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I've often commented on chat that "HNQs seem to straddle the line between the septic tank and greatness" - well not exactly but various things to that effect.

I came across a situation where a fairly terrible question had great, highly voted answers, and was deleted. In the discussion that followed, there seem to be two equally valid viewpoints:

  1. The question should have been closed anyway, and the people who answered it should know better. Should we be closing these off quicker? Should they be deleted anyway?

  2. The question should have been improved. I wonder if at the point where we have good answers, we can be more proactive about edits while the question is still fresh - there's kind of a precedent for this. I've reactively edited it, but should we have more eyes on HNQs for this sort of thing?

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My position—and I'm adamant about this—is that useful, high-quality answers should never be deleted even if the question is closed.

The question got to the point where a truly great answer was posted to it. Our primary goal here at Stack Exchange is to build a knowledge base for readers as well as to provide a reliable venue for high-quality Q&A. The fact that a question is not appropriate for our site does not mean that we should sacrifice good content for the sake of cleanliness. This is not the first time I've dealt with this issue.

I'm of the opinion that questions that are closed and have remained on the site unchanged long enough to otherwise be candidates for deletion that have a high-quality answer(s) and lots of views should be historically locked instead. This will prevent any activity from occurring on the question and answers but ensure that the content remains accessible for the benefit of people researching on Google.

That said, if a question can be edited to make it more readable, even if it isn't possible to bring the question to the point where it can be reopened, then it can and should be edited. In cases like this, the possibility of editing should be considered before the question is locked.

For more on this, see this Meta Stack Overflow question: "Did we really have to delete this 80-vote community wiki answer after three years?". In a mod's words:

We do not delete good content. We do not delete good content.

  • You need both sides of the Q&A to be high quality – random Aug 14 '16 at 3:42
  • I posted an answer on the previous meta question that spawned this one. I agree with everything except historically locking a question before all other options are exhausted, because that prevents improving the question, and even the possibility of reopening it and getting more good answers. Good answers answer something, and that can be the basis for re-engineering the question. Almost by definition, if you have a good answer, worst case, you can start there and write the question that it answers. – fixer1234 Aug 14 '16 at 4:59
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    @random, ideally, both question and answer should be high quality, and if the answer is high quality, we ought to be able to do the same for the question. If the answer is high quality, we shouldn't delete it because nobody has improved the question yet. The question can eventually be improved , but the answer can't be replaced. Instead of viewing it as delete: yes/no, it might be better to view it as delete: when. And we can spur people to action on the improvement, like what happened with this question. – fixer1234 Aug 14 '16 at 5:08
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    @fixer1234 And that is the missing option. If the question cannot be improved (for whatever reason) consider writing a new self-answered question (reusing the great answer). – DavidPostill Aug 14 '16 at 8:31
  • Notice that that post you reference has been in many cases challenged because it can't be a blanket statement. You can delete good content of SU, so long you find a home from it. – Braiam Aug 14 '16 at 22:28
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People are looking at these issues from very different perspectives. But these actually aren't mutually exclusive; there's another dimension to the problem that hasn't been raised.

Role of question vs. answer

Start with the question, that's what gets the ball rolling. It provides the framework for the answers to be created. Once the answers are there, the answers are what contain the knowledge in our knowledge base.

If an answer isn't self-contained, the question provides context. But a well-written answer doesn't really even need the question. With great answers, the question becomes mainly a tool to help organize and find the answers. But searches can find the answers directly.

So the relative importance of the question vs. the answers changes after the answers come in if the answers are good. And that change in importance means that our strategy for making decisions about the thread should change with it.

Strategy vs. poor questions' changing problem

In the absence of good answers, a bad question doesn't add value to the site. It either can't be usefully answered and is just clutter, or it can attract low quality answers. In this case:

  • Clean it up or clean it out.

But, if it attracts good answers despite itself, the problem with a bad question becomes largely esthetic. The question is the means to the end, the answers are the end. High quality answers (that are on-topic), are why the site is here, and those should never be discarded on the basis of the question being poor. So what can we do in that case?

  • Improve the question. Questions are often poor because people can't imagine how they can be usefully answered. The answerers have figured that out. The answers frame and focus the question in a constructive way so that other readers can recognize the potential that was hidden. So it can be easier to improve the question after great answers have been posted (and that is completely different from rewriting the question to fit the answer).

  • Ask a new question and post the answers there.

  • Lock the thread as a last resort if we can't get the question improved or replaced.

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We should absolutely be closing unsalvageable HNQs faster. Hot Network Questions are the only thing many people see of our site, and I think we should make sure they show off our best. That's why I take a minute every so often to play "hunt the duplicate" when we get a new HNQ. I know it feels awkward to stop someone from repcapping by closing an HNQ, but we really shouldn't let already-asked or bad questions be presented as our latest and greatest. (Relevant MSE proposal.)

I could have sworn there's an MSE proposal to let moderators remove a given question on their site from HNQ, but I can't find it at the moment.

If the question can be salvaged, I see no reason to not save it. If it's interesting - and especially if it has already attracted a great answer - we have the opportunity to polish it up and show it to the world.

  • Most of the time questions hitting HNQ trigger, "This has got to have been asked already a few times on SU" and usually they are. Other times people just walk past the grotty teeth to look at the elbows when the question's teeth are still a vital part of the introduction to the site – random Aug 16 '16 at 0:24
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Notice how the question has been extensively edited to resemble a well thought question that can be answered. I presume the editors that did so just read the best answer and retro-fitted the question to fit the answer. They were trying to fix a bad question, in deference to a good answer. And that's good. But this also require insane amounts of effort and knowledge to do, which if nobody is willing to spend I see no point on keeping such question open/undeleted.

I go in more details about this in two of my other answers on SO:

  • 2
    Actually, I think the edits remained true to the original meaning and intent. The question wasn't altered to fit the answer. However, the answers probably played an important role. The original question could have been interpreted in a lot of ways, not all of them useful. The answer authors framed how to look at the question in a constructive way, and the question author agreed. So the answers provided focus that helped to refine the question without really changing it. BTW, you left out the key point from your linked answers, which would be very applicable here. – fixer1234 Aug 15 '16 at 3:00
  • @fixer1234 "Static Electricty back then? So I heard that static electricity is a big deal a couple decades ago. Why is it not a big deal now, and its rare for you to fry a computer component? Thanks!" vs "Is ESD a serious risk on modern machines? I heard that static electricity was a serious concern a couple of decades ago. However, many computer builders now don't seem to bother with things like electro-static discharge (ESD) straps or other measures when working on a system. Are computers less susceptible to ESD now?" you sure? – Braiam Aug 15 '16 at 3:26
  • The first sound like something Xzibit would say... without an ounce of context. – Braiam Aug 15 '16 at 3:27
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    This isn't an ancient thread. The edits were done with the knowledge of the question's author, and I don't see him saying we changed his question. I also don't think the new wording asks a different question than the original. What would you have done differently with the question? – fixer1234 Aug 15 '16 at 3:49
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    @fixer1234 who's talking about age? That has nothing to do with my point. My point was that unless someone is going to spend effort wiping the question, the best option is to moderate it as any other question, – Braiam Aug 15 '16 at 4:33
  • I read through the answers and did a best effort guess of the spirit rather than the precise content. I believe less time was spent on that question than on related discussions on my part. That said the question came to my attention over chat and having heard both sides of the argument.... This seemed a constructive way to fix it. I have a precedent for this level of edits too. – Journeyman Geek Aug 15 '16 at 8:55
  • @JourneymanGeek I'm not saying that anyone changed the spirit, but that editions were to, mainly, write a question worthy of the answers – Braiam Aug 15 '16 at 12:46

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