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I'll try to keep this brief. Time and time again, I've seen a poorly formed or off-topic question which was inevitably closed; however, I read between the lines and found a way to give the questioner a useful answer to the question they perhaps meant to ask, or to the question they would have maybe asked not in this forum but elsewhere. As a long-time user of this site, I know how this goes; of course, these posts were doomed to closure and for the most part I agree that they should be closed - but when I see an opportunity to (potentially) be helpful, I'm not going to not take it.

Why do "we" (those with sufficient privilege, such as myself) feel the right to delete them? This strikes me as disrespectful to the asker, answerer(s) and to the notion of ... being helpful. Sure: a poorly formed question is of little benefit to the general viewer reading the post in some several years' time (and this is why we close them, to stop them being top searches and encourage revision). Deletion is unnecessary (and often rude, I feel); maybe John Smith of the future doesn't learn from the question or the answer, but Queen Jane whose question this is benefitted (and would perhaps like to come back to this post themselves) and who knows - there are plenty of examples where future readers could benefit anyway, but have now been denied the chance, as the overwhelming majority of users cannot see deleted posts.

Of course I only really notice the examples which include my deleted answers, but I need to insist this isn't a personal grudge. The main point is that this behaviour seems to undermine the core principle of... helping people (who are maybe quite lost and don't know how to untangle their question).

Question: What are we doing?? Deletion should be reserved for abusive or deeply incorrect posts, really: I would like to understand what the rationale is for deleting and disrespecting innocent, but confused, questions and their answers (really, I want a small culture shift).

Some examples (I'm not trying to plug my own answers or anything, again: I just only notice those cases which involve me - I'm sure there are very many other such cases):

The most recent example which caught my eye - it was deleted for being opinion based, yet I gave the OP some factual lessons in functoriality which they clearly learned something from - that's not opinionated, is it? - and I re-explained the points of previous commenters in a way the OP eventually understood - is this not a good thing?; a past example which I remember well since I know my answer has value for a future reader, but most of you can't see it now.. and the question was asked in good faith even though it was wildly off-topic - but I refuse to punish curiosity by withholding knowledge - if I have to do that, then something is wrong with the culture here; and lastly a high profile example which had much value to the general reader, as you can tell by the very high number of upvotes on some answers and the high view count. This question was obviously off topic... yet still useful for people. Why deny a useful thing, once it is already there? A posteriori deterrence??

And some others, again examples where I feel a general reader really could stand to benefit from these and now can't - surely, this flaunts one of the main points of MSE. It feels like petty punishment for the OP for not, say, "giving context"; I should think closure is punishment enough! Or if it had been answered before, we could have merged answers. When I receive comments like "thanks, this helped a lot" I know there was some value in answering that "doomed" (for closure) question, but again to delete it is another matter entirely.

I more or less already know what the main answers to this will be, but I leave my microrant here anyway. Some flexibility would be good, people. Outside of MSE, MSE can have a bad reputation for being unhelpful. I think this is unjustified, and I love this community, but we might want to do something about this "unhelpful" aura.

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    $\begingroup$ Your first example is not a good one---the question itself was a word-for-word repost of a question the author had already asked, and had closed. They then chose to delete the question and repost it, in violation of site policy. math.stackexchange.com/questions/4936634/… $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson Mod
    Commented Jun 24 at 21:17
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    $\begingroup$ I knew you'd say that. The point is, they got helped. I knew immediately it was a bad question doomed for closure, and I understand why it was doomed for closure. I'm arguing about being doomed for deletion. I don't think helping them in any way "rewards the bad behaviour" of deleting and reposting. If anything, their seeing their question deleted again may well undermine faith in this particular rule $\endgroup$
    – FShrike
    Commented Jun 24 at 21:22
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    $\begingroup$ It is not that the question (in the abstract) was doomed for closure, it is that the specific post which was deleted was posted in violation of site policy. The original asker is more than welcome undelete their original question, and fix it so that it can be reopened and answered. But I do not think that we should reward users who violate site policy and circumvent moderation systems. $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson Mod
    Commented Jun 24 at 21:36
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    $\begingroup$ Your "most recent example" is solution verification question that is off-topic (missing the required context of which step is in doubt and why so), and it is surely a dupe of a FAQ too, so it should not have been answered. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 24 at 21:51
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    $\begingroup$ Re: your proposal to not delete "confused" answers. While there are some general types of confusion and/or errors that may be worth retaining as dupe targets, it would greatly degrade search result quality if we retain them all. For example, there are a huge number of posts involving back-substitution errors in extended Euclidean algorithm computations. If we didn't delete most of them they would obfuscate searches on related topics so greatly that most users would give up searching for answers (as many do already for other reasons). $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 24 at 22:27
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    $\begingroup$ Without good search ability the site degrades into an ephemeral stream of low-quality (fgitw) answers, vs. the desired design goal - to build an easily searchable library of high-quality answers (hopefully evolving into "proofs from the book" via revisions sparked by feedback over the years). In particular - worth strong emphasis - all of our work in the past is essentially lost if it cannot easily be located by search. Rectifying this problem is perhaps the greatest challenge the site faces at the moment. Proposed policies should be carefully constructed to ensure not to exacerbate such. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 24 at 22:28
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    $\begingroup$ Long story short, we are here to help people, not a person. We want questions worth keeping because the answers to them are worth making available more easily in the future, not to save someone time on their homework or money on a proper tutor. $\endgroup$
    – Nij
    Commented Jun 25 at 5:50
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ There was value in some deleted questions and answers, I'm sure the list is very long if you looked at every post ever deleted. It is as simple as this. Close them, put them by the wayside, discourage them; but deleting them is, imo, the thing done in bad faith. It is not in bad faith to make significant contribution to this community, support the majority of its values and simply exercise the basic right to raise some qualms over the implementation of said values. $\endgroup$
    – FShrike
    Commented Jun 25 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ @FShrike In principle, if a question is closed (for reasons other than duplication), this is an indication that the close voters do not believe that the question is a good fit for the site (for whatever reason). In the long run, questions which are not a good fit should be deleted---I see no reason to retain closed questions in the long term. That being said, I have often opined that we should be fast to close, and slow to delete---users should be given a chance to improve their questions before they are deleted. Still, if a question is closed, it is (or should be) on its way to deletion. $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson Mod
    Commented Jun 25 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ This erases value. I agree the overwhelming majority of closed posts have no value, but some do. Take for instance the vaguely "high profile" example I suggest. It was off topic, yet resonated with a lot of people. There are plenty of classic MSE and MO posts which, if posted today, would run the risk of this closure and erasure, yet we still value them (there is even a "historical" flag on MO) $\endgroup$
    – FShrike
    Commented Jun 25 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ Well, I am one who feels that MSE should be a repository of high-quality questions and answers, and NOT a sort of online office hours. With that said, there was at least one thread you quoted where you wrote a great answer and even though the question didn't meet the MSE Guidelines, it is quite a shame IMO that your answer went away. $\endgroup$
    – Mike
    Commented Jun 25 at 20:37
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    $\begingroup$ Here's a workaround. If you feel that a deleted question, or one or more of the answers to a deleted question, has value and should not be deleted, post as your own a revised version of the question, revised so as to conform to site standards, and then copy the valuable answer(s) to the deleted question as answers to your new question – taking care to give credit, where due, and links to the older posts. This doesn't cure all the problems, by any means, but it does keep the valuable content onsite and visible to all. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 25 at 23:15
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson Or write a new question and ask a moderator to merge the old question into the new question, which will bring the old answers over. $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson Mod
    Commented Jun 26 at 2:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Brick If you look at the context of this question, the kinds of questions being considered are not going to be eligible for Roomba deletion. I would also suggest that you, perhaps, relax a little and, as an outsider, not dictate to the Math community what we should, or should not, be doing. $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson Mod
    Commented Jun 27 at 17:37
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Maybe a perspective from a new user is useful.I have enormous respect for this community. I understand much better now how the site works. But it took me a while. I deleted a closed post I made recently, because a user voted down on it and gave me an opinion that sounded harsh, and if I wasn't experienced enough on rough feedback, I'd have felt really discouraged from ever posting again. Maybe if I was told in the comments that the question needed more clarity, or a suggestion to delete it until that clarity was achieved the exchange would've been more useful. Thank you. $\endgroup$
    – phionez
    Commented Jul 1 at 13:39

4 Answers 4

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The goal of helping users, especially new ones, is legitimate. However it is not the only goal of Math.SE. Collectively we set out to become a repository of excellent content, and some users are recalcitrant when asked to make an effort, to supply a modicum of context for their Questions.

Other times the process of encouraging a new user to provide more than a bare problem statement can result in needed improvements. I'm happy when my comments are responded to in a constructive way.

In this way I applaud your wish to help others, and in suggesting to posters ways that their Questions (or Answers) can be improved, your efforts are appreciated (at least by me).

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Well, I will answer this question conceptually. I have to disagree with [what I am taking to be at least] the premise of your post. I downvote and vote-to-close questions that I don't think are of interest to the general community here.

The original mission of this site was to be a repository of high-quality questions and answers, where people were rewarded by adding content that is interesting to other people on MSE--thoughtful engaging questions and well-written answers. There are people on here, however, who want this site to also be some sort of online office hours where students are upvoted [and rewarded with a tutoring session in the comments] for showing effort on their own homework who cares if the question is of interest to others on this site or not. This represents a change from the purported mission of this site though, one that I, and I believe, many other contributors on here, do NOT want.

First off, the joy that comes from helping others is tempered by realizing the possibility that we may have done someone's problem set--or even take-home exam for them. Or in general, that we may have helped them get a much better grade in their maths classes than they deserve. I get that sense whenever there is someone who comes on here and asks a lot of questions in a short amount of time [whether they show effort/context on their own question or not]--and doesn't answer anyone else's questions--it seems to me that they are asking MSE to hold their hand on their problem sets.

Second, entropy is not this site's friend. There are a lot of people out there who want help on their math homework. If we become more welcoming of the help-me-with-my-homework questions, well guess what this site will become overrun with. Then the more interesting questions will get choked off and many smart people will leave this site.

Now, getting to the links posted. I only browsed, but I do admit that in a couple of the links a few great answers were deleted with the parent question. If a question is borderline but there is an answer that is well-written, then I am far less likely to delete that question, as at least the answer is of interest to the wider community.

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    $\begingroup$ Interesting questions are already somewhat choked, I’ve long been annoyed by this. But helping all homework questions and so on is not what I’m about here. I’m talking about very fringe cases; I strongly agree most closed questions deserved to be closed and most deleted questions deserved to be deleted $\endgroup$
    – FShrike
    Commented Jun 27 at 23:06
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    $\begingroup$ @FShrike I admit to not quite following your OP. The title of your post is about "helping people", which I take to mean bending site rules to help someone [if you can help someone and stay within the site rules then I see no issue]. This--bending site guidelines to help someone--is mostly about entertaining questions of dubious quality,often by by tutoring in the comments. The very fringe cases you seem to be referring to--a dubious question with a well-written answer--by definition don't come up so often, and even then I take into account the quality of the answer. So, what am I missing here $\endgroup$
    – Mike
    Commented Jun 28 at 16:35
  • $\begingroup$ The claim that there are only questions of general interest to the community on the one hand, and questions that help someone complete their homework, on the other, needs a bit of justification, which I claim may prove hard to establish. $\endgroup$
    – demim00nde
    Commented Jul 1 at 13:07
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The Current State of the Site

Right now, Math SE conforms to the network-wide view of closed questions: questions which are closed are in this state because they are not a good fit for the site. If a question is not a good fit for the site, it doesn't belong here and should ultimately be deleted. An excellent answer is not (in general) sufficient to rescue such a question. Hence if a question is closed, users should expect that delete votes will be cast.

There is a very (very) set of circumstances under which a question could potentially be locked by a moderator for "historical significance". These are rare exceptions. An example of such a post is the Batman question, which very much does not meet the standards of the site, but which attracted both a great deal of attention, and a number of interesting answers. Note that this question is both one of the most upvoted, and one of the most downvoted, questions on the site.

If you believe that a closed question falls under this limited exception, you can flag the question for moderator attention. Note that your flag will likely be declined—again, this is a rare and exceptional case.

Why?

The goal of SE is to help people, not individual persons—the SE model expects that the vast majority of users will never post a question. Rather, the expectation is that most users will find the site via Google or some other search engine, and obtain an answer to their question without having to do anything else. The goal is to create a searchable repository of questions and answers.

Questions which aren't a good fit for this site are problematic because they muddy search results, and make it harder for people to find the results which will actually help them answer their question. If the goal is to connect users with the answers to their questions, a low-quality question (even if it has great answers) is unlikely to be the same question that another user has, hence it is a waste of the searcher's time to be served that Q&A.

The Framing of this Question: Is it Rude?

This question asserts that it is somehow rude to delete the questions and answers of other users. I do not believe that this is the case, though I do think that it is reflective of the personal stake which a lot of users seem to have in this site.

Deletion is a part of how this site keeps itself healthy. In general, closed questions should be deleted. This is not about "respect" or "rudeness" towards the question or the answerer—it is about maintaining the quality of the content on this site. Framing this as a polemic ("rude" delete voters vs "polite" askers and/or answerers) is, in my opinion, not a productive way of viewing the problem.

Down votes are not intrinsically "rude".

Close votes are not intrinsically "rude".

Delete votes are not intrinsically "rude".

None of these actions are any more "rude" (in and of themselves) than pruning a branch from a tree. Rather, these are actions which must be taken in order to preserve the health of the site.

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    $\begingroup$ Downvotes are rude if they are placed before one makes an effort to help the asker improve their question. Generally, the idea of emphasising helping people in principle while paying no attention to the experiences of individuals has very bad resonances for me. $\endgroup$
    – demim00nde
    Commented Jul 1 at 13:12
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    $\begingroup$ It is sometimes clear to me that the delete-voter acted somewhat lazily and on principle though; problematic. If they didn't, then there would be the new problem of seeing something of value to others and still choosing to erase it; the "rudeness" lies in erasing what was possibly a lot of effort or time from the questioners, answerers and commenters. Without personal investment this site would not flourish as it has $\endgroup$
    – FShrike
    Commented Jul 1 at 18:28
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    $\begingroup$ @demim00nde No, it's not. The voter has zero responsibility to do anything else. Notice how you don't demand action for upvoting. You might take offense from downvotes and the best advice I have is to not, there is nothing directed at you personally. You too, can decide never to ask a question, only read posts and never get downvoted. That's in fact what most users do, and they got plenty of help through that. $\endgroup$
    – Passer By
    Commented Jul 4 at 8:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @PasserBy: I don't think up-votes and down-votes are symmetric, though. A down-vote often signals that the item in question needs improvement. What would an up-vote signal? That the item needs...degrading? ¶ If the down-vote is applied supposedly in the spirit of keeping the site healthy, but no explanation is given, the benefit to the site is, I would say, rather minimal. Of course there are situations where no explanation is needed, but there are plenty of cases where the down-votes and close-votes are mystifying even to me, who has been here for nearly a decade. What must new users think? $\endgroup$
    – Brian Tung
    Commented Jul 6 at 18:11
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianTung No, votes signal the quality of the question. Needing improvement is what the OP deduce from downvotes. For everyone else, negative scores mean this is a bad question and should be skipped, positive scores mean this is a good question and should receive attention. That is quite literally the entire premise of Stack Overflow, how is that minimal? $\endgroup$
    – Passer By
    Commented Jul 6 at 18:49
  • $\begingroup$ @PasserBy: I'm not sure I see how your observation necessarily contradicts mine. On the basis of at least some comments, some readers have down-voted specifically because something needed improvement. (I'm not claiming that happens all the time, only that it often happens.) ¶ It's also unclear to me that modulating attention is the entire premise of SO, to the exclusion of everything else. Perhaps "minimal" is too strong, but the inferior question is still there. (Close-votes can affect that, of course, and deletions.) A helpful comment could lead to an improvement of the question. $\endgroup$
    – Brian Tung
    Commented Jul 6 at 23:42
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    $\begingroup$ (cont'd) Of course I agree, however, that readers have no responsibility to leave helpful comments. But I still think there are too many down-votes on questions whose inferior quality is far from obvious to me. Perhaps that's a separate question. ¶ I still don't see a reason why it should be significant that FShrike doesn't expect an action from an up-vote but does for a down-vote. I simply think the situation isn't symmetric. $\endgroup$
    – Brian Tung
    Commented Jul 6 at 23:44
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianTung "down-voted specifically because something needed improvement" I don't understand the distinction you're making, a question that needs to be improved is of course the situation where the question is low quality. "modulating attention is the entire premise of SO" I think that is a correct characterization, given that SO set out to be an anti-forum. The culture of moderation and the software to enforce it is unique to SO. It is the single most important reason why expert attrition is low and why SO is searchable and trustworthy, in contrast to other sites. $\endgroup$
    – Passer By
    Commented Jul 7 at 9:34
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    $\begingroup$ @PasserBy: OK. I think I'm not conveying my point very clearly, but I also think that we don't disagree very violently, so it's probably not worth belaboring. $\endgroup$
    – Brian Tung
    Commented Jul 8 at 6:49
  • $\begingroup$ @PasserBy Votes only notionally indicate quality. Realistically they are more reflective of popularity, of course. A 1-vote post can very well be vastly more high quality and interesting to me than some of the 20+ vote posts. Some downvotes are just bizarre, with the author clearly having made no kind of low-quality sin; they occur because someone was just not interested in or disliked the premise of the post $\endgroup$
    – FShrike
    Commented Jul 8 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ Honestly, I don't think that it is appropriate to think that votes are only about quality, or that votes should be only about quality. Per the tool-tips, an upvote indicates that something is "useful" and/or "well researched" and/or "clear", and a downvote indicates that it is not. Something doesn't need to be of "low quality" for someone to think that it is not "useful". Personally, there are a fair number of questions that I end up downvoting because the title suggested something interesting, and the question itself turned out to be some routine homework exercise. $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson Mod
    Commented Jul 8 at 16:23
  • $\begingroup$ @FShrike It's not a perfect measure and mistakes occur, sure. It's what we have and doesn't really defeat the point that it's a measure of quality. I should also point out that disagreement doesn't necessarily imply an error, there's a reason why its a vote. Insert some argument about ensemble modeling here. $\endgroup$
    – Passer By
    Commented Jul 8 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ I don't see much of a reason to leave a comment on such a question---I generally only comment to offer advice about how a question could be improved. If the question is fundamentally uninteresting to me (e.g. for the reason that it is a routine exercise), I have no interest in spending the time to tell a person "Hey, your title misled me into believing that this was going to be an interesting question, but it turn out that it wasn't so I've downvoted it." I'd rather just downvote and move on with my day. $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson Mod
    Commented Jul 8 at 16:25
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    $\begingroup$ And finally, remember that a vote (up or down), even if you assume that it is about quality, is an expression of someone's opinion about that quality. People of good intention can have different standards for quality, and may disagree. $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson Mod
    Commented Jul 8 at 16:26
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I'm not a frequent user of the Math site specifically, but I do use Physics and Stack Overflow extensively for work. I have very few questions posted - The vast majority of the time I can find an answer to my question already in the archives.

From my perspective, I take exactly the opposite view of the OP on this meta question. Answering these off-topic, low quality questions is not helpful to me. Having an answer takes them out of some of the pathways to being deleted automatically and having them on the site requires ever more time to shift through the bad questions and answers to find good ones.

I would go even further - Please don't even leave comments on them, because that also takes them out of one of the automatic deletion categories.

To be clear, in light of some of the comments, I am not saying that all questions should be ignored and that there is never a case for using the comments to ask questions. I'm responding to the OP, which advocated responses to questions even when the person responding knows the questions are off topic:

I know how this goes; of course, these posts were doomed to closure and for the most part I agree that they should be closed - but when I see an opportunity to (potentially) be helpful, I'm not going to not take it.

I don't have hard evidence that most people are using the site like I am, but it almost has to be true. So I applaud the OP's desire to help, but I would ask him and everyone of the same philosophy to keep in mind that closing and deleting really poor or really idiosyncratic questions is helping many people.

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    $\begingroup$ @user264745 - The original post is about the practice of answering questions when the person answering knows (strongly believes) that the question is off-topic or low quality. The possibility that one might find some examples where the community disagreed about quality or possibly even got it wrong is not relevant to the broader issue. I gave no opinion about the specific posts. I have a strong opinion that the OP's notion of "helpful" as described at length in the OP and the comment is distinctly not helpful. $\endgroup$
    – Brick
    Commented Jun 27 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ @user264745 - Maybe we'll have to agree to disagree, but I think you missed the point. The system itself deletes closed questions under certain conditions. Users leaving frivolous comments and answers are defeating even the site's self-maintenance. It has NOTHING to do with votes to delete, which is a separate process. math.stackexchange.com/help/auto-deleted-questions $\endgroup$
    – Brick
    Commented Jun 27 at 15:12
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    $\begingroup$ Examples where the community disagrees or got it wrong about quality or potential value are obviously relevant. They are exactly the fringe cases I mean to discuss; the broader issue is a genuine issue, and I’ve made it very clear I agree it’s a genuine issue. I’ve also made it clear I agree most deleted etc. questions deserved to be deleted $\endgroup$
    – FShrike
    Commented Jun 27 at 23:08
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think you made that clear at all. When you scrape away the parts that are just "microrant" (your word), your thesis seems to be this: "these posts were doomed to closure and for the most part I agree that they should be closed". So you hedged that a bit with "for the most part", but in the end you are arguing for keeping questions that you know are low quality or blatantly off-topic. There's no universal guard to prevent mistakes or resolve disagreement. The reopen and undelete process are available to resolve disagreements or mistakes. It's not a perfect system though for sure. $\endgroup$
    – Brick
    Commented Jun 28 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ I have no thesis. I mean only to flag a belief (which seems to be at least somewhat shared) that deletion is stronger than closure and is, in some cases, unwarranted. Let’s be real: the reopen and undelete services very rarely act, because (a) users with enough privilege are rare (b) users actually have to read the questions and answers carefully and decide that they truly care, which many won’t make the time to do. $\endgroup$
    – FShrike
    Commented Jun 28 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ Asking a clear question is half the battle of learning. Failing to help someone get their question right is bad enough. Actively advocating that such questions be ignored seems simply subversive. $\endgroup$
    – demim00nde
    Commented Jul 1 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ @demim00nde - There are certainly times where comments to clarify at valid. My issue is that there are a LOT of questions lingering on the site that had no real chance of being answered (too poorly written, clearly someone asking for a full solution to their homework, etc.) that linger on this site because the garner 2+ comments that had no real chance of leading to an answer. This site is not setup to be an office hours format. People who need interactive help really need to get into a chat room or on a site oriented toward that need. $\endgroup$
    – Brick
    Commented Jul 1 at 13:30
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    $\begingroup$ @demim00nde - I made an edit to clarify when commenting should be avoided. Presumably you still won't agree with that based on your other comments, but it's at least a step toward being clear about where we disagree. $\endgroup$
    – Brick
    Commented Jul 1 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Brick Requiring an explanation to the poster when voting to close would seem like a decent piece of functionality, with the possibility of comeback by the user. I remember a question I worked very hard to form being closed without explanation, and it doesn't feel like any general principle can be a legitimate excuse for that. $\endgroup$
    – demim00nde
    Commented Jul 2 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ Well, but given the barrage of low-quality questions, we as a site generally don't have the time or energy to be focusing on helping people try to improve their questions, especially as (a) we have too many of these low-quality questions to focus on, and (b) for many a low-quality question, there often is not a path to making the question good. The expectations of what constitutes a good question are laid out already tour $\endgroup$
    – Mike
    Commented Jul 3 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ @demim00nde When a question is closed, an explanation for why people voted to close that question is displayed in a blue banner above that question. Those boilerplate explanations might not tell you everything you want to know, but that is where you should start. $\endgroup$
    – Xander Henderson Mod
    Commented Jul 4 at 12:38

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