A Day in the Penalty Box

by Jeff Atwood

on April 6, 2009

Are you familiar with the Penalty Box?

The penalty box (sometimes called the sin bin, bad box, or bin) is the area in ice hockey, rugby football and some other sports where a player sits to serve the time of a given penalty, for an offense not severe enough to merit outright expulsion from the contest. Teams are generally not allowed to replace players who have been sent to the penalty box.

It's not something we looked forward to, but as of tonight, we're instituting a penalty box on Stack Overflow.

Our general strategy is to discourage specific problem behaviors, not individual users. But sometimes you just can't seem to reach people, and it becomes necessary to place accounts in timed suspension.

When users exhibit a pattern of either ...

No effort to learn and improve over time

  • This user does not put reasonable effort into the questions they ask of the community.

  • There is little or no evidence of this user learning over time, either in the topic itself or in the community norms on the site.

  • This user intentionally spams the site with the same question or very similar questions, over and over.

  • The user never gives anything back to the community, but only takes.

Disruptive behavior

  • Other users tend to react poorly to this user's contributions, posting negative responses in kind and generally causing a commotion.

  • There is a broad sense of community resentment over this user's behavior, and they are frequently cited in discussion about the community.

  • There is a dark storm cloud of moderator flags that seems to follow this user around wherever they go.

  • The moderators get email complaints about this user's behavior.

  • This user makes overtly snide, rude, or hostile comments to their fellow users.

… these problem behaviors have to be dealt with. When they aren't, it takes up excessive moderator time that could be used for something more productive -- and, even worse, these behaviors begin to actively turn people away from our community, stunting its growth and harming everyone.

So starting tonight, there will be consequences for patterns of problem behavior.

penalty-box

If we think you are reachable, and the behavior is one that we feel can change, we will try to warn you via email first when there are behavior problems -- so that we can address them before they become deeper problems. But I make no guarantees; the community moderators are very, very busy and there are a lot of things that need their attention. The odds of moderators contacting you with a warning first will be in direct proportion to how much evidence you've given us that you are, in fact, a potentially valuable and contributing member of the community.

Depending on the severity of the problem behavior -- and at the complete discretion of the moderator -- your account will be placed in timed suspension for anywhere from 1 to 365 days. That means:

  • Your account will be locked at 1 reputation.

  • Your user page will have a visual indication that you are in timed suspension, and for how long.

  • You will be unable to vote, ask, answer, or comment.

At the end of this timed suspension period, your reputation will be recalculated, and your account will resume as normal. We don't hold grudges. The point of all this is to address the behavior. If the behavior improves, you are welcome back.

(This should probably go without saying, but if the problem behaviors do continue beyond the timed suspension, your account is very likely to be permanently deleted.)