Bootstrapping new-member privileges

A complaint we often hear from new users on SE (I just heard it again half an hour ago off-network) is that the barriers to participation deter them. They can’t comment so they use the answer space, but since what they wrote isn’t an answer they get downvoted and the post gets deleted so they go away. Or they come across an answer that they know, because they’re experts, is correct, and they want to reward it with an upvote, but they instead see the “can’t vote yet” message and feel chased off. (Both of these happened to the person I was talking with, who decided not to try a third time.) While experienced users like to say “so just answer a question or make a few edits and you’re in”, to the new person that can feel like a turn-off.

But we want to have some gatekeeping, if nothing else to place a small stumbling-block in front of spammers and trolls.

An idea that occurred to me tonight: what if one of the privileges you can earn (criteria TBD) is “endorse”? An established user could say “I say such-and-such new user is ok”, and the new user would bypass the lowest level of participation barriers. To mitigate, we could limit the number of endorsements you can make (at all, or active at a time a la Area 51 commitments), and if someone you endorse turns out to be a bad apple, it would reflect on you. Maybe endorsements are public, and maybe enough bad endorsements cost you the privilege.

This sounds complicated but I’m not sure it has to be. Right now this is just an idea, but I can develop it into a feature proposal. I’m not tagging it MVP, though we will need some way to bootstrap our new communities and maybe this will end up being a path there.

Thoughts?

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The problem with endorse is that it is going to be extremely rare for a random new user to actually know anyone actively watching the site.

As a real-world example, someone might walk up to a synagogue or other place with security concerns, even a nightclub or other place with a “bouncer”, that fall short of “ID check & sign-in required to get in” and if nobody recognizes them then they get vetted with a few questions to make sure, within reasonable limits, that the person is a legitimate visitor. But if someone inside says “Hey Bob, come on in!” then they head on in, no questions asked.

But here almost everyone new will be coming in from Google and nobody knows them and they don’t know anybody (yet!). So it will be extremely rare that anyone can endorse them based on who they are. About the only thing someone can endorse on is what they have done: Ask one question. Does that provide enough information for someone else to endorse them? Maybe.

Another way to look at it is to compare with the SO reputation system & privileges. The key privileges in that system for this problem are:

  • Vote Up = 15
  • Talk in Chat = 20 (Note: I am personally against chat as implemented in SO, but we will have some form of chat and/or comments and/or discussion, etc.)
  • Comment Everywhere = 50 (That says “everywhere” - is it less for your own Question and its Answers? That would be one way to make life easier for a new user. I can’t tell since any new site I go to gets the Association Bonus and I’m not going to create a fake account to test this)

So that means 50 points gets you the key privileges. With the old 5 points/question vote that was 10 votes. With the new 10 points that is only 5 votes. But most questions never get that many votes. A quick query shows 2.05 for Q, 2.87 for A. Which means another method, like “Endorse”, is needed.

End result: I think this might just work but it would have to be limited to high-rep users who have a good sense of "this looks like a real person (not troll or spammer or troublemaker) asking a meaningful question, despite the question perhaps not being the best possible question as they are new to the site.

What might work even better is to use this as an-on-the-spot mentoring function. Something like:

  • Alice posts a newbie question
  • Bob sees that it looks “good enough” and “endorses” it. He could also include a welcome message (something like one user typically posts as a comment to newbie questions on DIY: “Hello, and welcome to Home Improvement. It’s a little hard to tell what’s going on; would you add a better picture (or two)? And, you should probably take our tour so you’ll know how best to participate here.”
  • Alice sees (immediately or on next site page display, depending on whether she is still on the site and browser/Javascript/etc.):
    • Notification of “endorse” = “certain privileges”
    • Notification that if she has questions about the question, Bob would be willing to help.
  • There could even be a little chat window function for high-rep users/moderators to help new users. Like a lot of commercial sites have, only here it would be to help use the site, not to sell anything.
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I can think of several ways to improve:

First, since we likely will have several metric anyway, I propose to have a metric Experience (which, as I already suggested earlier on Discord, should be a network-wide metric, which would replace the association bonus).

A certain level of Experience should be gained by simply browsing around on the site. Most people won’t want to comment right at the very first post they see; and if they do, “just browse a bit around on the site” will be a much lower barrier than “post something and get upvotes”.

Another thing could be that you have to be member for at least one day to be able to comment (“you’ll be able to comment tomorrow” is probably not very repellent, but spammers creating accounts en masse will probably be caught in a day).

Moreover, there could limitations on the number of comments and upvotes. For example, initially, you get only commenting on one post per 15 minutes (the number of comments on the same post should not be limited, as abuse of that should not be hard to deal with), and two upvotes per day. That number is then raised quickly as Experience and/or Reputation is gained.

As on SE, any limitations should not apply to comments on your own posts; also answers to your own questions should allow unlimited comments IMHO (I don’t know what the SE policy is on the latter).

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I’m in huge favor of fixing those broken problems/constraints that SE enforces. It’s maddening for new users. I think maybe like you’re suggesting, putting limits on number of votes or comments or questions or answers that first day especially could/should be put in place but maybe some sort of “endorsement” from a moderator before you can do more? Maybe a mod reviews their day of activity to manually determine their intentions to make sure they’re approved to participate or something like that. Yep, it’s heavy-handed for the mods, but it seems like maybe the only way for us to contain abuse. I’d hope SE fans wouldn’t join us just to introduce toxicity, but it wouldn’t surprise me. So maybe that’s something to be prepared for?

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@sfors I don’t the concern is “SE fans…toxicity”, but rather all the familiar problems of any open site:

  • Trolls
  • Spammers (pushing their own product, perhaps legitimate but not in the right place/time)
  • Scammers (trying to trick people into going to very bad places)

and all other kinds of problems. Most of which are quite obvious when you see them.

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Scammers could be easily blocked by having a “post external links” privilege that you only earn after enough participation. There could probably be a whitelist of link destinations which are allowed without restrictions (it could even have an automatic component; if enough upvoted posts link to a certain site, it is automatically whitelisted, unless on an explicit blacklist).

In addition, there could be a blacklist for URLs known to be malicious (we might use an existing list, like those used by browsers for their warnings).

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An interesting thought, but one of the useful things for QA is to show what research you’ve done, or what you’ve tried. A blanket block on any external links would limit the ability of users to demonstrate this, and ‘lack of research/effort’ is one reason some posts are poorly received. It would also stop new users providing attribution in their answers.

Perhaps there’s another way of ameliorating scammers and spammers?

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But keep in mind that spammers are sneaky. They don’t just put Click here, which is easy to block. They’ll also put: “Hey, why don’t you go to www . example . com for xyz” and there are people who will try to click, find it doesn’t work and think “Oh, that newbie doesn’t even know how to make a proper link” and then proceed to type www.example.com into their browser directly. Automation can help with that too, but it is very much a non-trivial task.

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Maybe posts that contain links from new users suppress the link itself and go to review? So the link text is still there, which is good if the link is to a source, but there’s no auto-linkification to feed SEO until a human looks at it. (I realize we haven’t talked about reviews yet.)

Sure, some people will see a text link, select it, and visit it, but I’m betting that for most people, not being able to just click on it is enough of a speed bump to cause the person to think about it at least a little. Especially if we add some carefully-written guidance.

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This might even work without review for now. Stack Exchange is doing this with images right now AFAIK.

If you write a post as a new user, the generated HTML shows no links (except whitelisted), however if any “old” user edits the post, the link appears in the HTML.

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What about a time-enforced privilege, like a “question bucket” or “comment bucket”?

What I mean is, you join the site, and you can post zero questions, and only one comment per day (or hour or X time or whatever). After a certain amount of time, experience, or positive question score, that increases.

That is, established users can cast so many votes per day on SO - but what if that number is variable based on experience? If we make it a part of their privileges, then new users can’t blast out a lot of spam because they’ve exhausted the number of comments available in their “comment bucket”.

This would also mean you don’t get a user who gains some rep and then starts spam posting a lot of questions or comments, as it would take time to fill that bucket up.

As for images/links, I like @cellio’s suggestion of having new users with links going to a review. That doesn’t necessarily mean the question is put on hold, just that the link isn’t visible or clickable until reviewed.

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I think it’s very important that somebody who signs up is able to ask or answer immediately. On SE people sometimes read passively for years and only create accounts when they want to participate. When they do, we shouldn’t throw up a roadblock.

On the other hand, limiting them to a very small number of posts, perhaps even one, for the first day seems reasonable as an anti-spam measure.

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One free question per day, but if that question gets upvoted or you gain privilege some other way then you may be able to get a second or third. The beauty of an earned-privilege system is that you can get started immediately, but then you’re halted until you either earn privilege or run out the clock. Slows down spammers, encourages good content.

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Absolutely. For example, I hardly ever ask on SE. Actually, I just asked a question https://dba.stackexchange.com/questions/254046/postgresql-schema-builder-diagrams and this raises a few points:

  • I just found out that my question was put On Hold as Off-Topic. I didn’t get any notification of that! I only found out because I went to check the question to link to it here. Nothing in the Inbox. Any action that affects a user’s post (On Hold, Deleted, etc.) should trigger a notification to the user. If I were a new user, I might visit the site frequently after posting a question but if I didn’t know to actually reread my own question (which I shouldn’t need to do since I should get notified if there is an Answer or Comment or any other action) then I would have no idea there was a problem. We can’t have that in Codidact!

  • Why was my question put On-Hold? “Off-topic shopping list”. But I’m not shopping per se, I am asking for a tool to help with a specific programming/design problem and I think it is a very reasonable question to ask. But what do I know. I’m just some newbie (to that particular site) who must not know how to ask. We need to do better!

FYI, the good news is that I got one Comment with a link to a list of possible tools. So I may have my answer anyway, but I am actually a bit disappointed at the lack of useful response. Does nobody on DBA SE actually use a diagramming tool for PostgreSQL schemas? Mind-boggling.

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You don’t get a notification if your question is closed or reopened on SE. That had never made sense to me or to most people. It’s an old rejected request. Here’s Jeff’s explanation for rejecting the request (he deleted his answer in 2015, I don’t know why).

We generally don’t want to do this, for a few reasons:

  • We don’t believe in overly nagging and notifying people for minutiae. This is a core philosophy at the highest echelons of the company leadership. (Read: me.)
  • You should care about your question more than any other human being on the planet. If it is closed, you should already know about that without needing a special magic notification.
  • It’s an invitation to complain. “Oh look, here is a signed, notarized document telling you we closed your question.” Cue Eeyore in 3… 2… 1…
  • The existing close reasons on the question, along with the explanation, should be sufficient for explaining what is going on.

I strongly dislike the term “shopping list”. It’s incomprehensible if you haven’t hung out on the right early-days meta threads. It encompasses a wide range of questions, some of which are answerable and some of which aren’t. We should definitely do better (but progressively, not as part of the MVP: I expect it’ll take many iterations to achieve a satisfactory system).

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I disagree with Jeff’s “no notification; you should already know” reasoning, too. That’s fine for a question you asked an hour ago that you’re monitoring, but our sites have a lot of old, long-tail questions waiting for the right expert to come along, maybe months or years later. The OP isn’t still checking those several times a day and will never know, if not told, that something bad happened. This has happened to me and it’s aggravating. State changes should leave a trail in a place where a user will see them.

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As Monica wrote, new users absolutely must be able to post questions the minute they create an account, because most people will not create an account until they have something to post. New users may be subject to a rate limit which progressively goes up as their “asker worthiness” increases (as is the case on SE) and may be subject to more intense scrutiny while their asker worthiness is low (as is the case on SE).

Spam (including scammers) is largely a solved problem. SmokeDetector works.

What isn’t a solved problem is voting — let’s discuss it in its own thread. If you can just create an account and start voting, this opens the door to sockpuppetry, and sockpuppetry is far from a solved problem on SE. Even if we don’t have a prominently displayed reputation figure, so there’s less incentive for people to vote for themselves to inflate their reputation, there’s still plenty of other incentives. I don’t have figures and I don’t think anyone can tell for sure because not all puppet masters are detected and not all puppet masters have an obvious goal, but I suspect that the largest number of puppet masters on SE are people who want to get around the question blocks. We’ll have to face this problem no matter how much our site differs from SE as long as we have some concept of question quality, which I think is consensual.

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I 100% agree - I didn’t mean to suggest zero - that was lazy of me. I meant to focus on the idea that how many questions could be tied to a privilege which is calculated, in part, on the quality of questions you post. Rate limits that dynamically increase. But yes, new users do need to be able to post questions right away - that’s undoubtedly major fuel for the site.

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I made a proposal about ramp-up of privileges here: Privileges: MVP

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Bots.
Genuinely, if this is put into place, such huge amounts of bot-voting will occur that I will cry.

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