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In a community where the users drive policy, like Stackexchange, how, as a moderator, should I enforce policy when there is clear support for two opposing viewpoints?

At what point can we declare consensus?

By way of example, let's say that a meta question has been opened about whether questions of type A are on topic.

The question receives two answers. Each is articulate, and provides solid rationale. Each contradicts each other. Both have significant support.

At what point can you determine which of the positions should be enforced as policy? How much of a difference in support must there be before one can be used as justification for moderator intervention? How does the age of the discussion factor into this?

  • Is this specific to Stack Exchange? – Aza Jul 30 '14 at 15:02
  • @Emrakul No, I don't believe it has to be specific to StackExchange. – Beofett Jul 30 '14 at 15:07
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At what point can we declare consensus?

Consensus is not always possible. If there is an equal, or almost equal, support for two contradictory positions, someone will have to make a decision. That someone will be the site owner (if applicable) and/or the moderators. So, instead of focusing on consensus, I'd recommend focusing on how to come to that decision and how to make sure (most of) the community accepts it.

You need to be aware and prepared for the risk that some users will not be staying with the site, no matter which decision you come to. But not making the decision will also drive some users from the site - namely those who don't enjoy the wrangling or the lack of clear guidelines.

So, here are some suggestions on how to make the decision and how to make it as non-disruptive as possible.

  • If you and the other moderators/owners are in agreement that you greatly prefer position A, you could announce it. A suggestion for wording here is something like:

    "While both positions have obvious merits, it's not possible to have both A and B at the same time, and until we decide which we're going to have a problem with the community trying to do both things at once. The moderators have discussed this, and due to reasons X, Y and Z we find that position A will make it easier to keep the site working well. Therefore, we're updating the community rules according to position A. As we said, we know that there is also strong support for position B, and we wish it were possible to have both - but unfortunately it isn't."

  • If you and the other moderators don't really mind, or are also not in agreement, how about a vote? Give it a reasonable time frame and be very clear in advance on how you'll treat the result - will it be binding or a recommendation? What will you do if the result ends up 50/50 again?

Regardless of whether you make the choice yourself or allow a community vote, you also need to be clear about when and how the change will be implemented.

This is also a good time for you and the other moderators to consider how you're going to make these decisions in the future, and to communicate this to the users. It should be clear to everyone what the procedure will be if this happens again with another issue.

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The below is mostly me just typing things that come to my head:

I think this is where a moderator's "human exception handler" instincts come in. This is an exception - the community can't come to a clear decision. You, as a moderator, need to handle it.

I would say that you should wait to make a definite decision until there is an obvious stalemate that won't clear up on its own.

Ideally you'll have more than one moderator. Talk it over in private and discuss the pros and cons, such as:

  • Is this an issue that will cause people to leave if one side is chosen? How can this be mitigated?
  • Which side do we as moderators believe is correct and better for the long-term sustainability of the site?
  • How can we respectfully, but firmly, tell the community which side to go with?

On the age of the issue: again, I would wait until there's a stalemate. Don't lay down the law on day 1, but don't wait years either.

I hope this made some sense - it feels like a rambling essay reading back over it, but I think I covered the pertinent points as I see them.

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