Not signed in (Sign In)

Vanilla 1.1.9 is a product of Lussumo. More Information: Documentation, Community Support.


    In a recent thread, I made a somewhat off-the-cuff suggestion for a possible "low-tech" improvement of the current system of votes to close. It was recommended that I start a new thread for discussion of this idea, so here it is. My previous message was:

    Thanks, now I know what's going on. Yes, I agree that the current setup makes it too easy for a question to get quickly closed even when the majority of the voters want it to remain open. Having a question get closed and then reopened (and sometimes reclosed!) is a lot of unnecessary drama.

    I gather though that we are stuck with our current platform for the forseeable future, so however tempting it may be, it doesn' t seem to be productive to propose "rule changes" that cannot yet be implemented.

    Brainstorming on what we could do with the current system, I came up with the following idea: vote trading. That is, if I see a question that I like but for whatever reason feel is in danger of being closed, I leave as a comment: "I cast a vote against closure." Then, the next person who would have voted to close, instead of doing so, leaves a comment saying "I vote to close, cancelling Pete's vote" or something to that effect.

    Among other things, a certain amount of "honor" is necessary to pull this kind of thing off, and it brings some people's votes out into the open. But it might be worth a try...

    Noah Snyder asked whether this procedure should take place in the comments to the question itself or should redirect to the meta site, pointing out that there are pro's and con's to both. If I had to guess, I would say that it would work better as comments on the question itself, but I don't see why I have to guess: we could try out multiple formats and see which, if any, is to our liking.

    So I propose the following concrete suggestion. If you're worried about a question closing and want it not to close then you write a comment on the question that says (the [] part is optional):
    "I vote for this to stay open (see vote-canceling as in [Reason for staying open]"

    Having the link there is very important for spreading the idea to people who haven't read this thread. When voting to close (and especially if you are the last or second to last vote to close) you should check whether there are any uncanceled votes to stay open. If there is one then you write:

    "I vote to close canceling [username]'s vote to to stay open."

    You should use the exact username here (Emerton not Matt) because the way people will find uncanceled votes is by searching the page for the username.
    • CommentAuthorJeremy
    • CommentTimeJul 14th 2010
    It would seem like a much more reasonable solution to just discuss things on meta **before** voting to close, and only voting to close after people have had a chance to discuss? Aside from blatantly inappropriate cases like "help me learn arithmetic" or something.
    But discussing things on meta won't lead to people all agreeing! Different people genuinely have different opinions. The point of this is to make sure that voting to close happens because more people want the question closed, not just because there's a technological advantage for the closing side.
    As I said before, I support this proposal, and I think that Noah's system is a fine one.

    One remark I'd like to make is that a justification for keeping the question open should be optional. Otherwise, the "presumption" would be for closing a question since voting to close does not require a (real) justification.

    I'm willing to give this a go, but I'm not excited about the comment threads being cluttered up like this. Perhaps we could come up with a mechanism to delete cancelling pairs of comments?

    Two options:

    1. Once your "stay-open-vote" has been cancelled, delete your comment. Once you see that the "stay-open-vote" that you cancelled has been deleted, deleted your comment.
    2. Give blanket permission to moderators (i.e. me, if I'm the only person bothered by this clutter) to delete cancelling pairs.

    As a side bonus, this would give a way for moderators to cast a single closing vote.


    @Scott: I share your concern about comment clutter. I say certainly feel free to do 2.

    Another way of implementing it would be to have one CW answer that contains all the votes. For some reason I am not quite enthusiastic about this -- I worry that it will be too easy to miss this. Possibly a CW answer plus a single, eye-catching "look down" comment is a way to go?


    @Francois: +1, good point!

    As a third-order effect, that change would probably be enough to make me want to be elected moderator the next time around. (I don't say "bonus", since probably not everyone feels that way.)


    Another way of implementing it would be to have one CW answer that contains all the votes.

    Wouldn't this break the "rule" that MO answers/questions are not to be used for meta MO purposes.

    So the danger with 2 is that it makes it possible for people to vote twice.

    I'd thought about Pete's CW answer suggestion after I posted the above proposal... It's not a bad thought, but it wasn't clear to me how that would be better than just having the votes at meta. Especially because in the case of old long threads it'd be frustrating to even find the CW answer.
    Ah, I know! Moderators can delete the canceling pairs and post a comment containing all prior canceling pairs. That way in the long run there'd only be 1 post, but everything is still transparent and can't be cheated (assuming that we all trust that the moderators aren't making up canceling pairs when we're not looking).
    I.e "Votes to stay open by X,Y, and Z have been cancelled by X', Y', and Z'"
    @Noah : That's a great idea!

    At least as far as homework posts, I am still going to use the old vote to close system.

    @Harry : If a post is really blatantly homework, then people will not vote for it to stay open. I think it would be very unethical of you to ignore this new system.

    I'm not sure, Noah. It seems like a moderator would be needed to keep a constant eye on these posts...

    • CommentAuthorHarry Gindi
    • CommentTimeJul 14th 2010 edited

    @Andy: If we use the new system on all questions, it will create a lot of extra work for the moderators. I think it would be unethical to implement this system without talking about how much extra work this would impose on them.

    A lot of the point of MO is that it is self-moderated. This seems like a step in the wrong direction on posts that aren't contentious.

    1) We'd only be using the new system in situations where a >3K person was voting to keep the question open. Before such a thing has happened you can just vote to close as always.

    2) It doesn't take a lot of moderator effort because there's no particular rush to clean up the comments. Furthermore, it's likely to only take moderator effort on questions that were likely to use up their time on meta.

    3) Questions that lead to arguments are actually relatively rare. We're not talking about more than one a day.
    • CommentAuthorHarry Gindi
    • CommentTimeJul 14th 2010 edited

    @Noah: Yes, I agree. It seems to me that Andy wants to implement this system for all questions (correct me if I'm wrong). If we're only talking about questions where closure has been disputed, then this new system is fine.

    • CommentAuthorAndy Putman
    • CommentTimeJul 14th 2010 edited
    @Harry : I think you misunderstand the new system. All it means is that you can't cast an "official" vote to close if there is an uncanceled vote to keep open. It thus applies to all questions, but only has a practical effect if someone votes to keep a question open.

    I made my comment above because it sounded like you were planning on ignoring votes to keep things open, which would IMHO be unethical.
    A plus is that this system is moderately robust to one or two people not following it (the vote to stay open just cancels the next voter). So I don't think we have to worry too much about convincing people to follow it.

    I think it's best if the first user who votes to keep open also starts a meta thread for discussion. This way you're sure to eventually get the attention of moderators and interested users.

    I don't know what the best way to keep the tally is. Even at the rate of one or two such questions per week, it's not realistic to have a moderator tally up the votes. Harry is right, MO should be self-moderated so the proposed system should ideally maintain itself.

    The proposed system *does* maintain itself. However, it also has a mechanism whereby Scott (or other moderators) can shorten the comment threads if they so desire.
    • CommentAuthorAndrea
    • CommentTimeJul 14th 2010
    I like the idea, but I fear the implementation may be too complicated. In any case I see no point in arguing whether or not it is ethical to follow the system when it is still under discussion.

    How about we try the original system and we'll deal with cleanup when it becomes a necessity?

    • CommentAuthorAndrea
    • CommentTimeJul 14th 2010 edited

    One possibility that I mention (anyone can do it; I don't know if I will have the time) is to implement our own vote to close system. One way to do it is the following

    a) implement a simple system with a database which contains a unique table deletion with fields (id, count). id refers to the is of the post on MathOverflow and count would be the number of votes to keep open - votes to close.

    It would be called by visiting an address like

    The first URL

    1. adds the entry (50000, 1) if 50000 is not present in the id list, or

    2. increments count by 1 for the id 50000.

    The second URL

    1. decreases count by 1 for the id 50000.

    2. If this is already 0, it answers with an error

    b) create a javascript bookmarklet for voting up or down. The bookmarklet is like a normal bookmark, but has the effect of calling one of the two addresses above. There would be two different bookmarklets, one for voting to close and the other for voting to keep open. If the second URL gives an error, the bookmarklet notifies the user to cast a normal vote to close, or even better calls itself the official MathOverflow address for casting a vote to close.

    In this way we could have our own vote to close system without waiting for the SO guys. The bookmarklet way is the easiest one to have compatibility with all browsers, but we could try other ways: Firefox-Chrome extensions, GreaseMonkey scripts or whatever.



    how would we check for sufficient reputation, and double voting? If users OpenIDs were public we could insist that you're logged in at the other site, with the same OpenID.

    I'm dubious however that the implementation effort would be worthwhile, even if we could agree on a new system.

    • CommentAuthorAndrea
    • CommentTimeJul 14th 2010

    Yes, I have thought about this. I agree that it is not worth the pain to implement OpenID authentication and so on. It would be based on trust. Maybe the actual address and the bookmarklet could be kept private among user with enough reputation.

    I understood that the other system was based on trust too (I could vote to reopen after my vote has been cancelled). But yes, on a second thought it may become a mess.


    @Scott: Check the MO cookie and the user's flair, no?



    duh! I'd forgotten that at a subdomain of on my server, we can probably see the "real" cookie!

    While I agree that if this really works it does open up some opportunities for more features, personally I prefer the "low-tech" solution Pete suggested at the beginning of this thread. Given that it appears there's some consensus around that, I think we should try that out first.

    Hopefully, it won't come up often: for clear cut cases, by definition it will work as usual. For anything controversial, it adds an extra layer of complexity, but hopefully also results in a more consensual outcome. I still strongly advocate for creating meta threads, and I'd say even that it is "good form" to create a meta thread any time you vote to close and aren't absolutely sure that everyone will agree. So much so, perhaps, that I'd say we should attach some opprobrium to voting to close without creating such a thread, and then having people disagree.

    Of course, this might frequently put me in the sin bin...

    • CommentAuthorWillieWong
    • CommentTimeJul 15th 2010

    You know, guys, aren't we in some sense re-inventing the wheel? I mean, to a certain extent, that is why almost all users have the ability to upvote or downvote a question, so they can voice their opinion whether that question is worthwhile.

    I think if the users with sufficient reputation just be a little bit more hesistant in wielding the closure axe, especially in the case that a question has up-votes, this should be a non-issue. This jerry-rigged system that we are discussing, unless implemented in software, seems more trouble than it's worth:

    (a) A person who voted to close or against closing has to keep checking back the comments to see if his vote has been cancelled. (a') Noah's suggestion for the moderators to keep track of this really will, I think, overwork them.

    (b) Users have to keep track themselves who actually has sufficient rep to vote for closure. (b') Honor system for double votes is problematic

    On the one hand I would like to see the ability to "vote to cancel", and perhaps even a graduated response system coupled with that: something like if 10 people voted to close the question, the question gets closed immediately. If <5, the question stays open. If the question maintains a state of having more than 5 but fewer than 10 votes for a set period (say 12 hours), then it gets closed. So lovers can still "vote to cancel". But things like this really should be in-software rather than in meat-ware.

    • CommentAuthorAndrea
    • CommentTimeJul 15th 2010

    I think that the problem at hand is the votes to close for question which are soft enough to receive many upvotes, but stray MathOverflow from its original purpose. It is a fact that hard questions receive less views, hence less upvotes, then chatty questions. This does not mean that chatty questions are the best ones. So upvotes are not necessarily helpful for this purpose.

    On the other hand, the fact that the cookie is available on Scott server opens interesting possibilities. I think I will open a new thread for this.

    I never meant to suggest that moderators *have to* look over them. That comment was in response to Scott saying he *wanted to condense these comment threads* so I proposed a better mechanism than the one he proposed.
    The problem with the upvotes and downvotes is that the number of mathematicians in the world is very small compared to the number of people interested in mathematics. If we're not careful about keeping this a *research math* site then it will turn into a non-research math site. This is one big reason that questions with a lot of upvotes are not considered to be the same thing as good questions. This is another big reason why we want voting to close to be restricted to high reputation users.

    Hopefully soon there will be a SE2.0 website for general mathematics questions. This will mean that in some circumstances we can close questions and send them over to that site (or people might ask there in the first place).
    • CommentAuthorWillieWong
    • CommentTimeJul 15th 2010 edited

    @Noah: if what we are worried about is just the unwashed masses polluting the up- and down- vote pool, one might as well just put a minimum rep bar for voting on questions. (end @Noah)

    I still think that if we are looking for a "people"-based solution (as opposed to a software one), the simplest is best: if everybody be a little less trigger happy with closing questions, especially when a constructive comment has been already placed and the question may stand a chance after a second edit, then we won't have to worry about this problem at all.

    When it comes to the obviously off questions, no one will complain about closure anyway; and for the contentious ones, no matter what kind of system we put in, someone will complain. So I don't see what this complicate system is actually doing for us.

    Most of these suggestions are quite complicated.
    As I see it, questions can be closed quickly as there
    are now a lot of 3k users; many more (including me)
    than when I joined MO a few months ago. So

    (1) is it possible to raise the number of votes needed for closure from 5?

    (2) and if so, should we do so and what should be the new number?
    @WillieWong : Your "people"-based solution has been suggested many times, but it has had little effect as the people who are quickest to vote to close don't seem to buy into it. Hence the new idea.
    I don't think we are that "trigger-happy" I don't think the problem is that we're closing questions too quickly, but rather that we're closing questions that people disagree with closing. I don't think closing them one day slower is going to make anyone happy.
    • CommentAuthorYemon Choi
    • CommentTimeJul 15th 2010

    I haven't had time to properly mull over what people have said this far, but to just pick up on Andy and Noah's latest comments: I think that the closing process is both too slow and too fast (channeling my inner Tony Blair there). That is

    1) because MO traffic has increased, a question on the front page which has got votes to close can sink off the top page before other people who might vote to close have a chance to see it;

    2) I think that the geographical spread of MO's users means that there can be apparent consensus to close a question when a significant number of people (say >5) might feel otherwise, but not be wasting, er I mean investing, time on the site. Perhaps this is a factor in some people's frustration with the apparent clique-driven nature of closure?

    These are two very ill-thought through notions and so no offence is meant, and all rebuttals are welcome.


    I (like WillieWong) am skeptical that even a slightly complicated system will work. Remember, almost nobody reads the FAQ, people often don't leave comments when downvoting or voting to close, and people usually don't start a meta thread about controversial questions until much later than they should. It's not that any of those things are difficult to do, but there is some energy barrier. In general, it's a good thing that the energy it takes to perform "moderator-ish" tasks is low: it makes it so that moderation is widely distributed.

    The way I first imagined vote trading would work is this. Suppose I find a question that I think is terrible. I vote to close it and leave a comment to the effect of

    I'm voting to close this question because X, Y, and Z. If you agree, either vote up this comment or vote to close (don't do both). - Anton

    Maybe other people come along an also vote to close, but eventually Yemon comes along and decides that the question shouldn't be closed, so he leaves a comment to the effect of

    I don't think this question should be closed because R, S, and T. I disagree with objections X and Y because of W. I can see where you're coming from with Z, but I don't think it's worth closing on that basis. If you want to pre-emptively vote to reopen this question, please vote up this comment. If you want to vote to close and this comment has more votes than Anton's, please consider voting up Anton's comment instead of voting to close. - Yemon

    Then people follow Yemon's suggestion. The advantages of this approach:

    • We don't need to do any of this comment deletion. I know I'd get annoyed by the clutter, but I think I'd also be annoyed by feeling like I have to clean it up.
    • All instructions for how to behave are contained in the comments. You don't have to send people to meta or to the FAQ or anywhere else. You don't have to explain that there's a system. They know what to do the first time they see it, and they'll get used to the system after a while. It feels more organic and cleaner to me.
    • The vote trading mechanism doesn't get engaged unless somebody cares enough to leave a comment. So the process of closing blatantly bad posts isn't bogged down by bureaucracy.
    • People can vote on comments long before they can vote to close/reopen. Maybe this will make people feel like the process of closing questions is less cliquey. Then again, it also means that it should be acceptable for high rep users to circumvent the system and vote to close if they really feel strongly about it -- that's the power that comes with 3k rep.

    Ultimately, if there's a moderate amount of disagreement about closing a question, I think somebody should start a thread on meta. It would be a bad idea to replace thoughtful discussion on meta with some impersonal vote trading system. Since votes to close/reopen expire after four days, slowing down the process of closing/reopening will have the effect of fewer questions being closed/reopened.

    I'm intrigued by Andrea's suggestion to implement a solution with javascript. It's certainly feasible to rebind the close/reopen link to automatically talk to instead of submitting a vote to close/reopen. That way we might be able to make the UI work essentially exactly as it would if the feature were implemented in the SE software.

    I'm opposed to letting people with low rep decide which questions are ok and which are not (which comes up in Anton's last bullet). I think in the long run it leads to MO becoming not a research site.

    @Noah: I don't really see what the problem is with low rep users voting on comments about whether a question should be closed/reopened. They do it already. Ultimately, low rep users can't actually vote to close/reopen and high rep users can. If it's acceptable to ignore the comments and vote to close/reopen when you feel strongly about a question (in which case you should probably also start a meta thread), I don't feel like we're in danger of low rep users overthrowing MO.

    @Anton : I don't see how your solution will have any effect on the fact that as things stand now, there are enough 3000+ users with extreme views as to how often to vote to close that users with less extreme views are disenfranchised. The problem is not that users with <3000 rep don't have a say.

    @Andy: I guess I don't think that there really are lots of 3k rep users with extreme views, just 3k rep users who want to express their not-so-extreme opinion somehow (and currently do so by voting to close). If this is true, then the trick of redirecting votes to comments will work. If it's not true, I don't really see how any vote trading scheme that isn't enforced by the software is going to make a difference.

    I vote to close when I think a question should be closed (not because I want to express myself), but I'm not so convinced that I'm always right that I wouldn't happily allow my vote to be cancelled out by Andy or Emerton or whoever.

    I agree with Noah.

    • CommentAuthorWillieWong
    • CommentTimeJul 16th 2010

    Overall, if we are to implement anything, I think the summary that Anton gave of an idea (I can't completely keep track who originally came up with what of that version) is perhaps the simplest to implement and the most transparent. And I want to stress

    Ultimately, if there's a moderate amount of disagreement about closing a question, I think somebody should start a thread on meta.

    Perhaps we should make a rule that if the Vote To Close and Vote Of Support comments each gets more than X votes, someone who sees it should open a thread on meta?

    • CommentAuthorAndrea
    • CommentTimeJul 16th 2010

    It seems to me that it is getting more and more complicated. If I didn't know of this thread and I read a comment like

    I'm voting to close this question because X, Y, and Z. If you agree, either vote up this comment or vote to close (don't do both). - Anton

    I'd be puzzled. Maybe after reading

    I don't think this question should be closed because R, S, and T. I disagree with objections X and Y because of W. I can see where you're coming from with Z, but I don't think it's worth closing on that basis. If you want to pre-emptively vote to reopen this question, please vote up this comment. If you want to vote to close and this comment has more votes than Anton's, please consider voting up Anton's comment instead of voting to close. - Yemon

    I would understand the mechanism. More probably, I would step back and leave the whole business of closing to other people.

    • CommentAuthorWillieWong
    • CommentTimeJul 16th 2010

    Well, I assumed that if anything like this were to be implemented it would be described in the FAQ.