Since HopelessN00b wants to have this discussion in public, I will oblige.
I was on the site today because we got a few different emails this past week about it. One was Chris S, stepping down as a moderator - I'll let him talk about that if he wishes to; moderators are volunteers, and are of course free to step down at any time. The rest were complaints about actions taken by HopelessN00b. This is also not particularly unusual; we get complaints daily about moderators on all sites. Usually I spend a few minutes checking out the situation, a few minutes more explaining it, and everyone goes on with their lives.
Instead, I found this:
(actually I was looking at a different page that displays the last 500 comments, but the gist is the same: a wall of identical comment, posted in groups, each a few seconds to a few minutes apart)
This is a bit worrying, but not entirely unusual - moderators or regular users engaged in a big cleanup campaign often have histories of repetitive actions. So I dug a bit deeper - starting with the links in the comments themselves, then in recent meta activity. Nowhere did I find any hint of a massive question cleanup campaign. Now I'm getting a bit worried, especially since these closures (and comments) are still appearing while I'm researching. I checked chat - both the public rooms associated with Server Fault, and the private moderator room. Nowhere was there any discussion of this, save for a lone message from Hopeless in a nearly-abandoned chatroom noting that he had been "closing webpanel questions by the hundreds".
At this point, I'd already spent an unexpected amount of time on this, and from the look of things I'd be spending a lot more. And closed questions were still piling up; as a final sanity-check, I reviewed a sampling of them - some were obviously questions about administration panels, but this wasn't consistent; the majority of those I checked made no mention of such tools.
Handling a rogue moderator
When a normal member of the site starts making massive, controversial changes without prior discussion, the standard procedure is to immediately suspend the account in order to stop the bleeding, then discuss the matter. But suspending a moderator doesn't accomplish much. So the remaining option is to remove moderator status, and then attempt to discuss whatever is going on - if the situation can be resolved quickly, this need not be a permanent change in status; if the situation goes south, suspension is then an option.
So I removed Hopeless's moderator status and sent him a message requesting that he explain the situation (the other Server Fault moderators were also copied on this message).
I've yet to receive a response.
Thus far, I've identified 572 questions closed with some variation on that comment over the past 2 months. The average score was 0.1, the maximum score was 19. The comment was replied to 29 times; Hopeless responded to 1 of them. These questions will need to be reviewed; Michael has started a separate discussion that will help determine the criteria which should be applied to them.
After being asked to post this publicly, I finally got a response privately last night. It did not attempt to answer the one question I asked.
I'll be going through server logs this weekend to attempt to determine what was actually being done here.
- As a moderator, your actions now represent the community, so you will be held to a higher standard of behavior. You are an ambassador of trust, with the same sorts of rights that the official development team and community coordinators have.
That trust has been betrayed. I am extremely disappointed in how this situation has played out. I will be working directly with the remaining moderators to ensure that this community's standards are being upheld and communicated effectively, and that any damage is repaired.
Update / conclusion: 4/13/2015
I've finished my analysis of Hopeless's activity as a moderator on Server Fault. This is a bit long; there was a lot of activity - more on that in a bit. For those of you who aren't interested in the details, the summary is that I was relieved to find that Hopeless has acted as an enthusiastic but largely competent moderator, serving the community here faithfully except when it came to responding to questions/concerns regarding his actions and in communicating his efforts in cleaning up old posts. Related to this, I've identified two areas where our tooling is deeply lacking and likely exacerbated the problem.
Following his election in December, Hopeless was off to a good start: he handled a respectable portion of the flags raised here, participated in review, and participated actively on meta. The only oddity I found in his actions at the start was a group of 581 questions that he locked for Historical Significance in his first week; this is notable for two reasons:
- only 241 of them were closed prior to being locked, and
- that's more questions than had previously been locked in the entire history of the site. (for reference, historical locks are a bit special - it was added for "too big to fail" posts that were no longer allowed but too good to lose, and posts where it is applied disappear from the homepage and from normal question lists... So it's a bit hard to notice when it's being used - more on that later.)
A good chunk of these were subjective polls and GTKY stuff from the very early days of the site - stuff like What's your favorite Linux distribution? or What is the best VPN technology to implement in a SOHO setting?; it's hard to get upset about locking them, unless you're inclined to complain that they weren't just straight-up deleted. Still, this was a sign of things to come in that I can find no discussion of it anywhere.
Then in early January, things started to get interesting: Hopeless started cleaning up tags. Starting with a set of web admin tags he'd identified back in September, and then moving on to a much larger group of tags. The week of January 19th he edited tags on 875 questions, closed 399, deleted 221, and locked 817; he then slowed down for a few weeks before breaking his own record during the week of February 16th with 988 tag edits, 262 closures, 546 deletions and 723 locks... and 1,513 tag merges.
The locks and merges need a bit of explanation. In the big tag burning thread, he mentions using locking as a tool to prevent bumping too many questions to the homepage:
questions that are locked for historical significance can be ?-edited (therefore, retagged) without bumping them to the top of the active list... so I'll be temporarily locking questions I retag to minimize disruptions.
Not all of the locks were temporary; of the 2342 questions locked in January and February, 869 remain locked.
The merges are harder to explain. Indeed, someone asked about them on February 26th, but didn't recieve any clarification. We discussed this in chat at one point, after I'd noticed the merges and complained; apparently, the idea was to get rid of the tags first by merging everything into [off-topic] and then go back through that tag and perform any necessary cleanup. It helps a bit to read this answer, in which Hopeless responds to a user complaining about a tag he was using being suddenly gone; if you think of tagging more in terms of a physical filing system rather than a folksonomy, the concern over having too many of them is understandable.
January also marks the start of using a canned comment when closing questions, with the week of the 12th seeing a whopping 312 questions closed with:
This question appears to be off-topic because it is about
working with a service provider's management interface, such as cPanel.
By late February, Hopeless had refined this message to its current form, and was using an app to integrate it into the moderation UI. Note that the question I just linked to is the only discussion of this I've been able to find, and concerns a newly-asked question. This becomes easier to understand upon realizing that a substantial portion of these questions were also being locked, at least temporarily - thus they would've immediately disappeared from all normal question lists, and their authors - although still notified of the comment - would be unable to respond to it.
After the initial tag cleanups, Hopeless was relying less and less on tags to filter questions and more on keyword searches for the names of various web administration tools. He was still using [off-topic] as a filter for retagging, but by the week of March 30th retagging had taken a clear backseat to closing: 74 retags, 227 closures (95 of them coupled with the "webadmin" comment), 67 deletions and 74 locks. Last week saw 110 closures (79 webadmin), 82 deletions, 33 locks and 35 tag edits.
To recap: this cleanup started with this meta post, where the only mention of closing is in answers noting that normal rules should be applied. It continued through a tumultuous tag burnination and transitioned into an effort to eradicate all mention of web admin tools from questions on the site. There was no discussion of this beyond the original tag cleanup; locking - though likely well-intentioned - obscured the scope of the effort for months. Very few others were involved in any way; a handful of people did participate in retagging, but the majority of the work - indeed, the majority of editing and moderation period - over the past three months have been the work of one solitary individual. A new off-topic reason was added via comments, without review by either the community or the rest of the mod team, and was single-handedly made into the single most-used close reason on the site, in the process avoiding both the guidance given to moderators for using off-topic reasons, and the restrictions built into the system itself for creating them:
The moderator who created a reason cannot approve it himself; we want at least two people to be reviewing these before making them available. Approving a reason also activates it, and as noted above, only 3 reasons can be active at any one time on most sites - to approve more than this, an existing reason will have to be deactivated first.
I believe Hopeless had good intentions here. But by playing the maverick, he left himself and the rest of us open to criticism and without a clear defense. If he had taken just a little bit of time to talk openly about what he was doing, if he had been more receptive to criticism, this all could have been avoided.
The past couple of weeks appeared to be where things started taking a serious turn for the worst, so I went through and reopened 20-some questions closed during that period where any mention of web admin systems was clearly incidental. Some of the moderators have been doing their own reviews and reopenings as well. Going forward, we'll need to do a more structured review - at minimum, there are several hundred questions where historical locks currently prevent any attempt at community moderation; those should probably be removed before anything else. I'm open to suggestions on how to conduct a productive review of them.
In closing, I'll add that doing this analysis has been an eye-opener for me:
- The guidance we give to new moderators regarding the necessity of communication is lacking. There's an introductory email that touches on it, and of course a whole lot of history on Meta Stack Exchange... But not everyone reads the manual. This stuff needs to be baked into the UI itself, particularly when...
- Extreme outlier events should trigger something. I'm still thinking about what exactly this should involve, but for sure quadrupling the number of locked questions on a site should cause something to happen. At minimum, it shouldn't go unnoticed by...
- High-reputation users need better information. The current 10K tools were adequate back in '09, but a lot has changed since then. At minimum, these folks should be able to review the number of posts being deleted (and for what reason) over time, the number of questions being closed over time broken down by reason (including custom comments!) and the number of locked questions independant of things like migration.
- And it's probably time to revisit the notion of bespoke review tasks for those situations where you really need to get a lot of folks involved in something like a tag cleanup effort. Or... reviewing 1500 locked questions.
So since this is a discussion question I'd like to discuss something tangentially related to the change in mods, which is a philosophy on mass-closures.
For my part I've got no problem with closing crap questions. I've even been a participant in some of our community-led mass purges, because some questions are in fact just crap and have no place on this site or any other.
I DO however have a problem with questions being zotted with modlike powers (which is why my close activity dropped off pretty precipitously when I became a mod).
Even assuming many of the questions were crap (which is probably the case) 500+ questions getting zotted almost certainly implies some degree of collateral damage - as to how much sadly I've not got the time to really dive in and see, but a cursory glance at a few questions from the list didn't immediately scream "this is crap". (That's not to say the questions weren't crap, but it wasn't so blatantly obvious that I would modhammer them myself without spending some time reading the questions and answers).
Collateral damage (or for that matter legitimate closures of crap) nearly always result in some ill feeling from the person whose question was closed(as the whine-fest here on meta will attest to), however the best and most defensible action is for those closures to come from the community: Multiple high reputation users demonstrating a consensus what a question is not suitable for the site.
As moderators we are elected to represent the community, but we are not the community in toto. Our ability to unilaterally close or delete questions is meant to be used to handle exceptional cases: Grossly off-topic questions ("plx fix"), spam, abusive language, and the like. A quick sampling of the top 3 questions from Shog's image moderator is using special powers to do something
As Moderators our votes to close or delete content are immediately binding - that's not a power that should be treated lightly.
I'm of the opinion that question purges of this nature should be community led: Assemble a list of "bad" questions (like we did for bad tags), post them publicly, and let the community apply normal-user close votes to them so there's a visible consensus that they're crap and don't belong (ideally from more than the same 3/4/5 people on every question).
If The Community really thinks these questions should be closed then The Community needs to get off its collective ass and slap some freakin' close votes on them so they go through the review queue process and the closures are truly coming From The Community (with as many being closed by normal users as possible) and not From The Moderators (as unilateral actions).
A healthy Stack Exchange site is moderated by its community.
If Server Fault has really reached the point where it needs full-time moderators to "clean up" the site that tells me the community is dying (no longer interested in stewardship and growth), and perhaps it's already too late to save the site at all...
I guess this'll teach me to ignore meta for a few days. ;)
This bothers me primarily because HopelessN00b is loud and brash and confrontational, and ran on a platform of, to put it n00b-ily, "slamming crap closed." He was duly elected, despite many SE employees (including you, Shog9) saying you thought it was a terrible idea because he's loud and brash and confrontational.
I think it's perfectly reasonable for HopelessN00b to conclude that the people who elected him wanted him to "slam crap closed."
Should he "slam crap closed" unilaterally without informing anyone that he's going to close 500 questions? Probably not. Is it reasonable for him to think that he was elected to do precisely that? Maybe. Maybe not. It's academic at this point.
I think it would smell better, however, if one of the SE employees who hadn't publicly campaigned against a moderator during the election cycle was the one to temporarily strip him of his mod privileges.
From the comments here and the answers and comments on Michael Hampton's post about Admin panel questions, it seems pretty clear to me that:
- we have broad agreement that those sorts of questions are usually off-topic
- the vast majority of the questions Noob closed (possibly all, but I don't think multiple people are going to go through the whole list and check them all) were, in fact, off-topic.
So at this point, it seems like all that's needed is for Noob (and possibly other mods) to agree that before undertaking any big clean-up effort they'll make a meta post about it to let everyone know what's going on and give people a chance to comment.
Adding to the Drama
I know I probably shouldn't add to the drama of this situation, but I can't help it - I do have an opinion and I suspect it's shared by many:
There really seems to be an intent on the part of SE staff to "get" Noob:
- Shog's initial answer comes across to me as very emotionally loaded, e.g. statements like:
Now I'm getting a bit worried, especially since these closures (and comments) are still appearing while I'm researching.
If he's in the middle of what he thinks of as a simple cleanup, it's not surprising that they're still appearing.
At this point, I'd already spent an unexpected amount of time on this, and from the look of things I'd be spending a lot more. And closed questions were still piling up;
Again, this isn't surprising, if there are lots of closed questions and someone decides they need to check them all, they can expect it to take time.
- The comments about timing of responses:
I'm not going to take the time to put together a timeline of when Noob first mentioned he'd been de-modded, posts here, responses, etc. But I don't think it's unreasonable for Noob to spend some time thinking before posting.
What I do think is totally unreasonable is this comment
It did not attempt to answer the one question I asked.
"Explain yourself" is not a question, but the response you got is definitely an explanation of what Noob was doing. It's a clear enough explanation for the rest of us to understand, it's hard (impossible) for me to understand how it can be interpreted as not attempting to answer the "question."
- This comment on Noob's answer to the other Admin panel question:
You avoided answering my question yesterday and you are straight-up lying here. I'm done trying to protect you.
Now this is overwrought drama: another comment about "avoiding answering" (does Noob get paid for being a mod? is there an SLA for mods to respond to SE staff?) and now Noob's opinion on Admin panel questions and what to do about them is labelled "lying"? I've re-read Noob's answer 4 times now, and it's all his opinions, so to label that lying really looks to me like flying off the handle.
My response to Shog, since I've been accused of avoiding answering his question:
from Shog9♦ sent 22 hours ago to HopelessN00b
Just saw this. Hundreds of questions closed with the same canned comment linking to old meta discussions that don't explain the closure. No new meta discussion.
Your moderator access has been revoked pending the resolution of this discussion. from HopelessN00b sent 16 hours ago to moderators
As mentioned in the meta thread, I find the request for an explanation a little confusing (as well as disheartening). Administration panels are explicitly off-topic, per the Server Fault "on-topic" page, and if I recall correctly, that was made explicit before I was elected a moderator.
Even before that time, for at least 2 years, these questions were routinely hammered shut for one of the (retired) minimal understanding, (rewritten) "non-professional" or existing "business environment" close reasons, and I briefly continued in that tradition until I got tired of being notified by by people asking me to explain how their administration panel question was in one of those categories, so I made up a custom close reason. At first, just that first sentence, but people complained or wanted an explanation in notifications to me, so I expanded it and linked what I consider to be the two "best" meta threads which explain why administration panels are off topic.
There is no new meta discussion precisely because this is not a sudden change, or a controversial one. The only change of note is that I left a specific, direct custom close reason explaining exactly why the question was closed. In fact, if you look at the existing ask date of questions containing an admin panel, you'll find only a handful (literally less than five) that were asked this year, and are still opened. This is because I've reviewed literally every question containing mention of a control panel since that time and taken what I believe to be the appropriate action. In a few, very rare instances, they've been left open, almost as rarely, I've edited them to remove mention of the administration panel, and the rest have been closed for being off topic.
I fail to see the difference between this and the hundreds of old shopping questions, list questions and career development questions that I (as well as every other moderator) have also closed. We close these for the same reason - as not to give the impression that this type of question can or should be asked anymore, and because they tend to attract more in kind. Especially, with old, answered questions, the only thing that leaving them open does is give an impression that they are valid questions.
I'm more than a little confused how this situation ended up happening the way that it did. Ignoring the process that was done to close the questions for a moment the way I see it a staff member investigated a situation and asked for information on the why and that information was provided (again ignoring the timeline a little here for simplicity.)
It seems like we now have two instances of drama, one between Shog and Hopeless about a lack of communication beforehand and slow communication after, and one between the community and Shog over language used and how the situation was handled or at least how it was perceived to be handled. To my mind the close reason explained why he closed them, so if there was uncertainty over a larger consensus why not immediately bring that concern to meta to see what the community felt (which in my opinion was already explained in the close reason itself.)
Maybe I'm just being naive but everything I've read throughout the various answers and comments the community at large doesn't seem to have an issue with the actions Hopeless took and in turn he was in a way exercising our will which is what we wanted from him when we elected him. I think everyone can agree that communication beforehand and more mild language afterword would've been preferable but a simple meta post asking for the community's feelings on the subject at present and backchanneling with N00b to sort out everything else would've put out the embers before it started.
I think the issue lies in the SE team's failure to communicate the issue properly.
If a moderator appears to be acting without community consensus, there should be warnings stating clearly the nature of the issue and the correct course of action to take:
HopelessN00b, I'm becoming very concerned about the recent actions you've been taking. It seems you're acting without community consensus, mass-closing questions without seeking input from the user base at large. Keep in mind that moderators are supposed to act on behalf of the community, not in place of it.
Before making any drastic changes to the site, even if supported by established rules, please ask about it on Meta and, and most critically, have the community play its part. Make sure the community is involved in the cleanup. A Meta post directing the community to vote to close such questions would be a great idea—you would simply work in tandem with the close voters.
The response from Shog9 makes this sound like a witch-hunt, not an attempt to actually address a moderation issue. HopelessN00b was confronted with accusatory statements from the start, and did not receive an explanation of why this behavior was not healthy until now: that the community was becoming over-reliant on him. Problems must be explained clearly from the start.
I've only read a handful of the heated debate here, but believe I've got the gist enough to ask:
Would you rather:
- Stack mods/staff investigated potential problems without suspension at the risk of damage and problems to the site/community
- Stack mods/staff stepped in, temporarily removed tools from a mod and investigated safely
2 for me, every time.
People are effectively calling Shog9 out to have handled this really badly, maybe he has, maybe not. The point is no-one yet knows because there is an investigation.
If it turns out Noob did nothing wrong, then mod status will return and what harm was there?
If it turns out there was a problem then it was "nipped in the bud" so to speak.
And I mean nothing ill of Noob, I do not know them (you) at all and may be the best mod the entire internet has ever seen.
However, even people who we think we know can turn out to be doing things they shouldn't, or even just innocently causing an issue they were not even aware of it themselves.
If in a physical company a staff member is suspected of foul play, even if that staff member is highly valued, otherwise extremely good member of the team (etc etc) the company has no choice but to ask them to leave while an investigation is performed.
What else can one do when the facts are not clear, and all evidence is not present? If the problem turns out to be real and without suspension "free reign" is allowed to continue, then the knowledge of an investigation can cause the person to do even more damage.
Even if they do not, the risk is there and is not a risk any decent company should be willing to take.
The site has rules and protocols to follow, and this includes for Staff, and Shog9. And I cannot imagine with his experience that Shog9 would just glibly revoke someone's mod status without good reason, and is just following protocol.
I'm waiting for a response from the person responsible. Hopefully, we can work this out without a ton of drama. For now, just know that removal of mod privileges is the moderator equivalent of suspension - an expedient way of halting a problematic situation until it can be resolved.
Now, isn't that diplomatic?
However, the public demanded the drama, not Shog9.
Sure, you can say he "bit", but imagine yourself in this position, and everyone in comments and answers are publicly calling up your decision, and you find yourself trying to investigate the problem, but at the same time answering to harsh accusations and so having to defend yourself.
Would you manage to not get even a little defensive amongst a handful of answers and 80 comments in what is now your decisions and job being entirely publicly judged.
Perhaps there has been some less than professional words said, and perhaps could have been addressed and approached differently.
But, who among us is not guilty of doing something "not quite perfectly"?
If your hand is still down and you've been a manager of any kind, put your hand up immediately, and stop being in denial.
Yes, Mods are volunteering their time for free, which I fully appreciate, as I'm sure so do Stack.
But volunteering one's time for free is not a ticket to make mistakes which are detrimental to the site and users - being a mod does carry the necessity to uphold quality on the site and be fair to users.
If you are such a mod, and value the site and it's users, then you most certainly should understand when the site puts a hold on someone's mod rights while an investigation is carried out.
Because it's all for the greater good.
And if it turns out Noob did nothing wrong, then hopefully their being a mod and also wanting the best for the site, they will understand why this was done.