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TL;DR: there's a system called "Smoke Detector" that has been automatically flagging spam here for the past year. You can view a list of posts that have been flagged by clicking this text (warning: some vulgar / offensive content if you click through to the flagged posts in that list.) Right now, the folks running this system are trying to decide if they should delete this sort of thing even faster - so if you think you might have an opinion on this, read that list, form your opinion, then come back here and share it.


As some of you may have seen already there is this post on mother meta. To save a bad explanation by me here's the TL;DR from the post.

Charcoal is the organisation behind SmokeDetector. Since January 2017, we've been casting up to 3 flags automatically on posts that our systems are confident are spam. We'd like to increase that to 5 automatic flags to reduce the time spam spends alive on the network.

As it stands this proposal is network wide but there has been some discussion with the Charcoal team whether this can be on a per site basis. Therefore, this is a preemptive discussion on whether we'd like auto flagging of spam on our site and how we'd want it handled. The following are the questions we'd need to address if we are able to change things on a per site basis.

  1. Do we want auto spam flagging?
  2. How many auto spam flags would we want?
  3. Who should be able to auto spam flag? (Anyone, active users, users >N rep, SmokeDetector account, etc.)

If you have anymore questions to discuss in relation to this feel free to edit them into the list though if there are any answers already pinging them for an update would be a nice courtesy.

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    We don't get enough to warrant it, it's perfectly handled by users. – Edlothiad Mar 5 '18 at 17:20
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    @Edlothiad Well by my takes and looking into the mother meta post we've already had it for a bit (unless I've read the post wrong). The thing is it removes the need for people to see, potentially, offensive content which is always a good thing. – TheLethalCarrot Mar 5 '18 at 17:21
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    Here is a list of autoflagged posts on SF&F. – Glorfindel Mar 5 '18 at 18:52
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    How democratic is it if the people asking for the change discuss voting and meta posts while this is entirely speculative I would not be surprised if the voting swayed in favour. – Edlothiad Mar 5 '18 at 19:33
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    @Valorum - Charcoal members have been asked to refrain from voting on posts like these unless they are already members of the community. In addition to that, most Charcoal members don't have enough rep to even downvote here. – user58 Mar 5 '18 at 19:50
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    Can I just ask why? What possible benefit could a site this small get in automating a process that actual live users already complain doesn't provide enough work for them to do? – KutuluMike Mar 5 '18 at 22:08
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    @Mithrandir doesn't mean it needs to be implemented here. – Edlothiad Mar 5 '18 at 22:19
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    @Mithrandir than what, pray tell, was the point of asking this meta question on this site if this community has no say in the answer? – KutuluMike Mar 5 '18 at 22:26
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    Even before the past year, we handled spam and totally offensive posts just fine with just humans. What have we actually gained with it? How much time or effort has it honestly saved us, the SFF community? I'd be willing to bet not anything most of us would be concerned about. – phantom42 Mar 5 '18 at 23:32
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    FWIW, I specifically asked the Smoke Detector team to make one meta post on MSE instead of trying to do this piecemeal. Y'all are free to discuss this of course, but if you think this is a bad idea then post your reasoning on MSE - it's far better to fix issues with doing something like this for everyone than to implement it piecemeal. For those who don't watch spam much, there's sort of a "herd immunity" aspect: spam groups tend to jump from site to site once they've established a plan of attack, looking for cheap opportunities to re-use their approach while evading attempts to mitigate. – Shog9 Mar 6 '18 at 0:18
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    @shog To be honest, this is the first I've heard of "Smokey's" thresholds and operating parameters. You may think this is good, in that good automation should be seamless and happen auto-magically, however, this is a site moderated by the community. The moment you take that interaction and engagement (no matter how sullied) away from users, you're taking away from the concept of Stack. Spam is not such a problem here on this site that we want this feature. – Möoz Mar 6 '18 at 2:51
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    I enjoy and prefer being able to knock out those s***-posts away, it gives me a feeling of satisfaction, that I've actually helped the site, in a way that don't often get to. I think that is worth it, given that spam's just not such a big problem, and this external influence is giving a grievance to the site's real and active users. – Möoz Mar 6 '18 at 2:53
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    Oh, I love Smoke Detector, @Möoz. When one of these site-hopping spam-rings used to blow through, I'd have to sit with the logs open tracking them and trying to get out in front with blacklists and IP-bans; this is a lot cleaner. But as for whether y'all want it operating here... Either you do, or you don't; if you don't, then you'll deal with your own spam up until it becomes a problem you can't handle and then I'll say "well, turn on SD then" and that'll be it - at that point, you don't get to complain. So if you have an opinion now and you want it heard... Best voice it. On MSE. – Shog9 Mar 6 '18 at 3:34
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    (@Shog9 As an aside, after some thought I've edited one of your comments to remove unnecessary rudeness. Stepping out of my mod comfort zone a bit here, but I have to handle enough confrontational comments on this meta already; I'd really appreciate if you of all people didn't make my job even harder. Feel free to delete this comment [but hopefully not my account :-P ] once you've seen it.) – Rand al'Thor Mar 6 '18 at 11:08
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    @Edlothiad: Wow... that chat link is... really something. Especially the thinly veiled "let [SFF.SE] think they won" line is extremely disturbing. I certainly hope that is just one user's opinion and not the official position of CHQ/Shog/et al. – Kevin Mar 9 '18 at 7:29
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Clarifying Smokey

Let me start with a very brief summary of what Smoke Detector does, since there's been some confusion over this. (Charcoal people, please correct me in comments if I get anything wrong.)

  • Posts which contain certain blacklisted content (swearwords, particular link patterns, etc.) are reported into chat for user review. Users then decide whether or not to flag based on their own appraisal of the reported post. Reports have a relatively high false positive rate: in the last 12 months on SFF, ~15% of reported posts have been false positives, or ~25% counting posts that were delete-worthy but not spam/abusive. Smokey tries to optimise for finding as much spam as possible rather than ensuring all reports are spam.

  • Posts which are almost certainly spam/abusive are autoflagged by the Smokey bot, using the accounts of users who've signed up as autoflaggers. This "almost certainly" is defined by tweaking the blacklist parameters. Auto-flagging has a low false positive rate: in the last 12 months on SFF, ~2% of reported posts (a single one among 47) have been false positives. To be auto-flaggable, a post needs to be far more 'spammy/abusive' than it does to be reportable.

  • There's a proposal currently open to increase the autoflags per post from 3 (the current number) to 5 (one less than the number needed to nuke a post). If this happens, the parameters would be tweaked even further, to the point where a post must be (at least) 99.99% likely to be spam before flagging, rather than the current 99.75%. Thus, this would have a very low false positive rate, to balance the greater risk of accidentally nuking a post which shouldn't be nuked.

I've seen some users getting them mixed up. Hopefully this clarifies the differences between reporting, autoflagging, and 5-flag autoflagging. These are three separate things, with three different thresholds required to make them happen (if the latter even happens at all).


Getting to the actual question

It's possible for the Smokey devs to turn off any or all of the Smokey behaviours on a per-site basis. So I'm going to take this meta as the canonical "what do we want Smokey doing on our site?" post, and answer it as such. This isn't an official response from the mod team, but my own personal thoughts - please let me know in comments what you all think.

  • Do we want Smokey reports for SFF?

    I'd say YES. SFF doesn't get much weird content which would be considered spam/abusive on other sites but is OK here, so there's not much danger of non-SFF Smokey people manually flagging things wrongly. Smokey reports help our site to get rid of spam quicker (even though it's not always actual site users getting rid of it for us). Making people aware of potential spam or abusive posts is a benefit for the site, and I can't really see any major downsides. Occasionally over-zealous flaggers might cast wrong flags, but site mods can decline these as necessary.

  • Do we want Smokey autoflags for SFF?

    I could go either way on this one. On the one hand, there are moral/philosophical objections to letting a bot clean up our site for us - flags should be cast by people, whether SFF people or Smokey people (or both) - and SFF has more than enough active users to manually flag spam and nuke it in short order anyway. On the other hand, it's been working pretty well here for a year or so - I bet most of the SFF community didn't even notice it, or indeed notice the spam posts it eliminated for us - and even autoflagged posts still have to be reviewed by humans in order to be nuked, since the maximum number of autoflags currently cast is 3.

  • Do we want Smokey 5-autoflags for SFF?

    As far as I understand, the motivation for enabling 5-autoflagging is to speed up the deletion time of spam. On some sites, with low activity and few flaggers, that might actually be a noticeable gain, but here on SFF, we have enough actively flagging users that no clearly spam/abusive post is going to last long anyway. I'm reasonably sure that if you go through this list and look at the posts which took longest to be deleted, most will have some post-specific issues or ambiguity. So I can't see any real benefit for our site in 5-autoflagging.

    The risk, however, is clear. Even with all the safeguards in the book, and a 99.99%+ likelihood of spam, it's always possible that some false positive will slip through and get autoflagged. That's not so bad now, when 3 human flags are still required to nuke it, but a 5-autoflagged post only needs one person flagging incorrectly to delete and lock it. And unfortunately we can't rely on people flagging sensibly - you should see some of the flags I've had to decline on this site ;-) Even without the risk of a single bad human flag, 5 autoflags are enough to get a post's score down to -5 and hide it from the front page of the site, making it harder for people to find in order to reverse the damage.

    With the risks outlined above, and the lack of tangible benefits, I'd have to say NO.

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    Posts which contain certain blacklisted content ... are reported into chat for user review. Users then decide whether or not to flag based on their own appraisal of the reported post. Can I point out that these are off-site people, not necessarily those actively involved in this particular site (not necessarily a bad thing per se). – Möoz Mar 6 '18 at 1:51
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    @Möoz Absolutely, but I don't think that should be much of a problem. I tried to address this further down: "SFF doesn't get much weird content which would be considered spam/abusive on other sites but is OK here, so there's not much danger of non-SFF Smokey people manually flagging things wrongly." If they're getting rid of stuff that's unambiguously undesirable, then ... well ... thanks? Also, every chat mod has Smokey powers, so if they do screw up, an SFF mod can go in and reverse the damage. – Rand al'Thor Mar 6 '18 at 1:57
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    but a 5-autoflagged post only needs one idiot to delete and lock it. I'm sure there are tons of those idiots available... (myself included). – Möoz Mar 6 '18 at 1:59
  • This is a much better summary of the state of affairs. I just want to point out that the thresholds we brought up on Meta aren't necessarily what we'll go with (they're more like a lower bound, we wanted to keep our options open). We'll see how it plays out on mother Meta, but it's decently likely we'll go with 300+ reason weight for 5 autoflags (which is 100% accurate, we've never had an FP that high in the 2+ years we've been keeping records.) – a spaghetto Mar 6 '18 at 1:59
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    @quartata Cheers; I edited to reflect that. I don't like calling it "100% accurate" though, since nothing is completely 100% - OK, you've never had an FP that high, yet. Maybe this is just the pedantic mathematician in me coming out, but I think it's important to remember. People might see "100%" and think they never have to worry about FPs, leading them to flag blindly. – Rand al'Thor Mar 6 '18 at 2:04
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    @Randal'Thor "Maybe this is just the pedantic mathematician in me coming out" - Not necessarily. It cuts to a bit of a general problem with those numbers that might make them seem more accurate than they really are to the layman. The fact that for the bot 100% is totally possible while in reality it never is is a little telling about what 99.99% actually means then. – TARS says Reinstate Monica Mar 6 '18 at 2:06
  • @TARS I mean, this is a very big sample. We've been pretty much scanning every post and storing the reason weights on stuff that hit filters for 2 years. I don't think it's too unfair to talk about the population from this data. – a spaghetto Mar 6 '18 at 2:09
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    Sure, I'm not saying the numbers are wrong or just PR mumbojumbo. But I'm with Rand al'Thor that there is a bit of a philosophical difference between taking 100% as meaning "the universe considers this spam under every possible definition" and "it hasn't been wrong so far yet", a distinction that might not be clear to every passerby judging this whole concept. – TARS says Reinstate Monica Mar 6 '18 at 2:12
  • That's fair. The distinction I wanted to highlight is "we haven't had an FP at x yet" versus "OK we've had a handful at y." – a spaghetto Mar 6 '18 at 2:13
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    IMO, it would have been better to put the portion of this answer which clarifies Smokey as an edit to the question, leaving the answer as a clear position statement with arguments in favor/against. As it is, with both in this answer, it muddies the water a bit as to what people's votes on this answer mean. It could be that some people are voting just on the information content rather than only the position. I don't think having both invalidates the votes as indicating support for the position, but having people's opinions be crystal clear (expressed by votes) would have been better. – Makyen Mar 6 '18 at 17:21
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    @Makyen if people are unwilling to read the post through to completion and understand exactly where it stands they shouldn't really be voting. This meta isn't about understanding the Smoke Detector, it's about how this site wants to interact with it. Explaining what Smoke Detector is is fine in the answer, if people up-vote for the explanation but disagree with the stance, well then they probably shouldn't have up-voted. That's not the poster's issue. That's the issue of the people unwilling to read to completion or up-voting for whatever other bizarre reason. – Edlothiad Mar 8 '18 at 7:43
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    @Edlothiad I partially agree with you. However, given human nature, it should be expected that people don't read the whole post and vote anyway. Thus, I ultimately disagree. This post was made by a moderator. Rand did an excellent job of clarifying the issues, which is what a moderator should do. However, IMO, it is also part of their job to do as much as possible so that the voting-results on answers to a question like this are as clear as reasonably possible. I don't think that what was done was wrong, or bad, I just think that it could have been better and that we can learn from that. – Makyen Mar 10 '18 at 9:04
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    @Edlothiad - It's also sorta patronising to suggest that "some people" are voting for this answer because they didn't read it and understand it, an attitude that seems emblematic of this entire discussion; 'If only people were smart enough, they'd vote the correct way instead of for this answer' – Valorum Mar 18 '18 at 8:37
  • @Valorum from my understanding, all that seems to be suggested is that clearly the SFF community is only out to undermine the hard work that the CHQ community has done. The scandal is so deeply engrained that we've, even, got the moderators involved writing well worded pieces to deceive the community which must be voting wrong because this couldn't possibly be what a community would decide. Although of course throughout all this we're told our community's decision will be respected. – Edlothiad Mar 18 '18 at 10:07
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To give you a bit of background, I'm the user that posted the current post about increasing the number of automatic flags, the previous one a year ago, and the automated comment flagger over on Stack Overflow. That should give you the idea that I'm in favor of automation.

  1. Do we want auto spam flagging?

Yes. For the same reason that you want spam protection on your email account. You really don't want to see it and when you do, it's an annoyance. Charcoal has automatically flagged thousands of posts, accurately, across the entire network.

  1. How many auto spam flags would we want?

Honestly, I'd love to have all of this handled before it even makes it onto the site. We can't get that early in the process though, so the next best thing is to remove it as quickly as possible. There is no benefit to having spam sit around while we wait for users to come around and flag it. Automatic flags offer to take most of that work on. By allowing 5 automatic flags to the most egregious of posts, we can effectively cut the time a piece of spam survives on the site to a handful of seconds.

  1. Who should be able to auto spam flag? (Anyone, active users, users >N rep, SmokeDetector account, etc.)

Right now, anyone who has permission to flag a post is eligible to auto-flag the post. That means the user is trusted, at some level, on the network. There are no other restrictions across the network on who can flag. It's based on reputation level of the user.


Bots, and automation of certain tasks, are not the problem. Poor oversight is a problem. SmokeDetector has oversight. It has a chat room dedicated to monitoring it. It has an open dashboard for any one to look at.

As was nicely pointed out in the comments by Valorum:

For the record, we've now spent more time discussing this bot than we spent deleting every single spam post on SFF:SE over the past year.

They are correct. This site doesn't receive a ton of spam. That's great for the site. However, it's also important to point out that a lot of that spam that has been removed has been removed in seconds to minutes thanks to the existing effort of automatic flags. That should continue.

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    "Yes. For the same reason that you want spam protection on your email account." I don't think this is a good analogy. Nobody (AFAIK) is complaining about the spam protections which are built in to the SE system, only about those run by a bunch of private users. I don't mind my email provider including a spam-blocking service, but I wouldn't necessarily welcome it if the guys living next door set one up on my email account for me. – Rand al'Thor Mar 5 '18 at 20:38
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    I'd like to see a comparison of what our current response rate is versus the bot. IME over the years, it feels like spam and truly offensive posts get handled pretty quickly and decisively around here. Faster might be nicer, but I've never once seen our response time as an issue that needed to be improved. – phantom42 Mar 5 '18 at 21:11
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    @phantom42 The current response rate would include the bot. The post made last year announced we'd be auto-flagging. The post made yesterday/today was asking for feedback on increasing the number of automatic flags being cast. – Andy Mar 5 '18 at 21:23
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    So if it's been working so well for the past year, why is there a need/push to change it? We haven't had any noticeable spike or problem with spam of late that I've seen. – phantom42 Mar 5 '18 at 21:35
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    @phantom42 - Consider it from a network-wide perspective, not just from a SFF perspective. To reduce the time to deletion everywhere. SFF certainly isn't the highest traffic site or the site that will benefit the most from it, but it will certainly help on other sites and I don't see how it could hurt to have spam deleted faster here. – user58 Mar 5 '18 at 21:50
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    We are proposing a network wide increase in the number of flags. TheLethalCarrot was proactive and asked SFF specifically if we wanted autoflags. The change being proposed benefits the entire network due to decreased spam life. There is nothing specific about SFF that needed to be called out. As I mentioned, SFF gets relatively little spam compared to much sites. Basically, it'd reap the benefits provided to the smaller and more spam magnet sites. – Andy Mar 5 '18 at 21:56
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    If I wanted to consider the network-wide perspective, I'd seek out the network-wide discussion. This conversation is about the SFF perspective. Everyone keeps saying it's been working well for the past year. Great. Despite my reservations, it seems to work ok. I remain unconvinced that anything needs to change as no one has presented a convincing argument (IMO) that anything needs to change. – phantom42 Mar 5 '18 at 23:23
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    If there was nothing specific to the SFF that needed to be called out, why bother bringing the discussion here? It sounds as though you've already made your decision to change the settings network-wide. What is the point of this conversation? – phantom42 Mar 5 '18 at 23:42
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    @phantom42, I didn't bring the discussion here. I posted on Meta.StackExchange. It was brought here by a more active community member and the question is phrased as "Do we want autoflagging", not "should we allow more things to be flagged automatically". I answered that we do (and should) want autoflagging. One of the sub-questions was "how many autoflags", so I brought up the 5 flags that are currently being discussed on MSE. I responded here because I feel it's important that autoflagging remains on here. The original post is phrased in a way that could lead the community to not wanting it. – Andy Mar 5 '18 at 23:47
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    @Andy the real question is who is the "we" you represent? CHQ? SFF? While I've not been around very long I have been extremely active over the past 14 months over which, besides one question which was closed, you've not really taken part in the site, in almost 24 months. Now while that means you were once a member of the community, the "we" you represent certainly doesn't seem to be the current active user base here. So whether when you say "We do want autoflagging" holds any water beyond "yes the CHQ people want it" is questionable. – Edlothiad Mar 6 '18 at 6:40
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    Both? I am an active member of CHQ and a member of SFF. I may not be as active as other members, but that does not invalidate my membership here. If you have a different opinion than mine, please add an answer so the community can vote on it. – Andy Mar 6 '18 at 13:23
  • This conversation has been moved to chat for further discussion. – Null Mar 8 '18 at 19:14
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Oddly, while I have argued for the flagging (And intend on using it on the sites that I moderate), I am not 100% convinced that it is needed on a site such as SFF. (Yes, this is a change from my earlier stance.)

There are enough very active, high rep users here that the flagging and deletion of spam is taken care of in extremely short order. Increasing the chance of false positives, I'm just not sure is worth the risk.

Now, on sites with lesser traffic (and higher relative spam incidence), such as fitness and health, I believe it is of much higher value. So while I still support the initiative, I am not 100% sure it is needed on the really high traffic sites with a broad high rep user base.

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    You seem to neglect the critical mass of users. I'm sure on sites like SO, SU, etc. it is incredibly useful because the amount of spam is likely obscene. But on hour family-friendly little site here, the little spam we get is promptly dealt with. – Edlothiad Mar 13 '18 at 10:25
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    @Edlothiad Am I missing something? JohnP's answer seems to be saying exactly the same as what you're saying: since this site has a critical mass of highly active users, we can easily deal with our spam without autoflagging. – Rand al'Thor Mar 13 '18 at 13:29
  • @Randal'Thor They say that we have enough highly active users, but goes on to say "Now, on sites with lesser traffic (and higher spam incidence), such as fitness and health, I believe it is of much higher value." implying that any site with large amounts of users are safe. These seem to suggest there's a lower bound to pass to hit the "enough very active, high rep users" level. When there isn't a lower bound but a percentage of VA,HR users that's needed, as outlined with the SO, SU examples. – Edlothiad Mar 13 '18 at 13:46
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    @Edlothiad Ah OK. But for SFF specifically, you're both agreed? (Which is what counts here.) – Rand al'Thor Mar 13 '18 at 13:49
  • Well yes, that's why I ended my first comment with "_But_ on hour(sic) family-friendly little site here, the little spam we get is promptly dealt with." :) – Edlothiad Mar 13 '18 at 13:56
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    @Edlothiad - You're reading too much into it. The amount of spam between the sites is actually fairly even. However, there are two factors that make it different: One, on a lower traffic site, the proportion of spam to posts is greater. Two, on a lower traffic/lower active user base site, the spam that does appear lasts longer. That's all. – JohnP Mar 13 '18 at 14:22
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    @JohnP: I can assure you that on the largest sites like SO and AskUbuntu, the size of the userbase doesn't compensate for the sheer amount of spam that's coming in. It's quite possible there's a sweet spot in site size / user activity, but the larger sites are past that. – Cerbrus Mar 14 '18 at 13:43

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