A call to action

This topic has been brought up here numerous times before, most recently by JSBangs:

I'm now of the opinion that single word requests should be either disallowed entirely or subject to much more stringent requirements.

The reasons are as follows:

  1. We get lots of them. Lots and lots.
  2. Most of them are uninteresting and of low quality.
  3. They have a high propensity to attract one-word answers and poor answers from newbie users.
  4. In chat, many of the most active users have complained about them. In other words, they attract less active users but repel the most active users.

There are some excellent answers there, and the overwhelming consensus is that these questions should only be allowed when the criteria for answering them are explicit and clear and they can't be trivially answered by a dictionary or thesaurus.

With all the resentment poured out here, one might think poor examples of this sort of question would get body-slammed the minute they showed up...

Cheating at crosswords

...Yet... Watching the front page, you could be forgiven for thinking "crossword-solving" was one of the primary functions of this site. Here are a few questions I've run across in the past few days:

Common to these questions is the lack of a clear goal: why is this question being asked? What specific criteria must the correct answer meet? And the resulting answers are predictably disappointing, as folks throw one synonym after another against the wall, waiting for one to stick... It would actually be less of a waste of time if the asker simply came right out and said, "Oh, and it needs to be exactly 7 letters long, and end with an 'r'".

Particularly embarrassing are the ones that can be answered - and often are answered - by the first result found upon pasting the description into Google:

There's nothing wrong with hosting questions that are already answered somewhere else... So long as we're doing it better. But a page whose only purpose is to link to another page is a speedbump on The Internet. I don't want to search for an answer only to find the top result linking to the second result - I want to go straight to the answer! Philosophically, this sort of "content" is just rude, insulting to those looking for assistance, the sort of shady tactic commonly used by link farms; they effectively beg search engines to derank your pages.

Painting the bikeshed

The last problem with these questions will be immediately familiar to users of other Stack Exchange sites: Q&A that anyone can have an opinion on will tend to attract more votes than those that demand specific expertise. "Bikeshed" questions aren't necessarily bad - but they require careful handling, as their quality can head south quickly... For instance, an unhelpful joke answer voted above all those that attempt to take the question seriously.

But what can I do about this?

When you see a question, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is my first impulse to reach for a dictionary / thesaurus / Google? It should have been the asker's first impulse as well - does he describe what he's tried, or why the obvious answers don't work?

  • Can I say with reasonable certainty what the correct answer would look like? A thesaurus will happily present you with a list of words, but it won't necessarily tell you which one has just the right connotations for the idea you're trying to convey. But if the question doesn't specify how/where/why the word or phrase is needed, then the expertise of those answering is wasted - they can't know if their answer meets the needs of the asker either. Real questions have answers - not just responses.

  • Is this question interesting, unique, thought-provoking? You're not a machine. The first two guidelines are fairly strict, but there can be questions that fail both of them and yet are still worth keeping around. Use your best judgement... But avoid the pitfall of thinking, "I can find no redeeming value in this question, but... maybe someone else will" - be true to yourself; if someone else finds the question useful, then they can fight to keep it around.

Once you've decided that a question fails these tests, act: down-vote, vote to close (the description for "Not a real question" fits just about perfectly), or flag for a moderator's attention. Leave a comment describing what's lacking, as I've done here.

You, the experienced expert users of English Language & Usage, are the gatekeepers for your site: you've already decided you don't want these questions, now it's time to step up and make them go away...

Godspeed.

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Who are you, Shog9? Your words are true, but your identity is new; how do you know so well our problems? I was about to post a question to meta asking if we could add an option for closing called 'question is dumb'. –  Mitch Nov 15 '11 at 20:16
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Hey, @Mitch - check my profile! I work for Stack Exchange, mostly doing stuff like this - encouraging folks to use the tools at their disposal. I'm not much of an English scholar, but I do spend a fair bit of time watching what goes on here - and checking the results against other sources to see how we stack up. –  Shog9 Nov 15 '11 at 20:19
    
no problem... your question just doesn't fit the profile of a lurker. –  Mitch Nov 15 '11 at 21:29
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@Mitch Shog9 happens to be one of the most beastin' SO users of all time; there's a script floating around that calculates average post quality, and for users over 15k rep, I believe he was in the top 10. –  Mahnax Nov 16 '11 at 0:28
    
@Mahnax: Thanks for the reference. It was just incongruous to read a post by someone who hadn't already participated quite a bit already -here- at english.SE, with such strong (but not strange) opinions. –  Mitch Nov 16 '11 at 1:28
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Quick clarification: if I read a question and I find it really boring - is this enough reason to vote to close it? I've always held back in these situations, but I could let lose... –  Matt Эллен Nov 16 '11 at 20:40
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@Matt: by itself? No. But it's a good reason to check for other deficiencies: if the question bores you because the asker put no effort into it and hasn't provided any clear guidelines for choosing a correct answer, then that's a good reason to close it. –  Shog9 Nov 16 '11 at 21:34
    
Thanks. That makes sense. –  Matt Эллен Nov 16 '11 at 21:41

2 Answers 2

I don't agree that questions that can be googled are automatically suspect. Everything can be googled, and what's first or second in the results today might not be there tomorrow. If we want to become that first search result, then we need to be willing to answer the question.

Also, just because it's on the internet doesn't mean it's true: if you don't know the answer to a question, how are you going to evaluate the accuracy of possible answers? There's a reason SE has reputation and upvotes/downvotes.

General reference is very dangerous as a close reason. Pretty much every bit of information can be found elsewhere -- that's where our experts learned it from, after all -- but that doesn't mean every question is too basic. To qualify as general reference, the question needs to be easily answerable from a source specifically designed to answer that type of question. Google is not a source specifically designed to answer any question other than "where can I find information about [search term]".

If a question doesn't include enough information to be answered with any accuracy — such as single-word-requests where the description is a vague category at best — then by all means close it as not a real question. But just because you looked it up in Google and found an answer that your experience enables you to label as correct, doesn't mean you should close the question as general reference.

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If you want to teach folks how to fish, that's awesome - but when the sole answer consists of a link to another site, that's worrysome... Especially when that site would have been the top result for the question if this site hadn't pushed it off. I'm not saying you should shut down all questions that can be googled - but the expectation should be that the asker has at very least tried, and is willing to show his work: "I searched for 'bowling alley machines' and got stuff about video games" would at least gives you the assurance that "pinsetter" wasn't already rejected by the asker. –  Shog9 Nov 15 '11 at 21:16
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@JasperLoy: even things that aren't on the web can be googled: you might find publication information for the book, or something similarly not-immediately-useful, but you've googled it. –  Marthaª Nov 15 '11 at 21:52
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I think @Jasper meant that some things cannot be usefully googled. Many of these single-word-requests produce nothing useful, even with some intelligent variation from the user. At that point, I'm not sure what value there is in insisting, "but you've googled it!" –  Jefromi Nov 16 '11 at 21:05
    
WolframAlpha might someday be able to answer some questions... :) –  muntoo Nov 20 '11 at 8:08

I feel like this "problem" has been around for a while: how to define what is too basic and not interesting to the desired audience of the site.

Well, consider the instructions that new users see when asking a question (for the first time) are

How to Ask

Is your question about English language and usage?
We prefer questions that can be answered, not just discussed.
Provide details. Share your research.
If your question is about this website, ask it on meta instead.

Did we ask ourselves is it really objective to expect the new users who come to the site called "English Language and Usage" and to whom the instruction given is "Is your question about English language and usage"1 that she will read through the whole faq, paying special attention to the details of examples of what is on or off topic? Let's assume that it is. There she will read as an example of on topic question: "Problems encountered by people learning English".

Now, you say that the uninteresting question are "philosophically rude", but isn't it "philosophically rude" not to expect such questions given the state of facts? But, I digress.

I think the first thing that needs to be done is to make sure that we inform the new user what is expected from them, namely that:

  • they should show research or attempt at research in dictionaries and online encyclopedias

  • if the research failed that they should explain why or how

There are many ways this can be incorporated into the site (personally, I am particularly fond of the idea that users under X points should click on 'I have done research' with every question they ask).

This will not eliminate such questions completely, but at least it should lead to the situations where it is clearer to the users why their questions are closed. This is not the case now, and not only we get noise from questions that should be closed, but we also get further noise when people do not understand why it happened. This is also garnished with noise of overzealous closers and sympathetic re-openers. In reality I don't think it is as bad as it could be, but these are the elements of noise that we experience and that can be improved.

To fight 'mediocrity' we should fight it at the first lines: hard and fair. For that we need to take better care of the new users.


1 Please note that the sentence 'Is your question about English language and usage?' does not capitalize the name of the site. Therefore, it is even more justified to expect the new user to interpret it as any question on English language and usage, not only as questions that the site "English Language and Usage" defines as on topic in its faq.

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In every SE site, the off-topic/on-topic questions are defined from the FAQ. Asking, "Is your question about English language and usage?" doesn't imply that all the questions about English language are on-topic on EL&U. Then, not all the questions that are closed are closed because off-topic. –  kiamlaluno Nov 23 '11 at 10:44
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@kiamialuno, no, with all due respect you are completely missing my point. Please try to think as a newcomer to this site. For example compare serverfault, their sidebar says: "Is your question about servers, networking, or desktop infrastructure?", basically summarizing what is on-topic and using generally understood meanings and not specific meaning in context. With EL&U it says is your question about English language and usage? –  Unreason Nov 23 '11 at 11:29
    
A single sentence cannot report all the on-topic/off-topic questions. That sentence means that a question that asks "Is a [name of a not well known animal] a mammal?" should not be asked, as the topic of the question is not English language, and who answer would not answer basing solely on their knowledge of English. –  kiamlaluno Nov 23 '11 at 11:57
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@kiamialuno, the problem here is that, compared to other sites, this single sentence here is too easily missleading and ambiguous. Let's keep it simple, "Is your question about English language and usage (as we define it in the faq)?" is much less so, isn't it? –  Unreason Nov 23 '11 at 12:29
    
There is already the link to the FAQ, in that block: "read the faq." –  kiamlaluno Nov 23 '11 at 12:34
    
@kiamialuno Ok, sorry, but it sounds to me that you are more interested in denying the problem than in being constructive. –  Unreason Nov 23 '11 at 13:14
    
This question has been created from Shog9 as call to action for closing questions that are mediocre. Closing a question is not related to the fact the users read, "Is your question about English language and usage?" Are you saying that, because that sentence, you are not voting to close a question asking "What is the plural of cat?" The topic here is not "For which reason do many users ask mediocre questions?"; the topic is "Do close mediocre questions that should not be there on EL&U." (Indeed, that means "when there is a reason to close them.") –  kiamlaluno Nov 23 '11 at 13:52
    
@kiamlaluno, finally you get it, yes, I am completely guilty here: I am saying that on average it is better not to have mediocre questions than to close them. And yes, that is the point of my answer. –  Unreason Nov 23 '11 at 14:37
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Since there are already mediocre questions, the only way not to have them is to close them; once they are closed, they can be deleted (from who has the privilege of voting to delete them). The problem is not "Is your question about English language and usage?" as who asks mediocre questions would ask them even if you change that sentence. There are users who ask on Meta Stack Overflow questions that are about programming, and not related to Stack Exchange sites; that happens even if there is nothing that says programming questions must be asked on MSO. –  kiamlaluno Nov 23 '11 at 14:43
    
let us continue this discussion in chat –  Unreason Nov 23 '11 at 14:55

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