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I imagine that this will be highly controversial but, well, we're here to ask and discuss, right?!

In the tags that I frequent, namely c++/php/javascript on SO, it feels to me like we have reached a kind of saturation point, in that the vast majority of new questions daily are either duplicates or localised debugging questions. We've had discussions on meta before about the flood of low-quality posts and the concensus so far has been to just keep flagging and downvoting.

But there's a problem with that — for every one meta-conscious [sic] SO user who closevotes and downvotes a poor question, there are twenty new users who see the same question and "learn" that this is how SO is to work. Each of those twenty new users goes on to themselves write a lame debug-my-codez-plz post and then our review work, not to mention what I can only imagine to be a ballooning database, is twenty times worse. Rinse, lather, and repeat.

Back to the point, then; again I can only speak for the tags I use so perhaps this is not in actuality a site-wide phenomenon, but the only "new" questions I see now are relatively advanced ones posed by higher-rep users. The basic stuff has all been covered, be it in FAQ form (some tags designate a "co-tag" e.g. c++-faq to mark questions that should be used as common points of reference when marking duplicates to frequently asked questions).

Now, it would not be right to suggest that this means SO should be closed off to non-advanced questions, not at all. On the other hand, is there not a pattern of pretty much all of the rubbish being generated by users with low reputation? Users who write answers and gather rep over their first days and weeks on SO tend to be those who like to put a little thought into life, and thus write questions that may actually be useful for someone someday.

Would it really be such a bad thing to have new users wait this kind of amount of time before asking their first question? Why is everyone in such a hurry? If we can promote the use of brainpower as opposed to "my first port of call to solve this problem is posting it on Stack Overflow" then so much the better — along this line of reasoning is the notion that if somebody needs to post their question right damn now then it's probably the case that they haven't applied the necessary patience to properly solve a problem and learn from it too. Do we need to allow new users to post their first question right from the outset? Is that a priority? Making the barrier to "get help" in any form as low as possible? Or does the fact that the answers to the common questions are now all already there override that to a degree?

I think we can put a stop to the constant influx of nonsense questions into the SO database that take up valuable search result space and just generally cause a nuisance for the benefit of just one person, without losing our ability to help people and provide the information that we set out to provide... and without introducing any sort of elitism, since everybody can gain rep — it takes time, not expertise (at least, not beyond the very basics of the topic in question).

This has been raised before, of course, but two years ago, before this perceived "saturation point" was reached.

So, here it is.

How about this: I propose a minimum reputation requirement of 500 to ask questions.

Go!

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Let's say I'm a reasonably experienced C++ user new to the site. I won't ask a crap question. Yet I still can't ask my question and will have to work myself up to 500 rep. (Which might take days at a minimum, or even weeks/months?) How do you propose we don't alienate the good new user? –  Bart Jan 20 '13 at 17:31
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@Bart: I suppose I'm asking the hard question of, really, why should we care? If, as this hypothetical new user, you're not interested in answering questions and generally getting involved, why should we optimize for you at the cost of having to deal with all the rubbish on a wider scale? The low/zero barrier to entry is a noble goal to be sure but I can't see that it actually works now that SO is "famous". –  Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 20 '13 at 17:32
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Because we care about the potentially good user. Here I get to the site, willing to participate and I have this boundary put in front of me for even a basic question (never mind the other privileges). Should I still be motivated to answer then? I know this is all hypothetical, but I would prefer an actual solution to the problem without the collateral damage. –  Bart Jan 20 '13 at 17:34
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This problem definitely isn't isolated to those few tags. –  Bill the Lizard Jan 20 '13 at 17:36
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Think about the stats. A user with a higher reputation is less likely to ask a question than a user with a lower reputation. By adding a reputation limit, you're effectively cutting off new questions, as well as making it impossible for new users to gain reputation to even ask a question, as their only means of gaining reputation would be answering. For example, Jon Skeet has over 24,000 answers and only 26 questions. –  animuson Jan 20 '13 at 19:22
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You know me well enough to know that I'm all for making it harder to ask garbage questions (And I wouldn't mind a TRUNCATE questions; in the PHP tag :) but no good would come out of this: imagine the droves of incompetent users driven into desperately answering questions so they can ask their own so they can keep their job –  Pëkka Jan 20 '13 at 22:33
    
That's an extremely cynical view @Pekka (not necessarily inaccurate). Not all low rep users are incompetent (and not all high rep users are competent) by any stretch of the imagination (I know you don't think this is so but it's implied by your comment). Having said that the amount of people asking extremely basic SQL questions about banking schemas can be a little scary sometimes... The easiest answer, as it always has been, is to improve duplicate detection somehow maybe some sort of reward system :-). –  ben is uǝq backwards Jan 20 '13 at 22:56
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@ben heh! Yeah, an effective dupe-killing system might really help. (I'm not implying that all low-rep users are incompetent... nor that all high-rep users are competent. Just that a whole lot of users are incompetent! Which you'll have a hard time arguing against :) –  Pëkka Jan 20 '13 at 23:00
    
@ben: I'm not convinced that any rewards that SO could offer within the scope of itself (i.e. badges, rep) could come even close to measuring up to the lure of "getting an answer to my problem right now!!1" –  Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 21 '13 at 1:08
    
@Pekka: Mmmm possibly. But crap answers do not garner positive reputation movement and, arguably, such "newbies" might figure this out and stop bothering? This doesn't work with posting crap questions because people keep answering them anyway, but who upvotes crap answers? –  Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 21 '13 at 1:10
    
I agree Lightness and am not 100% convinced that @Pekka's feature request would work. It is directed at potential answerers though and not askers. It's the community that have to learn how to close a duplicate rather than constantly answering it. –  ben is uǝq backwards Jan 22 '13 at 11:08
    
This is not working! Two upvoters for this nonsense means the message is not getting out. –  Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 25 '13 at 13:07
    
@LightnessRacesinOrbit the problem with restricting users from asking before a certain amount of reputation is reached is simple: less questions means more people competing to answer to get repution - lower opportunities to gather reputations skews the bar even more for new users. –  Anthill Feb 14 '13 at 6:25
    
Strongly disagree –  MicRO Feb 14 '13 at 8:49
    
@Anthill: I don't see a big problem with that. –  Lightness Races in Orbit Feb 14 '13 at 12:38

5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

I get what you're going for, but I don't think the direction is a good one. The site's popularity and its efficiency when it comes to answering questions brings in elements we don't always like to see. But putting up a significant hurdle before you can even ask a question doesn't seem to be the solution.

Would it really be such a bad thing to have new users wait this kind of amount of time before asking their first question? Why is everyone in such a hurry?

Everyone is in a hurry because they have their question now. Not in a week, not in a month. This equally applies to both the hypothetical "crap user" and the "good user". If we're asking users to post questions related to actual practical problems they face, you can't really go "Good, keep that in mind. Ask again in a week or two when you have the required rep. But please do keep contributing to the site."

Yes, putting up the bar would certainly stop some of the crap. And that doesn't worry me one bit. But you're also stopping the new user with potential. The one who can formulate a pretty damn good question. The one who has done his research. The one that faces a nice little problem now. And it's them that I worry and care about.

Sure, it's a hypothetical scenario of the "good user", but I think it's not all that an unlikely one. And how motivating must it be to the new user when he's not even able to ask his question? Would you still be willing to contribute your expertise if you're not even allowed to ask your own question?

Stack Overflow on the outside does seem to have a reputation of being fairly strict and sometimes even "too strict" on what they allow as a question. (Sure, disgruntled former users on blogs, hearsay from colleagues and such. I didn't do the market study) And from the inside, I don't think that's a bad thing.

If you perceive a problem as a tag-community with the level of the questions asked, perhaps we have to find a way to be even more strict. And perhaps more efficiently so. How this would be shaped, I don't exactly know. Better duplicate detection? Better tag-wiki content to point to? Other means?

But overall I'd rather be "the site where your question gets closed if it doesn't fit in those damn tight boundaries" than "that site where you can't even ask your decent question without having to jump trough hoops for a month". The former might partially address the issue you raise. The latter I fear might cause harm.

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Hard to disagree with any of this. –  Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 20 '13 at 18:44

I see one particular problem with this on a practical note, which is that if new questions of a relatively basic level cease to flow into SO, there will be less and less for new users to actually answer and, as such, it will become progressively harder for them to accrue rep and actually reach the amount required to then go ahead and post a new question. A bit of a chicken-and-the-egg problem there.

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+1, it would be extremely difficult for new users to gain rep without a sufficiently large influx of questions. –  Mysticial Jan 20 '13 at 17:33
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I extremely the whole rep –  Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 20 '13 at 17:33

You already note in your own answer that it will be hard for new users receive such reputation. Therefore, such a minimum reputation requirement will reduce the number of new SO users.

For me a better solution would be mandatory pre-moderation of questions asked by low-reputation users.

E.g., a user with a low reputation can post a new question. However, this question should not be published before revision by moderators or high-reputation users.

SO already has a 'First Posts Review' option. Therefore, required moderation can be implemented based on this option.

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I like this idea. I think we'd need more precise guidelines on what does and does not constitute an "acceptable" question, though. At the moment, despite evident concensus on meta on this sort of topic, apparently many people are not as strict as meta-people and thus the pool of crap left open still grows. We wouldn't want those people letting crap new questions pass moderation! (Arguably, having only high-rep and mod users do the moderation may inherently solve that problem.) –  Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 20 '13 at 18:46
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I suggested something similar once. It got +16 votes here: Protect newbie questions from abuse and SO from spam and -8 votes here: Require a net +1 for questions in high-volume tags to become answerable –  Pëkka Jan 21 '13 at 11:30

The biggest problem with those newbie hundred-dupe beginner questions is that they get answered, not that they get asked. Beginners see them and get excited, because I KNOW THIS ONE and here is a chance for some of that sweet sweet rep. They should be flagging and editing and generally slapping down the bad content but they don't know about that part so they answer. And they get rep. And they give rep to the asker while they're at it.

You want to set a 500-rep bar? A mere 25 or 50 times answering one of those should-be-deleted questions will take care of that. And it will not ensure that anyone knows what kinds of questions to ask here.

It might be interesting, in particular tags that are plagued with bad questions, to ask for 3 or 4 helpful flags as a pre-req to asking. These are evaluated by mods, not other newbies, so they are likely to be meaningful. But I think we're better off encouraging those who know what they're doing to clean up the inappropriate first questions than banning questions from first timers.

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I'm actually quite regularly surprised to see how many veterans jump on the low hanging fruit as well. –  Bart Jan 20 '13 at 22:28
    
The flags idea is very interesting, but I fear it would require a more thorough understanding of how things work than can be expected from a newbie. –  Pëkka Jan 20 '13 at 23:25
    
@KateGregory: You're right to a degree. If nobody answered them, then X not-quite-new users who had had no success in the past would stop bothering. Conversely, though, Y new users per Z hours would still pile rubbish into the system, simply because they haven't had a chance to figure out the futility yet. –  Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 21 '13 at 1:11
    
@Bart: I won't lie, I answer some of it, in a drive for the fame and glory. Yes, I know it's hypocritical to a degree. I know many others who do the same, though I like to think that I do it far less than the majority. Most of the time I'm {down,close}voting instead. Some system that takes this conundrum away from fame-and-glory-seeking me would still help. –  Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 21 '13 at 1:12
    
@LightnessRacesinOrbit I was not particularly referring to you. And I do think that in part it's caused by the system. Isn't it far easier to simply answer the simple question than having to hunt for this hard to find perfect dupe... It's by no means an easily solved issue. –  Bart Jan 21 '13 at 12:47
    
@Bart: I realise you weren't addressing that to me specifically, but I did feel the need to disclose ;) –  Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 21 '13 at 18:04

I can think of a somewhat modified proposal: make posting questions cost reputation - that is, questions that do not get upvoted.

The idea would be that people might start with e.g. a bit more repuation, say 10 points, and posting a question costs them 5 points. If they use up these points, they can no longer ask questions.

However if they get upvoted one time per question, they get back their reputation and can go on. I think while people feel tempted to answer lousy questions just because they are quite simple, the same people might be hesitating to upvote such a question nevertheless.

It might seem that this will not help because people who are looking for simple questions will upvote exactly these simple questions because they want more of them. Well, I have to plead guilty of picking out simple questions and I am slowly learning that this is not a good idea, but while I have been proven to be a bit dense to get that point, I never thought of voting up a poorly asked question. Even though that might feed my reputation source, at least to me there is a solid psychologocial barrier to do so, because I can feel this hurts the site. After all this is mostly the site where I can find answers to the question I throw into google, not the site where I brag about to my buddies.

I am not sure how to handle the problem that people who have burned their points can just set up a new account. Maybe making it impossible to sign up if there is already a user with the same email might work?

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I quite like this idea in principle. In practice there is already a "problem" of serial upvotes (from review queue?) for questions of dubious quality, and out of "kindness", and I reckon this would just further encourage "kind" people to upvote "so that the OP can ask another question" (without any regard for the very good purpose that you lay out here). –  Lightness Races in Orbit Feb 13 '13 at 22:03
    
I would rather that the counter not be tied to reputation. Consider having 3 question "tokens" with which to ask questions, invisible to everyone but yourself. After a certain reputation level (say 500), the cap disappears. –  Makoto Feb 13 '13 at 22:47
    
@Makoto: Many low-quality questions are the OP's first question, not their fourth. –  Lightness Races in Orbit Feb 14 '13 at 12:40
    
I did not expect that people upvote in an act of kindness, but now that I look at it I see it happen at times. So my proposal might not work well. I intentionally proposed to bind the ability to ask questions to reputation so good questioners are not blocked from asking more questions, but maybe having an "initial stack" of questions allowed might work. Then I feel a lower reputation cap than 500 (say 100) might be better, as for newcomers 500 sounds like a very high barrier and might scare them away (though I found it is not that much, but I only figured this out after being around a week). –  Clemens Klein-Robbenhaar Feb 16 '13 at 13:31

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