAZ I've had it up to the tops of my ears with people who want the world to conform to double-speak. Psychologists who think it's wrong to tell a child "no" and who think that using intrinsically negative words breeds negativity. SO was toxic for years. Honestly, if you don't like my post and think I'm wrong, then by all means down vote it. You won't hurt my feelings - but get off the "we shouldn't use that word!" horse. *How will you contribute to making the entrance of new users to Worldbuilding smoother and more embracing?" $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 3, 2023 at 16:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Tortliena I just watched that LoL video. That player has put a lot of time into thinking through the problems - and he's dead on correct. I've stopped playing Team Fortress 2 for nearly every reason he explains. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 3, 2023 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH I have never found TF2 really toxic since it's the only game that managed to create huge conga lines across the battlefield x). Anyhow, glad you left out a game for something else you prefer. I'd rather have that than someone getting angry over what I should have designed to be fun (It's a general comment, I haven't made TF2 :) ). $\endgroup$ Nov 4, 2023 at 1:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Tortliena The toxicity was before the conga lines (I have to admit, the conga lines were fun). Griefers would spend countless hours completely ruining either (or, often, both) team's efforts to win at games like Capture the Flag or gang up to spoil votes to kick obviously cheating players. It's been long enough since I played that maybe it's "grown up." But, like I said, I could easily relate to that video. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 4, 2023 at 1:41
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    $\begingroup$ "Draconian". Was that me? ;) Seriously --- TOXIC is the perfect word. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Nov 6, 2023 at 3:24
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    $\begingroup$ Toxic is the word that's used in business. I can cite sources up one side and down the other. It refers to anything that encourages hostility as a cultural value. The toxicity of this site actively discourages me from asking questions, as opposed to encouraging me to ask good questions. That's text-book toxicity, because it poisons the environment. $\endgroup$ Nov 20, 2023 at 20:49

6 Answers 6

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Before you or anybody gets mad at new users not looking at the Help Center.

  1. Someone needs to make the Help Center very visible on the website. There is only one link to the Help Center on the front page. Just a small 4 letter word saying "Help" at the bottom footer of the website. On most websites, Help generally leads you to a contact form to request aid from the moderators or administrators of the website. The "Help Center" should be renamed to Q&A Orientation or something more descriptive, and a huge link to it should be on the website and said link be bolded when posting a question/answer.

  2. The Help Center desperately needs an update. It hasn't been updated since 2018, and needless to say, the moderators and close voters are far more strict nowadays than they were 5 years ago. I'm positive that half of the Help Center example questions would get closed if they were deleted and reposted today.

As for the topic, I agree that votes are for the topic instead of the user. That said, nobody but the asker is ever invested in the question that any user asks. Almost any experienced user can edit, improve, and vote to reopen a question; but a person even adding even minor improvements to someone else's question is rare. I think in all the time I've been here, only one other person has edited a question I posted; and no one edited an answer I posted.

If you want positive feedback for new contributors, everyone should consider editing a New Contributor's question (if it's salvageable) instead of just downvoting, VTC, and moving on. Stack Overflow incentivizes editing another person's content, but few want to do it. There needs to be a goal for considering editing before disparaging.

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  • $\begingroup$ "On most websites, Help generally leads you to a contact form to request aid from the moderators or administrators of the website." in my experience, that's very rare. Help is very often some sort of collection of help articles or Q&A or a knowledge base to search through and so on. It tends to be the thing I search for on a new site if I need to know about how to use it. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Nov 8, 2023 at 17:34
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    $\begingroup$ "Someone needs to make the Help Center very visible on the website." as for this - new users are invited to go throug the tour which links to the help centre. There is the (?) on the top, as well. And a link when you try to post a question. And I know, you want to reply with "I never noticed" but think about it - how do you make it more noticeable than now? Without it being annoying? $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Nov 8, 2023 at 17:40
  • $\begingroup$ @VLAZ If it's critical to ask your question and get what you want, then it's worth being annoying. And there are ways that severely limit its annoyingness (or increase its affordance). It's just not really the focus of the SE dev team. $\endgroup$ Nov 8, 2023 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ @RhymeHouse Few people actually edit questions because we're ironically prevented from doing so when the edit subtantially changes its meaning. I've tried once by making a single induction from the querent, and everyone ran around screaming in panic, and the edit got reverted not in hours, but in minutes. So aside from fixing typos and improving the formatting, we don't have much leeway... $\endgroup$ Nov 8, 2023 at 19:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Tortliena that's also true. However, I don't think there is overt lack of guidance right now as this answer tries to indicate. There are links to support material in the places I'd normally look for them in a site and there is a just-in-time extra information when asking. Can this be made more visible? Yes. With that said, self-initiative is still something we (both us as users and people tending to the sites, as well as SE as company behind the sites) expect. Without the self-initiative to seek out what are the sites about, no amount of guidance would help. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Nov 8, 2023 at 20:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Tortliena also I want to note that this is not some sort of unique problem to the network. Many sites have users that land there and just try to use it as they somehow imagined it should be used. There is nothing short of magic that would prevent this. The SE network is not really unique in this regard. The problem may seem worse mostly because the network is big and more visible. It's different to a site that is visited by 500 people. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Nov 8, 2023 at 20:12
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    $\begingroup$ The bad... SE's basic editing rule doesn't allow changes that might change the OP's intent. More often than not, editing a question to conform to the rules has a very high chance of changing the intent. Consequently, it's not the quality solution you think it might be. What we really need is for the OP to hang around and actually work to improve their question based on suggestions. Most don't. Maybe they're posting before going to sleep, but either way, we need the OP involved, not a "please fix my problem for me" solution. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 8, 2023 at 23:44
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    $\begingroup$ The good... I entirely agree with your second point. Perhaps most of us would. However, the ugly... Some aspects of the help center cannot be changed by the Stack and must be changed by Stack Exchange. Others can. However, it's been incredibly rare for our Moderators to adopt anything anybody proposes here in Meta - even if that proposal has good/strong community acceptance. Therefore, while I completely agree with the point... my experience suggests that it won't be adopted. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 8, 2023 at 23:48
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I'm not keen on downvoting in general, and use upvotes for questions that check all the boxes or are simply > Quite Interesting. I find downvotes really demotivating myself, and reserve them almost exclusively for spam or offensively low-effort posts.

But close votes and questions being closed should not have the bad reputation they have.
I get it from a new user's perspective: you find a website that seems to be able to cater to a problem you're having, you post it, and within a few hours it has been closed. This is not the kind of treatment I expected from the Innernette!
However, if these users care to put some additional effort into finding out why this happened, they'll find it clearly indicates the reason(s) it got closed, and that in many cases it can be saved through some editing. This isn't This shouldn't be a big deal, especially if that website's users give you constructive feedback—there's just a bit of a learning curve.

But what is disheartening is when this question gets met with a lot of negativity.

My solution: don't downvote questions because they need to be closed! That's what close votes are for. If new users in particular put effort into their questions, but miss the mark because they're off-topic, just point that out.

It took me maybe months before I noticed the downvote popup, and I assume few new users noticed it. L.Dutch is completely (in their) right with their answer, but it's just good to take into account, especially when confronted with new users.
I also often see downvotes used for ersatz feedback or close votes. They're not.

An additional problem with downvotes is that even once posts have been improved upon, many users won't notice and change their downvote accordingly.

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    $\begingroup$ don't downvote questions because they need to be closed Yes! Exactly this, thank you. I won't lie, I've upvoted questions simply to counter downvotes that I believe were cast unfairly. Especially on Q's that just need a little restructuring to fit the format. And sometimes I think that by canceling the initial -1, returning the vote to a neutral 0, it saves a post from being voted through the floor. $\endgroup$
    – BMF
    Nov 13, 2023 at 4:12
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Screenshot of the downvote info

This question does not show any research effort; it is unclear or not useful

Posting an unclear question is a perfectly valid reason for getting a downvote.

Posting a question not backed up by any research is a perfectly valid reason for getting a downvote.

Posting a not useful question is a perfectly valid reason for getting a downvote.

The example you use fits at least 2 of the 3 use cases for downvotes. And since it doesn't give any worldbuilding context, for me it is not about worldbuilding, on top of lacking other details and clarity.

Should we not downvote just because it's coming from a new user? We always repeat that the vote should go to the content, be it answer or question, not to the poster.

I get from the "vote the content, not the poster" that we should not look at the user profile when giving a vote, so we should ignore their history.

Sure, for a newcomer we should and we provide more explanation on what makes good content and what not, but that's unrelated to voting.

Also don't forget that one of the automatism in place here blocks a user from posting content when they get many downvotes.

So, yes, we should downvote poor content, even when it comes from new users. The alternative is letting those users creating more pollution with poor content, resulting in additional work for the moderating community, or, even worse, granting those users privileges they might not understand when those poor conceived questions get the "encouragement" upvotes.

Addendum: I don't mean that every first question which gets closed deserves a downvote. However there is a difference between fleshing out a question, even though it might not fit the SE where it is posted, and just throwing a scribble in the bin and let the others figure out.

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    $\begingroup$ The Stack today is very, very different from the Stack I joined six years ago. There's little joy. Who is at fault? The new users who don't spend a year spectating and reading the tour and help center? or we, the senior users, who have apparently done a lousy job of creating a practical educational path for new users? Most questions posted here aren't useful to any but the OP and this Q was unclear only if you missed reading the word "earth." But hey, if the preferred solution is that we stomp as hard as we can on any user who brings an imperfect question to this stack, I'm in. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 2, 2023 at 8:32
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH, I have seen the fair share of users getting their unclear question answered only to say "oh, I actually meant X, not Y" and then hitting hard the face against the "don't edit in a way that invalidates answers" wall. It doesn't take a year to read few lines of the help center or to properly describe the context of one's question. Please stop piggybacking toddlers because learning to walk can result in falling and crying! $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch Mod
    Nov 2, 2023 at 8:40
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch Too bad the toddlers are dead, because they walked on the highway; That sure isn't going to help with public image. Without the metaphor, There's no point in learning how to ask good questions if you don't come back asking said questions. And people leaving are bad advertisers to this site. $\endgroup$ Nov 2, 2023 at 8:57
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch Please keep in mind that I fundamentally agree that the question should have been closed (although I disagree with the reason...). My concern is that in the last few weeks (at least) I've seen an enormous number of down-voted questions. The close vote can go away with editing and a reopen vote - but those down votes (almost) never go away. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 2, 2023 at 9:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Tortliena the incentive to ask good questions should be the answers your question receives. Asking questions without a purpose just to gain reputation is discouraged. To quote from the tour "Focus on questions about an actual problem you have faced". Even then we're only wanting to encourage well asked questions. Normally when a question gets edited and VTRO it garners more than enough upvoted to have a net positive impact on reputation. It's only if they're unwilling to learn or follow site policy that there's any lasting negative impact. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Nov 2, 2023 at 9:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Sphennings By being overly pessimistic (and actually quite wrong) about people's intentions you're almost entirely missing the point. Having good food is an important point to make one restaurant your favorite, the one you'll come back over and over for years. But no-one favors a restaurant where they are treated poorly from the get-go, even if the food was good. I guess you'll say "but they're not clients", but this also applies to workplaces environments : Bad relationships are a critical cause in how you can lose engagment in an activity. $\endgroup$ Nov 2, 2023 at 10:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Tortliena I'm not sure I grasp the point of your extended metaphor or why you think I'm wrongly pessimistic about intentions. Can you please clarify? $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Nov 2, 2023 at 11:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Sphennings The point of L.Dutch is that we shouldn't babysit new users while they should grow from it. The issue is, you don't grow and ask better questions later if you don't come back because you feel you are unwelcome, and you don't attract engaged users if there are many "quitters" telling your question would be bashed up on top of being closed. That's one of the many "quit moments".[...] $\endgroup$ Nov 2, 2023 at 12:45
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    $\begingroup$ All a vote means is that a user found a post useful or not no more, no less. Given that SO was designed to create a repository of high quality answers to well asked questions. Voting is built into the model. If someone is unwilling to accept the risk that people find their post unhelpful then SO probably isn't for them. Personally I'd respond better if I found right away rather than after having picked up bad habits based on incorrect expectations only to be blindsided when the "actual policy" starts getting applied. We're supposed to judge questions based on their contents and nothing else. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Nov 2, 2023 at 13:02
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    $\begingroup$ If there were cases of new users editing their questions to be suitable for this site, and continuing to receive downvotes I would find that concerning. However if they don't avail themselves of the built in recourse to downvotes, (improving post quality) I see no reason why their unwillingness to learn how the site works should grant them preferential treatment. Especially since that is exactly the sort of inconsistent policy enforcement that is regularly called out on meta. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Nov 2, 2023 at 13:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Sphennings Your last sentence is really concerning to how you perceive most new user's mentality 🦋😅. Please note that because of reviewer's actions, downvotes aren't mechanically tied to improving one's post, like the closure rarely leads to a reopening upon improvement. Most readers don't remove downvotes, and the majority of the votes come in the first hours of the question's life. $\endgroup$ Nov 2, 2023 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ @sphennings Bearing in mind that I greatly respect your involvement on the Stack, I need to disagree with All a vote means is that a user found a post useful or not no more, no less. That may be what everyone thinks, but it's not at all how anyone (but sociopaths) behave - and Stack Exchange knows it. If (as the comedy show suggests) "the points don't matter" then there's no reason to have them in the first place. They're meant to encourage and discourage - and notably young users (which we have aplenty) are notoriousy sensitive to the points/votes/likes/validation/affirmation. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 3, 2023 at 3:16
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    $\begingroup$ "Should we not downvote just because it's coming from a new user?" --- By all means downvote poor questions! But if you're going to downvote, write the reason why! You can't expect people to read the help and tour. Honestly, I never read it when I started here! For the most part, people learn by doing and by trial and error. They'll NEVER get out of error mode if people don't tell them what they're doing wrong. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Nov 6, 2023 at 3:32
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    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas 😆 What can I say but How dare you! It takes me back to a completely irreverent episode of The Simpsons (Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming) when Krusty cries out, "How am I gonna make fun of the frogs!" I about rolled off the couch laughing and had to explain it to my friends. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 6, 2023 at 3:34
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    $\begingroup$ They're explicitly not educational. Each is an indication of whether a individual user finds a post useful or not. In aggregate they're used by the system as a proxy for post quality. Outside of moderator tools related to targeted voting and fraud, there's no interest in policing how people vote. As for distinguishing between pearls and sand, if quoting the documentation answers the question then they should have consulted it instead of asking us. If the question requires that answers explain or clarify the documentation then the synthesis of our expertise is what's valuable. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Nov 21, 2023 at 19:04
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On L.Dutch's argumentation

I'm going to counter-argument L.Dutch points, as there are devious effects of downvoting that are easily unseen, and I believe quite strongly that this rigid stance is rather shortsighted.

Let's start with these -I hope widely accepted- postulates :

  • The core goal of this site from SE's perspective is to be a compendium of high-quality questions and answers. We can think of it as both having numerous content and having a high-density of quality content (#QuestionPollution).
  • The core goal of an individual user asking a question is to get help building their world.
  • More experienced users tend to ask better questions
  • By extension, inexperienced users tend to ask worse questions
  • By another extension, users, like most people, tend to improve over time.

With that, let's look at two points that you could easily overlook :

Density of high-quality answers

In terms of raw quantity I believe the sum of all existing questions is more than alright. I mean, it's not the site's first year of existence. The other thing to keep in check then is the proportion of good vs bad questions. To keep a high density of quality topics, we need to study the flows of good and bad questions and where does it come from. As told above, the input sources are overall well-defined : Almost by definition, experienced users make less mistakes, inexperienced more.

So the goal, from this site's perspective, is to actually have experienced users since they're the ones who provide better questions. To do that, you need to increase the conversion rate of new to experienced and engaged users, which in turns mean that keeping them is rather important. Making a new user unwelcome isn't likely at all to make them come back, decreasing the overall quality of the community, and therefore the overall quality of the posts. This is extremely important as one new user making one bad question and leaving has technically 0% good question among all their questions; It's the worst mark you can add to the overall ratio of good vs bad topics.

The quality of new candidate querents is dependent on the image the community gives

People leaving with a bad taste, whether justified or not, sets an image of the site and its community. If people in worldbuilding circles (the ones who are normally more talented in asking quality questions) keeps complaining to others that we're harsh, unkind, or generally more brutal than brutally effective... Then you lose candidates who are more likely to post quality, on-topic questions.

Conclusion

This site is one of the top-site when you look for worldbuilding (it is currently on the 1st page of my private searches for "worldbuilding", even with all local, French websites on top). Moreover, it is free to access and extremely easy to register, so we cannot really be elitist by definition. Regardless of how you vote, people with bad questions will come. Downvoting them will have little to no impact on that. Therefore, our only card we can play to reach the desired effect, the core goal of this site is to focus on getting experienced, engaged users.

That's why I think we have to think more carefully and be flexible in how we work with rules regarding new users. Rules are one thing, clever applications of them to ensure everyone have a good time is another. And it has to be reflected in every action you do, both through comments and downvotes.

To do that, you need to strive to improve yourself as much as the querents. Here are a few bites of bytes containing bits of knowledge that should help understand key points in that downvoting decision.

What do we have to consider?

Distinguishing the good grain from rye grass

This is the most important point we have to account for, because we do need to go beyond the rules and think about the circumstances and the morale (in non-legal terms, one's intentions) of a case. We need to find the seeds that can grow into beautiful trees and sort out the bad ones that will just pinch you with their thorns. Remember that I told one of the postulate is that users improve over time? Truth is, some won't. And we'll have to judge each case individually, as quickly as possible but as best as possible, which can be hard at times. There are many elements changing that, and one is just your subjective view on it.

Has the querent put efforts in their question's form and do they genuinely try to improve it? Is it about really basic knowledge you learn in primary school, or something more advanced that only amateurs know? Being new doesn't allow one to do everything and therefore to research nothing. Still, it's very easy to forget that they will almost always have less knowledge than you, so obviously everything they will show you is likely to be simple evidence from your eyes... And potentially a lack of research for you.

The rule of 3 before

Billy, don't play with the dog's tail, he dislikes that. You have been warned once... Twice, thrice! Ok, now you're punished, go sit in the corner!

When educating children, it is a practice among professionals to teach against bad behaviors by issuing 2 warnings telling that third time's not the charm, followed by the punishment. The warnings inform you clearly about the importance of the rule, yet doesn't punish right away because you're still learning it. Punishment about rules you don't know is almost always felt as unfair1.

Interestingly, this also works for adults, too, even though there are generally only one warning because you're supposed to be more responsible. The main risk here is that if the person is not willing to respect the rules you get 2 or 3 bad questions. If that happens however, you have certainly and most likely noticed they were not willing to improve (see above section).

In that regard, I'd like to recall one thing which is really often forgotten : Like you're not forced to answer right now, you're not forced to vote right now. Postponing your vote does not make it less valuable, but it sure changes the experience of the targeted user. If you're truly keen to downvote, give at least a chance for the user to react and try something out.

Balancing difficulty curves

Let's remember that one's experience should be enjoyable. On top of being part of being welcoming and welcomed (a critical point of any strong community with rules), you learn much more efficiently if you're having a blast with what you're doing. In contrario, being blasted up means you won't come back, so you won't learn anything. In order to not be blasted away, the balance between the challenge, the rewards and the potential punishment have to be balanced relative to the user's skills2. All this grouped together makes a difficulty curve. And no sane experience throws someone on the high spike of difficulty curves, spikes you normally meet at the middle and end of your experience. To give another reference outside games, you don't paint (and are compared to) masterpieces like Mona Lisa from the beginning, you start with the basics of drawing and go up from there.

That's why we make tutorials in video-games. That's why we don't throw kids from a local soccer club against an international team. That's also why you don't throw interns alone on complex projects, nor do you (normally) hardly criticize them because they made a mistake that senior lead colleague would not have made.

That's also why there's a sandbox here. The sandbox is a place you can safely try the functionalities of the system without fear of losing something. Unfortunately, since it is hard to access, most people are sent in the big ocean without having the chance to try the small swimming pool before.

Scaled perception in rewards and punishments

This goes in pair with the above. One's perception of what they receive or lose is heavily dependent on what they already have. In other words, the perception is non-linear, and is more often than not logarithmic. Think it like your wage : If you win 1 000 dollars with a lottery ticket, you won't really care much if you already have billions in your bank. But if it's your first gained thousand dollar in all your life, this means a lot more : this reward and the associated experience will be kept as a strong memory. The reverse is also true regarding losses, a.k.a punishments.

What does this mean? If you have thousands of points, thinking being downvoted is not "that" important is actually wrong for new users. When you lost 0.1% of your points and have one more bad negative questions, it's at most an annoyance. But for new users, it is 100% of their question(s) which have been shot down. It's not encouraging at all.

By the way, I cannot stress it enough : If you believe that downvotes has no effect on the feeling you have because its "only purpose is to show a post is not useful", please consider it again. It is not because it is not written on the tooltip and help-center that psychological effects don't exist. Being acknowledged or not by members of a community as someone who do "something useful" or not is one of the strongest social link in existence. It's a link people need to feel fulfilled. It's worth even its own reward kind (the reward of glory) in game and experience design.

Look at how the downvote score is in red, the most common color in Occident to indicate something is "bad". Look at the arrow colors when downvoting, same deal. Think even to the word "negative" in "negative score".Then, search for all the previous posts where people complained about their closure and downvotes. This gives you a tiny glimpse of the actual number of users disappointed in what is supposed to be a site being all for "high-quality content". It's a tiny glimpse because the majority of people who don't come back out of frustration is silent3.

Lasting words

If as a reviewer, you felt offended in how I think we should manage downvotes (it is not really devoid of criticism, after all), that you feel your honest volunteering efforts were smashed against the wall, this is exactly the kind of feeling new users can experience through downvotes and harsh comments. This is food for thoughts 🦋.

For the others, if you need to remember only one thing, that's this : From one's individual viewpoint (and not SE's point), the goal of this site is to help and get help build their world above all, and to do that you have to be clever with the rules. All of the votes, closure choices and comments should be made in that respect. So think what downvoting means in regard to helping people, not only what it means to the site.


1 : If we add in the fact that some people think the interface is unclear for newcomers, we cannot even tell "You should know the rules". They couldn't. Source? L.Dutch answer about my proposal of a dynamic tutorial message, JBH's comment complaining that the tour button is hidden at the top (and he's one of the Great Old Ones! Please don't pinch me, JBH!), and so on.
2 : That's one key difference between what L.Dutch and I say : I don't advocate to judge the post strictly alone (and in fact you cannot). Acknowledging an user's personality, strengths and weaknesses help in answering more accurately. While we can't know who are new users, it's not unreasonnable to think they're relatively new to worldbuilding. The thing I don't advise is to need other questions to understand a new one, this can make a camouflaged too-broad/lacking details questions
3 : And that's unreachable data it's almost impossible to get access to. It's why it's easier both mechanically and mentally to work on the things that worked, rather than the things that didn't.

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    $\begingroup$ Have you read pearls-not-sand? to quote from it "We feel that the world is awash in questions, but not answers. Answers are the real unit of work in any Q&A; system. Therefore, the only logical thing to do is to maximize the happiness and enjoyment of answerers. If this means aggressively downvoting or closing unworthy and uninteresting questions, so be it. Without a community of people willing to answer questions, it really doesn't matter if there are questions at all, does it?" - Jeff Attwood $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Nov 2, 2023 at 19:47
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The whole point of the SO model is to create a space that enables writing answers that are widely usable. Not just helpful for the asker but something beneficial to other people with similar issues. This is baked into every aspect of the design, the ability to edit other people's posts, question closure being a thing at all, reopening questions if their issues have been addressed, and the exchange-wide VTC reasons of unclear, duplicate, too broad, and POB. A question's score is just an aggregation of the anonymous opinions of strangers on the internet. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Nov 2, 2023 at 19:57
  • $\begingroup$ Since this is how SO views voting then eventually new users will need to learn this. If we treat new users as delicate snowflakes who can't handle too many downvotes we're setting them up for whiplash as they cross the threshold to "established user". Imagine if we blocked downvotes below a threshold. Someone could ask multiple low quality questions without feedback, gain enough reputation to cross the threshold, and suddenly find their questions that were until now perfectly fine downvoted aggressively. That will cause more problems than consistently applying the same policy to everyone. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Nov 2, 2023 at 20:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Sphennings I honestly don't get why you're thinking that I want to prevent downvotes until a threshold, while everything I give are tools to make better choices. Now what I didn't say since it's off-topic to JBH concern is that they apply to both askers and answerers, since they're all teaching and game design (in its broad sense). This includes proven ways to ensure someone doesn't reach excessive frustrations, and being straightforward in both warning and punishment is actually a staple of old, frustrating video-games which lacked both good feedbacks and good tutorials. [...] $\endgroup$ Nov 3, 2023 at 2:44
  • $\begingroup$ [...] Nevertheless, I know this blog post about pearls not sand. At first I didn't have much thoughts about it, but now I can confidently tell that this idea is contradicting with many core principles : First, you cannot get good answers from bad questions (official SE ref? Help-center : Only answer well-asked questions). Worse yet, answers cannot exist without questions as the relationship is two-sided. If you make the sand metaphor, better sand gives more pearls.[...] $\endgroup$ Nov 3, 2023 at 2:45
  • $\begingroup$ [...] Then, the site is all about "ask questions, get answers, no distraction" (ref. tour); In this motto lies actually the invisible hand of Adam Smith : Even if users act selfishly, their individual action help the site as a whole. People don't ask questions because it helps make SE a better compendium of questions and answers. Break the motivation to act selfishly, the site dies, or more accurately, it becomes an archive. As told in the tour, the site is "built and run by you" : If there's no you, there's no site. And if the you is wacky and untrained... [...] $\endgroup$ Nov 3, 2023 at 2:46
  • $\begingroup$ [...] The best I can tell of this blog post is that it's actually explaining their choice in balancing their mechanics. It's more about explaining why and how the system was designed and changed to make us interact with it. Saying it should be the basis of how we should use the system is deviating from the original intent of this now very outdated post.[...] $\endgroup$ Nov 3, 2023 at 2:47
  • $\begingroup$ [...] Speaking of which, and given the current trends in reviewers, it is actually and nowadays much harder, much riskier to ask than to answer. It's relatively easy to see that through first answers and first questions. The balance in the system is off nowadays, at least for WB:SE. And if it's off-balance, it's because the world, its various products and associated usages change. $\endgroup$ Nov 3, 2023 at 2:47
  • $\begingroup$ @sphennings I haven't read through more than half of Tort's post. It deserves my close attention because Tort's making some very good points. However, I'd like to comment on "Pearls, not Sand." That post was written 13 years ago. Since that time SE has become one of the preeminent Q&A sites on the planet. Only the newest stacks are wanting for people to answer questions - but to be frank, there has always been more respondents than querents. It's SE's value as a business to have lots of answers - that's how they make their money - and I'm forced to read everything they write in that context. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 3, 2023 at 16:28
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH That could be the result of SE's design philosophy. It's much easier to write a good WB answer than it is write a good WB question. SE isn't just looking for any answers it's looking for specific types of answers that are valuable to more than the original querent. SO wasn't the first programming QA site. SO what it is today in large part because they took an opinionated stance on what sort of answers were valuable and an unwillingness to permit questions unlikely to produce them. To this day it is still the thing that differentiates SO the most from other QA sites. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Nov 3, 2023 at 18:52
2
$\begingroup$

"Quick" study

As requested in some comments somewhere, here are some data of these past few weeks vs last year :

Picture of the Excel table I made from the data gathered. If you have troubles reading this, add a comment under my post and I'll find a way so you can. (Click to enlarge)

A few things to note :

  • I don't have access to the site KPIs, so I had to resort by listing each question one by one, ordered by date through the search engine, 50 by 50.
    • This explains why questions are not grouped by weeks, but by packs of 50. It also explains why start and end dates are not always exactly X days.
      • On the good side of this, each number on each line are easily relatable one to another.
    • This also explains why I limited it to 150 questions this year and last year (for 300 checked questions total). It has been very tedious and I'm mentally exhausted.
  • "(all)" means out of all questions.
    • As written in the footnotes, it isn't very reliable to count the stats for new users anyway : "old" new users tend to have more points and tend to be out of the criteria now... If they haven't left the site before. We don't have access to the score they had at the time.
  • Dates are in French format : DD/MM/YYYY instead of MM/DD/YYYY. I'm too lazy to work around the software automation 🐻. For numbers, "," means "." (0,59 in French means 0.59 in English). Shouldn't be too hard to decipher, I hope!

While most stats are relatively stable at first glance (The variability seems quite high), one of the statistic is really standing out : The total score on each question and its indirect stat, the average score per question. We're on a value of +853 score last year vs +540 this year. In other words, a loss of 37%.

I highly doubt that having more time to receive upvotes can explain alone this : I believe less than 10% votes on my old times questions/answers have come after 2 weeks (the time between the study has been made and the studied questions), far outside the 1/3 difference we see here.

In any case, if we noticed a change in trends, it's likely linked to this. Now think freely of what these numbers could mean!

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    $\begingroup$ "I highly doubt that having more time to receive upvotes can explain alone this" it'd be a factor. However, general trend among the SE network is participation trending down. I don't have access to the 10k tools on WB to verify if this is the case here and what the trend was but I suspect WB is also following the same general trend. Using site search, does show a downward trend in question asking: $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Nov 4, 2023 at 9:53
  • $\begingroup$ the questions asked between 2nd of November 2021 and 1st of November 2022 (one year span) is 3248 see search. The number of questions for the period 2nd of November 2022 to 1st of November 2023 is 2006 see search. These searches don't account for deleted questions but I suspect that won't make much of a difference. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Nov 4, 2023 at 9:53
  • $\begingroup$ @VLAZ Ah yes, that could explain the loss. This raises another concerning point : Why have we lost so many askers (or more generally users)? $\endgroup$ Nov 4, 2023 at 10:43
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ There is no one answer to that. Nor a particularly satisfying theory that I'm aware of. However, participation seems to be down across the network and that has been the trend for a few years. There is at least one event recently that seems to have had an impact - releasing ChatGPT and then the subsequent other chatbots have most likely impacted network participation. Probably different for different sites, though. It's really hard to conclusively prove it, yet posting and voting on SO (where I have access to such stats) has fallen with abnormal rate since the release of ChatGPT. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Nov 4, 2023 at 12:22
  • $\begingroup$ It's still just one factor out of many. It may have made the downwards trend more pronounced but it's not the cause. Overall, I can suggest that more "traditional-style" online posting is also in the process of declining. A lot of users are moving to platforms like Discord, rather than trying to centralise at bigger hubs. That's not just SE, but other sites, including forums, that see lower activity overall. Even then, normal usage trends for many sites have a rising popularity, tipping point and decline. SE is not particularly special in this regard. The decline seems natural than forced. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Nov 4, 2023 at 12:26
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I mean, the trend itself for participation to go down. There can of course be factors that hasten it or impede it. Another factor that is somewhat recent is the SE company itself. Some recent decisions have not been very well received and a number of even long-standing users have reduced their participation. This is probably something that will play more of a role going forward, yet it's still something that has dropped over the past year. So, these are just a few factors I can point out. $\endgroup$
    – VLAZ
    Nov 4, 2023 at 12:33
1
$\begingroup$

There's a simple reason that has been ignored so far and which happens on many stacks (like Law.SE and Medicine.SE, where questions for specific advice are explicitly banned), and might have some people adhering to the pattern even here:

Negative scores trigger the Roomba earlier

The Community Bot "Roomba" function has an order in which he wipes closed questions. In fact, Roomba ignores any positive score questions that are closed but wipes unanswered negative score questions first. A downvote to a bad question that is closed can serve the simple purpose of allowing Roomba to delete it. In this case: Community Bot wiped the question after 10 days, not the 30 for 0-score questions. Downvotes by somewhat experienced users to the questions to reach negative value can, besides showing the points of no research effort, unclear or not useful, also serve to deliberately make the Cleanup-function take care of such questions faster.

It is nigh impossible to find out if a user did this, but so far the discussion does not admit the pattern exists at all, or if it is a problem. But that would be a different question...

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  • $\begingroup$ JBH is talking about downvotes and/or closures, not about question deletions. The fact the bot passes by is therefore a consequence of the raised topic, rather than the topic itself. $\endgroup$ Nov 19, 2023 at 18:40
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Tortliena Other stacks routinely downvote questions that are very off topic to deliberately trigger the roomba to come by faster. $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Nov 19, 2023 at 21:38
  • $\begingroup$ A double edged sword. Sadly, the OP won't even realise what happened. She doesn't have the stat points required to see deleted queries, she can't see any comments made, she can't even edit it. Even if she can, why would she care? Steel edged ruler? More like a solid steel cubit rod! Just beat the crap out of the new people before they ever have a chance to improve the question! $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Nov 21, 2023 at 15:54
  • $\begingroup$ @elemtilas Stacks like law.se have to fight an influx of explicitly banned questions every day, which breeds the "this is a request for legal advice, close and downvote" behavior. JBH was asking, among other things, what prompts downvotes - ant this is an observation that might hold true for some users. $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Nov 21, 2023 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ We're not law.se though. This is a creative and artistic forum. We don't have banned questions, and when SE tries to intimidate us with such suggestions we've told them to take a hike. I get the need to trounce that kind of behaviour in a legal or medical forum. And in fact, on the few occasions we've gotten (what seems like) requests for medical advice here in WB, we've done just that: downvote, close and move on. Since we thrive on creativity here we need good questions. In order to get good questions, we need to have a strong base of good querents. We can't achieve that goal (cont) $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Nov 21, 2023 at 16:08
  • $\begingroup$ (cont) if we keep hammering new people into repression. The learning curve here is a little higher in some respects and new people really do need to be taught how to ask a good question here. Downvote, close and move on is not a good model here most of the time. The current spate of reactions against especially new users is a sign of some kind of discontent. A disturbance in the force. I think what JBH is getting at is that we (more experienced users) need to take a step back, evaluate the negative trend and focus again on our basics. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Nov 21, 2023 at 16:12
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    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas I did not state that the behavior is happening in droves, that it might be warranted, or that many users do it. However, this pattern might account for some users' votes - not mine but there might be users that might follow that behavioral pattern, and nobody before mentioned it at all, either to claim or disclaim such behavior. I don't say it is good behavior, I just state that the behavior exists on other stacks and might have bled into this stack. Clarified the intent of this answer therefore. $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Nov 21, 2023 at 16:13
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not ganging up on you for mentioning it! And I'm not disagreeing that some people might view WB and law the same in this regard. I am warning that the behaviour is a danger here even if it's an absolute requirement there! Actually, I'm thankful that you brought it up at all, as I had no idea that community bot had such a function. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Nov 21, 2023 at 16:17
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    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas What danger is there? Is there some specific existential threat to this site? Not every question is appropriate for the WB. That's the whole reason behind VTC/RO, and the community bot deletion. There's a reason that downvoting questions is free while downvoting answers cost reputation. SE wants users to be "aggressively downvoting or closing unworthy and uninteresting questions". We should be kind and supportive to new users unfamiliar with the SE format, but not at the expense of the format itself. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Nov 21, 2023 at 18:30
  • $\begingroup$ @sphennings --- The danger is that we end up turning people away when we don't have to and when there are means in place to prevent this from happening. I don't disagree with you, yet I must point out that we are not like the other forums. Aggressive downvoting and closing doesn't help us because it takes longer to learn how to ask questions here. The knee-jerk downvote, close and delete needs to be balanced against the time required to learn the ropes. And, quite honestly, as a community, we are NOT very kind and supportive to new users. Usually, they're just shut down and told to (cont) $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Nov 21, 2023 at 18:52
  • $\begingroup$ (cont) look at the help and tour. As has been complained about for a long time, these are not really very useful documents. The best place to turn a sucky querent into a good querent is immediately in the comments. If we're going to down vote, explain why. If we're going to VTC, point out the rationale and always teach new people how they can improve. Otherwise, they just think this a group of jerks and will go away angry. That's bad advertising. So, yeah, there's your existential threat to the community. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Nov 21, 2023 at 18:55
  • $\begingroup$ I'm all for improving how we support and onboard new members. SE is unlike other sites. It took me a few months before I was able to really understand it. We need to find a better approach to explaining to newcomers how SE is different and helping them adapt to those differences. What can we do when closing a question to improve the rate at which they are edited and reopened, without degrading our standard of review? Can we better support the people who are doing a good job of helping new users? Can we get other people to follow those examples? $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Nov 21, 2023 at 19:30
  • $\begingroup$ We might require a featured FAQ, maybe a few "standard comments" that actually lead to a few select FAQ pages, e.g. "This is how you write a good WB question in area X" where "area X" can be things like "designing a planet" or "figuring out magic" or "making an alternative timeline". My personal pet peeve was the number of bad "I timetravel with my modern knowledge, how much impact do I have?" - to me, the only real answer is "negative posititve impact, you die or you bring a plague that kills people. Also, you understand nothing the people say there." $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Nov 21, 2023 at 19:55

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