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Inspired by casperOne's interpretation in the comments of this recent question, I'm wondering if a small grace period or a sandbox mode for newer users will help their introduction to the system.

Grace period

  • Very limited, perhaps a couple of hours,
  • Should only apply to first time questions, from brand new users (excluding users transfering from other sites),
  • No rep loss on down votes, and possibly not even showing down votes,
  • Standard notification to everyone that the post is in the grace period (similar to mod notifications)
  • Possibly an expanded down vote tooltip, something along the lines of "OP is brand new, play nice"

Another, possibly highly controversial idea, would be that posts are only visible to higher rep users / moderators during the grace period.

But, it's possible that a grace period will be perceived as differentiating noobs from elites, as dreamlax commented, and I really don't like that.

Sandbox mode

  • Optional, at the discretion of the OP
  • Suspends the question for a limited time, question is only visible via the review page and / or moderator tools
  • Could be offered to all users

Higher rep users / moderators could review the question and leave helpful comments. After sandbox mode expires, question goes live and it's business as usual.


These are of course quite vague, I'm just throwing ideas out there.

We recently had a highly emotional discussion on Programmers Meta, and although the consensus seems to be that the system works as intended, it's hard to ignore the fact that several new users feel alienated.

And I recently had an offline chat with a 3K user (PSE again) and I was amazed of how many aspects of the system he was unaware of (simple stuff, really), something that tells me that as the system is rapidly evolving information is becoming extremely fragmented, especially from the point of view of a new user in one of the less popular sites.

Thoughts? Suggestions? Down votes?

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At the moment, we simply throw such users under the bus, on the theory that the likelihood that they will reform and become good Stackizens is vanishingly small. –  Robert Harvey Jan 12 '12 at 0:46
    
@RobertHarvey Yeap, I know, my answer to that highly emotional discussion is somewhat along those lines (but a bit harsher). But we are getting a very high number of bad questions from noobs over there, and I think the sandbox mode could actually help. –  Yannis Jan 12 '12 at 0:54
    
Everyone should be automatically qualified to use StackOverflow and only those that are persistently poor at following the mannerisms should be disqualified. To me, it would only widen the gap between newbies and elites. –  dreamlax Jan 12 '12 at 1:25
    
@dreamlax That's a very good point. The sandbox mode should be optional, and possibly not limited to newbies. But a forced grace period could actually worsen the situation. –  Yannis Jan 12 '12 at 1:28
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Somewhat related: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/108674/… –  Brian Reichle Jan 12 '12 at 2:32
    
@BrianReichle Nice, I somehow managed to miss that. I'll give it a read and possibly incorporate parts of it and its answers in my question... –  Yannis Jan 12 '12 at 2:38
    
Related: Introduce timed downvotes I've come to accept in the meantime that what I suggest in there is not a wise thing to do, though –  Pëkka Jan 12 '12 at 8:15
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You seem to think that high rep users are more likely to be helpful and less likely to throw people in front of a bus. I'm not sure this is the case ... –  C. Ross Jan 12 '12 at 13:45
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related –  Won't Jan 12 '12 at 15:18
    
New users aren't affected by downvoting anyway, since reputation can't drop past 1, the starting value. –  Yuck Jan 12 '12 at 16:20
    
@Yuck That's a miscommunication on my part. What I'm suggesting is that if they get a couple of upvotes on their first time question(s), and then a downvote, no actual rep loss. –  Yannis Jan 12 '12 at 23:46
    
@C.Ross I think high rep users are better equipped to help, if we consider reputation as measurement of experience with the system. From my very limited point of view, it happens to be that higher rep users are also most likely to be helpful. But I have no idea if that's generally true. –  Yannis Jan 13 '12 at 7:40

3 Answers 3

up vote 23 down vote accepted

We recently had a highly emotional discussion on Programmers Meta, and although the consensus seems to be that the system works as intended, it's hard to ignore the fact that several new users feel alienated.

Bear in mind that the two sites in question are specifically not for beginners.

Let's read the site descriptions:

  • English: Q&A for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts

  • Programmers: Q&A for professional programmers interested in conceptual questions about software development

If you want to walk into a college Calculus class, you need knowledge of Algebra, Pre-Algebra, Geometry, and Pre-Calculus. If you don't, you should be gently directed to other places where you can learn the necessary prerequisites first.

The problem is not that we need to figure out some way to stop the Calculus class to teach these users Algebra -- the problem is that these users are in the wrong place! It is totally correct to gently, civilly direct them somewhere else, somewhere more at their level.

Even on Stack Overflow, which never really had "professional" in its mandate, there is generally an expectation that someone posting a question will understand the rudimentary mechanics of, y'know, being a programmer. Otherwise they're committing the greatest sin of all -- they are wasting everyone's time.

Nobody expects every student to have what it takes to attend Harvard or Yale, right? Heck, we're more akin to the local community college, and even we have standards. You can't expect to show up on the campus of your local community college and go to class completely unprepared. Nobody is going to educate you K-12 just to teach you a college level topic; asking that of your peers is completely unreasonable.

Thus, if you want to come on our "campus" and learn with your fellow students, we expect users to be armed with the basics and fundamentals of the field. Users who fail to meet the absolute minimum standards of a practicing professional, whatever field that happens to be (think FizzBuzz for programmers), should be helpfully directed to other resources where they can learn these things before coming back.

If you don't enforce some basic standards for participants, you soon won't have the benefit of any experts at all. And God help everyone on your Q&A site then.

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I agree with everything you say here, but a sandbox mode might be a good idea anyway. It does happen that fine questions get buried under a mountain of downvotes or nasty comments because there's some (seemingly) inflammatory sentence in them. Being unfairly stampeded on by a SO mob (I'm not counting myself out here) is not a nice thing. Being able to get a 1-hour "time out" that protects from further downvotes - essentially a deletion or lock - so you can fix your question could be good. It would still remain open to close votes and spam flags to avoid abuse –  Pëkka Jan 12 '12 at 8:31
    
A tad harsher version of this would be my answer, if I was answering the question. I'm guessing participation data support your stance, won't even ask. But I think the information on what those basic standards are, is becoming increasingly fragmented. I think that a new user today will have to invest a little bit more time in understanding what's all about, than a year ago. I'm introducing new users every now and then, and they have to go through the faq, meta, MSO, similar questions, and possibly the blog before feeling confident in contributing. –  Yannis Jan 12 '12 at 8:43
    
And they are experts, in their respective fields. My data set is extremely small, of course, but I think there is a problem, one that will increase over time. I'm all for not dumbing down the system, but at the same time I think a variation of the sandbox could work without lowering the standards. It does follow the peer review philosophy, and will possibly resolve some of the frustration. But as I wrote in the question, it's still quite vague in my mind, I'm not advocating one way or the other, just brainstorming. –  Yannis Jan 12 '12 at 8:47
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@zaphod no, let's be clear, you are totally misrepresenting this. The specific user we're referring to could barely form sentences on a site called English. Seriously, think about what that says. It is not in any way subtle. Users who meet us halfway, heck, a quarter of the way, get treated perfectly reasonably. –  Jeff Atwood Jan 12 '12 at 8:47
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Users who meet us halfway, heck, a quarter of the way, get treated perfectly reasonably. While I agree with that in general, there are specific cases where things don't really go that well. There are of course other safeguards in place for those instances. Also please note that the Programmers meta discussion I linked to is not about a specific user, and quite a few high rep users raise similar concerns (invalid if you ask me, but what do I know?) –  Yannis Jan 12 '12 at 8:57
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@pekka in this case that sandbox is "somewhere else on the internet". –  Jeff Atwood Jan 12 '12 at 22:41

Overview: At first this answer was going to be something like "oh no, the system is just fine as is". However, seeing as how English Language and Usage has had similar debate recently, I think there should be at least SE-neighborhood-wide discussion. Recently, on EL&U this question was asked by a new user. The question was pretty far off-topic for the site (very subjective), and was closed. However, after a little back and forth in discussion, the user commented:

i am not a scholar of English language.I am a student who has some problem so i came here to improve these problem. And if i can then to help other to improve.You vote down it except someone is already closed it.If were scholar of English who know everything about English, i do not come here

Now, this comment is a bit emotionally charged but the system clearly frustrated the user. He didn't know how to improve, and he was angry at the down votes. I think that changes definitely need to be made to the system. This was just one user, but who's to say that there won't be some trickle-down effect that discourages further users at all?

Suggestions and thoughts: I think that there should be some further type of help offered for new users. To address the OP's ideas:

  • no rep loss on first time questions: On the one hand, implementing this would mean that new users would see the down votes and not see an equivalent negative reputation change. However, this would only (as I understand rep) affect users who transfer from one site to another and have the initial +100 reputation boost. A new user would still see the down votes, and possibly have a negative reaction again. The users who transfer from one site to the other and have a reputation boost ostensibly have had significant reputation on another site, and should be able to come in needing less coaching. So, I don't think idea would be overall the most useful.

  • down vote tooltip include a warning that the user is brand new: I think this would be useful--the "please consider leaving a comment" could be rejiggered so that for new-user questions it is always triggered. However, some veteran users would need to adopt the attitude that helping this user will help the site--and some users (including myself, at times) get frustrated with the poor quality questions flooding the site. This option would definitely need to be in conjunction with something else.

  • An automated comment on downvoted questions with references to the faq and how to ask pages: Again, I think this would be really helpful. However, pointing to a site's FAQ and how to ask pages might discourage new users--"here's a wall of text; read it". While this is not a social network site, this by itself seems incredibly impersonal.

Having considered the above, I would also suggest the following:

  • similar to the pending edits and flags, consider creating a notification system for new answers and questions. While we now have a review system, unless one checks continuously a new question could be posted, and severely downvoted before the new user got help. Maybe this could be a feature for 10k+ users--some sort of "mentor" privilege.

  • create a way for new users to contact existing ones. Sometimes, a new user posts a question. It is bad. It is downvoted into oblivion. If nobody has commented, the user doesn't know where to go and has nobody to ask questions or reply to. How many of them know that Meta exists? How do they know what flags do? Yes, these users should be encouraged to read the FAQ. But there should be some way for them to contact someone--probably a moderator--so that they don't feel like the site has turned on them.

Conclusion: Even if these ideas are thrown out, I think that SE should consider becoming a community that encourages people to ask better questions by being slightly more community-like. No, we don't need private messages. No, we don't need to be able to comment on profiles. But without some sort of positive and encouraging policing, many users who could have become good users are discouraged and never return.

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"i am not a scholar of English language" note that EL&U is for "Q&A for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts" per english.stackexchange.com/about so this user was in the wrong place altogether. They don't need to be accommodated, they need to gently be shown the door and pointed to other beginner "I can't even type properly" English websites. –  Jeff Atwood Jan 12 '12 at 1:29
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@Jeff the user mentioned showed up in chat, and was extremely willing to take edits and comments and apply them –  simchona Jan 12 '12 at 1:32
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not every student is entitled to attend Yale or Harvard. For that matter, not every student can make it through a local community college. My position on this matter is here: blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/11/the-pee-wee-herman-rule but I will reiterate, in bold, the relevant part: Q&A for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts -- does this user meet that criteria? –  Jeff Atwood Jan 12 '12 at 1:34
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@Jeff: he was enthusiastic about learning more about English in the same way that there are people who code and participate on SO as a hobby. His English wasn't fluent, but are there entirely "fluent" coders? –  simchona Jan 12 '12 at 1:37
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Based on the existing data (albeit a small sample) this is the type of user we really don't want to return to English. Part of making great sites is not just attracting the right users, but gently turning away those that are unlikely to be positive -- or arguably negative -- contributors. Quite simply, this user is in the wrong place; there's no way he is a linguist, etymologist, or serious English language enthusiast so these downvotes and closures are there to encourage such users to find a more appropriate place. –  Jeff Atwood Jan 12 '12 at 1:41
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@Jeff: I can understand where you are coming from, but I think he had the potential to be a good user with the right guidance. Maybe with this guidance he would have realized, on his own, that ELU was not the place for him--but in a way that didn't put a bad taste in his mouth. –  simchona Jan 12 '12 at 1:42
    
I've updated the question, and taken some of your points into consideration. Thanks for taking the time, I'll re-read your question with a clearer head in the morning (it's 3:45 AM here and I'm battling an outage) –  Yannis Jan 12 '12 at 1:44
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@simchona I guess Jeff is saying that the user sounds like who doesn't know what a compiler is, and asks questions on Stack Overflow about C programming. –  kiamlaluno Jan 12 '12 at 1:57

I might be mistaken but it seems like there are two problems at play here as communities want to ensure that high quality users (i.e. field experts) stay around and don't leave due to one or two initial bad reactions to the site where as users who still need to reach the site standards to contribute in a positive fashion need to be gently turned away so they don't have a negative impression of the network as a whole.

The first thing that comes to mind for this, which is somewhat like a sandbox mode and I think is already somewhat in place with the review process, is to require the first couple questions and answers that a user posts to be "peer reviewed" by higher reputation users who would be required to give some of feedback if they down vote a question. This would have the two-fold affect of limiting the number of low quality posts that get made by new users and also providing a private venue where they are given feedback that could be quite negative.

Remember, people generally react negatively to negative feedback so it is better to do that in private than out in the general public venue.

This might require that some changes be made to how question deletions are handled so that the new user can get a chance to review the feedback in the event that a moderator wants to delete a question though, perhaps put it a 72 hour timer before it is officially deleted?

I am inclined to agree that new users need to have some sort of "hand-holding" to get them through any initial rough spots and also as a way to take users who still need some education off to the side to let them know where they can ensure they can save face.

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I don't find that true experts and enthusiasts need this sort of hand-holding. Only those users who are woefully unprepared, who lack any sort of proper background in the field, do. And to be brutally honest, we want those woefully unprepared users to leave. –  Jeff Atwood Jan 12 '12 at 22:42
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@Jeff This very recent meta question is a very good example that true experts and enthusiasts don't need this sort of hand-holding. As I said before I'm not advocating one way or the other, I'm confused and trying to get a grip of the issue (or if there is actually one, other than isolated incidents). But SO may not be a good template for the discussion, as most issues I consider worthy of the discussion are on the more subjective sites, where we might not want the woefully unprepared users to leave. –  Yannis Jan 12 '12 at 23:40
    
@Jeff But, I would be extremely satisfied if I had a single and concise point of reference for everything you wrote here, that I could link to whenever such issues arise... On Programmers we are handling them beautifully (imho), but still this isn't strictly about what I think... –  Yannis Jan 12 '12 at 23:43

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