For the purposes of what I'm about to post, I'm going to try to standardize on some terminology. In my mind, there's three tiers to the site's "content filter":
- Principles - top level mission statements that describe the overall community goal. "Improve the internet. Provide great answers to great questions. Good questions are practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face."
- Rules - Concise interpretations of the principles as it regards to specific community issues - "Speculation of the future of the industry and of upcoming releases is off-topic"
- Policy - Extensions of the rules, intended to clarify their scope and handle corner cases - "Asking whether or not an unreleased game will contain this character is an example of speculation."
If I was good at making analogies, I might say that "principles" are like the executive branch, rules are the legislative branch, and policy represents the judicial branch of SE's "government." Or you might say that "principles" are the constitution, "rules" the laws, and "policy" the case law. These analogies break down quickly, but perhaps it will be useful for wrapping your head around the distinctions I'm drawing.
I'm also going to refer to two groups of people. "Administrators" are people who have the power to take action - more than just moderators, even close voters are probably the most basic form of administrators on SE. Even downvoting could also be considered an administrative privilege. Administrators are also more deeply invested in the site's long-term well being. "Users" are less interested in the site's long-term success and are more interested in what the site can offer them in the short-term.
Okay, enough terminology.
On the proper application of judgement
I've been feeling something similar to what you describe recently. I've heard several arguments that rules should be more flexible and less strict. We should use our judgement in individual cases and decide whether the application of the rule is in line with the principles. I've also heard that stuff on meta isn't binding, that they're more like guidelines than anything we are actually expected to consistently adhere to.
This has certain advantages, no doubt. There are corner cases where we apply a rule in a way that seems like nonsense, and that can be confusing and difficult to understand. Sometimes policy is contradictory or unclear/lacking consensus. Using our judgement would allow us to handle each and every one of these situations as an individual problem, and give us far finer granularity.
Asking a large community of administrators to use their judgement is a bad idea. Consistent rule enforcement is critical, and relying on a large body of administrator judgement is problematic in this regard. To continue my poor, strained analogy, this would be akin to having judges and lawyers ride along with the police, in order to take all traffic stops to court before writing a ticket.
This doesn't mean that all individual judgement should be suppressed or not used. We aren't a dictatorship, we're a democracy. However, that doesn't mean we have to be anarchistic about it. There are always going to be corner case questions, and there will always be comments on them to discuss them.
However, large-scale reliance on individual judgement can lead to very bad things, like the close/open waffling and angry arguments in comments you're describing. Whenever possible, we should pool and collect our judgement when these situations arise, rather than reacting on individual questions.
Why is consistent rule enforcement critical?
A good rule or bit of policy can be consistently applied. A bad rule/policy leaves too much room for interpretation and individual bias. This means that administrators don't know what to do with it, or they apply it according to their own judgement. Sometimes these judgement calls are OK for smaller communities with few administrators, but as a community grows and becomes more diverse it's not possible to spontaneously agree on best practices for judgement. Many different interpretations of the same situation arise, and this leads to fighting within the administrators, which invariably spills out into the users' view. That's not pleasant, and it should be minimized whenever possible. You want your core administrators/community to generally agree and get along, and additionally this looks bad to outsiders.
I've seen this type of thing happen before in our community, as well as in others. Before joining G.SE/Arqade, I was a member of eGO a "mature world gaming community." They had a similar issue with rules. In eGO's case, the "No cursing" rule was consistently problematic. What constitutes a curse? Is "damn" cursing? Some people felt that "crap" was OK, but "shit" was not. You wouldn't believe the amount of discussion that surrounded the appropriate uses of the "n-word"... (there are appropriate uses of the n-word when playing TF2?)
What ended up happening in a lot of cases was:
- PlayerA says/does something
- AdministratorA does nothing
- Later, AdministratorB comes online
- PlayerA says/does the same thing again
- AdministratorB takes punitive action
- AdministratorA and AdministratorB fight about whether or not PlayerA's actions were action-worthy
- PlayerA either returns and gets into a fight, or does something retaliatory
You'll note that this is bad for both the administrators and the players. The administrators look bad, get angry, or they don't feel comfortable with enforcement. Meanwhile, the players can't predict what's going to get them the boot and what's going to be shrugged off. It's impossible to obey a guideline or rule that is not consistently enforced.
In Arqade's case, the prime example of this that I can think of in recent history is the community's reaction to ITG that lead to the discussion and categorical ban on those questions. People were encouraged to use their judgement, and what tended to happen was:
- Some people thought all ITG questions were bad. They downvoted, close voted, and left comments on many ITG questions calling them too vague.
- Some people felt that ITG questions were unfairly persecuted, and they fought in comments frequently about this.
- Some people tried as best they could to sort good ITG questions from vague ITG questions, and were blasted by both sides when they disagreed.
The end result was a high incidence of conflict on ITG questions. People were investing time and energy in something that wasn't productive for the site, and these resources were spent creating animosity between community members instead.
Rules are for users. Policy is for administrators.
Rules draw a simple line, which policy bends into a complex curve.
As much as possible we want the rules to filter the good from the bad. Rules, though, are intentionally short and to the point. This is because they're intended as an introduction to the site. They can't/shouldn't contain too much nuance - they're intentionally simple so as to convey the general point without exhausting the user's attention.
Policy, on the other hand, is long-winded and covers the corner cases about how and what to do in what situations. It's detailed, and messy, and it's intended for administrators to refer to. When there's a corner case of a rule that needs addressing, or a rule is being applied incorrectly or inconsistently, the purpose of policy is to clarify and perhaps expand or contract the meaning of the rule. Policy and rules go hand-in-hand, and one creates and informs the other.
Policy explains "why?" and "how?" in ways that users don't typically care about. They're here to get their question answered. They don't care why we won't answer it - they only want a pointer to getting the result they want. "Link me to a site that will" or "why can't you just answer it instead of changing/closing it" are common refrains from users.
The process of starting to care about "why" or "how" is the process by which users become administrators.
Policy codifies our collective judgement, and gives us a venue to express our differing opinions and (hopefully) come to a resolution. Policy keeps us from applying our individual judgement in contradictory ways. Policy is an ever-changing beast though, as we discover new corner cases and false positives arise. Figuring out what the community wants, keeping it internally consistent, and organized for administrators to refer to can be a challenge, but it's not an intractable problem.
It's my position that if we get better at this, our overall experience will improve.
- SE principles inform our rules and policy. Rules (FAQ) and policy (Meta) interact to help us define what's overall good for the site.
- Let's use meta policy to collect judgement instead of case-by-case on questions whenever possible, but I recognize we'll never be 100% policy and 0% judgement.
- Let's get better at collecting, sorting, and consistently enforcing our meta policy, and making sure we're not creating hostile or difficult to enforce policies.
- Be ready for change, and if you don't like something, be the one to suggest the change you want to see.