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Making new users feel welcome is very important, and we've discussed before steps to avoid putting them off. At the same time, we want to encourage new users to follow the correct Q&A approach here. That shows up most commonly when a users posts an 'answer' to a question which is either a new question, is really a comment or does not really fully answer the question. Often, these 'non-answers' get flagged for moderation, and it's then up to the mod team to take appropriate action.

The approach that has been taken on TeX.sx to date in dealing with flagged questions is somewhat different from other parts of the StackExchange network. This became apparent after a meta post and some chat discussion yesterday. It's therefore important to understand the two approaches, before considering whether we should modify what we do.

The current TeX.sx approach works broadly as follows. When an answer is flagged, the moderators of course take a look at it. Assuming it falls into the 'non-answers' category I've outlined above, either a mod or some other 'involved' user leaves a message to the poster. These are usually modelled on those from the building blocks page, for example

Welcome to TeX.sx! Your question won't be seen by many people here so it would be best to repost it as a fresh question. Follow-up questions like this are more than welcome! Please use the "Ask Question" link for your new question; there you can link to this question to provide the background.

or

Instead of posting a “Thank you” as an additional answer, you should thank [user] by upvoting [his/her] answer (with the upward pointing arrow to the left of it; you need 15 reputation points before you can upvote) and accepting it (by clicking on the checkmark). We want to keep the answer space reserved for actual answers, so this non-answer will be removed from public view soon.

The flag is then left 'on' as a bookmark, and the OP is given about a day to return to the site and make a change themselves. If after 24 h nothing has happened, then the mods do remove the item from public view, convert to a comment, or whatever seems most appropriate.

The more general StackExchange model starts in the same way: see flag, look at 'answer', consider its status. The next step in the SE approach is again to leave a comment, but then to immediately remove the 'answer' from public view. The idea is that the user will still get a notification, via the global inbox, of the comment, but that this will be (almost) a private message as the only people who can see the comment will be +10k users. As well as avoiding any look of 'criticism' in public, the idea is that this approach scales to very large numbers of issues.

So what I'd like to invite as answers here is views on the relative merits of the two approaches, in particular seen from the POV of a new user.

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    To explain to anyone not familiar, it was decided pretty early on that we won't say 'your answer will be deleted', but instead say 'removed from public view', as it seemed less critical and because things are not deleted (+10k users can still see them). – Joseph Wright Oct 1 '11 at 7:21
  • A note on the '24 h' thing. This is a rough guideline about how long to wait before deleting. It's flexible and is handled case-by-case. – Joseph Wright Oct 1 '11 at 20:28
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In order to understand why the current policy exists in the first place and why it works, one needs to understand the features of TeX-SE compared to other SE sites:

  • Low question volume. Unlike other SE sites (Stack Overflow, in particular), one can easily read through at least the titles of all questions asked in a particular day in the space of a few minutes. On SO, the volume is a few hundred questions each and every day.
  • Educated audience. Not to sound elitist, but TeX users tend to come from the academic world, and I dare say they know how to behave. Most of the times.
  • Troll-free zone. TeX-SE is not very attractive to trolling and flaming (although we did have an incident or two in the past that ignited the passions). If one is interested in trolling, it's so much easier to do it on Programmers-SE, English-SE, or Meta-SO -- if only for the fact these sites are more discussion-y, while TeX-SE is problem-oriented.
  • Friendly atmosphere. Gentlemanly conduct is predominant -- upvoting competitive answers, giving suggestions for improvement to the best answers, acknowledging the inferiority of one's solution compared to somebody else's. I've seen quite a few enthusiastic comments from new users praising the efforts of somebody which went beyond what was necessary to answer a question.

Features of TeX-SE moderation policy that are often viewed as positive from the point of view of new users:

  • Moderation with a "human touch". The moderators have complained in the early days of TeX-SE that they don't have much to do and practically begging us to flag stuff to justify their existence. Now, probably not so much. But the low flag volume allows moderators to spare some time to be extra nice and helpful to misguided users. Although we do have the comment templates, many people (myself included) just type a "customized" comment with suggestions for improvement instead of outright voting to close.
  • No-downvote policy. It has been established early on that downvoting should be reserved for special circumstances (actively harmful/unhelpful answers), and that downvotes beyond -1 do not serve any useful purpose. This spares the anguish and confusion to new users which are not very clear how SE sites are supposed to work. From experience, it's not very nice to have your first question downvoted without explanation, especially when you tried to make it a "real question" and not just type a sentence or two without context, and I can definitely see how this could chase away potential contributors.

    Our top voters have all very few downvotes, mostly around 20 or so, which is a proof of sorts that few downvotes and comments can work just as well as disciplined downvoting and closing.

Finally, the most important principle in studying difficult to understand and analyze systems:

If it works, don't change it

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    I agree that TeX is so technical that nobody should really end up here by accident – Jeff Atwood Oct 1 '11 at 14:11
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    Reading this answer made me realise something: we need more LaTeX vs. ConTeXt flamewars. I'll go start one now... – Seamus Oct 18 '11 at 8:22
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Acting on a flag firstly means immediately leaving an informative comment for the poster, which also shows fellow users that somebody already cares for it. In encourages the poster to improve his/her question or answer himself.

If I see flags and somebody commented already, I respect the still existing flag as a bookmark which will be taken care of or I would do it myself after some time.

I don't worry much about an answer (which soon will be deleted) being still visible for a short time (can be minutes or hours, depending on activity, don't need to be 24), together with a friendly comment which also demonstrates a kind moderation. The important thing is, that it always will be cleaned.

If there's more action in the future, if there would appear more flags in higher frequency, I'm sure that the time of dealing/deleting would change and the moderation could even be as strict and quick as on other SE sites.

I know other sites with strict and strong moderation, where I noticed experienced helpful users dropped out and new users seemed to be offended and went off. So I very much like being kind and welcoming to new users and friendly to the regulars. Better one friendly explaining comment too much than too less - it can be cleaned up later.

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I think the focus on friendliness is admirable, it can certainly lead to a very nice atmosphere and make new users more welcome.

To provide some context, I'm a moderator on Skeptics, which is probably one of the most heavily moderated sites in the StackExchange network.

What I don't understand is why you have the 24 hour wait before acting on a flag, I don't see the conflict between direct action and being nice to new users. The comment you leave will still be as polite as it is with the current policy, just the non-answer and the comment will be hidden from most users. There is no reason to leave a non-answer around for everyone to see, the poster of the non-answer will still see the deleted answer and will also be notified of any moderator comment on his deleted post.

Closing questions is also a point where often closing immediately is the better option, and not necessarily unfriendly. When a new user posts a problematic question that could be salvaged, I usually close immediately and inform the user in a comment on what is necessary to make the question viable. In those cases I explicitly mention that closing is temporary and explain how to get the question reopened after it is improved. If the intent of the asker is clear I might perform the required edits myself and not close at all, but that is often not possible without reading the askers mind.

The idea behind closing immediately is to prevent bad answers from accumulating. If you don't do that you might end up with and edit that clarifies the question, but invalidates previous answers that tried to answer a too vague question.

One disadvantage of leaving flags around for a while is that a moderator can easily miss new flags, as you cannot rely entirely on the flags indicator in the top bar. Dealing with most flags immediately improves the response time because new flags will be obvious to a moderator just visiting the site, but not necessarily checking the flags tab directly.

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    The 24hr delay is not a delay before doing anything but before doing something like closing an answer. The moderator will (I think) ensure that a proper comment is left but often that's already been left by the person who flagged the post. So the 24hrs is a delay between informing the person that some action will be taken and taking that action. – Loop Space Oct 1 '11 at 17:06
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    Also, there is some value in leaving non-answers around for a short time so long as there aren't many. We all learn by example and seeing someone else leave a non-answer, and seeing the comment, is an example to others not to do the same. So long as there aren't many, and they do get removed in good time, this doesn't clog up the site. Another reason is that then regular users see that there's a new user and can keep an eye out for their further activity. – Loop Space Oct 1 '11 at 17:09
  • When I accidentally posted a second answer, I got helpfully told I could have edited the first rather than trying to leave a comment (which was the accidental answer). But I didn't know really what I was meant to do about the other answer and I ended up with stuff in the first answer referring to the second and an edit noting that that answer had been removed so the content no longer existed. I was just very confused. (Still am, actually.) I think comments may seem helpful only if you already have a clue! O/w you know something is expected but not quite what. – cfr Dec 5 '13 at 2:28

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