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Unless Marco and Stefano beat me to it, I can delete 10-20 answers in a day. These are usually answers that get flagged up by users for not being an answer. I'm fine with that, they're not answers and typically have little value as comments so need deleting (though some do and we do convert these out, when we can).

My problem is we're trying to grow a community at the same time as maintain a system. New users come on here and even with the warning screens, don't always understand that an answer is only ever supposed to be an answer. I've seen people post extremely long comments as answers, often people desperate to get some help on a question (sometimes already answered). They typically have slightly different scenarios through different hardware and software stacks.

My problem is that when I see one of these, my only real option for the system is to delete the post but this hurts because I'm essentially silencing somebody who needs help with something. I want to be able to do something for the user and for the system at the same time.

I consider the current behaviour as a bug. Taking a post that somebody has spent a long time writing and chucking it in the bin without any feedback is rude. I know we have to do it, but as it is, we're not helping somebody who is asking for help.

Extending from that, I think there are a couple of simple feature-requests that could easily remedy how we handle non-answers:

  • Create a should-be-own-question flag.

    I would feel better if instead of outright snubbing a subquestion, users and moderators had the ability to turn something into its own question. In my mind, actioning this function would create a new question, attached to user with a notice that linked it back to the original question (which the user has already indicated as relevant), similar to the duplicate question notice, just in reverse, perhaps explaining why this is now its own question.

    There would be some missing meta-data and I think moderators would be happy enough writing in titles and tags for these new questions.

  • Notify users when we close or delete something and tell them why.

    When there's a plain non-answer (eg, "Thanks, this really helped" or "This affected me too and the accepted answer worked!!1") it racks up flags fast. We delete them. The first the user finds out about it (AFAIK) is when they go to their profile page or the question and see a red answer.

    When things are deleted, we should have reasons, just like when you close something. This reason should be based off the flags (again, just like with close flags) but a moderator should be able to tailor the message so they can add extra detail.

    We had an incident last week that resulted in quite a long disagreement over how we moderate things. Up-front communication, built directly into the closing/deleting system would help new users understand the system, help make them improve their questions and hopefully would encourage them to stay on a site where they could see that the moderators aren't robots.

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    I really like your second point, but I currently use comments (before deleting) to essentially the same end ("welcome to AU, I've deleted this because [...]"). Rather than preventing moderators from commenting on deleted posts, maybe the comment field should pop open with a little reminder to leave a message. This might remind me to do it every time, whereas now I have to undelete the post first, if I forget to comment. – Stefano Palazzo Jun 7 '11 at 11:48
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    On the first point: I think an option to convert answers into questions would work brilliantly in principle, but I suppose many of these answers will be very low quality, and we won't convert them after all (just a suspicion). – Stefano Palazzo Jun 7 '11 at 11:52
  • I think 'turning away users for the sake of the "system"' is a very bold path to take. The should-be-own-question flag is the better of these two options IMO. That way the user learns the "system", and the site will continue to grow. If a new user has a genuine piece of information they want to share, yet are pushed away, censored, erased (whatever you want to call it) then soon there will be a small group of elites, and a large group of potential users that will no longer be interested in this SE. – boehj Jun 9 '11 at 13:29
  • Question unreleated to the discussion... does this thread really need the "bug" tag? Its not technically a bug with the system. – Thomas Ward Jun 9 '11 at 19:00
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    @EvilPhoenix I consider it to be a bug that we're allowed to close things without giving users some indication why. It's more of a process-bug than a technical one but it has technical fixes... IMO, anyway. – Oli Jun 9 '11 at 22:21
  • @Oli ah, sorry for asking, but i was indeed curious. Your reasoning makes sense now :) – Thomas Ward Jun 9 '11 at 22:36
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You can add a comment to the post prior to deleting it - doing so will notify the user in the StackExchange™ SuperCollider™ Global Inbox and since they are the owner of the post they will be able to see it post deletion.

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    This is what I do, I leave a comment (unless it's obvious pure junk) and then flag it. – Jorge Castro Jun 7 '11 at 12:27
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    I guess what I'm really asking for are the tools to do this in a semi-automated, even mandatory way so that we cannot delete things without leaving some sort of indication why. Ideally pulling all this functionality into the one-click-delete moderation screen. – Oli Jun 7 '11 at 12:28
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This is a real issue which deserves to be remedied. I think we (by which I actually mean: Stack Exchange developers, which I'm not) can fix this in a way that does not significantly decrease overall question quality, by:

  • avoiding automatically converting anything into a separate question, but
  • providing users with more powerful, easier, and better documented tools with which to reuse text from deleted posts.

I think the best solution to this problem is what I'd consider a "light" version of what Oli has suggested:

  1. When a user's question or answer disappears for any reason, they should be notified.

    I understand this violates one of Stack Exchange's current principles of notifications--that notifications should always be positive or neutral, and never negative. But the degree to which this violates that principle can be mitigated considerably by wording the notification politely, respectfully, and in a way that doesn't cause people to think a deleted post is something they should take personally.

  2. Make sure all users can see all their deleted posts (both questions and answers) no matter what, and that those posts appear (though in a way that shows they're deleted) to them on their profile pages.

  3. When a user views their own deleted post, provide an expandable section that explains briefly why it may have been deleted. This can be generic, but it should be more than a link to some other page (like the help). Of course it can link to the help for further reading.

  4. For deleted answers, this short, easy-to-read expandable section should explicitly suggest that if the answer was really an attempt to get help with another problem (even if the problem is related), the user should consider posting it as an answer instead.

    The user will be able to copy and paste it--or parts of it--into a new answer, because they will always be able to view the deleted post, and will always be able to find it by looking in their profile.

  5. I believe the quality filters for questions and answers are currently different, such that some posts can be submitted successfully as answers but not as questions. This is based on a conversation I had with someone who couldn't post his question as a question, so he posted it as an answer (and we deleted it).

    I'm not sure the system really does have this behavior, but assuming I am not mistaken (i.e., that it does), if we are going to make things easy on people and support the functioning of the system at the same time, then:

    • The quality filters for questions and answers must have the same standards, or,
    • the quality filters for questions must be at least as permissive as answers, or,
    • whenever the quality filters for questions exclude something that would be permitted as an answer, there must be a more-specific-than-usual message to help the user fix the post.
  6. We should solicit community input as to whether or not the message displayed when a quality filter rejects a post is clear enough that the vast majority of people will be able to fix their post. If it's not, the message should be changed.

    I'm not saying the message should tell users precisely what it was about their post that triggered the filter. Instead, I advocate that even a user who has trouble writing well in English should be able to figure out how to fix their post with a minimum of effort (provided they have basic English reading skills, with which to understand the message).

    This might already be the case but personal experience (see above) suggests to me that it might not currently be the case.

Finally, another improvement might be, for user with less than 50 reputation, to put a "Why can't I post a comment?" link everywhere "add comment" would appear for a 50+ rep user. One of the biggest reasons people post non-answer answers is that the site naturally encourages everything to be posted as a question or an answer, even if it should be posted somewhere else or not at all. Enough people make this mistake that the error is clearly in the site design itself more than it is in the users who post non-answer answers.

Such a link should expand to a small section of text, or raise a pop-up (similar to the popups raised by attempting an action like voting with insufficient reputation). New users should not have to navigate to a separate page to understand why they cannot comment. More generally, new users should virtually never have to navigate to a separate page to understand how to use the page they're currently on, except to optionally seek further reading on a site-related topic that they have already--and quickly--come to understand at a basic level.

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