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The two questions that inspired this post (primarily this one here, but also this one) are both questions, and although that's a type of question that does get closed for being unclear, my question to the community extends beyond that tag.

If a question gets closed with 'unclear/needs detail', the post notice currently says:

Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question.

By this point it's usually attracted comments asking for clarification (and I'll be assuming this for my future points), usually posted by the community members who voted to close it initially.

What happens in the best case scenario is that the question is edited to add at least some of those details (with the option to push the question back into the review queue), and/or the original poster then also comments (or sometimes edits) explaining that they can't remember extra details requested.

Now, it can be completely valid to re-open these questions without any extra details or comments, regardless of whether it was closed in error or something else.

But when there are unanswered comments asking for clarification, it feels weird to me to re-open the question, when none of the above is addressed.


To me closing questions come in two main flavours, and serve two separate purposes:

  1. Chocolate: This post will probably never be productively answerable (it's completely out of scope, like a non-SFF question, or it's a duplicate question, and some opinion-based questions)
  2. Vanilla: The question might be answerable in the future. Like it "Needs more focus" or "Needs details or clarity", and some opinion based questions live here too, but if so they tend to change a lot to make them answerable.

The purposes are mainly to:

  1. Prevent 'bad' answers; answers that don't benefit the asker or the community. These can be answering things out of scope, 'polluting' the scope of the site's content. Or an unclear question collecting a lot of noise that doesn't address what the asker intended to ask about. Or even splitting up good answers to the same fundamental question spread across multiple posts. Users are free to vote on these, and may even really like the content despite being off-topic.
  2. Leveraging the user to improve their question; perhaps it makes them clarify or narrow down what they're asking, so as to get it opened and be able to be answered again. Whether that means the question now has more details, it only asks one thing, or the users has specified how it's not a duplicate.

Then, by my understanding, closing an unclear question (story-id or otherwise) serves BOTH these purposes:

  • Prevents 'guesses' based on not having enough detail, which increases noise and potential for false positives
  • Encourages the user to add the detail required by the previous point

So, as I said previously:

it can be completely valid to re-open these questions without any extra details or comments, perhaps it was closed in error or something else.

And although it's not mandatory to leave comments, for any actions, it seems unhelpful to not address the issues raised when closing the question? It says to me, the re-open voters disagree that it's unclear or needs more details, but unlike the close voters, don't want to explain why, or refute the arguments already posted? Maybe I'm reading these votes wrong.

Explaining your actions can be a really good way to build the community towards a common understanding of self-moderation, or indicate where a meta discussion is needed.

Separately, I'm also not clear on the 'rush' to re-open question. Sure there might be a limit on how long the original poster will hang around and be bothered to accept any answers, but if we're not ready to answer (the hypothetical question is unedited and still lacking in details) there's no benefit in opening it 'early', right?

I'd really like to elicit some discussion on the points raised above, and gauge whether our community has different opinions on unclear questions to myself, or each other.

Let me know your thoughts.

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    You may assume that if I've voted to reopen a closed question, it's because I disagree with the close reason. I'm not sure what comment I need to make beyond that.
    – Valorum
    Nov 14 '21 at 15:29
  • @valorum I saw this after your answer, but something like "@CloseVoter the OP hasn't answered all of your questions, but it looks like enough to answer now" would be a good start
    – AncientSwordRage Mod
    Nov 14 '21 at 15:36
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    I think the issue is that you're getting into the realms of 'best practice' rather than 'policies we should follow'. In an ideal world, every single mod action should be followed with a comment. Are you going to honestly say that you're going to do that from now on?
    – Valorum
    Nov 14 '21 at 15:40
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    @Valorum I think the only reason to discourage discussing best practice on meta is if you're concerned it won't agree with you. Best practice also has the benefit of being based on best intentions, I'll always comment on my mod actions if and when I'm able to, or when questioned if I haven't already.
    – AncientSwordRage Mod
    Nov 14 '21 at 17:55
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    If someone is regularly reopening questions that need more information to conclusively answer and posting answers that amount to nothing more than pure/poor-quality guesses, I would suggest that users raise a mod flag and moderators can either have a chat with the offending user or suspend them for abusing the system. For this to fly, however, it'd probably have to be fairly clear/agreed upon by the community that that's what's happening (e.g. that it's being done in questionable or bad faith).
    – TylerH
    Nov 15 '21 at 15:03
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    @TylerH: IMHO there are really only two cases here: 1. The question has enough details to make a reasonably educated guess at the answer, in which case it shouldn't be closed at all (and reopening is appropriate whenever a question is wrongly closed), or 2. The question lacks those details, was properly closed, and should not be reopened until it is improved to the point of being answerable. There's no in-between "let's close it for a while and then give up and reopen it" status.
    – Kevin
    Nov 27 '21 at 23:17
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For my money, an on-topic question hangs on one element, and one element alone. Does the question have some sort of identifiable characteristic that can be used to narrow it down, ideally to a single property or at the very least a vanishingly small range of potential properties?

  • "Sci-fi film about a man"

    There are three identifiable pieces of info here (scifi/film/man) but none of them, either singly, or in combination with each other, narrow this down. We're still looking for a piece of straw in very big haystack

  • "Sci-fi film about a man who uses a laser sword"

    Adding this additional piece of info allows us to limit our search, but because it's a trope, this only brings the limit down to a few dozen films and probably is still too broad.

  • "Scifi film about a man who uses a laser sword called a lightsaber"

    Now we're talking. Although this question lacks info about some specifics that could narrow it down, we're probably at the point where we could take a stab (no pun intended) at an answer, at least by identifying the film series that this belongs to.

All of which brings me back to my opening paragraph.

I won't vote to close something that contains enough info to drill down to a small handful of properties (although I will probably ask OP in a comment if they can come up with any more info).

and

I'll vote to reopen any question that meets that criterion, regardless of whether other users have already voted to close.

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    Would you ever consider commenting (unprompted) if you think other users have overthought closing?
    – AncientSwordRage Mod
    Nov 14 '21 at 15:35
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    @AncientSwordRage - Probably. If someone had posted a snarky comment about why they'd (wrongly) closed it. Or if the user was very new and I wanted to defend them against certain users who're known for being trigger-happy on the close.
    – Valorum
    Nov 14 '21 at 15:36
  • "I'll vote to reopen any question that meets that criterion, regardless of whether other users have already voted to close." Can you clarify what you mean here? You can't vote to reopen a question that isn't currently closed (so, by extension, you can't vote to reopen a question that hasn't yet received close votes). Reopen votes can't be used to actively counter pending close votes, in other words.
    – TylerH
    Nov 15 '21 at 14:58
  • @TylerH - If I see a question that has been needlessly (successfully) closed, I'll vote to reopen.
    – Valorum
    Nov 15 '21 at 15:42
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Not having voted, or even looked at, the particular questions that inspired this, I will only address the general idea.

There are very few actions on the Stack Exchange network that require comments, and that is by design. For various reasons people often can't, or don't want to, leave comments when they take action. Of course, comments explaining actions can often be useful, but they are not a necessary component of these processes.

It would be easier to have a productive debate about reopening a question if the reopeners explained their views. Yet this is not limited to reopening. The same is often true in reverse, where the users voting to close don't properly explain their actions (something that I have mentioned on this site before).

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that many such comments would not actually add much. I have often voted to reopen questions and left a comment such as "How is this opinion based?" or "What is unclear about this question?" That is essentially just a restatement of my vote "I think this question is not unclear/opinion based". While such a comment does give close voters the opportunity to explain why they feel a the question should be closed, it doesn't actually address why it should be reopened.

One could argue, though, that the threshold for reopening is lower than for closing. A question can be presumed valid unless there is a specific reason that it is not; the burden of articulating this should be on close voters rather than reopen voters.

Ideally, close voters would explain exactly why they feel a question does not meet the threshold of a valid question, and reopen voters would explain why it does. I personally try to leave such comments, especially when closing/reopening a duplicate question with a gold tag badge which is a unilateral action, but one can certainly choose to vote without commenting (e.g. you are in a rush, you don't want to get bogged down in a debate, or any other reason).

Of course, if users reopen a question without any explanation, other users are free to close it again. If this goes back and forth enough times, though, the post should be locked until the various sides can have a proper debate about it on Meta. But one round of reopening should not be an issue that requires moderator intervention.

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  • Agreed. In an ideal world, close voters would comment to explain why they feel the question should be closed, and reopen voters would counter-comment to rebut those points. In practice, votes speak louder than comments, and the most important thing to do with a question that you think was closed wrongly is to VTRO it, even if you don't have time to comment.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Nov 14 '21 at 17:13
  • I agree in part, but I feel my original point (that close voters in these necessarily ask for clarification indicating why they think the question is unclear), is very different to asking "What is unclear about this question?" When there's unanswered questions you're right: it's merely restating your vote. Rather commenting to the effect of "The OP has edited since it was closed and think there's enough information now." Or "I don't think this should have been closed in the first place" is more supportive of the why of the re-open vote, if you're able to comment at all.
    – AncientSwordRage Mod
    Nov 14 '21 at 17:52

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