Sometime during the weeks of wrangling over the rules-as-written tag it occurred to me that, I am pretty sure, we've fallen into a fundamental error that may be the cause of all the problems:
Tags aren't for sending encoded signals to answer-writers
That's the job of the question body itself, organically, by being a question that people are voting on submitted answers to.
Meanwhile, the job of a tag is fairly boring: categorise the topic content of a question post so that the Q&A can be found more easily by others interested in that topic.
Somewhere along the line we've drifted into treating rules-as-written as a special signal about how a question should be answered. Somehow, we've stopped relying on the question itself to explain itself, and started leaning on this one tag to do part of its explaining. We've even embedded this meaning in its tag wiki.
Since that's not what tags are for though, it's unsurprising that it does a really bad job of that. New users don't necessarily know to even look at the tags, let alone that this one tag has a special meaning that's relevant to them. Established users argue over whether the tag applies to a question or not. Chaos ensues and madness takes it toll on the site and community.
Clarifying, tagging, and moving on has been working
The solution seems to me to return to the basics of how to clarify questions: ask for the question's important features to be clarified by the original poster, and if necessary, decorate the result with matching tags.
It's how every other tag on the site is used: they stay on questions that contain the matching content, are removed from questions that don't, and when they make us go “huh?” we dig deeper into what the question is supposed to be about by asking.
This struck me as a lightning bolt of obviousness some time after the data-gathering proposal flew off a cliff and exploded in mid-air. We were including the step of asking what someone meant when they used the tag as a necessary step to gather good data. So why weren't we already doing that, and calling the whole entire problem solved?
I've been implementing this the past few weeks. I'll see a question that includes the rules-as-written tag, but there's no body or title content that says “hey, this would call for the rules-as-written tag if it weren't already there,” and I'll ask what they meant by the tag. Sometimes it means that they misused the tag, sometimes it means that they left something out of the question.
Net result? A clearer question. And here's the critical part: Nobody needs to know what the tag means to write an on-topic answer — they just need to read the question.
This has been working so well that I think the community should adopt it. Not only does it work, but:
- it's how tags are supposed to be used anyway
- it avoids anyone needing to guess at the intentions of the OP, which prevents conflicts based on different users' readings of the tea leaves (q.v. “how tags are supposed to be used”)
- people who want to engage in RAW-focused questions can trust the tag reflects the question content
- people who want to avoid RAW-focused questions can trust the tag reflects the question content
- it makes voting take care of the answers naturally, because answers that don't answer the question's body are more obvious to all voters instead of to just those who follow the site's arcane meta discussions
- as a follow-on result of that benefit, mods have no need to police answers for being Not An Answer: votes down do the job they've always been meant to do, which is disincentivise poor answers and incentivise fixing poor ones / deleting unsalvageable ones
- it improves every question that receives such attention
- it attracts more relevant answers to RAW questions in a natural way
- it shows that we care about curating quality questions for our citizens who enjoy deep engagement with the RAW analysis lens
- it doesn't require changing the tag's name, just using it like a normal tag
- it doesn't require adding any other tags to “catch” mis-tags from askers looking for “the tag for rules questions”
- it no longer has to be precisely and perfectly applied to questions anyway, because the consequences of the tag's presence no longer includes answers being policed, just whose attention the questions attract; this means that my own and others' drive to find the exact line between a RAW and non-RAW question can be set aside, and we can be more organic and relaxed about figuring out where to add/keep the tag
It is, overall, the absolute simplest and least-intervention way to resolve the issues that everyone has had, on all sides of the dispute.
What to do, as a user
None of this requires mod powers. It's something we can all do to improve the signal-to-noise ratio in the rules-as-written tag.
So when you see a question talking about RAW or engaging in implicit RAW analysis: that's what the tag is for labelling, so add it! It will signal to our RAW analysis experts that there's something worth their attention.
And when you see a question use the rules-as-written tag without any content that would seemingly justify adding it as in (1) above, ask the poster to clarify what they were meaning when they added the tag. When they respond, revise the post to match, either by adding the overt RAW analysis material to the question's body, or by removing the tag. Don't forget to thank them for clarifying!
As strongly as I believe that back-to-basics treatment of this one tag works and will strip away the angst around it and around the subcommunity it's related to, I have experienced incorrectness in the past! If I'm totally out to lunch, let me know where this thing is in error.
- I know that we make an exception to this rule for game tags. That's for good reasons that don't apply to any other tags.
- Note that a question talking about just rules is not enough for it to be about rules as written. The correct tag for “the question is mentioning rules” is the rules tag, which has been blacklisted since it's useless. rules-as-written is not just a synonym of rules!
Responses to objections
This section contains responses to specific objections, in the manner of academic discourse in published papers.
The objection that there is no problem that needs fixing
There are at least two overt problems that would justify seeking a solution, if not this one.
There is considerable community friction over how the rules-as-written tag is used.
There are concerns that altering the tag's usage at all, especially by mods, is a prelude to expunging RAW experts from the site. There are concerns that it is being used as a synonym for rules by site novices. There are concerns that the status quo involves excessive intervention among answers on questions with the tag.
These are all real problems, in the sense that they are a source of community conflict. If this is a solution in search of a problem, finding a problem is by no means difficult, nor a reason to pre-emptively reject the solution as effective for solving the problem of conflict. A rejection must be based on the merits of the solution to resolve the problem of community conflict.
Using rules-as-written to signal what answers are acceptable is a misuse of tags.
Tags must describe body or title content. The job of signaling what answers are acceptable is for the body or the title content. It is a prima facia problem if rules-as-written is being used for a job that is contrary to the purpose of tags.
Again, rejecting this solution pre-emptively because it has no problem to solve is invalid, as the problem it aims to solve has already been explicitly stated. A rejection of the solution must be based on its merits instead.
Regarding the problem of rules-as-written being used to encode information absent from the question itself, it is a direct solution to that problem. Other solutions may be better at eliminating the meta-use of rules-as-written, but the possibility of multiple solutions that would solve the problem is not evidence that the present solution would not work.
There are at least two obvious problems that need fixing. Treating rules-as-written as a normal tag by getting clarification and making sure the question itself is complete before the tag applies is explicitly aimed at solving both the problem of community conflict and the problem of the tag being used for non-tag purposes. How it would accomplish this has been described in detail already.