Lately, I'm encountering the following situation more and more often (at least three times this week):

  1. A relatively new user (rep of less than 150, sometimes rep of 1 [ = first post ever]) asks a question.
  2. The question has some problem with it, sometimes it is downright unsuitable for this site (too broad, opinion based, inviting a discussion etc.), but at other times it is something minor such as omitting some details needed for a specific answer, unclear language or even merely not using the style we are used to see on most of our higher quality questions.
  3. The question is voted to close because of said problem, sometimes without any comment, sometimes with a problematic comment - either a vague one ("I can't understand this") or one which won't mean much to a newcomer ("this seems highly opinion based").
  4. The question receives more VtCs and is closed, sometimes along with down-votes. Even at this stage, it is sometimes clear that the newcomer has no idea what did he do wrong.

While I appreciate the need for keeping the Q&A high-quality and on-topic, I am concerned that not only are we missing out potentially good questions which just require some editing to meet our standards, but we are also driving away newcomers - or at the very least are being very uncivil towards them(1).

I think this is problematic.

What can (and should) we do to improve the way newcomers are treated? Specifically:

  1. How can we help newcomers improve valid but low quality question?
  2. How can we help newcomers with non-valid question understand where did they go wrong?
  3. Can we do this in a way which won't seem like a sanction taken against a serious offender?

(I'm not linking examples at the moment as I wish to keep this discussion focused on the general issue - please comment if you feel such examples are necessary)

(1) keeping in mind that to an outsider, our VtCs and downvotes may be perceived as a sanction taken against a serious offender - equivalent to being muted or banned in a forum. And that for good intentioned new users, this "slap on the wrist" seems uncalled-for and unduly aggressive.

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    \$\begingroup\$ possible duplicate of What is the correct way to treat new users of the site? \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs Nov 5 '14 at 14:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ also Handling new users with bad answers \$\endgroup\$ – Wibbs Nov 5 '14 at 14:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ "sometimes without any comment" - I tend to vote to close without a comment when the close reason would say all I would say. That also gives them something to consider as to what got the question put on hold. (Questions don't just get closed full stop, they get closed for a reason that gets stated.) \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Nov 5 '14 at 14:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've improved our meta tagging of [new-users] questions, but all this has been addressed before. Site approachability is another on point. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Nov 5 '14 at 14:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Phil I don't really think it's a duplicate of "What is the correct way to treat new users of the site?" - despite the similar name, IMHO that question reads like a hurt user venting steam (in the wrong place), and top voted answers focus on correcting him rather than dealing with the issue I've raised here. \$\endgroup\$ – G0BLiN Nov 5 '14 at 14:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ I really don't see this sort of thing too much here; I feel that, more than most SEs I've seen, this site is very good at describing why a question is on hold and what the user needs to do. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Nov 9 '14 at 15:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ RPG.SE has been the best SE I've seen about not being a giant bag of dicks to people, but there's room for improvement. \$\endgroup\$ – Smithers Nov 11 '14 at 1:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ One possible improvement/thing to look out for: Being aware of possible ESL problems. Communications across that barrier are easily misunderstood both ways. Other than that, just writing the canned response for Holding in a positive ('Hey let's make this question better before we move forward answering it'), instead of generally negative ('You're doing it wrong'). And this applies across the Exchange, not just with 1st questions by n00bs. \$\endgroup\$ – user23715 Nov 14 '14 at 21:25

There is a misconception in the question

Improving an improvable question is definitely the first step. But it's not always possible; not every question is improvable without asking the asker to improve it themself directly.

And in the meantime, we have a more important priority: preventing other well-meaning users from posting answers to a question that is incomplete, unclear, too broad, or otherwise problematic. Question-closing is to stop answers from being made, not to stop the question from existing. Editing versus closing is a false dilemma because closing doesn't prevent editing. We close, always, based on the current form of the question, not what it maybe might be someday. Editing can happen regardless of whether a question is open, held, or closed.

Putting questions on hold is fundamental to the health of the site

We can't hold back on voting to close. As the SE article "Optimizing For Pearls, Not Sand" says, contrary to most people's intuition, questions are not the most important part of the SE design — the absolute top, #1 priority is always, always, always retaining experts who are willing to write answers:

[…] asking questions on our site is a privilege, not a right. […] If we don’t do our part to cull the bad questions, then we risk alienating the true experts who provide what really matters: the answers!

Questions are a dime a dozen. We will never lack for questions, and can afford to be choosy about them. As poor questions drive experts away, we can not only afford to, but we must reject the poor questions, leaving them to either shape up or ship out. This is a core, fundamental, central, non-negotiable part of the design of SE and every single feature of our site derives from that core principle.

We have to close questions that have issues, no matter whether it might be taken wrong by the asker. We must, or the site dies.

A high rate of quality questions is what makes us different from forums, from Quora, from Yahoo Answers. It is the only value we have to offer over the competition: we are attractive to experts. Being soft on questions means a front page laced with poor questions that experts don't want to answer — but non-experts are happy to add their 2¢ noise to — and that is unattractive to experts. Avoiding that is why SE was created in the first place, closing poor questions (until they improve, or fall off the front page) is the primary mechanism for fulfilling SE's design goals.

Avoiding maybe making a new user feel uncomfortable is necessarily of secondary concern. Our goal has never been to be the most popular site, only the most useful — being more popular degrades usefulness. There is nothing that can be said to change the order of those priorities, while remaining a Stack site.

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    \$\begingroup\$ You raise a valid point regarding the priorities of this site. I'm still dissatisfied with the poor first impression we give, though. Perhaps changing the laconic tone of the [put on hold] message, or having friendlier and more elaborate variant for new users... At the very least, I think it is not too much to ask of the user reviewing a first post to reach out and explain that this is not some unduly harsh punishment, but merely a phase many new posts go through - and that the goal is preventing early answers, giving the question a chance to be improved. I need to chew on this some more... \$\endgroup\$ – G0BLiN Nov 6 '14 at 0:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ @G0BLiN The 'on hold' message was introduced to give that very impression: that it was not final, that it's just temporary so that the question can be worked on. Previously questions just went straight to closed. You're still concerned, so I'm guessing that doesn't work for everybody. Maybe when it comes down to it, the fact is we still closed their question (however temporarily or matter-of-process-y), and for some people that just sucks and is going to feel like punishment, and some will take it personally, and so on, no matter how much we dress it up or reach out or explain it away. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Nov 12 '14 at 7:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ And maybe everyone can just go ahead and take it that way. They can be momentarily put off. They can be that way even if we reach out to them and explain it's not a punishment, and probably will. And then a few minutes later they'll feel a bit better and come back to work with us. And maybe that's fine and nothing to worry about. (Except when that very experience drives them away forever and ever, but if they don't want to put in some effort and work with us they probably won't fit in here anyway.) \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Nov 12 '14 at 7:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener this might be a cultural/language barrier issue - for me "on-hold" seem to still carry a negative meaning (like sending a child to a "time-out", if you will). I tried to come up with a better phrasing for the "on-hold" message, but I'm not sure that's the right approach - I think that getting an additional message from an actual person would do the trick, and the reviewer of the 'first post' seems like the best candidate for that - it's not only getting specific, informative and jargon-free feedback, it's the personal "welcome, this 'on-hold' is a good thing" which matters. \$\endgroup\$ – G0BLiN Nov 16 '14 at 17:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @G0BLiN "On hold" is... neutral at best. It's good for the site, but often bad for the asker, such as when their question will just never suit the site. Telling them putting it on hold is a good thing, every time, would be misleading often enough that it's a bad idea. It all comes back to the fact that we're not actually concerned about being nice to bad-fit (or just bad) questions, and askers who take that personally are going to be a bad fit for the site and we prefer that they weed themselves out early. "On hold" is meant as an accuracy change from the old "Closed" label, not nicer. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 16 '14 at 19:21

We Value Quality

Here on RPG.SE, we strive to generally uphold Stack Exchange-wide best practices as the best way to keep a civil, information-rich discussion going in a community - gamers - that is somewhat easily tempted to schism and argument, if every single RPG forum ever is an effective gauge.

Moderation will always turn some people off. But The Trouble With Popularity is that it's not necessarily the best thing long term. We deliberately Optimize for Pearls, Not Sand and value well crafted questions and good answers over raw traffic or popularity.

This doesn't mean we're dying off - even though people are always "certain" this is impacting the growth of our community, our site traffic is doubling every 2 years, so IMO we're certainly not striking the balance so far over that it drives away most folks. But it will drive away some - and that's OK. Stack Exchange is not for everyone. There's nothing wrong with wanting to discuss and argue and brainstorm - but there's dozens of forums and Reddit and whatnot out there to do that. We hold to our unique format to provide a unique value.

But Also Being Nice

But of course, we want to be nice to folks (in fact, Be Nice is our entire site code of conduct), and not drive them away unnecessarily. SE has struggled with this dichotomy over time, see Stack Exchange is not a forum: the role of "niceness" on Q&A sites. The network even had a "Summer of Love" event to try to remind folks to be welcoming and nice in addition to (but not in place of) upholding our quality standards.

Meta.SE posts like Etiquette for posting civil and informative comments help us understand how to better communicate with new users. On our meta we've tried to refine the FAQ, generate pro forma comments as suggestions for people to use when suggesting changes/putting on hold questions or critiquing answers.

We still need to vote to close, downvote, etc. as is merited. But if you have some extra time, please add friendly, detailed comments. Brief comments are often more poorly recieved than no comments, but not everyone has the time to walk a new user through the paces. If you do, we'd appreciate your help in doing so.


In the end - everyone should try to be nice and communicate with some extra "How To Say It At Work" flair. But some people will take downvotes, edits, closes, etc. personally and hate our format. When that happens we have to overcome the Geek Social Fallacies and let them go. We don't want everyone. We want people who will build something that's not like Yahoo Answers, and not like Reddit, and not like RPG.net/ENWorld/Dragonsfoot/TheRPGsite. Our site appears to be super healthy - views/users are growing, new questions/answers are steady, so there doesn't appear to be significant hindrance to our mission. Fine tuning to ease in more newbies would, however, always be appreciated.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It's comforting to know site traffic is doubling every 2 years. Do we have any figures about user registrations and retention? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Nov 8 '16 at 16:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ Keep in mind we can't share the specific details, but I'm happy to share some trends. New user rate is growing over time; this July was our highest rate of new user addition ever. There's no real retention stats per se because except for the handful of irate people who 'demand to be deleted' there's no real offboarding, but we do have stats on how many users were active on the site for how many days, and the "number of users that visited on at least one day" stat is also doubling every 2 years. Number of posters who posted at least once in a month also hit all time peak in July of this year. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Nov 8 '16 at 18:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ Now in the end that doesn't prove the site couldn't be doing better, and could instead grow 2x year over year if we were friendlier - but it does mean that people that are worried the site is "doomed" and that since someone loudly grumped and ran off it means we're not getting new users, views, and posts overall, can relax. We're growing at a good clip. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Nov 8 '16 at 18:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk If there are more trends like those you cited above that would be appropriate to share, I'd love to see something like a meta Q&A: "how is the site doing?" "Well, here are some things we can see under the hood...." But if you don't have much you're able to share in that vein or if you're just not in the mood for the sniping that would probably come in response to that post, I could understand that. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Nov 12 '16 at 4:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ We are not allowed to share details of the stats, so this is about it. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Nov 12 '16 at 4:23

Optimizing is important

We should optimize for quality like any SE site. I think in that regard RPG.SE works fine. It's hard to distinguish what should count as "opinion" because after all, apart from the simplest rulebook questions, everything here is opinion in one form or another. But the other close reasons are well understood even by people new to the site. They just need to know them.

Communication is key

This is a problem that all SE sites face, but only the smaller ones actually are at a limit where it counts (on SO for example, a bad question is closed in minutes): if someone casts a close vote, that's totally unhelpful. It may become helpful the second that 4 others vote to close, because then, and only then a helpful text is presented. It might well be that a post sits at 3-4 close votes, without any indicator what might be wrong. The poor fellow has to wait for hours until a fifth member thinks the post is bad. In the meantime, he could have already improved it, so it didn't get closed from the start.

Already existing feature

The review queue already has this feature. It will review with a comment attached to the post that gets upvoted when another one votes in that direction. I think that's very nice, because the comments are pre-written, they do not take the time of the voter and they are nice and constructive including relevant links. The same behaviour could be implemented for close votes. The description is already pretty comment-worthy.

People said that this invades their anonymity of voting, but I do not really think that's a point. If the vote goes through, the people who voted are listed by name anyway.

There is a proposal on the SE meta here. This is a feature I would like for all sites.

  • \$\begingroup\$ That proposal is a year old and effectively long since dead. (Another aspect of the problem is that revealing who voted, before the votes are all in, can influence voting behaviour. Revealing them after doesn't do that.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 15 '14 at 19:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie If we use the existing feature as example, you'd have the choice to either leave a reason immediately, or just don't leave a reason and never publicly appear at all. Your vote would still count. The reason why I close-vote something is already stated in the box I tick when I vote, adding it as a comment would save me a lot of time. I cast 4K close-votes on SO and I really cannot spend the time to write a specific, friendly comment for everyone. But a canned comment would do the same, so why not. It's optional, people can still tick "no comment". \$\endgroup\$ – nvoigt Nov 16 '14 at 13:49

Here is a situation I've encountered several times. It's not quite identical to what you describe.

  1. A user posts a question which nobody can answer according to the rules of the site. Maybe it's asking about a houserule, and we're not allowed to talk about houserules unless we have practical experience of playing with that houserule, which nobody has. Maybe it's asking for an opinion, and of course any answer would be opinion-based. Maybe it's asking for a list, and of course any answer would be list-based.

  2. I have a good answer for this user's question. For instance, last week there was a question about "modern games similar to Heroquest", and I could probably name six or seven off the top of my head. Would it be an exhaustive list, such as StackExchange would expect for a high-quality answer to the question? Heck no. But would it be enough to make the user happy? Heck yes.

  3. I'm not allowed to post my answer to the user's question. Maybe I start typing up an answer and the moderators close the question before I can finish it; maybe I don't bother.

  4. I could just post my answer in the comments, y'know? I wouldn't get any points for it, but at least the user would get an answer. But a moderator would try to delete my answer before the user could see it, and I don't want to get in a situation where I'm trying to outwit the moderators.

  5. I watch as the question gets closed for being "not suited to StackExchange". I imagine the user wandering away frustrated because they didn't get an answer to their question. I feel pretty frustrated too.

What I want to do is be helpful and give answers to users, and sometimes the site really works against me.

-- and, I mean, I'm a member of a few other stackexchange sites, and most of them are ghost towns where questions go unanswered and answers go unvoted. So, whatever the moderators are doing here, I have to concede it's working pretty well.

But it's -- y'know -- it's really frustrating sometimes.

Here's a solution that probably won't happen. Remove the karma requirement to read chatroom contents (but keep the karma requirement to post in chatrooms). If someone's question gets closed and is unsalvageable, people could comment: "I wrote you an answer in this chatroom, here's a link to my answer".

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    \$\begingroup\$ All chat rooms (except moderator-specific ones nobody else can see under any circumstances) are visible to everyone regardless of reputation--or even if they don't have a Stack account at all. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Nov 10 '16 at 23:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ Using chat to bypass improving a question for re-opening will not be received well because it's sabotaging the site's ability to collect quality Q&A. However it's rather common to use chat for situations where a question is clearly off topic and can't be salvaged for main-site use. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Nov 10 '16 at 23:47

Yes. We can and we should improve the way newcomers are treated.

I value quality information and quality Q&A very highly. But, like always in life, quality comes at a cost. In the case of Stack Exchange models, quality enforced by community and mod policing comes at an opportunity cost:

Basically every negative comment/vote a new user gets, however appropriate it might seem to the veterans, will have an impact on that users perception of this SE. And thus, every negative comment will lower the chance of this user writing further questions, answering questions and generally staying active on RPG.SE

I honestly believe that the RPGSE community takes the "striving to generally uphold Stack Exchange-wide best practices" (to quote @mxyzplk) quite a bit too far at times. I am active on maybe a dozen different SE sites, and compared to most RPG.SE sometimes feels like a totalitarian police state...

--> Yes, Q&A best practices compliance might be fabulous around here. But at the same time this is having a big impact on the growth of the community.

I feel if RPG SE wants to stay active and alive on the long run community growth and development must be a stronger focus point. This might also need for some of the quality standards being somewhat lowered, as I feel that these goals can be conflicting, especially when it comes to SE newcomers.


I suggest to show a bit of leniency towards new users when it comes to the RPG.SE policies. I'd rather leave a question open, even if it is not 100% optimal and abiding by our rules.

  • How about leaving a comment with your suggestions/remarks/... without putting the question on old or closing it?

I'm not saying do this all the time, but for new users this could go a long way in making them feel welcome: when you come here from other SEs, you are likely not be accustomed to the strict on-hold and close policies around here and such 'drastic' actions might be seen very negatively.

Compare this to using your cars signal-horn: there are societies on earth where this behaviour is very common, expected even, in essentially all traffic situations. But in some other societies, using your horn can be seen as aggressive and an affront.

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    \$\begingroup\$ So what do you suggest specifically? I'm not sure what recommendations to read from here except 'don't do anything to improve their content." \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Nov 8 '16 at 13:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk - while I'd like to see detailed ideas here too, I'd suggest that there's quite a wide range of possible responses between "don't do nothing" and our current practice where a question can be put on hold in less than 20 minutes of being posted... \$\endgroup\$ – G0BLiN Nov 8 '16 at 17:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @G0BLiN Yeah, it would be nice to make the close-reopen cycle faster that 20 minutes, so that it can be a smoother experience while still doing its job. Unfortunately that depends on people being willing to close faster, which we can't force. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 8 '16 at 17:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ Right, but I don't vote up an answer based on its "possible" content, just its "actual" content. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Nov 8 '16 at 18:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk: updated, to make my suggestion clearer. \$\endgroup\$ – fgysin reinstate Monica Nov 9 '16 at 9:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie: I can for the life of me not fathom how you got from my being more friendly to newcomers to close(ing) [questions] faster. \$\endgroup\$ – fgysin reinstate Monica Nov 9 '16 at 9:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also I think we really should take into consideration, that not all users are on RPG.SE 24 hours a day. Not all will be able to post their question, respond to on hold, 5 comments and then rewrite their question all within 20 minutes. \$\endgroup\$ – fgysin reinstate Monica Nov 9 '16 at 9:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Well if you want voting to be measuring who best guessed what an unclear question means instead of measuring answer quality, and think that makes the site friendlier, we don't have much common ground to start a discussion from. RPG.se's promise to askers of quality answers has many moving parts. We're not going to remove closing/hold to be slightly more friendly just to see step 1 of our quality control system never used. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 9 '16 at 15:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ Regarding the suggestion: we mods already do that. (I'm assuming you're speaking directly to mods, because no-one else has the unilateral power to choose between leaving a comment or putting a question on hold. If you meant everyone: we already have that delay built into the system by requiring 5 votes.) \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 9 '16 at 15:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ I was not only talking abut mod action: I also think that the close/hold votes pile up way to quickly from a rather small number of users who seem to be sitting in the review queues 24/7... Just have a look at how short any item sits in our queues on average (seriously, if you could find that out that'd be great). \$\endgroup\$ – fgysin reinstate Monica Nov 10 '16 at 6:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, nobody suggested to 'remove closing/hold'... I simply wanted to raise attention to the fact that too strict of an adherence to quality and policy can be detrimental to to how our community is seen from the outside, and thus detrimental to growth and development. \$\endgroup\$ – fgysin reinstate Monica Nov 10 '16 at 6:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ This has been proposed many times. Here's the question which meta.se uses to close others as duplicates of. See also here, here. In summary: delaying the closing of questions totally defeats the point of closing questions. If you're worried about it turning off new users, instead comment to explain how closing works & that they'll get re-opened once edits have resolved the problem. Education, not permissiveness, is the key to retention in these cases. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Nov 11 '16 at 3:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ These policies are based on years of network-wide learning about community growth and maturity, and have provided long-term growth for RPG.SE. More folks are staying than going, and the Stack is totally okay with losing people who will only stay if the rules don't work the same for them as for everyone else. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Nov 11 '16 at 4:30

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