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I am a moderator on Cooking Stack Exchange. Our activity is quite low compared to the tech-oriented sites on the network, but we do have a bunch of users with sufficient reputation to cast close votes, and of course, many more can downvote.

We have a few marginal areas of expertise which are explicitly described as on-topic in the Help center. A good example is kitchen equipment. Questions about dishwashers and the like are rare, but when they turn up, they invariably gather downvotes and close votes.

We haven't had the case of such a question gathering five community close votes yet, but I think this is just a matter of time. Almost all of our closed questions are closed by moderators, just because we have so few active high-rep users, but their number grows over time, and someday this is bound to happen.

My conundrum is: should I, as a moderator, reopen such a question if it gets closed by the community as off-topic? On the one hand, it is the community that should define which questions are welcome. Stack Exchange operates on the principle that the users decide what is on-topic, and it is not my position as a moderator to enforce topic areas against the wishes of the community.

On the other hand, this area is codified in the site rules, which are open to everybody. Newbies are already confused by the Stack Exchange system because it has so much discrepancy with expectations formed by standard discussion forums. I frequently send them to the Help center so they can 1) have some guidance on how to behave, and 2) see that my actions are indeed informed by existing rules, as opposed to arbitrary whims. I really don't want them to experience a situation where the community does the opposite of what is stated in the written rules.

I have thought that maybe this is a sign that the community needs a new discussion on the on-topicness of equipment questions. But our Meta is so badly visited that almost nobody outside of the moderators will see new Meta questions. Besides, I have the feeling that the people who are downvoting these questions are not against the idea of having them per se, but are just unaccustomed to see this type of question, and automatically assume that they must be off-topic just because they aren't like the other on-topic questions. If this is the case, it makes no sense to start a discussion about the overturning of an existing rule which isn't causing any problems.

So, what is my role in such a case? What action can I take, and what outcome should I pursue?

3 Answers 3

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Here's what I would do:

  • Reopen the question if you're absolutely sure it shouldn't have been closed as per current site policies. You're a human exception handler, and this is the definition of an exception - the community not doing what it said it should do.
  • Create a question on your Meta site ask something like this:

Should question FooBar be closed?

I noticed that <link to question> was closed by the community. I think that this is on topic per <link to rules>, and so I reopened it. What is your opinion on this? Is there something I'm missing?

Also, to help with Meta participation, you might consider adding the tag to the question, causing it to show up in the sidebar on the main site. You could also add a feed to your site chatroom to post new meta questions in chat.

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Las costumbres hacen leyes *

* Customs make laws

Depends. If there's a established pattern in your community about how to deal with certain topic, the policies needs to reflect this change of heart. Discussion is warranted.

If was an one-off scenario, maybe the community perceived that that topic wasn't what they actually expected. In that case, discuss with your community, call out the ones involved, try to ascertain the situation that lead the community to behave that way.

In any case, some kind of update of the policy may be in order to establish the special cases on how to handle specific situations.

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From my years of experience on the Stack Exchange platform, I still do not understand on what ground its governors, including community managers, moderators, and meta-active users, act and make decisions. For the sake of applicability of this answer to a typical community, let us assume that we are dealing with a healthy community and try to find a proper solution to the situation described in the title, namely,

Should I intervene if my community acts contrary to its own policies?

The answer is definitely "Yes." But, how? We need first to get to the root cause of the problem.

What is the main cause of community actions contrary to accepted policies?

In my opinion, lack of a set of rules and policies free of contradictions and ambiguities likely give rise to actions in nonconformity with community norms. For example, consider a Q&A community in which a group of privileged members can cast close votes on posts. If closure of posts has not a definite policy, some members can cast their close votes however they want without being questioned, because there is no definite basis on which one can criticize their actions. In this example, there arise two problems: First, as the associated rules and policies are not clearly defined, members may have different interpretations of, say, on-topicness of some matters, which likely leads to conflicts among the members. Second, there is somewhat of contradiction here. "Voting" is usually understood as an activity in which one freely makes a choice without feeling a need to give a reason for his/her choice, so opposing a close vote seems somewhat contradictory. This seeming contradiction can be surmounted by asking the community to do "closure review" instead of "closure voting", so that the community members feel a greater sense of responsibility for closing posts.

Managers of many communities believe that a set of consistent and clear-cut rules and policies may make their community too strict. However, it should be noted that flexibility can be accompanied by consistency and clarity within a community. It does not seem reasonable to ask members of communities, especially online ones which people of different cultures, educations, levels of wisdom, and etc. can easily join, to behave according to their interpretation of indefinite rules, because otherwise we would have anarchic communities. Instead, community members can be allowed to modify/change existing rules if need be.

How should a moderator intervene in such a situation?

Before coping with this issue, let us mention two points. First, from the context of the OP, it seems that the community in question is managed by a company and its moderators do not have enough authority and latitude to make fundamental changes in order to have such a set of rules and policies characterized above. However, even in such a case, good moderation can have a great impact on the community. Second, there seems to be some contradiction with respect to the example described in the OP. If the community members themselves determine certain rules and policies, then saying "the community acts contrary to its own policies" will be somewhat contradictory, because the community behavior shows that they have already changed their policies and that they are in fact acting according to their new policies. So let us assume that a group of community members act contrary to the community policies.

The following points can be helpful in handling the conundrum:

  • Although some people believe that, viewing a moderator as a "human exception handler," the moderator should reverse such actions, I think this seems somewhat imperious, which would be improper for a community governed by its members themselves. In my opinion, a moderator should only take the least possible actions to keep the community healthy; actions such as closing some on-topic posts on a Q&A community should not be considered lethal, and the community themselves can overcome such nonlethal issues.
  • When it is seen in a healthy community that some members take actions which a moderator consider contrary to the established policies, the moderator should bring the community into discussion on this issue in a meta-like place of the community and request those members to let the community know their reasons for such actions. A satisfactory conclusion on the controversial issue will be reached after some constructive argumentation.
  • It is possible, even in a healthy community, some members decide to behave in some unhealthy ways. To keep the overall community healthy, it is recommended the moderator consider the points mentioned in this answer. If some disciplinary actions need to be taken, it is highly recommended that related information leading to such actions be accessible to the whole community so that the community can trust the moderation actions; trustworthiness is the most valuable asset a community moderator can have.

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