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As a moderator, I'm often staring at a list of the most offensive content currently available on the site. I keep seeing certain patterns emerge, and I think these patterns are potentially dangerous.

At least once a day, I see a comment chain that looks like:

User1: (unconstructive criticism of potentially low-quality post)

User2: (defensive or ignorant reply)

User1: (aggressive reaction to defensive or ignorant reply)

UnrelatedUser3: (seconding aggressive reaction and reinforcing it)

I'm singling comments out here, but I see the same patterns of non-constructive feedback in chat as well.

Ben Brocka brought this subject up last year during the "Summer of Love" And additionally I brought this up when I covered Edit Wars but it bears repeating here.

If there's a disagreement between users about something, there are only a couple of ways it gets resolved. One is that the "minority" user accepts or "deals with" the majority opinion, and the other is that the minority user leaves voluntarily or by moderator intervention.

Leaving aggressive or non-constructive comments does not get us anywhere close to either of these goals. When confronted by aggressive behavior on the internet, most people's reaction is to get indignant or angry - we've all been there and know this to be true. (In fact, I imagine some of you are reacting that way right this second...) Once angered, there's a very low probability that they're going to agree with the posted opinions, and they're emotionally invested and unlikely to leave.

Further, once opinions have been stated by both sides, it's time to take it to meta if there's not a resolution. Frequent long, drawn out comment arguments aren't helpful.

Finding Constructive

I'm sure if pressed we could come up for a one sentence summary of the Stack Exchange network. Many such sentences exist. If we had to distill it to just one word, a single word that represented everything this site stood for, I would have to go with the word Help. If I had to extend that to two words, I might pick the word Thanks to go along with it. As a Q&A site, requests for "help" take the form of questions, and when answered they elicit "thanks."

As much as we have other conflicting desires and forces acting upon us, I want us to focus on those two words. Is what I'm posting helping? Is the response likely to be thanks? If not, perhaps some careful consideration of words and appropriate responses would be of use.

Disagreements are going to happen. Learn to manage them in constructive ways, and take breaks to avoid stressing out.

As a corollary, When you see someone not being nice, don't return their unkindness with unkindness of your own. Take a deep breath, close the tab, change the subject, disengage. Don't contribute to the problem in your attempts to fix it. Don't encourage unkind words, even if you feel they are warranted or correct. "But s/he started it!" didn't work in kindergarten, and it doesn't work here.

Handling Problem Users

Periodically, the community cries out for someone to handle a problematic user or users who they view as disruptive or disrespectful to others.

The problem with handling these users is, the site is full of this type of vitriolic content. Daily, I'm tasked with looking at and dealing with the worst content on the site. Often I see regular users be aggressive, caustic, or downright mean to other users, both regular and new.

When problem users are brought to me, I can typically point to instances where the accuser has engaged in similar behavior to the accused. And yet, when confronted with this, the accusers tend to want to plead ignorance, say "everybody does it," or downplay the effect of their actions. "I was only kidding" or "I'm just that way." They plead for leniency and understanding, while simultaneously wishing the opposite on others. "My transgressions are minor, but theirs - theirs are serious, clearly premeditated and intended to inflame, and worthy of immediate action" they say.

Essentially, by being aggressive and unfriendly, you're tying our hands - I can't intervene when everyone is guilty or the standard for guilt is not consistent.

Further, even if there are problem users, we need you guys to give us time to handle them. In my 18 months as a moderator, I've seen only a few really serious suspensions, and even then the evidence was overwhelming, there was significant discussion among the team about how to handle it, and the investigation took days or weeks.

The point here is that we're all going to have to have a high tolerance for ignorance - there's a lot of it out there, and educating or removing ignorance takes time.

The Sense of Urgency and the Long Game

I frequently hear cries of "this is urgent, and must be handled/stopped immediately or bad things will happen." The content of the site really doesn't work that way, though. Those of us who have invested in the site and are here for the long haul should know that there are very few issues that require immediate resolution. Here are some capital-F Facts:

  • Moderators can delete stuff really fast. Juan is particularly good at this, I've seen him delete hundreds of things in minutes. If a user posts 5, 10, even 50 really terrible things, we can take them out in the blink of an eye. Except in really exceptional cases, there's no need to react quickly against a user. There's certainly no reason to get upset over 2 or 3 low-quality posts.
  • Most of the views on the site (The best I can do is rough numbers, but it was 90%+) are on questions that are at least a week old. Not an hour old, or a day old, but a full week old. Handling something within seconds of posting is not a requirement.
  • Downvoted content is not a broken window - it is your enemy's head on a pike. It is a clear indication to everyone that sees it that a post is not up to spec. There's no need to curb-stomp with an angry comment or pile on a post or user. They're dead, Jim. Might they request & can you give constructive feedback? Sure, and I'd encourage you to do so.
  • Editing is cheap. When really dedicated to the task, I've seen massive edit sprees to improve content site-wide. If we let things cool off a little, we can come back later when tensions are lower to clean up things that were left in a bad state.

When you start to think "I must act immediately, or the site is in peril!" remember that the state of a question or post today or in this second is not terribly critical - it's easy to change, and we're less concerned with the transient state of affairs than the long-term status quo.

Conclusion & A Call to Action

Education of users is a slow process, and we should always be open to the concept of being wrong ourselves. Instead of rushing to judgement and ganging up on users, focus on finding ways to be helpful. If a user is causing trouble, raise a flag and let us handle it, but be aware that the process takes time. In the meantime, try not to engage so that we have room to work.

I want to believe that most of the site's users are kind people who want to help, and that the hostile cross-section I'm exposed to on a daily basis is a small, vocal percentage of the overall community's opinion. If that's the case, the "silent majority" needs to speak up - step up and say "we are a welcoming community of friendly members, who value respect and inclusion for all." Flag non-constructive comments, don't participate in vitriolic arguments - suggest kind alternatives instead.

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    Based on the first couple of lines I think I agree, but TL;DR. – Blem Sep 4 '13 at 10:34
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    blah blah blah blah I disagree and you suck :P – l I Sep 4 '13 at 12:31
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    Although I agree with most of what you said, there is one thing I want to address and that's "Flag non-constructive comments". I find there a lot of times where I'll flag a comment which is rude and can only serve to piss people off. So it's all good and well to say "flag thee comments!", but if the moderator team isn't going to act on them, what's the point? There are times when these comments are deleted, but it seems like there are just as many if not more times when I flag these comments and nothing (seemingly) happens. This could just be confirmation bias of course, but... – Wipqozn Sep 4 '13 at 15:03
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    ...it's just something I wanted to raise nevertheless. Only the mods can really see the flags on comments, and how they were acted on, so there's no way for me to really provide any concrete examples of what I mean (and yes, I'm aware sometimes things just fall through the cracks, but it seems like it happens more often than just something falling through the cracks). – Wipqozn Sep 4 '13 at 15:06
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    @Wipqozn, I get ya. In the past month, us mods have collectively deleted 300+ comments. Sometimes we (mods & users) don't all see eye to eye on what warrants deletion, though, so inconsistency is a tricky problem to solve. Don't get discouraged, though, and keep the flags coming. – agent86 Sep 4 '13 at 15:27
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    I have to say I am guilty of being aggressive from time to time, something I'd like to see changed :). – deutschZuid Sep 4 '13 at 22:23
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    @spartacus, I believe you are joking with me, so I'll not turn my comment-destroying lazers on you... this time. Continue to live in fear of them, however. – agent86 Sep 4 '13 at 23:34
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    @deutschZuid, everybody does, and I'm not going to say I'm blameless. This is as much a reminder to myself as it is directed at anyone else in particular. – agent86 Sep 4 '13 at 23:34
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    Moderators should also check on the chat to see the slanderous things people say about others. It only hurts this site even more and shows that no one cares. – Young Guilo Sep 5 '13 at 13:20
  • @YoungGuilo, I agree. I am talking with the other moderators about how we handle chat. I hope that we can come up with a plan to make progress there as well. – agent86 Sep 5 '13 at 13:22
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    Just to mention: rude behaviour can be expected for the fact that it's a game-related site, and A LOT (I mean, seriously a lot) of young (below 16) people may found the site. I don't want to prejudge anyone, but there's a fact: below 16 you are a child. And children can be immature. Consequently, they may like being rude and starting pointless argues. OF COURSE, WE HAVE TO DO AGAINST IT, so this question gets an instant upvote for me. However, everyone should prepare the explained situations and remember that it never can be completely prevented - since lot of users won't read it, I assume. – Zoltán Schmidt Sep 5 '13 at 16:28
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    @ZoltánSchmidt This is not 100% accurate since setting your birthdate is optional, but there are only about 200 users on the site (out of 37,000-ish profiles of varying degrees of activity, and we have age data on about 13,000) who are 16 years old or younger. Don't rush to assume that everyone who's rude or abrasive is a young kid. They probably aren't regardless of whether or not they're being intentionally less than nice. – Adam Lear Sep 6 '13 at 6:01
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    @ZoltánSchmidt The main problem with youtube is a complete lack of moderation. It has nothing to do with the age of it's users. – Wipqozn Sep 6 '13 at 14:11
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    @agent86, +1, great post. You're setting an awesome example for all of us. – Jaydles Sep 8 '13 at 3:13
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    +1 for the title. :D – Rainbow Dash Jul 29 '15 at 13:48
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Here are some of the "most frequently seen non-constructive comments" I tend to see. I'm not quoting a specific user with any of these; these are just generic patterns I see often. The language varies, but the overall message is usually pretty similar.

Dumb/RTFM/Trivial

-1 This question is dumb.

or:

Did you even bother googling this? The first result is your answer.

There are many variants, but the basics are the same - your question is stupid, and you shouldn't need help with it.

I classify this tactic as: "Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime. Therefore, if a man asks for a fish, beat him until he learns how to fish."

We're experts, we know where the sources are, we know how to find answers, that's kind of why people ask us questions. Even if a question seems trivial to us, there can still be a lot of people who don't understand the basics.

Recently I was playing Borderlands 2 with my wife, and I realized she didn't know how to circle strafe. Then it occurred to me that I've been playing FPSes for 15 years or so now, and she had not. It was something obvious that I was taking for granted.

Typing your question into Google is much, much faster than asking it here on Arqade. Everyone knows where Google is, and Arqade is tiny compared to it. It's safe to assume that they tried something before coming here.

Instead of beating them up for ignorance, try making a suggestion, or better yet, answer the question and clearly cite your sources and show your work. That way, they're fed today and taught to fish in one stroke.

If you don't want to waste your time on trivial questions, then don't! Do something else instead. There are many people who can answer the easier questions if you don't feel like doing it.

We have a very low instance rate of "help vampires" here - people who ask trivial questions or ask us to do all their work for them. There have been a few, no doubt, but this isn't a site where people typically get paid for the type of help we provide. Thus, the impetus to make us do "work" is far less.

English, #@*&#$, DO YOU SPEAK IT?

I can't understand a single word of this.

or

Is this even english? Get a dictionary.

Some people don't speak English well. I like to say I barely speak it, although it's my one and only language. Instead of ridiculing people for their poor language skills, try to edit it and make it better, or if it's unclear, use comments to constructively ask for clarification instead.

In the Long Game, if it sits around, incomprehensible and not answering the question, we can remove it.

I'm right, dammit.

-1, this answer is blatantly false, because (reasons)

or

This is just wrong. Clearly, (reasons)

This is a toughie, because if we think about it, the SE network selects for people who are confidently authoritative in answers. Admitting that there may be solutions other than your own, or that you could be incorrect is difficult. It's doubly difficult when you're certain that you're right and the other person isn't.

There are often multiple solutions to a problem. Some may be better than others along different axes, but just because a solution seems superior to you doesn't mean that we should look down on people who have different answers, or answers that aren't as good under certain circumstances.

There are also often common misconceptions about common issues. Having a downvoted answer that is known to be wrong but is held to be true by many people can be beneficial - this is one reason why we don't delete wrong answers.

There's not a need to be confrontational about a difference of opinion or a belief that an answer is fundamentally incorrect. If you left a constructive comment and a downvote, just walk away and let it be. Getting pinged again on a comment doesn't require you to respond if you've got nothing more constructive to say.

Something like "Could you elaborate on why this worked for you? It doesn't match up with my experiences" or politely offering a source that contradicts can be a way to defuse these situations before they get out of hand.

  • But if you are downvoting a person because he is wrong and you want to give a reason, isn't it fair to just say 'I think you are wrong and here is why...' ? – Lyrion Sep 6 '13 at 11:01
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    @Lyrion, it's possible to say "I think you are wrong and here is why" without being condescending, dismissive, or letting it lead to a drawn out argument. In many cases on the site, though, I see people disagree in non-constructive ways about an answer. My suggestion is to try to approach answers you disagree with with an desire to understand. – agent86 Sep 6 '13 at 11:56
  • I have the strange urge to beat people that ask me for fish. Also might be helpful to link this for the "Google it" comments. – Batophobia Sep 6 '13 at 17:43
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I see this as two distinct areas:

Hold ourselves (and each other) accountable

We are a community. We've been here quite a while, and we've learned the ins and outs of the system. We've all had rocky moments where we didn't understand something and fell afoul of one rule or another. We don't burn each other at the stake if we disagree about things or broke a rule. We get rather passionate and voiciferous in the Bridge when we're arguing, but I don't think we've ever destroyed friendships over it. (Except for @FEichinger. He doesn't like Chuck, so he's not my friend anymore).

We understand each other's attitudes and personalities, and work with that when there's a disagreement about how things work. And rely on each other as sounding boards when we're not sure about certain policies or how to handle things. Together, we're stronger than the whole of our parts, and we can (usually) muddle through to something approaching consensus.

The thing to remember when attempting to educate new users is that there's lots of us, and only one of them. It's going to feel like we're ganging up on them, even when the comments aren't hostile. That doesn't work so well, and they're left responding to everybody individually. Feel free to leave a constructive comment to attempt to educate the user, and try to be as understanding as possible when explaining. But there should only be one commentor. Too many chefs in the kitchen and all that. After all, we've all been there, and expecting them to understand the nuances and complexities of the system right off the bat isn't very reasonable.

If the new user does not understand, is unwilling to engage in a constructive manner, or you start getting frustrated, leave it alone. Walk away. I know that's hard; it's part of the internet attitude to be right, all the time. Some battles, you just can't win, though.


Hold new users accountable

At the same time, being a new user does not automatically entitle them to a free pass to ask or answer whatever they want. Their contributions need to be held to the same standards as the rest of the site. We don't do them any favors by not holding them accountable to those standards. And we need to be consistent about it, too. Education efforts should be used to highlight deficiencies and areas for improvement. Close votes also work (how well, is debatable) to ensure those that have glaring problems don't gather any more, until it can be fixed and/or education efforts succeed.

If those users are displaying the same problems over and over, even after education efforts, there needs to be some communication from our mods with them. There's nothing we can do on a user-level basis to enforce our standards, beyond attempting education and downvoting. Our mods give our policies their teeth, and can hopefully apply some efforts towards ensuring those policies are followed.


But most of all, remember that our interaction with new users comes from a height of experience that they don't have. And they won't get it if we drive them off by burning them at the stake for every error. Crap happens. We don't need to add to it to make a point (looking at you, @Sterno!). We don't help anyone, least of all ourselves, by adding to the crap.

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    +1. Also, re: holding new users accountable. – Niro Sep 4 '13 at 1:19
  • RE: Holding ourselves accountable/Paragraph 3 (about Educating) is the point I was trying to make in the comment thread the other day. tl;dr: "we should be striving to be understanding, or at the very least courteous enough to explain site policy, not just quote it, even when our patience is wearing thin" – Robotnik Sep 4 '13 at 3:58
  • Hey, I like Chuck! That's why I'm not watching it to the end to begin with! Tsk! – user98085 Sep 4 '13 at 9:31
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    One problem with the "single voice to educate new users" thing is that sometimes that voice is authoritatively stating opinion as fact, or is outright wrong. Another problem is that sometimes the voice comes off as overly harsh and one wants to speak up and "soften" it. Not entirely sure what the best solution in those cases is. – Sterno Sep 4 '13 at 11:22
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    @Sterno and fbueckert I know that the reason why I've attempted to increase my quality of answers is because the community (more often than not fbueckert) leave constructive comments shov-er I mean- nudging me to clean up a topic or remove an answer altogether. I'll admit I took it personally a few times but this is a good point to make. The community isn't just a bunch of trolls, they are just more educated in the method of how this process works and if a new user takes it too personally, then well, maybe they need a bit tougher of a skin. Unconstructive criticism though....ohhh..... – Cole Busby Sep 5 '13 at 15:21
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    @fbueckert A lot of sound advice here I wish I saw practiced more. I would also note that in my view we have more of a deficit of holding ourselves accountable, and a surplus of holding new users accountable. Since very few rules on the site are enforced with absolute consistency, I see no problem using a lenient interpretation of rules for a new user while in the process of educating - but before all is said and done their content should be held to the same standards as everyone else's. – EBongo Sep 8 '13 at 19:05
  • @Sterno Agreed. I'm not sure multiple voices is such a problem when the opinions differ - in that case we should simply bring it to Meta to discuss. I think multiple voices which are all in agreement is more of an issue - since it seems like ganging up. – EBongo Sep 8 '13 at 19:08
  • @EBongo I disagree. If we show leniency, they're in for a rude awakening once we stop being lenient. They've been encouraged to post quality of a certain level at the beginning, and we're going on to change that later on. That lengthens the education period, and will generate bad blood, as we've told them it's acceptable to post low quality (as our standards measure it), and now we're telling them it's no longer good enough. If we hold them accountable to the same standards the whole time, there's no confusion (or need) when those standards aren't met. – Frank Sep 8 '13 at 19:44
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    @fbueckert I'm suggesting that there is room for interpretation in most of our rules, and we need not "throw the book" at new users. A lenient interpretation of a policy, is still an enforcement of that policy. If you'd cut an established user some slack, you should cut someone who is new that same slack - that's all I'm saying. – EBongo Sep 8 '13 at 20:07
  • @EBongo I still disagree. I'm lenient to established users because they've earned that leniency. Even then, that doesn't mean I won't hold them to a higher standard most of the time. They initially get the benefit of a doubt if something's borderline, but I'm liable to throw the book at them harder if my thought process comes down into the unacceptable category. I can do the same for new users, if you like. I don't think they'd appreciate me holding them to perfection standards, however. – Frank Sep 9 '13 at 16:04
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I agree with agent86 and fbueckert, but there is something I would like to add.

When leaving comments or even discussing in Meta, the end-goal is always the same. We want to make Arqade better in some way.

In meta, we are working to improve our policies or better understand how to deal with situations. This is where the so-called "big" changes would be taking place. Do not expect immediate changes or anything like that. It could be a long time before a decision is made and steps are taken to implement something.

For comments, the goal is to improve the specific question or answer. This is more the "small" changes. Make Arqade better one post at a time kind of mentality.

In the end, everything should be directed towards the content or idea rather than the individual. NOTHING SHOULD BE TAKEN PERSONALLY! If a user disagrees with you on meta or leaves a comment, it shouldn't mean "I dislike [user]". It should mean "I care about Arqade and would like to work with others to make this site better for all users, current and future".

As for chat, I'm unsure. The goal of the site is Q&A, but chat seems to be a different place. It is helpful that users can hang around the site discussing whatever they want so that when Lazers chimes in they know of new questions. Despite, this, I still think the same applies. Don't take anything personally. Perhaps a user was joking or something. If you do not like the current chat, just leave it alone for a while and when you come back it will be a different topic, likely with some different people.

TL;DR

In addition to the other answers, do not take anything personally. If you feel singled out by a user, then either you are misinterpreting them or they are acting in a way that is not representative of this site. You can politely ask for clarification or, if it happens repeatedly, you can get a hold of a moderator.

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    Chat's a mix. What I'd say is that if there's something about you being said in there that you don't like, it probably shouldn't have been said in the first place and you have every right to flag it for attention. Just be careful about getting offended or flagging on someone else's behalf. A lot of us might good-naturedly rib each other in there, and to an outsider it might look like we're being mean to each other when we're not. But again, people need to know when such ribbing is appropriate, and if you're the subject of it and don't find it good natured, you have every right to make it stop. – Sterno Sep 6 '13 at 18:38
  • I like the TL;DR in this answer. If only everyone could include one in theirs. – user1306322 Sep 7 '13 at 1:14
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    @user1306322 I always try to include a tl;dr version, especially in meta. These can get pretty long and it is helpful for all users. Even if they have read the whole post, reading a short line can remind them which post they are looking at. – Batophobia Sep 9 '13 at 14:44

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