# Is Vote to Close as Off-Topic an appropriate remedy for questions that are deemed too “populist”?

Background: There are users who have been using the privilege to vote to close a question as off-topic as a way of dealing with "populist" questions (see the discussion here) believing them to be "clickbait" and/or to bring the professionalism of this site into disrepute as they interpret it.

Question: If a question meets the requirements of the written rules regarding what is on topic, is the use of the privilege to vote-to-close a question as off-topic a valid remedy for other issues a user with this privilege might have with the question?

In general, this could be posed as "does granting someone the ability to perform an action grant that person with the authority to decide when that action should be applied? In specific, do users with the vote-to-close-as-off-topic ability have the authority to apply that vote to address other issues? If there is a case where those votes are misapplied (and this isn't suggesting that the example given in the background was such a case), is there a redress process better than going to meta and saying "hey what gives"?

• A vote to close is paired with a reason. If someone voted to close a thread, they also have to click on a reason. So theoretically there should always be a valid reason to vote for close. There's no "I'm voting to close this thread because I feel like it" reason. – enumaris Nov 26 '18 at 22:49
• In the SE model, if you have a particular privilege you are allowed to exercise that privilege - the ability and authority come hand in hand. You appear to be hung up still about your question that was closed (following the SE rules) and reopened (again following the SE rules). It happens. – Jon Custer Nov 26 '18 at 23:01
• @enumaris yes there is such an option and we use it all the time. – Kyle Kanos Nov 26 '18 at 23:14
• Note that it's hard to address this question without the additional context that the Hot Network Questions feature doesn't necessarily showcase a site's best questions. – rob Nov 26 '18 at 23:18
• @KyleKanos Are you referring to the off-topic because "other"? Because my understanding of that option is that I have to provide a valid reason (hence why I have to type a comment). And I can't just write "because I feel like it". – enumaris Nov 26 '18 at 23:18
• @enumaris you can write anything there. Or just leave it as "I'm voting to close this question." Obviously reasons help others VTC too. We generally use it to cost questions for reasons not expressly identified in the 5 options we have. – Kyle Kanos Nov 27 '18 at 3:02
• While you can give any reason in the text field when you vote to close as off topic, I'd say it's highly irresponsible to cast that vote if the reason is nothing more than "because I feel like it". I would expect that people who have earned that privilege have a good sense of what fits with the site's scope and what doesn't, and why, and they should rely on that sense when casting and justifying close votes. – David Z Nov 27 '18 at 4:21
• @DavidZ I agree that it would be irresponsible. However, it's happened that no real reason was given (I.e., "I'm voting to close this question as off-topic.")--just take a look at the question close stats in the 10k Tools. – Kyle Kanos Nov 27 '18 at 13:50
• Related: Data collection: When should (or shouldn't) we exclude questions from the Hot Network Questions list?. If you want to participate in that debate, now is the time. – Emilio Pisanty Mar 13 '19 at 12:33
• (As for whether in this instance "the HNQ worked exactly as it should. It attracted someone from the outside and got you a person who is invested" and went on to post further questions or answers, the answer is quite conclusively "no, it didn't".) – Emilio Pisanty Mar 13 '19 at 12:37

## 2 Answers

Edit: The response below was given within the state of the system as of late 2018. However, changes to the system were introduced in March 2019, which (finally!) allow moderators to remove questions from the HNQ list, based on the community consensus currently being formed in the discussion at Data collection: When should (or shouldn't) we exclude questions from the Hot Network Questions list?.

Given this new capability, I don't think this class of close vote is particularly appropriate - if things need to be removed from the spotlight, the correct mechanism should be to flag for moderators (or contact them in chat) and argue for such a removal. At best, the appropriateness of this type of closure would need to be revisited as a community consensus in the light of the changed mechanics.

Still, the emphasis remains: questions are not "owed" time on the spotlight provided by the HNQ sidebar. It exists to promote the site, not individual questions that would have "earned" (how?) a spot there. If questions do not do a good job of representing the site, they should not be there.

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is Vote to Close as Off-Topic an appropriate remedy for dealing with questions that are deemed too "populist"?

with due apologies, yes.

And, with due apologies, inflammatory language like "too populist" sounds a whole lot like you don't understand the background, so let me fill you in.

I assume you're aware with the Hot Network Questions sidebar, which is (with a pretty complete certainty) where you found the question that sparked this. It's less clear whether you're aware of how questions are selected for it: the algorithm, detailed here, selects for questions with a large number of answers and a large number of votes, and that inevitably selects for lowest-common denominator junk-food questions that a broad audience can upvote (but not for the more valuable questions on the site).

More noxiously, however, the HNQ sidebar is subject to an extremely damaging feedback mechanism, which allows for runaway snowball effects fed by votes that come from outside of this site's community, without any particular frame for what counts as a quality question or answer on this site. (Even worse, if external visitors come in, they're welcome to upvote, but they can't downvote.) This leads to a skewing effect that can take what would otherwise be a run-of-the-mill question, blast off all of this site's regular quality-control mechanisms, and award huge scores to questions and answers that would otherwise be considered mediocre or outright bad.

(And lest you think that this is just my opinion: here's some examples from Interpersonal Skills, Skeptics, Academia, Worldbuilding, Electrical Engineering, (then) Programmers and Code Golf complaining about the feature. There's plenty more where those came from, though there's plenty of relevant posts (particularly for the bulk of the complaints in chat) that are relatively hard to query for.)

Because of these problems, there has been a sustained series of petitions over the past ~ four years to reform the HNQ sidebar, so that it stops doing damage to SE sites and actually works to promote quality content. (My main posts on the subject are here, here and here, if you're interested.) To be clear: there have been multiple, repeated calls on SE to allow communities to moderate what gets shown on that sidebar and control how the titles there represent their sites, to curb the feedback mechanisms that make it harmful, and to reform it into something that puts the spotlight on quality content instead of lowest-common-denominator junk-food questions that alienate the users that communities want to keep. (Have a look through the hot-questions tag on Meta SE for a sampling.) Unfortunately, because of a variety of reasons, none of that ever happened.

... until, that is, all hell broke loose a month ago, in an episode documented in all its gory details (though not necessarily in easy-to-parse chronological order) at Revisiting the "Hot Network Questions" feature, what are our shared goals for having it?. It appears that SE is on the road to fixing this mechanism, hopefully by both reforming it so it's biased towards quality content instead of junk-food questions, and by allowing SE communities better and more fine-grained control over what gets advertised network-wide. However, there is no set timeline for this and the solutions won't come quick.

So, when a borderline-off-topic question with a catchy clickbait title gets picked up by the algorithm and starts picking up a snowball of votes from a population of users that have no involvement with this site, the toolset that SE puts at our disposal is essentially limited to one option: to slam the brakes on it. This involves putting it on hold, getting OP to fix the glaring problems (and then, if they're not responsive, doing more major edits that deviate from the OP's intent), fixing the title so that it's no longer a clickbait fly-magnet, and dealing with the inevitable crop of awful answers that generally crop up. Then, once the timer has cooled down, and if the problems have been fixed, it can be reopened.

Does that stub a few toes that ideally shouldn't be? Yes, it does. But until SE comes up with better tools to moderate this, the only tool available is to apply a more stringent topicality filter to questions on the list. If you want to change things, join the discussion over on Meta SE and help us pressure SE to fix this mess.

Some final notes regarding some additional inflammatory language like "abuse of reputation" and "authority" - you seem to have missed an important part of the "vote to close" mechanism, namely the vote part. Questions only get closed if five 3k+ users vote to close them, and if that quorum for a consensus doesn't get reached, single close-votes don't do anything to the question. Your problem here isn't with single users, it's with the quorum of (now seven) users who think this question should be closed in its current state and position.

is there a redress process better than going to meta and saying "hey what gives"?

This is precisely what meta is for. Why do you want something "better"?

• yeah! to your final paragraph. I’m not so averse to HNQ although I do concede there can be a hugely detrimental snowball effect which does not correlate the least bit with quality. – ZeroTheHero Nov 27 '18 at 1:05
• Wish we bothered to DM the SE Twitter to get ourselves blasted from the HNQ algo altogether... – Kyle Kanos Nov 27 '18 at 3:22
• @KyleKanos Do you think a question with the title "Black holes with soft hair" would help? :-P – AccidentalFourierTransform Nov 28 '18 at 0:08
• @KyleKanos Well, sites can ask in to that status, though I'd think SE will take very different views to PSE saying we want out of HNQ as opposed to Workplace / Academia / Parenting / etc. I'd much rather see the HNQ fixed than removed, though (ideally away from "hot" and more towards "great") - the list can do great things (it'd be dishonest of me to say otherwise) and e.g. the current entrants are great. But we do need the harmful questions to stop. – Emilio Pisanty Nov 28 '18 at 0:31
• @EmilioPisanty I guess I'd like to see the calculable benefits of having the HNQ (e.g., retention rates). My suspicions are that it is very low and probably not worth the headaches of cruddy questions being considered 'hot' and swamping out good ones. – Kyle Kanos Nov 28 '18 at 0:57
• @KyleKanos I'd like to be able to say "yep, that's an experiment we can run". But since SE has steadfastly refused to log entrance and exit from the HNQ, it's unlikely that there exists enough historic data to even begin tackling that question. (See also here.) – Emilio Pisanty Nov 28 '18 at 1:02
• @EmilioPisanty hmm, that is disappointing. I wonder if it'd be possible for SE devs would be about to just jack the minimum threshold for voting and answering for Qs on the HNQ list; e.g., voting requires 150 rep, comments 500. It would limit the impact of visitors but at the cost of doing the opposite of what the HNQ is supposed to do (sorta). – Kyle Kanos Nov 28 '18 at 12:13
• @KyleKanos There's been multiple proposals along those lines, primarily this one, but I'd argue that changes that mess with the core Q&A mechanics are unnecessarily disruptive ─ hence my proposal for breaking the loop with only changes to the hotness-score calculation. But in this context, "possible" can mean technically possible (which is pretty boring), or 'something that SE might actually implement', and unless it's the latter, it's mostly just idle hypothesizing in my opinion. – Emilio Pisanty Nov 28 '18 at 13:03
• The conversation (post-meltdown is still active, and meaningful proposals on the hot-questions tag on MSE are very much welcome. There are problems but the problems are fixable, and we need clear, viable targets and community stances for SE to start designing for. – Emilio Pisanty Nov 28 '18 at 13:04
• The "don't count association bonus" proposal is a good one, probably less drastic than the Draconian measures I proposed. But I think the feedback loop of voting (in addition to the asymmetric up/down vote thresholds) is a big problem for HNQ, so preventing it should be the first action. – Kyle Kanos Nov 28 '18 at 13:19
• I quite fear, though, that SE devs are just going to do nothing about it. I bet they'll just listen to proposals and then claim they're "overloaded" with proposals, don't know which one to choose (because they're all "good"), so they're going to kick the proverbial can. It's the best of everything: zero work with the public perception to are doing something. – Kyle Kanos Nov 28 '18 at 13:22
• @KyleKanos My reading is that that's not feasible and that SE doesn't consider it feasible, given just how much of a poo-storm the "all hell broke loose" episode was. If there's no movement on that front in, say, six months to a year, a hell of a lot of power users are going to start getting very visibly and very loudly upset. (But I could be wrong, this could well devolve into user apathy and dev stagnation with time ─ until the next time something breaks, which is going to be even worse.) – Emilio Pisanty Nov 28 '18 at 13:27
• @Kurt As for "working exactly as it should" - you've produced a grand total of one answer and a grand total of zero answers on questions that actually represent the site, so the jury is still out on that one. (Do stick around and show some actual investment, though.) But focusing on that single answer and ignoring the three awful ones the question attracted is some seriously myopic and self-centered thinking. – Emilio Pisanty Nov 29 '18 at 7:13
• Mostly, though - thank you for setting the stage for this nice bit of jurisprudence. You were wondering whether the votes that bothered you had community support, and it is now evident and documented that they do. If you don't like the site policies and the community consensus behind them, then I'm sorry you feel that way. – Emilio Pisanty Nov 29 '18 at 7:22
• @KurtFitzner You asked whether a given practice has community support, and you got a conclusive answer which disagrees with you. You're welcome to keep up the pointless gripes, but I really don't see what you're hoping to achieve here. – Emilio Pisanty Nov 30 '18 at 0:33

To the title of the question, I would say no. I don't believe a question that is deemed "too populist" alone should be closed as Off-topic for this site. Voting is a privilege; but voting to close a question because it is too popular is considered abusing that, in my opinion.

... That said, I feel like the question you're referencing is something else completely. You're taking a comment pretty far out of context. That question is quite borderline, and it's reasonable to believe that people are willing to vote it off topic. If they feel it is off topic, that is well within their right as users who have earned the privilege to vote and help better curate the content here.

That brings me to my second point. It's pretty hard to prove that anyone is closing a question for reasons completely outside the scope of closure. In this case, it seems clear to me that everyone who voted to close did not feel the question was a good fit for this site. It was popular and borderline, that's bound to attract close votes if warranted at all.

It seemed to me like you interpreted Emilio's statement as if it were the only reason the question had close votes, but that seems pretty far from the case. I voted the question down myself.