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Exit strategies for “chameleon questions”

This had been troubling me for quite some time.

I use StackOverflow mainly fro answering questions and learning through them, rather than asking my own. I try hard to help the question askers until they get their problem solved. However, this sometimes get us quite far from where we started.

Such situation happened once more yesterday and I decided it is high time to ask and get better understanding how far should I go when answering. See this thread. How it went:

  1. After about a dozen comments we managed to format the question in understandable enough form. So far so good, this should be done for every question
  2. The question was why my images do not show. I answered this.
  3. Then the question became: how do I show my images then? I answered this with a bunch of code.
  4. Then the question became: how do I show my images vertically. I answered this too, but without giving explicit code.
  5. Then the question became: I get the following error, please help. At this point I decided not to take it any further and not make several more comments just to get what actually is the problem in the code now.

I have also couple of such cases with my friend @Sabre. This one and this one. The two include more than 50 comments and we have passed through more than 6-7 different errors. And the reason here was that the OP lacked some very basic understanding of the language at hand (java).

After all this examples you should be able to understand my situation.

Finally the question once more:

How persistent should I be when answering questions? How do I handle situations with new questions coming in the old thread?

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It depends on your mood - but if an OP changes the original post to include additional questions then you should kindly request that they revert their post back. He asked a question and got an answer - case closed. New question - new post. –  Lix Mar 25 '12 at 9:57
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Obligatory "Help Vampires: A Spotter’s Guide" comment. –  Yannis Mar 25 '12 at 10:05
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Since they've implemented the 'this comment thread is too long, time to move it to chat' "feature", and I don't participate in chat rooms as a matter of principle and preference, I've started to use that as my clue that I've spent enough time trying to help. –  Cody Gray Mar 25 '12 at 10:09
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Very reminiscent of bashphorisms 0, 1 and 2 :-) –  Kerrek SB Mar 25 '12 at 14:34
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marked as duplicate by tvanfosson, kiamlaluno, Rosinante, ChrisF, Cody Gray Mar 26 '12 at 5:57

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

2 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

It depends on your mood, but if an OP changes the original post to include additional questions, then you should kindly request that they revert their edit back. He asked a question and got an answer—case closed.

New question === New post

I recently had two instances where I was attempting to assist a user but every time we made some progress the question changes slightly.

What I did was politely yet firmly explain to the OP that this behavior is not desired and that a post should contain only one specific question and that question should not change over the course of trying to solve the problem.

You should be persistent in trying to assist the OP. However, if the post takes a direction in which the content is being drastically changed and other answers are rendered unhelpful as a result of these changes, then the OP should be made aware that this behavior is not acceptable on a Q&A site like Stack Overflow.

All in all, long comment threads are not too helpful—if there is important info in the comments, then that info should be moved to the main post. Another solution I really like is inviting that user to chat and then assisting them there. Going over all the errors they get and so on. If you are really feeling that you want to help the user, then I believe this is your best bet. Don't forget to remind the user to update his/her original post with info that was learned during the chat conversation (or perhaps post an answer of his/her own) so that others can benefit too.

Most important thing to remember is not to bang your head against your keyboard when dealing with newbies. Save your brain cells—maybe I'll need your assistance some day :P

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All good points, but all cases I cite are with people with too low reputation. If you allow me to cite myself: Still nothing to be found. And you still have not enough reputation for chat. Otherwise we update the questions, but at certain point they get quite different from the initial question. –  Boris Strandjev Mar 25 '12 at 10:15
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@bor - very true - the v.low rep users can't partake in chat. Perhaps a feature request is in order. When you create a chat room and give explicit wrote/read permissions to users then the 20 rep limit shouldn't be active... –  Lix Mar 25 '12 at 10:27
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Just FYI, that feature request has already been made. Also see the "linked" questions in the sidebar. –  Cody Gray Mar 25 '12 at 11:25
    
@theE - thanks for that info, and for the edit :) –  Lix Mar 25 '12 at 11:50
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@theE - correct me if I'm wrong - but the only way that the "linked" questions are placed in the sidebar is if they are actually "linked" in the post. That leads me to believe that the sidebar entry only appeared after you posted your comment :P –  Lix Mar 25 '12 at 12:36
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Yes, I meant the "linked" questions on the linked question. :-) I should have said "...in the sidebar of that question". –  Cody Gray Mar 25 '12 at 12:37
    
@TheE - seen Inception recently? ;) Linked question of the linked question that I linked to on your link... –  Lix Mar 25 '12 at 12:38
    
Note that you can chat with even low-reputation users if you jump through a few extra hoops to give them "write" permission in a specific channel. –  sarnold Mar 25 '12 at 23:31
    
@Sar - err... no...actually...if you read the comments to the post you linked to this has been identified and closed as a loop hole. Without seeing that post I attempted that today without success... –  Lix Mar 25 '12 at 23:33
    
@Lix: huhn. It worked last time I tested it, and I thought I had tested it after those comments had been added. –  sarnold Mar 25 '12 at 23:36
    
@sar - apparently mods can do it –  Lix Mar 25 '12 at 23:37
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I would say: You should continue as long as you see the end of the answer AND you are moving in big steps to the solution.

A question could be vexing and difficult, but with trial and error and excluding possibilities you are moving toward a solution.

If you have the feeling that the poster does not seem to understand your proposal because he has insufficient knowledge or worse, he/she seeks someone stupid enough to do their homework, drop him/her immediately. You are moving far too slow to the solution because it is not your job to teach someone programming.

If in the other case someone bends the question it will mean that the end of the answer will move, too. If, metaphorically speaking, you now see a jungle or a mountain path instead of a clear target, drop it.

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"Drop him/her" - hopefully not on their head as enough damage could have been done already :P What I'm saying is you need to bring an end to the interaction in a polite and acceptable way. +1. –  Lix Mar 25 '12 at 15:21
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Me ? I am gentle like a feather....:-P –  Thorsten S. Mar 25 '12 at 17:46
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