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Experienced users are oft encouraged to have time and patience with new users:
eg: Could we please be a bit nicer to new users?

But I'm noticing that new users don't tend to help other new users. I'm wondering if that is true, why that is, and if it is something worth changing?

  1. Should/How can we encourage new users to help other new users?
  2. Why might new users be afraid to post answers?
  3. In what ways can new users contribute, even if they don't know the answer?
  4. What issues arise if lots of new users are helping other new users?

How to encourage new users to answer other new users:

  • I am a little stuck here actually, so this must be the central tenet of this post
  • don't answer obvious questions?
  • I don't really want to post comments that say something stupid like "c'mon guys with rep less than 1000 you know this one!" Or is this not a stupid thing to post? You can't assume new users are non-experts.

Why a new user might be afraid to post an answer:

  • "I don't know if my answer is correct"
  • "I'm sure one of these guru's with big reps will come along soon and trump any answer I attempt"
  • "I don't want to get downvoted"

Contributions new users (who don't have the answer) can make:

  • the leg-work of teasing out the real question behind a poorly expressed question
  • finding duplicates - most questions have been asked, it is often just working out how to find it

Issues from lots of new users helping other new users:

  • lowers the quality of answers?
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4 Answers 4

#1 for why new users don't post answers is probably by-design. If you aren't sure of your answer, then it's better to refine it until you're sure.

#2 and #3, on the other hand, is not something new users should be afraid of. This does fall on the responsibility of the current community. If a new user is afraid to provide the correct answer for fear of being downvoted, then we're Doing It WrongTM. I personally believe that downvoting is a last resort action, not something to be used arbitrarily.

Always ask yourself this question when you find a bad answer: "Is this answer absolutely, 100% incorrect?" If so, then go ahead and downvote.

Otherwise, if the answer is situational, go ahead and leave a comment or edit something in. If the answer is badly formatted, do what you can to edit in fixes.

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I agree with the approach to edit before downvoting, but if there's a pretty blatant problem that can't be fixed, the content doesn't answer the question, or it's wrong, then it should be downvoted. Definitely leave a comment with some helpful advice and tips for how to fix the problem, but don't think of not downvoting as the same thing as not being nice. Remember, we downvote content, not people. For people, we leave nice comments and try to help them fix the problem. ;) Other than that, I like your approach to helping. –  jmort253 Oct 22 '12 at 7:43
    
The issue (not so much problem) is that with the way that reputation and downvoting interact, we inherently downvote people as well as content. Yes, it makes sense that people who chronically turn out bad content will have low reputation due to downvoting. This is by-design and I support it. But when the quality guidelines become so strict that a new user is afraid of posting correct answers, something needs fixing. –  Yawus Oct 22 '12 at 13:44
  1. If a new user is afraid to answer because of the reason you stated above, then it is HIS attitude problem, not of old users. I started from 0 too. The guy with 175k started also from 0 too. This is my 1st answer here. If its irrelevant, go downvote. But a bad answer is bad answer. Why we should be mellow because the answerer is a new user?

  2. How many of new users want to help others? I can bet perhaps 1 in 10. Most new users are here to "get help" and not "offer help". This is how every q&a discussions works most. Not fair but life ain't fair anyway.

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On #1, this is so true. The quicker you learn, the easier it is to be a good user. +1 just for the first part by itself. ;) For #2, I fall into the 1 in 10, assuming your assessment is accurate.... I didn't write my first question until I was well over a few thousand reputation. I started answering questions because I was pissed off that someone downvoted something that helped me, and the only way I could upvote it was to go answer some questions and gain some rep. Let me tell you, that turned into a bit of an addiction. I've spent entire weekends answering questions to finally hit 10K ;) –  jmort253 Oct 22 '12 at 7:38

I see two problems here: Getting new users to help other users, as in helping them learn how to use the site, and getting new users to participate in Q&A.

Getting New Users To Help Other Users:

The reason new users don't help other new users is because they don't yet understand the norms of the community. A few days ago, a user with a little over 2000 reputation on Stack Overflow commented on a 500 rep users answer saying that he would upvote, but he wasn't going to because there was an error in the code. So I replied:

If you know the error, consider fixing with an [edit] on the user's behalf. You do have full editing privileges after all. ;) This isn't a contest, we can (and should) all help to create great answers! This also demonstrates to new users how editing -- which is at the heart of SE -- can turn so-so answers into great ones. Good luck!

Of course, in this case, the answerer misspelled the word "function" when defining a JavaScript function. There is really no need to make someone work to do something that a good debugger can solve for you, so my thought is, just help out. In this example, 2 users gained something from this. The 2K user hopefully understands what to do with his fancy new editing privilege, while the other user was encouraged by the community's helpfulness, even though he wasn't the question-asker.

In response to Yawus, I do believe that downvotes must be used. If content is poor, and you cannot fix it, it needs to be downvoted. No good will come out of letting poor content fester in with the 0 voted posts, or worse, rise to the top due to a sympathy upvote. New users learn much faster when poor content is downvoted, and other users see this as well. Remember, they're new users to Stack Overflow, not new to the Internet and life in general. This doesn't mean they can't write good content if they try, and the sooner they learn, the less painful it will be for everyone involved.

Just imagine being the first moderator or 10K user to delete or downvote a user's comment as an answer, who had been doing this for a week because people didn't want to downvote. Now, instead of learning something, the user just thinks the moderator or 10K user is a pompous jerk. The new user continues posting poor content, because bad habits are hard to break, and now other new users have seen this poor content too, and they think it's okay too. Remember, this isn't to say you can't reverse the downvote later if the person fixes the problem. I strongly encourage this. ;)

Getting new users to participate in Q&A:

The answer to this is, you can't. People are going to participate when they feel like participating. Some of us were just Googlers until something happened that induced us to create an account and write an answer. Some people prefer to simply read, and that's fine.

Also, I'm not really sure this is a problem, as your thinking about reputation is a little flawed:

c'mon guys with rep less than 1000 you know this one!

Knowledge has nothing to do with reputation. There was a guy on meta earlier who asked a question about answer quality. He didn't even have 100 reputation, and he was already writing some really good quality answers on Stack Overflow. The guy was an experienced programmer who recently joined Stack Overflow. Yes! Believe it or not, there are expert programmers out there in the world who don't have a Stack Overflow account yet.

The fact is, new users participate all the time. The ones that participate a lot eventually gain reputation. Therefore, when you look at a random question from a year ago, and you see nothing but high rep users, consider that, when that person answered the question, that person didn't have the reputation that is listed on the answer today.

In other words, if you look at some of my answers from early January 2011, I had less than 500 reputation back then. Today, it shows 11.6K. In other words, unless you actually calculated my rep on January 2nd, 2011, you wouldn't know that I was a new user then.

What I'm trying to imply is that our minds are sort of tricked into thinking new users aren't participating when they are, they're just gaining reputation, so their older answers no longer say "52 reputation"

Summary

In summary, without some hard data, I'm not really convinced there is a problem with new users not participating in the Q&A part of the site; however, with gentle guidance from existing users, new users do learn to help others learn how to use the site.

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Letting poor content fester is hardly my argument. Bad content should edited, flagged, closed, or downvoted, but it should not be left alone. My argument is that we should not be so quick to use downvotes when an edit and/or comment can suffice. While it is true that we downvote content, not people, new users don't see it this way. A helpful edit and/or useful comment can go a long way in helping raise a good SE citizen. –  Yawus Oct 22 '12 at 13:49
    
That makes sense then, @Yawus! ;) Thanks for clarifying. –  jmort253 Oct 22 '12 at 14:57

As a new user, I can tell you that the reason I don't help more new users is that I have a lot of trouble finding questions I can helpfully answer. I only really know Objective C (solve for some value of "know"), and when I filter questions by "iOS" or "Objective C," I only understand probably 1 in every 15 or 20--and that 1 almost always has 2 or 3 or 4 good answers already. I've tried searching new users, but since the system seems not to show question tags for users with reputations below a certain number (it's been a while since I tried, so I could be getting this wrong, but I remember something like this), it got pretty tedious pretty fast to click on user after user with a low reputation and find that the question(s) s/he asked weren't ones about a language I knew anything about.

So perhaps one thing that might help is listing question tags for ALL users, not just ones above a certain reputation? (I'm sure there's a reason it's done the way it is, so maybe this isn't worth it, but the thought occurs to me.) I've often wished there were a "newbie" or "naive" tag, but I understand the reason against that--that reputation sharks would leap on such a tag immediately and render it useless for these purposes.

So at least in this case it's not that I don't want to or that I'm not trying--it's just that it's not easy to do!

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