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What objective criteria can we hold moderators to who want to lock or delete closed posts?

So, quite a long time ago (by Internet standards) it was somewhat decided that old closing questions simply because they weren't topical was a fabulous idea (but not all at once, hence it is still continuing). Then, I thought we should just go on a closing spree.

Seems to me, these posts should be not closed, probably shouldn't be deleted, but might as well be locked. What is a lock?

What is the purpose of a Historical Lock?

A historical lock preserves older content that was very popular when it was originally posted, but is now off-topic or otherwise out of scope for the site it is posted on. Historically locking a post ends the debate over whether a question should be kept on the site or deleted, and is often the final state of a question that has been deleted and undeleted more than once.

At the very least, locked this affords the OP two things,

  1. No loss of rep because a post wasn't closed
  2. None of the ignominy of having a post closed

And since we want to "guard each others dignity" and "save each person's pride", I think these things do matter on this site.

So, what I'd like the community's input is to answer this:

  1. What constitutes a "very popular question"?
  2. How unpopular does a question need to be to be deleted after being closed?
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I understand the appeal of a historical lock, but I'm not sure that it's a good solution in most cases. To ensure we're on the same page, here's the functional definition of historical locks, as I see it:

  • Historical locking adds a new post notice emphasizing that the post is not a good fit for the site, but does not say why.
    • We shouldn't necessarily assume that most or even a sizable minority of visitors actually read and comprehend this notice.
  • Historical locking is a state that is more restrictive than closing a question. In addition to preventing new answers from being added, it:
    • Prevents comments
    • Prevents voting
    • Prevents editing
    • Prevents all community moderation

These last two subpoints mean that individual answers cannot be modified in any way except by direct moderator intervention. The last subpoint also means that 10k-rep users cannot cast delete votes on the question. Thus historical locking in a sense places the existence and maintenance of the post in the hands of moderators, rather than the community.

With that let me proceed to a general argument for the circumstances in which I see value in historical locks.

General principles and rationale

Let's first look at the general criteria for historical locks:

  1. The post is Off-Topic or Not Constructive, and
  2. The post is stellar, in spite of its off-topic nature, and
  3. There are a large number of views, upvotes and inbound links on the post, and
  4. The post is contentious; e.g., it has been closed and reopened at least once, or deleted and undeleted at least once

Also:

A good rule of thumb: If the question does not minimally meet Jeff Atwood's 3rd rule in the "We Hate Fun Here" blog post, it's probably not a good candidate for historical locking. The third rule is:

Does this question teach me anything that could make me better at my job? Can I learn something from it?

Let's examine the first set of criteria first. Here are some observations:

  • Point #1 applies to all the questions we are discussing here, but #4 applies to very few. #2 and #3 are subjective (what do "stellar" and "large" mean?)
  • The word "and" connects all four of these criteria. I wouldn't demand too strongly that all four criteria apply before we historically lock, but perhaps at least three is not too much to ask.

How about the "rule of thumb"? Does this question teach me anything? Can I learn something from it?

From one perspective, yes – it is possible to learn something from these questions. A visitor familiar with Christianity (call her Jane) might be able to figure out which answers are associated with which traditions, and from that deduce something she didn't previously know about some tradition.

But consider a visitor, John, who doesn't know much about Christianity. He has a basic question, but isn't familiar with the various denominational differences, and may not even know which denomination/tradition he belongs to. In his search he finds that this site has his exact question, and even though it says "historical lock," he proceeds to read the answers. In many, many cases he will find contradictory explanations in the answers he reads. In some cases, when all the answers specify which tradition they represent, he may realize why they contradict each other, but he still may not be able to identify which one represents his own tradition.

Now, has John learned anything by reading this question? It's possible, but I'd suggest that it's much more likely that users like him end up confused and/or misguided, because when he sees that question, he is expecting to read about the views of his tradition of Christianity – not a smattering of views from throughout Christendom.

So in what circumstances can we be somewhat confident that both John and Jane actually learn something from an obviously off-topic question, without being confused or misguided? Two ideas:

  • Answers to such questions should clearly state which tradition or denomination's view they represent.
  • Answers, either individually or collectively, should represent a general overview of the viewpoints in Christianity.
    • It's important here that at least some non-Nicene viewpoints are addressed, if any divergent ones are known to exist.

So, putting this all together...

Proposed criteria

Hard-and-fast rules are probably not in our best interest, but based on the above, let me suggest the following general criteria, all of which should be met in order for a question to be locked:

  • The question must be clearly off-topic, with no current efforts to make it on-topic.
  • The question should be one of the most popular questions on the site, by views and votes.
    • If it is the subject of repeated close/reopen or delete/undelete processes, this requirement can be relaxed.
  • The answers to the question should, individually or collectively, provide a general overview of Christianity as a whole, and accurately identify which viewpoint they represent.
    • In practice this means that if a historically locked question is shown to not represent Christianity as a whole, then it should be unlocked, and either modified or deleted.

As for what "one of the most popular" means, I'll purposefully leave that undefined, but note that:

  • At this time, 10% of questions on this site have 6200 views or more, and 5% have over 13000 views.
  • 10% of questions on this site have a score of 13 or over, while 5% have a score of 17 or over.

Caveat: I post this more as a jumping off point for discussion, not something I am fully committed to. I'd like to see some other proposals for criteria!

Appendix

Other sites have a different history from our own, so take the following with a grain of salt. But here are numbers on historical locks on a sampling of sites similar to ours.

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I'll acknowledge up front that I don't know the full background or current conventions to historical locks, but this is my intuitive sense of how they should be used.

I see historical locks as a subset of normal locks, and therefore shouldn't really have wildly distinct criteria. Normal locks are intended to be time limited, historical locks are expected to be permanent. In both cases they are used to protect a question and its answers from disruptive behaviour.

So our normal response to off topic questions is to close them. We should use locks when a question is being repeatedly vandalised, or when the asker won't accept the closure and keeps editing in protests to the question, or when an answerer constantly edits their post. If we see behaviours like these then it's appropriate to lock the question. If the question is old and off topic then the lock can be a historical one.

As Nathaniel pointed out, locks prevent posts from being edited, which is a heavy cost. We should only bear that cost when it is truly needed. We want to encourage edits, even to our old off topic questions, when they are fixing typos or formatting errors, fixing broken links, adding additional references, updating a post with recent events, or to phrase their arguments more clearly. And I don't think it's a problem for the post's author to make substantive changes, even when the question is locked.

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I'm going to keep my suggestion very short and sweet:

The verbiage of the historical lock is a guide as to where to use it. Particularly, it is useful on very old posts that have 10+ (give or take) up-votes, but are so off-topic that they wouldn't last a day by current standards.

The benefit of a historical lock is that is explicitly tells the newcomers that this type of question is off-topic by today's standards. That affords you, as the moderator, the opportunity to post to one of the bajillion Meta posts about how the standards have changed, and why. You have a chance to be more clear in your explanation as to why certain guidelines are in place by explaining the history behind why the community guidelines were set in place.

Just closing a post, by contrast just sends the message "Nope. This won't fly."

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    With this approach we could lock many, many posts. And since I doubt that most newcomers would read and comprehend the historical lock notice, they'd misunderstand how the site works. Granted, that's not much different from the current situation, but at least without locking, 10k users can vote to delete the off-topic content that isn't truly excellent. – Nathaniel is protesting Mar 31 '17 at 13:51

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