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Should off topic posts ever get you banned?

+ 3 like - 1 dislike
328 views

Edit by dimension10 as of 2015-01-19: The policy has been modified as proposed in the thread. All warnings made in accordance to the previous policy, that is, the single warning on a self-deleted user, have been retracted.


Somehow someone somewhere decided at some point that "5 off-topic posts will get you banned". I don't know when this happened, as I never saw that before, it just sort of appeared in the rules someone made up. Since "off topic" includes a ton of chatty comments of a silly nature, which pretty much everyone occasionally does (although perhaps they shouldn't), it means that right now anyone can be banned at whim, by simply finding a certain number of off-topic one-liner comments and using them to block the person. This seems a dangerous idea, as it gives a moderator a lot of power to block. Proposed modified rule: "off topic posting gets your comments or answers moved to chat, or, if worthless, hidden". Then you can do it automatically without worry, it can always be reversed if you make a mistake, and there is no chance of blocking anybody for political disagreements at all. This removes the potential for any sort of political blocking on the site. I don't think any good-faith posters should ever be threatened with blocks based on finding excuses to get rid of them.

asked Jan 18, 2015 in Conflict Resolution by Ron Maimon (7,535 points) [ revision history ]
recategorized Apr 2, 2015 by dimension10
"5 off-topic posts will get you banned" indeed sounds like a slippery slope, where was this rule articulated?
I first heard about it when I got emails from the other moderators, who were explicitly threatening to use this rule to block a certain contrarian fellow.
I agree with you regarding this slippery rule, it should definitely not be implemented as written. But in the particular case of VK, I remember he himself asking his account to be deleted, and the deletion happened 24 hours after, does it count as banned?
The rule is articulated in the block log (which is a "public offical post"). @JiaYiyang He probably means the one warning that Vladimir received.
Yes, the request was simultaneous with the warning, but VK has his own issues, and I have no idea what his motivation was, nor do I care. My peeve was the "official warning" I saw regarding off-topic, with the implied threat of punitive action.

3 Answers

+ 3 like - 0 dislike

To make my stand clearer and more formal, I extract my earlier comment and put it here as an answer.

I agree with dimension10, only something as far off as "Why is bamboo poisionous to humans but not to pandas?", or spams like an advertisement for shoes should be considered outright off-topic and be directly handled by moderators. I consider any "constitution" that grants higher power than this slippery and prone to abuse.

In other cases, as long as the user shows attempt to make a conversation about physics, he/she doesn't deserve a ban. If the moderators consider something crackpot-like, they can hide/close the post, and leave it that way unless someone asks for a review; if some posts are off-topic in a particular thread, segregate the considered-off-topic posts and move them to chat. This way I really don't think efficiency will be compromised.

Remember, one of our goals is to minimize the power of moderators, and to try to make the site genuinely community-moderated. The ideal role a moderator should play is more of a "technician" or "janitor" etc. A ban should be considered as the nuclear weapon and be handled with extreme care. (Note it's not about VK anymore, he was not banned.)

answered Jan 19, 2015 by Jia Yiyang (2,465 points) [ revision history ]
edited Jan 19, 2015 by Jia Yiyang
Most voted comments show all comments
I agree with this as long as we ensure that the chat section is not filled up with nonsense and crap that should be hidden instead. Off-topic comments that are moved to chat should still be about physics, be of some potential interest to the community, and have a minimal non-trivial level.

Things such as high-school level misunderstandings, personal discussions for example of the type "the whole world sucks and I am a vicictim of everything you are all mean", or physics free name-callings and attacks such ase repeated "you are all fanatics" statements etc ... are not appropriate for chat and should be hidden directly.

If we can agree that chat is not a dustbin to store every garbage and nonsense, but has a physics purpose and minimal level too instead, I agree with this answer.
@Dilaton, agreed.
@Dilaton Great! This means there is no need for a formal vote, as there is no objection from anybody anymore! Should we go ahead and change the policy as suggested here?
@Dimesnion10 You can edit it if you have time, and I will later look at it too.
I agree with everyone, and Dilaton too.
Most recent comments show all comments
Holy crap. May I nominate you for moderatorship?
@RonMaimon, thanks for your appreciation, but I'm afraid I'm not in a good status to be a moderator, mainly because I will be quite occupied by my offline life. But I will try to pay more attention to moderating activities.
+ 2 like - 0 dislike

I suppose the issue here is regarding the interpretation of the rule. After a long private discussion with Ron, I finally figured out that he interprets "off-topic" in a very different way. As I see it, there are two possible ways to interpret "off-topic":

  • Off-topic for the site: Posts about things irrelevant to Physics, e.g. "Why is bamboo poisionous to humans but not to pandas?"
  • Off-topic for the thread: Comments, answers and reviews that are not relevant to the topic of the thread/parent post.

I've been interpreting "off-topic" in both ways, i.e. both posts irrelevant to physics, and those irrelevant to the topic of the parent post, qualify as off-topic. However, Ron suggests that we restrict it to only the first way.

I've believed that interpreting it in both ways is necessary to maintain the quality of the site, but I'm now leaning more towards the neutral regarding this issue as far as punitive actions are concerned. After all, the second interpretation does leave too much room for discretion, which isn't exactly good for the long-term stability of the site.

Regarding the specific issue in hand, let me make this clear: warning Vladimir and deleting Vladimir are completely unconnected issues. Vladimir was warned for posting off-topic (in the latter sense of the word) content (he posted such comments some 49 times, but was warned only once). He was deleted because he requested deletion. He left the site not due to the warning, but because there are no anti-rudeness rules on the site.

There are three possible ways to meaningfully define the new policy:

  1. Posting off-topic content, in either sense of the word will get you banned with the fifth warning. OR
  2. Posting off-topic content, in the former sense of the word will get you banned with the fifth warning. In the latter sense of the word, the content will be moved to chat, or if it's worthless, deleted. OR
  3. Posting off-topic content in either sense of the word will get the content moved to chat, or if it's worthless or off-topic in the former sense of the word, deleted.

The current policy stands as (1) while what Ron suggests stands at (2). I'm for the most part neutral now, but I suppose that for the long-term stability of the site, my vote does, finally go to (2).

answered Jan 18, 2015 by dimension10 (1,950 points) [ revision history ]
edited Jan 19, 2015 by dimension10
Most voted comments show all comments

I interpreted off topic as "off topic for the thread", but in my imagination, before there was any site, I personally assumed that any blocks for off-topic stuff would come for repeated posting of long rambling crackpot rants on multiple locations on the site. This can't happen here, as a much better solution than blocking was quickly found--- moving the offending comments to chat and discussing their relevance there until it's sorted out to everyone's satisfaction (or not, then it stays there). That seems to work much better than blocking, removing censorship threat, and making the original motivation for this rule, preventing long off-topic crazy stuff accumulating, completely moot. Hence, suggest to get rid of it permanently and irrevocably, to remove the last bastion of arbitrary mod power left on this site.

Yeah, yeah, ok then, I changed my mind immediately the first time I saw you use that crappy rule (not that I thought about this at all during private beta). The moving to chat will only increase the quality of the site, as it will remove any ability of capricious censorious moderators to remove discussions they find offensive to their sensibilities. It will not impact the main site at all, only increase the quantity of posts, with rep-free chat including all the crazy-talk.

+1 I'm for the second option. @Dilaton, as I see it the 1st option is quite prone to interpretation, as the VK's case already exemplifies it. I personally don't think what he commented should be called "crazy" or "complete crackpot" or even off-topic(at least before the mutual name calling started), I in fact upvoted one of his earlier comments just to counter the downvotes, not that I agree with him. In this case our opinions indeed differed. Too bad I didn't follow that thread before it slid too far.

@Dilaton, I'm only using VK's example to prove " the 1st option is quite prone to interpretation,", instead of trying to convince you that he was on-topic, and that it might drive us further from the ideal "community moderation". 

Now if you can excuse me, let me indulge myself to talk about my opinion on VK's episode, the two comments I upvoted(to counter downvotes) were

The Higgs exists in certain theories. In other theories the universe exists without Higgs.

and  

How clever! But wait, Higgs of which theory has been discovered? There are many of them, apart from SM. And one can admit other - Higgs-less theories, which produce a similar observable effect. So I just keep the other options open.

Would you agree that at least these two comments were not off-topic?

Then some unnecessary name calling began, and to be fair it wasn't even VK who started the name calling. It makes sense to call the name calling without content off-topic, but won't you be compelled to identify the other guy's comment as off-topic too?

As for VK's past history, you consider his posts consistently and extremely off-topic(I did find some of his comments off topic for some threads, but we disagree on the degree, and in the case of higgs thread, I simply don't think he's off-topic), I'm fine with that, but before using it as the reason to take a official-warning-worthy action, wouldn't it be better to at least take a vote on that, in the spirit of community moderation? I mean, it even takes a vote to close a question, wouldn't it make sense to take a vote for something(in this case official warning) that happens much more rarely than closing a question?

@Dilaton, The two comments are quite clearly on-topic to me, it suggested a universe with no higgs might look very much the same as our universe which was partially answering the question, since there are "And one can admit other - Higgs-less theories, which produce a similar observable effect. ". VK might be wrong, but it's not off topic. But again, I'm fine with your opinion as it stands, but your action is not quite conforming to the ideal of community moderation.

"Consider already the remark "how clever" as very disparaging," then I guess our thresholds for offensiveness are also quite different, but no matter, let's put that aside, say VK started it, but the objective criterion "name calling void of useful content" still applies to the reply like 

I will retract the characterization "paranoic" because in no way I suggest that people supporting that stuff suffer from something like these. I would change it to "uneducated" and possibly augment it to "ignorant". I do not accept sceptic because it means there is an actual alternative which is favored by a significant amount of academics. This is not true.
 

Wouldn't you consider it off-topic too?

@Dilaton, my reply to the updated comment: I don't usually take the votes on comments seriously, for one people are less careful when voting on comments than posts, for two we cannot infer the downvote is because the comments are off-topic, it may very well be that the voters consider the comments wrong, you can check how many downvotes Ron's comments received on the Yang-Mills infrared completion post. 

@JiaYiyang from the comment votings in that thread (I have just looked at them again), on my comments, VKs comments, and conformal_gk s comments for example, my point of view seemed (indirectly) rather supported by the situation and the community looking at this thread then. But of course not everybody will always agree on everything, and it is always good to state different opinions and points of view.

@JiaYiyang optimally the third boxed comment in your reply above is off-topic to the thread in the same way as the the other ones are, and optimally it would appear in the context of a new question if anything.
@JiaYiang these two comments wore off-topic to the topic of the question too, in addition the first one said something that is trivial and not now to anybody here on PhysicsOverflow. The issue of models with more than one / non SM higgs could have been treated in a new question. I personally, and maybe others in that thread as can be seen from the votes on comments, consider already the remark "how clever" as very disparaging, and it was directed at one of the only active anwerers we have at present. So I would say it is VKs snarky "how clever" remark that started the name callings.

Also, VK was asked in a 3 times upvoted comment to stop the off-topic posting  and stick to the topic of the question in the same thread efore. If he had listened to this, no warning would have occured. Also, 3 people in that thread on the Q&A section obviously have agreed with this informal reminder to stay on-topic.
+ 0 like - 3 dislike

What this question is talking about are the minimal rules and standards, needed to gurarantee a smooth running of the site, agreed upon since the private beta of PhysicsOverflow, written down in the public block log.

In particular it says amont other things

  • Off-topic posters (Block after four warnings) 

It does not say that people get banned after 5 off-topic comments, it says that one gets banned after 4 warnings for off-topic posting. The presentation in the question above is highly misleading.

The idea behind this rule is to protect the community against systematic, repeated, and disruptive posting of off-topic things by always the same user, which would if allowed prevent any reasonable scientific physics discussions of the kind PhysicsOverflow is founded for to develop.

A warning for off-topic commenting does not appear for a single comment, but for a pattern of repeated disruptive off-topic posting and redirection of existing discussions to something that would not even be appropriate as a chat discussion and can not be used to formulate a new interesting question by always the same person. Warnings are not issued for a few isolated chatty comments that are harmless or witty jokes that are even appreciated by the community.

Until now (18.01.2015),  a single warning for off-topic commenting had to be issued during the 9 month public beta history of PhysicsOverflow. Also note that in this specific case the off-topic commenter was informally asked to stop posting off-topic comments in the same thread some comments above.

So I see no good reason to overthrow the since the private beta agreed upon minimal standards and rules now.

answered Jan 18, 2015 by Dilaton (4,295 points) [ revision history ]
edited Jan 18, 2015 by Dilaton
For example wanting to protect a user who is well-known for off-topic posting by all means would not be among the good reasons.

Yeah, it's that "single warning" that made me flip my wig. Considering the officiousness and arbitrariness of the policy was made obvious by it's first single usage, and further considering that this rule never needed to be used before in the entire operation of the site, and will most probably never need to be used again, I'm saying the community might consider changing the rule permanently to "users never get blocked for off-topic postings, no matter how many warnings they get. The postings will simply get moved to chat. In fact, since the warnings are now unnecessary, they will never be given out either." That will remove my power to unilaterally and arbitrarily block people by creating excuses for doing so, by combing through their comments looking for off-topic one-liners, a power which I am totally uncomfortable with, but which you seemed to be happy to threaten to exercise. The new rule will be uniformly enforced for everyone exactly the same way. Since the community moderates, it's not your decision what rules to implement, is it?

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