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With the recent changes to the hot network questions list, site moderators have been given the ability to permanently remove questions from HNQ. This is a very powerful ability, and as such, we need to carefully consider how and when it should be used.

Under what circumstances should moderators remove a question from HNQ?

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I chatted with the other mods about going back on HNQ, so here's my thoughts.. TL;DR, we should remove:

  • When the OP requests it
  • When it’s attracting negative attention because of issues that can’t be handled otherwise

First, what can we fix without this tool?

Here are the main problems I see happening with HNQ questions..

Title

HNQ removes all extra context. People seeing the title on the sidebar aren’t necessarily going to know anything about our site and the sort of Q&A we host, which can lead to rather uncharitable interpretations (as was the case in the past) and turning them off from wanting to find out more. In addition, “clickbait” titles can be a problem. Controversial-looking or suggestive titles typically get more traffic, as curious people and people looking for a good smackdown opportunity click through and often leave bad comments and answers (and upvote the same).

Solution: edit titles to be more descriptive and less clickbait-y. At the same time, don’t include details that aren’t relevant (particularly if they relate to a commonly controversial topic - more on this later).

Body

Questions that hit HNQ are often about controversial topics. We (and other stacks) have also experienced problems with trolls who post provocative stories to seek attention.

While our scope allows for users to talk about their (relevant) views, we don’t want to play host to ideological fights in the comments/answers, and we do want everyone to be nice. While we can deal with this by flagging and deleting the bad responses, ideally we don’t want those sorts of things to get posted in the first place - it’s very unwelcoming to the OP, not to mention draining for the community and mods to handle a flood of it.

Solution: remove salacious details, make descriptions more “clinical”, focus on the interpersonal skills rather than the surrounding story.

I think this is a great way to neutralize questions that aren’t necessarily bad (read: closeable) posts, but are still attracting drama and negative attention. I like how Monica Cellio, Workplace mod explained the rationale for making such an edit on her site:

Often the actual questions are fairly straightforward or even boring. How do I handle a hit & run fender-bender? What do I do about a slacker coworker? How do I give credit to a junior colleague without calling my own abilities into question? But the problems arise when these questions are packaged up in descriptions that are fanciful, filled with colorful characters and intriguing but utterly irrelevant detail. Lots of detail. Worldbuilding-levels of detail. People then respond, in comments and answers, to the detail, in the process losing the pearl of the actual question in the vast dunes of sand that are all that other stuff.

Removing the fluff lets us focus on the actual interpersonal skills, rather than reacting to the surrounding story.

Closing

It’s also important to promptly close bad (off-topic, too broad, unclear) questions! Don’t leave poor questions open because you hope that OP will come back and edit soon; you can always retract your vote (or vote to reopen) once it’s improved. The longer bad questions stay open, the higher chance that it gets answers.. and those answers get votes.. and it goes to HNQ.

All questions should be looked at with a (constructively) critical eye. Ideally, we catch the common issues and fix them before they hit HNQ, thereby reducing the amount of drama they attract.


What’s “controversial”?

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but here's some examples of topics that often attract a lot of arguing in comments and answers, based on past HNQ experiences:

  • Politics
  • Religion
  • Gender issues
  • Racial issues
  • Dating and sex
  • Veganism

When you see a new question about something that could be controversial, please be extra mindful of the potential for negative attention when you're deciding if or how to edit. Yes, often the particular worldviews / identity / etc. of the people involved will be relevant, but ultimately we’re trying to build a Q&A index -- consider if simply saying, for example, “my parents and I have opposite political opinions” is sufficient to describe the situation. Or at least, if that’s sufficient for the title.

We also should keep in mind that while OPs are naturally going to be biased, we need them to describe behaviors as objectively as possible rather than just their judgments. If there's none of that included, consider if it's too unclear to answer without more objective examples and should be closed in the meantime.

To be clear: I'm naming these categories because when we were taken off HNQ, I saw a lot of users commenting along the lines of "some people get offended by everything, so we shouldn't bother caring about whether a title could be offensive". I disagree. We can and should anticipate when a question is likely to cause offense and take reasonable action - from editing, up to removing from the sidebar - before we get lots of complaints. The last thing I want is for someone browsing StackExchange to see, completely out of context, a title that's offensive or triggering. As an example, it's fine to ask a question about your open relationship, but take a minute to read the title through the lens of a woman who's used to the internet being full of sexist/misogynist dudebros - that's exactly what we missed back in October.


So, when do we remove stuff?

Posts will only stay in HNQ for 72 hours. So we can't take too long to decide whether or not a question is salvageable.

If...

  • we've already tried editing it
  • it's not closeable
  • protecting it doesn't help

...then we'll have to consider removal.

I think some questions will just never be appropriate for the sidebar, however politely worded they may be. Most likely this will be a case-by-case judgment call. The only category I think we'll end up removing more often than not is questions about sex; the topic is always going to make some people feel uncomfortable to see, so we probably don't want to be advertising ourselves to the rest of the network with those questions. I think a good guideline for deciding whether or not it's appropriate for the sidebar is to ask whether or not you could have a conversation at work about it. Considering StackExchange is overall aimed at a professional audience and a lot of traffic is people browsing at their work computers, I think that's a reasonable rule (and in tune with the reasons why we were taken off the sidebar in the first place). The other questions will still be here, if they like our site enough to browse around some more.

(I know workplaces can differ in what's allowable so.. let's say average tech company? What I'm getting at is that gender and racial issues are often discussed in a work context - so those could be fine on HNQ, even when they're difficult to moderate - whereas, e.g., developing a healthy sexual ethic is typically not.)

Another reason would be if we have reason to suspect the OP is a troll, or if the OP is otherwise being part of the problem.

To a large extent I do expect this will result in the mod team discussing and making a call. That's kind of why we're here - to step in and take action when the system and community can't. Just like with other moderator actions, you're always free to raise a discussion on meta so we can explain our reasoning and work out some more concrete rules and precedent.

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    This is excellent! It's exactly the level of detail I was hoping for in a response when I posted this question. I'm also a huge fan of the suggestion to make the questions as clinical as possible. I've noticed even while we've been off of HNQ that sometimes the extra details can detract from the question itself, and answerers get caught up trying to solve a problem that is tangential to the interpersonal skills at hand. – Rainbacon Apr 9 '19 at 2:22
  • I find your list of "controversial" subjects to be controversial. – apaul Apr 9 '19 at 2:47
  • You're effectively making a values judgment by labeling certain things controversial. – apaul Apr 9 '19 at 2:54
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    @apaul, I don't know what other way to put it. Those are categories that I have observed to require a lot of moderation to keep comments and answers in line. A common response to our HNQ removal was "but there's always someone to find anything offensive [so we shouldn't even consider it]!" and that's my attempt to address it: sure, any topic can be made controversial, but we shouldn't lie to ourselves that certain topics commonly inspire more controversy than others, and we can attempt to ward that off preemptively. – Em C Apr 9 '19 at 3:15
  • For example, I don't think veganism should be a controversial topic, but basically every question posted about it on here that went on HNQ ended up with a bunch of angry comments and soapboxing non-answers. So I think it's important to be aware of that and do what we can to make the question less of a target for such responses. – Em C Apr 9 '19 at 3:19
  • Speaks to my initial issue with the "controversial" label. Is the subject/question controversial, or are the answers/comments to blame? Either way, you end up either not talking about certain subjects, talking about them in coded language, or talking about them openly while penalizing folks for doing so. You're adding stigma to topics where often the central interpersonal issue is the stigma. – apaul Apr 9 '19 at 3:51
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    You all are obviously free to make a decision about how you want to handle these things, just... Well, be self aware about what you're doing, why you're doing it, and the consequences of doing it. – apaul Apr 9 '19 at 3:54
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    @apaul the reason Em wrote this answer is to reassure people we will do exactly that. Like written in the last paragraph: We will discuss and make a call. We understand your worries, but at the same time, we already think about defending an action on meta for about every action we take... That already requires being self-aware about what we're doing, why, and the possible consequences. – Tinkeringbell Apr 9 '19 at 12:57
  • So, is IPS actually going back on HNQ or is this all still hypothetical? – apaul Apr 9 '19 at 16:23
  • @apaul last news we've had is "we're working on it" chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/message/49780406#49780406 – scohe001 Apr 9 '19 at 16:30
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    Good to know that important community decisions are still buried in chat, and/or decided by mods and CMs behind closed doors. @scohe001 – apaul Apr 9 '19 at 16:33
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    @apaul, hardly closed doors - the decision to go back on HNQ eventually is based on the community voting and posts on meta (here and linked). We haven't made meta announcements because there's nothing to announce yet; mods and CMs are basically just discussing logistics and timing since the CMs are the ones who actually flip the switch to put us back there. – Em C Apr 9 '19 at 16:39
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I already posted this here (7 upvotes, no downvote) but since the question was split into two, here we go again:

I just wanted to point that, in my opinion, if an OP asks that their question be remove from HNQ, their request should be respected.

Also, I believe that OP should be made aware of this possibility when their question hit HNQ (so that they don't feel trapped in this downfall of possible bad and judgemental answers).

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  • Your last point sounds like a feature request to be formulated on meta.SE, for it'd imply additional code to write. Granted they agree with that FR, it'd take some time to be actually implemented. – avazula Mar 18 '19 at 9:20
  • @avazula I was more thinking of leaving a comment when someone question hit HNQ like: "Hey, your question just hit HNQ, which mean it will be much more visible. Let us know if you want out!" – Ael Mar 18 '19 at 9:22
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    I disagree with that proposal for three main reasons: firstly because it adds up quite some work to (community) moderators. Second because that's not what comments are for and if we then say to users "comments are here solely for asking for clarification/suggest improvements", then we're contradicting our guidelines, and last but not least: it'd increase the chances of users wanting to withdraw their questions from HNQ → additional work for the mods + custom site behavior (which may decrease our chances of actual graduation one day). – avazula Mar 18 '19 at 9:27
  • @avazula So you think OP shouldn't be granted the possibility to have their question remove from HNQ? Or are you just disagreeing with the commenting part? If so, how would you suggest we made OP aware of the possibility to see their question remove from HNQ? – Ael Mar 18 '19 at 9:34
  • I'm disagreeing with making them aware of their post hitting HNQ. Having a question hitting HNQ is a possibility across the whole SE network that, to me, OP should know (after all, most of the people here join(ed) IPS after discovering it from HNQ). If you feel that's unclear then we should edit the site guidelines accordingly, not our moderating behavior. OTOH I don't mind (at all) allowing OP to ask for withdrawal of their question, even though if you want to avoid hitting HNQ, you could use an anon account (which is what's done on all other SE sites). – avazula Mar 18 '19 at 9:38
  • how would you suggest we made OP aware of the possibility to see their question remove from HNQ? → I'd put it in the help center/site guidelines or linking the meta post if they ask about it in comments. – avazula Mar 18 '19 at 9:40
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I would prefer that moderators see this tool purely as a last resort, as it seems like that was the reason it was added.

It sounds like most problems with the HNQ can and should be handled in other ways. Edit, vote, vote to close, delete and/or move comments to chat, delete rude and/or bad faith answers, etc.

If we really want to limit topics from appearing in HNQ that probably should be handled by regex. Leaving that up to moderator discretion is likely to lead to an awful lot of meta noise, and we probably shouldn't want that.

Removing posts on the author's request is probably one of the few really good reasons to be using this tool. (I know I've written posts that I wish I could have pulled off of HNQ)

Removing posts because they've become "too much work to moderate" is probably a really bad reason to use this tool.

I'd like to preemptively caution the moderation team, and the community on this one. Regardless of why the decision to use the tool was made, be prepared to justify that decision, in public, on meta, each and every time it's used.

People who are already heated about a post, are very likely to turn that heat toward the mods and the community when a post is pulled from HNQ. We've already had heaps of "not nice" posts about censorship here.

If you're a moderator, and you look forward to wielding this power, you probably haven't given this enough thought.

This tool should be used sparingly with a painful awareness that you may be putting out fires with gasoline.

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  • Very well said. I think this fits perfectly with the theory of moderation. – Rainbacon Mar 17 '19 at 23:11
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    What do you put under 'too much work to moderate'? – Tinkeringbell Mar 18 '19 at 8:03
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    I don't think I agree with that: "Removing posts because they've become too much work to moderate is probably a really bad reason to use this tool". What would you suggest we do if bad answers and comments keep piling up and we aren't able to keep up, aren't able to delete/edit/comment fast enough? – Ael Mar 18 '19 at 9:26
  • Regardless of why the decision to use the tool was made, be prepared to justify that decision, in public, on meta, each and every time it's used. Will meta accept the explaination of "Because we can't find a way to ask this in a way that won't draw external negative attention on us"? – mag Mar 18 '19 at 14:55
  • Definitely agree with the caution! On topics, part of the reason we were taken off originally was because the CMs felt regex wasn't sophisticated enough. So I think this will be a very useful tool to have for some questions. But, which ones doesn't have to be entirely up to mod discretion - I'm hoping to hear some community input on what, if any, topics we think shouldn't be in HNQ (which we'd need to do anyways for regex changes). – Em C Mar 19 '19 at 16:52
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Transferred from the original question

Gonna back up my statements here with more explanation.

"I believe that the mods and the community can communicate, to get at least a general agreement to remove the question that got on HNQ."

Mods and the community can bring up these discussions in meta and in chat, and see how the community stands. I know that it takes time to do this sort of thing, but if the question is generating some negative attention within the first 24 hours, and editing is yielding no positive results, mods can inform the community that the question has the option to be removed from the HNQ if it is not already on it.

"It should be attracting too much negative attention in terms of abusive language, a broad range of strong opinions, and other negative attention."

I can think of several questions that were hard to edit because of what happened in the situation, because some people were being racist, homophobic, etc. Those questions need to be carefully considered and edited first and discussed among the moderators before being considered for the option of removal from HNQ.

I also want to mention that we- the community- have the ability to edit such questions. I want to see more people practicing prudent language in difficult situations to describe, and using neutral instead of aggressive language to describe situations. As such, some situations cannot be neutral, because it's someone versus someone else, and the asker is asking about conflict resolution.

"I'm not a mod so I think the mods can describe further what they've seen in the early days of IPS, how they had to put out fires that came up on controversial posts, etc."

I would love to see the mods confer and come up with some kind of agreement on what they will be willing to do and what they are considering, and what they won't do. "Yes, maybe, no" categories? The important concept here is transparency. We understand that moderators cannot reveal absolutely everything but we would like to see how you agreed on decisions be transparent as reasonably as possible.

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  • I definitely agree that it would be good to have some of the mods weigh in on what they've seen in the past. – Rainbacon Mar 16 '19 at 21:17
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    @Rainbacon and ElizB we will. I'll ask the others about their opinions and we'll get back to you on this :) – Tinkeringbell Mar 16 '19 at 21:32
  • @Tinkeringbell Any progress on discussion about this? If I missed anything, let me know. – ElizB Apr 5 '19 at 15:14
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I already posted this here (no upvote, 1 downvote) but since the question was split into two, here we go again:

I believe, the worst problem we have with HNQ is when people start being judgmental (in a not nice way) in answers.

Not nice answer make your site looks like we are not a safe place. That asking question here might get you lynch and that you should think really hard before asking a potentially controversial question (like one involving veganism for example). Plus, not nice answers affect negatively the OP and put them in not so nice place.

So, I'm definitively not suggesting we should ban veganism question from HNQ (please don't do that). However, removing a question that attracts too many not nice answer might be a good solution.

(I'm not talking about not nice comments here because, in my experience, bad comments are easier to deal with than bad answers).


For people wondering what "too many not nice answers" is, I don't have a very strong answer, but maybe we could say that a ratio of 1/3 not-nice answers or more is where we draw the line?

Another solution would be to stop bothering yourself with numbers and let mods decide (based on not-nice comments and not-nice answers) that enough is enough.

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    I feel we might be able to handle this with 'lighter' moderation tools than HNQ removal: editing answers, question protection so only those that are already active on IPS can answer, comments reminding people they should answer the question asked and respect its premises, and downvotes on such answer to let people know they're unwanted. That, combined with your other point of 'remove when the OP asks' might already be more than enough... So (and this is entirely personal and not the opinion of the entire moderation team) I feel we should not make this one of the criteria for removing. – Tinkeringbell Mar 16 '19 at 19:27
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    "Not nice", while good in intent, is a very vague standard. – apaul Mar 17 '19 at 22:07

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