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I feel the need to publicly lodge my complaints.

The problem

This question went into the review queue and picked up two close votes (and at least one keep open vote from me) before being summarily put on hold by a moderator. I do not believe the question is off-topic, and I commented to that effect. I disagree with sphenning's assessment in his comment. Whether sphenning or I are in the right is something the community should vote on via the established process. However, the community did complete its vote on whether or not to put the question on hold.

This question was placed on hold after 15 minutes without even making it to the review queue. The question could use some significant work, but by going into the review queue, it will get the exposure necessary that someone may take an interest in helping the OP (a new user) improve it. However, this question never got to community review. Also, I find the comments distastefully unhelpful towards what is apparently a new user unfamiliar with our site.

Discussion

To be clear, there are plenty of good reasons for a moderator to summarily put a question on hold. And this is not the first time a moderator has been addressed in Meta for these kinds of actions.

The problem is one of fairness. Let's say someone comes to our site, wants to participate, but thinks things go on hold too often. This happens very often: example, example, example, example by someone relevant to this post. We have a defense against that claim. There exists a community review process; many eyes look at each post and then judge. This is excellently explained by @dot_Sp0T here.

The concept of putting all questions on hold and waiting for them to be improved has been brought up before (recently). My interpretation of that discussion is that the response was largely negative. I support my interpretation by noting the voting on the original question, and @PatJ's negative response. Just because something can be re-opened doesn't prevent the 'hold' from putting a sour taste in a newer user's mouth.

Let me say that nothing in this complaint is about content of specific Worldbuilding questions, even the ones I linked. I want questions open that get closed all the time, and that's just fine. Its part of the community voting process. Furthermore, none of this is about my personal feelings about whether any moderators' specific actions are justified. My personal opinion is of minimal importance. This post is about site culture: maintaining rules-based and community-based control of Worldbuilding, with occasional assistance from the moderators.

Having a rules based process that we all voluntarily abide by is, in my mind, the single most important thing to maintaining a successful online community. As a philosophical statement, we should be able to tell new users, "You must follow our rules to participate, but anyone who follows our rules may participate."

Suggested solution

Given the information posted and linked above, my complaint boils down to this: There is a review process, we should use it.

Even if a question is inevitably headed for being put on hold, we should allow our rules-based review process to play itself out. Moderators should not interfere with that process. Moderators can and should take action against offensive posts or trolling; moderators can and should take action about policing comments. But placing questions on hold is a community driven process and moderators should exercise restraint when interfering with that process.

I believe that this will have two beneficial effects on our site. New users who find this site will be more likely to come back if they find the their questions reviewed by the community instead of placed on hold by one moderator. And, more experienced users will feel like their participation in the review process is more important if their actions and discussions contribute to managing what questions are approved.

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    $\begingroup$ Consider a case where an unclear question attracts several upvoted answers before being put on hold by the community. Because the question was unclear, answerers guessed or made various assumptions that turned out not be what the OP was asking about. The question is now on hold by community vote and the OP would like to edit it and get it reopened, but editing is going to invalidate some of those answers. What do you feel should happen in that case? (This is a general comment, not about any of the specific cases you linked, which I haven't reviewed all of yet.) $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Apr 25 '17 at 15:10
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    $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio In my mind, what should happen in that case is the answer-er should edit his own question or deletes it. The community can and should leave comments to that effect. It can be hard to tell in advance if a question will be closed or not, and something you may be enthusiastic about will end up closed by the community. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Apr 25 '17 at 16:22
  • $\begingroup$ "You are asking questions about a story set in a world instead of about building a world" - I have seen this used as a means to close an answer. One can easily point out that "as worded" there is an inconsistency IF the world is fictional, implied or explicit, then it becomes hard for a question to NOT be viewed, objectively, as building onto that world. I may have VtC (not that I have the ability to) for other reasons, not the least of which the question implies bypassing a chain of checks that exist in our real world. For me all the OP need do is set the world as more corrupt than ours. $\endgroup$ – Enigma Maitreya Apr 25 '17 at 16:37
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    $\begingroup$ That, in my opinion, is were the issue is coming from, the OP does not offer anything that is different from our reality and I am quite sure the verbiage in the reason given allows for the action. I would change the wording of that reason to be "You are asking questions about reality and that is not World Building" as an example only $\endgroup$ – Enigma Maitreya Apr 25 '17 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio That's not what this is arguing against though. Kingledion is not saying that questions should get put on hold, but that the users should put the questions on hold, and the Moderators should stay out of it unless a certain line is crossed. If a question is posted that is obviously trolling, and is flagged as such, then it's not wrong to kill it quickly. But if a question is borderline, and OP put in a good faith effort, then let the community users work with OP to help fix it instead. ESPECIALLY if moderator "help" is going to prevent the community from helping. Like the example. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Apr 25 '17 at 16:40
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    $\begingroup$ @AndyD273 but timing matters, and that's what I'm trying to get at -- we're an active site, so answers can pour in while the community is putting the question on hold. If a moderator comes across it in the meantime, or if there are already some votes (but not yet four), this question calls for the moderator to not act unless it's super-blatant. I'm asking about a consequence of that inaction. (I'm not yet expressing an opinion, just seeking clarification.) The community can (and should) work with the OP to fix an on-hold question, too. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Apr 25 '17 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio I can see what you're getting at and do agree we don't want a pile up of answers on a question that may be edited to invalidate them. It is a problem and I don't think there is an easy solution to it, I think it comes as part of how stackexchange works. It then becomes a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils, do users get answers invalidated or do we let moderators close quickly on all questions. I would say the users losing answers is a lesser hit (though could there be an automatic tag of "this answer was posted on a pre-closed version of this question" or something? $\endgroup$ – Lio Elbammalf Apr 25 '17 at 18:08
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    $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio I think it is the responsibility of users to decide if a question is good or decide if a question needs help. If a user decides that a bad question is worth answering, then they don't have any ground to stand on when it gets changed to make it better. Protecting users who are too quick to jump on a flawed question is not a Mods responsibility, and having an answer invalidated is a natural punishment for answering a bad question, and maybe it will teach them not to do it next time. By closing the question prematurely you are robbing them of that learning experience. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Apr 25 '17 at 19:11
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    $\begingroup$ Also, look at the time at which I cast the binding vote in the first example. It was during a low activity period. I was unable to cast a non-binding vote and two more people might not show up ’till morning. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Apr 25 '17 at 20:01
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    $\begingroup$ Another reason to wait for the full vote count is perspective. There was an example of a regular user that VTC because they didn't know what "sloshing" meant and was "to busy" to look it up, and so took it to be a bad question. If that user had been a mod, then that question (and more than half of the rest) would be closed summarily. Just because one users doesn't have the background, understanding, or creativity to get a question does NOT mean the question is bad. By allowing more users to see the question and vote, you're more likely to avoid this kind of situation. $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 Apr 25 '17 at 20:22
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion One problem is that for newer users they don't see the community review their post. From their point of view it might as well be moderators who closed their post. Comments made by newer users about moderators closing their posts is evidence of this. This not a criticism of your question. Just to illustrate what is part of the same problem. Good question! Glad you asked it. $\endgroup$ – a4android Apr 26 '17 at 5:01
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    $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio What constitutes an unclear question isn't always obvious or pellucidly clear. Recently I saw a question where commentators were complaining it was unclear. On first reading I wasn't clear, but I re-read it and it was clear. So i answered the question. Another question was completely opaque & I had little idea what it was about, yet another user praising its clarity. I decided to accept that user was correct. It was clear to another person, they understood it, not me. Much of this is about human judgement. This is fragile. $\endgroup$ – a4android Apr 26 '17 at 5:14
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    $\begingroup$ @a4android yes there's definitely judgement involved. I also encourage everybody who sees something that at first seems unclear, and then you realize what it's asking, to help other users get there faster by making a clarifying edit. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Apr 26 '17 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ @AndyD273 Do you still have a link to the metapost on that question? I can't find it anymore, and I'd like to revisit some of my own thoughts regarding the way i acted.... $\endgroup$ – Aify May 5 '17 at 20:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Aify Here is the question that I am referring to. All of the comments are gone though. HDE's answer is pretty much how I feel about the subject, but better put. If you're referring to something else then I don't know... $\endgroup$ – AndyD273 May 8 '17 at 14:10
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I'm more of a screwdriver1 person, not a hammer person.

There are so many things about questions on Worldbuilding that give me a headache. Like our constant battles with Good Subjective, Bad Subjective. Or our problems with Idea Generation or whatever categories it falls into now. Or our attempts to define Risk Factors for questions. Or our What-If problem. Or the fact that literally nobody, myself included, actually understands the boundaries of the site. That's a fun one.

So, can we proceed under the axiom that very few things about this site make sense?

Let's proceed under another axiom, too: I almost never agree with the idea of the mod hammer for closing or reopening questions. Many content moderation tasks that a moderator can do can also be done by the community, provided enough users do them (e.g. deleting a post or closing/reopening a question). There are some which regular users cannot - deleting comments, for instance. Here's why, in my view, we the mods have these special tools: Because they're for exceptions.

Moderators are exception handlers. We're not really meant to do things that normal users do. So we should mainly be acting in exceptional cases, right? Now, that does go counter to another description of moderators, as janitors, because janitorial work is normally pretty regular. However, the thing to bear in mind is that exceptions occur on a regular basis. There are just many, many, many more cases that don't require a janitor.

Therefore, the justification for my firm belief that moderators should largely be hands-off is that that's not our job. We should stay away from tasks the community normally does. Otherwise, using our tools is like cooking steak with lava:1 it's a bit overkill. Thus, I oppose the use of the mod hammer in most cases.

1 Actually, I think this one's technically molten metal, not lava. But "lava" sounds better.

It's not quite that simple.

There are exceptions to the rule of not using the mod hammer on questions. For instance, spam, offensive questions, rants, and other questions-that-aren't-questions should be dealt with quickly. Similarly, I'd argue that there are also extenuating circumstances where a "normal" question should be hammered - for instance, if a user keeps posting variants of the same question over and over, and something has to be done. So the rule isn't applicable across the board. My rationale here, though, is that these are exceptional cases, and thus valid instances for moderator intervention.

The point JDługosz and Monica is making, I think, is that preemptive closings are justified in certain "normal" circumstances. To a degree, I understand that logic. Questions that are unclear and would lead to answers that aren't good because the question would have to be edited, thus invalidating the earlier answers and making the users' work worthless, lead to pain and complications. As Monica said, this is a problem on Worldbuilding because answers here are often short and fast. At certain times of day, this can be even worse, because while we have users from all over the world, they're more concentrated in some time zones than others.

But . . . but . . . feelings.

New users complicate all of this. They need the most handholding, not because the rest of us are smarter, but because using a new site can be confusing and not easy. I'm always inclined to go easier on someone who's new and acting in good faith (spammers, I'm not looking at you). You could make an argument for acting quicker or acting slower on them. On the one hand, their questions often need the most fixing, as was the case in the second question you mentioned. On the other hand, having someone very quickly put your question on hold can be a frustrating first experience.

My inclination is always to give them some slack. Comment early, comment often. Point them to helpful site links, like the tour, the help center, the sandbox, or our posts here on meta. This helps them in the future, not just in this one case, and is quite a warmer welcome. I know a lot of people already do this - kudos! I just often prefer it to hammering a new person's question on hold if it's not immediately necessary.

As for timing. . .

I do need to address Monica's point, which I think is the best justification for using the hammer. She's not wrong. In fact, I think she's right. But it's never really easy to tell when that's going to be the case and when it isn't. Sometimes the community is fast, and sometimes the community is slow. That's really hard to predict.

That said, a mod doesn't have to jump right in. You may not get five close votes quickly. But if there are four others, then a mod vote is functionally the same as anyone else's. Even if there are only two or three votes in, you've still let the community have something of a say in things.

I really don't think a moderator should cast the first or second close vote unless it's blatantly clear that a question should be put on hold. Let other folks get a word or two in. But in the cases of exceptions, maybe it's okay to swing a little early. But not first. Almost never first. Third? Maybe. Fourth? Probably. Fifth? Yes.

To be clear, this is all an exception. Most of the time, the community does its job. But there are periods where things go slowly, and a mod may have to step in. These are exceptional cases.

I still disagree with JDługosz's answer.

JDługosz wrote

You seem to think that collecting votes from established users is somehow better than getting a decision from a topic tag expert or a moderator. Actually, we can make a case that the reverse is true: Voting is a way to crowdsource without having those people necessarily be accurate.

I mess up sometimes. We all do. Moderators are held to a higher standard and are expected to be more firm in their convictions. That's one (unpopular) justification I've heard for not letting mods cast non-binding close votes2. But we're sometimes wrong, just like anyone else.

The consequences of a moderator messing up are generally not that bad. When I was just starting as a mod on HSM over two years ago, I remember someone saying that almost any action a moderator can take - with some exceptions, like destroying user accounts - can be reversed, either by the community, another moderator, or a Community Manager. Even when people are really stupid, disaster can be avoided.

Having multiple people weigh in, though, reduces the odds of someone making such a mistake. That's why the system of five close/reopen voters works as well as it does. Most cases do not involve a unanimous consensus - and that's fine. But if there's an "accurate" decision to be made, having five people make it means like there are some built-in redundancies.

I don't know what fraction of the time moderators mess up. I'm not sure if there's even a way to quantify that, because most decisions have some level of subjectivity. If there is a way to figure that out, I'd wager that the percentage is low. But I still don't agree that a moderator is significantly more qualified to make these decisions than anyone else.

2 And yes, I disagree with that logic.

To sort of wrap things up:

Here's my position, in a nutshell:

  • Moderators are exception handlers.
  • The hammer should usually only be used in exceptional cases, like for spam or when it's very clear that the community isn't acting.
  • If you do use the hammer in the latter case, it's fine to wait for a couple close votes to trickle in, if it looks like the community will be slow. Little harm will usually be done.
  • Let's be a bit nicer to new users when it comes to closing.
  • Mods are fallible!

The use of the hammer on these questions is . . . well, questionable. I don't think I fully support it, and I think that moderators should only rarely use it. I almost never do.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think we disagree all that much, actually. I rarely use the hammer, but I do if I see trouble brewing. I prefer to wait for the community, but as a moderator I feel it's my responsibility to avert a preventable problem instead of waiting to clean up after it, when even more feelings will be bruised. I always leave a friendly, helpful comment if I do that, and stress to new users that "on hold" is meant to be temporary. I don't want to see a lot of mod-hammering, but I'm not going to say that zero is the correct answer either. We have the tool for a reason, but let's be careful. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Apr 26 '17 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio Yeah, I think we mostly agree. If there's trouble on the way, I won't hesitate. I think I'm just slightly more reluctant to use if I think the community can/will handle it well enough. But on the whole, yeah. There are always exceptions to any rule, and there are always times to use the hammer. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Apr 26 '17 at 15:27
  • $\begingroup$ ^What @MonicaCellio said $\endgroup$ – Serban Tanasa Apr 28 '17 at 13:54
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but thinks things go on hold too often.

The question could use some significant work, but by going into the review queue, it will get the exposure necessary that someone may take an interest in helping the OP (a new user) improve it. However, this question never got to community review.

This indicates a flaw in your interpretation. hold is a tool that does not prevent comments and editing to help improve the question. Some notes here on meta even suggest/lament that new user’s questions should start out on hold by default!

Note that a gold badge holder can un-hold a post single handedly, too.

I think the problem here is that you disagreed with the people who thought it is off topic, one of whom is a diamond mod. What about the two people who voted earlier? Should you protest other members in general who vote differently from you?

You seem to think that collecting votes from established users is somehow better than getting a decision from a topic tag expert or a moderator. Actually, we can make a case that the reverse is true: Voting is a way to crowdsource without having those people necessarily be accurate.

As noted already on chat, a question that nobody disagrees is “bad” does not benefit from being left open, and in fact people may jump in with an answer anyway and that hurts the question, which can no longer be freely reworked. Such question should be put on hold ASAP.

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    $\begingroup$ I take umbrage with a few things you are saying, as they ignore what I wrote in my post. I specifically said that it is irrelevant what I personally think about the question, my issue is that the community should vote via the designated process. I also specifically addressed and dismissed the suggestion that user questions should start on hold. You are basically ignoring the main thrust of my argument, which is that 'fairness' or at least the appearance of that is the most important thing to the community. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Apr 25 '17 at 20:01
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    $\begingroup$ Your post is “addressing a moderator” for following policy and tutalage of other moderators. It is not clearly about a policy change, but carries wording and tone that you are complaining that a mod does his job. If you want to address policy, remove the personal wording. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Apr 25 '17 at 20:11
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    $\begingroup$ JD, this is very clearly about a policy change. Again, I provided evidence in a link that there is another current moderator about whom the same complaint was lodged by another longtime, high reputation user. This is not personal, I promise. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Apr 25 '17 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ Then how about a Title along the lines of “Post Closing Policies” rather than something that reads like “a mod is misbehaving”. Make it a discussion, not a complaint. And «a moderator has been addressed in Meta for these kinds of actions.» should be referring to policy review, not implying that someone's actions are wrong. You are complaining about what what we did rather than the rules we followed. So if this is not your intent, really, then maybe you should review your wording after a night's sleep. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Apr 26 '17 at 1:07

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