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New users' first contributions to a site, by their nature, often require improvement. There are different methods of dealing with this, and I am looking for evidence that would help understand which are most effective, where "effective" means "this person becomes a positive contributor for the site". I am particularly interested in smaller sites; what works on SO probably doesn't apply to Hermeneutics and vice-versa.

Some people deliver constructive feedback through polite, friendly comments asking the user to edit. Others make the edit themselves (and perhaps leave a comment explaining it). Some downvote and move on.

I have heard people make all of the following claims:

  • constructive comments, no matter how well-written, make new users feel criticized
  • new users are more offended by people editing their contributions than by comments, so we shouldn't do this until they understand the community aspects of content better
  • new users are more offended by comments than people just fixing it for them
  • new users don't mind downvotes (they probably don't even grok the voting system yet)
  • going straight to a downvote is the worst message you can send to a new user because you didn't even try to help him first

Obviously not all new users are alike, but which of these positions are best supported by what we've seen happen in the past? What is the best way to guide new users whose posts need some work?

Update: Rachel's answer is some of the finest writing I've seen on Stack Exchange on the care and feeding of new users. Her answer should find a life beyond this question somewhere. Without wanting to slight her, I am accepting Shog9's answer because it addresses the past trends I asked about here (so it is the one that most helped me).

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I'm not entirely sure it's possible to answer this with data; How would you judge whether comments left for someone were 'constructive' or not, for example? –  Andrew Barber Feb 13 '13 at 16:12
Maybe I should say "evidence" -- I'm thinking that on sites where there've been problems there might have been meta conversations, or measures of how many users stuck around versus went away on sites with differnet policies...that sort of thing. –  Monica Cellio Feb 13 '13 at 16:17
Wouldn't that rely on the existence of such policies? Besides "be nice" in general, I don't really think such policies exist. Unless I've been overlooking something. –  Bart Feb 13 '13 at 16:34
There's been some recent discussion on BH (which is what led to this query), and what I thought was a standard question about this was asked in the Mi Yodeya moderator election. –  Monica Cellio Feb 13 '13 at 16:37
"new users are more offended by people editing their contributions than by comments, so we shouldn't do this until they understand the community aspects of content better", the editing process isn't supposed to be halted because the author of a post is new. –  Asad Feb 13 '13 at 16:57
@Asad That's true, but there are new users who are put off by the fact that their posts are edited. Finding ways to help mitigate that issue is at the very least worth discussing. For example, has past experiences shown it to be helpful to also provide a comment, or harmful, or what types of comments are helpful vs. harmful? –  Servy Feb 13 '13 at 16:59
@Servy I'm not saying we shouldn't discuss this, my 2 cents is just that the number of users that are offended by their post being edited for typos/grammar is an overwhelming minority, so a hands-off policy with posts from new users does more harm than good. I have nothing against a comment supplementing an edit (you should always try to explain what your edit accomplishes), but saying we shouldn't edit posts until we're sure the author has acclimatised isn't a good idea. –  Asad Feb 13 '13 at 17:07
@Asad I don't see the OP making such a suggestion... –  Servy Feb 13 '13 at 17:08
@Servy The OP isn't suggesting it, she is asking us to discuss claims that people frequently make regarding this topic. My opinion is that one of those claims is unfounded. –  Asad Feb 13 '13 at 17:09
@Asad It's certainly true that people have made the claim, and I have seen multiple instances of users getting upset when their posts were edited (in an appropriate manor). I agree that it's rare to see someone get upset, and I'm not suggesting new user's posts not be edited, but bringing the issue up for discussion, or asking for ways to decrease the friction involved in such edits is certainly appropriate. –  Servy Feb 13 '13 at 17:11
@Servy Yes; once again, I'm not saying there is anything wrong with the question. It asks the community to discuss several claims, which is what I am doing. –  Asad Feb 13 '13 at 17:12
Negative and positive reinforcement! Oh, wait. We already do that! –  Cole Johnson Feb 13 '13 at 18:47
[ask]- How to Ask. [FAQ]- FAQ. [about] - tour. –  Doorknob 冰 Feb 14 '13 at 13:48
I agree with: "going straight to a downvote is the worst message". But curiously in this post meta.stackexchange.com/questions/132719/… a similar idea was downvoted. I'm confused... –  TheBronx Feb 26 '13 at 10:56

9 Answers 9

up vote 41 down vote accepted

Obviously not all new users are alike, but which of these positions are best supported by what we've seen happen in the past? What is the best way to guide new users whose posts need some work?

As the other answers - and your own experiences - have probably shown you, there is no script for this. The people showing up on your site are not identical automatons, fresh from a factory somewhere, who will react uniformly to identical stimuli.

And frankly, the idea that you should even want to gear your guidance toward new users to maximize conversion is somewhat repulsive to me. Not because instructing new members is at all a bad thing - but because if you make that your primary objective, you run the risk of destroying the standards and practices that make your site worthwhile in the first place!

Consider the advice you've encountered, which suggests that new users should be treated specially by:

  • not leaving feedback
  • not fixing problems
  • fixing problems but not explaining why
  • not rating their contributions honestly

Even if one or more of these strategies "worked", they're all actively harmful to your site. So what if you could "convert" 1000 new members tomorrow - you now have 1000+ new posts that need fixing and rating, and 1000 new members who're about to run face-first into the realization that what they thought was acceptance and recognition of their expertise was actually just a patronizing front put on to lure them back.

And it's bullshit anyway. A couple years ago now, we did some analysis of new user retention on Stack Overflow. Some forms of feedback tended to result in folks coming back more than others, but the single biggest way to keep someone away was to just ignore them. Don't vote - up or down. Don't comment. Don't answer. Don't close. Just... ignore. While you're busy walking on eggshells in fear of offending someone, they're seeing a blank page, an empty inbox, and they're walking away.

I can give you plenty of anecdotes involving folks who reacted badly to very polite comments, or extremely helpful edits. I can also point out folks who reacted badly, rage-quit, and then... Came back and became productive members of the site. But anecdotes don't prove anything, and as I already mentioned you shouldn't be worried about this anyway.

Here's how you guide new users: Lead by example, and treat them with respect. Even if you don't feel like it, even if you don't think they deserve it, even if they react badly to it anyway. If something needs editing, edit it. If something needs down-voting, down-vote it. If something needs critiquing, critique it. Patiently explain why. Answer questions, ask for feedback, stand your ground when you're right, and be willing to admit when you're wrong.

Will this work in all cases? No, absolutely not. Will this even work in the majority of cases? No. But it will work, and if your site has an audience, then it'll work often enough to retain the folks who actually love the topic, care about presenting good, high-quality answers, and are able to understand why y'all are doing things the way you are.

And those are the folks you want to convert.

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"Patiently explain why", sounds good to me. –  Benjol Feb 14 '13 at 6:31
Wow, very good points here about retaining people. –  ɥʇǝS Feb 16 '13 at 19:45

Treat new users like actual people. Understand that they don't understand the site yet, and show a genuine interest in helping them out.

I still remember my first experiences with both SO and Programmers. I thought I understood the sites, but realized later that I had barely scratched the surface of the site's purpose and goals, and had some incorrect assumptions about the sites.

A huge part of why I'm still around now is that some people were nice enough to explain things to me. They treated me like an actual person who simply didn't understand the site, and not like some stupid idiot that was out to waste everyone's time, or that was too lazy to do a Google search.

Here's some things that I see making users feel unwelcome:

  • Downvoting their post with no explanation
  • Closing their question with no explanation
  • Leaving dismissive comments pointing out mistakes, but not educating the user about why it's considered "wrong" or what they can do to fix it
  • Modifying the user's contributions for not-so-obvious mistakes without explaining why the edit was made, and why we have such rules in the first place (i.e. removing "Hi"/"Thanks", removing someone's "rant", etc)
  • Referencing user's post in meta, chat, or comments as "garbage" or "terrible" or other derogatory or sarcastic terms
  • Referencing the user in meta, chat, or comments as "moron", "idiot", "stupid", "troll", etc

The internet is a big place. Why stick around a site that doesn't seem to want you?

And here's some things I seen that often lead to users sticking around:

  • Assume the user is simply uneducated about the site, and not illiterate, stupid, lazy, or trolling.

    How you perceive the user can easily come through with the words you choose to use, and can affect how the user reads your comments. So keep in mind when leaving comments that the user is new and simply don't know the site rules, or even that the site has rules.

  • Assume the best about the user, and not the worst

    For example, don't immediately assume a user's question is a homework question on SO and treat it as such. Instead ask if it's a homework question, and explain why those aren't welcome here. It's much easier to admit to a mistake if someone is giving you the benefit of doubt instead of aggressively accusing you about it.

  • Greet the user at the start of your comment

    It may not seem like much, but it brings a more "human" element to the interaction and leads to a more social "Someone is talking to me" impression instead of "Someone is posting random things on my post". It helps the user take what you are saying more seriously instead of just blowing it off as the words of some random person on the internet who is out to make noise.

    For example, instead of starting your comment with I'm voting to close this because..., say Hi Rachel, I'm voting to close your question because...

  • Explain rules to newbies in comments, and don't just give them links to some huge wall of text and expect them to read it

    Taking the time to explain what the user did wrong is much more welcoming then giving them a link and saying "go read this". I realize it might take a bit of extra time to write an additional sentence, but your return on investment (a contributing user to the site that spends a lot more time on your site than what you took to write a sentence) is worth it.

    For example, saying things like "Read the [FAQ] before posting. Your question is off-topic." is not very welcoming to the user, and can even seem hostile. A better way would be to say something like Hi @NewUser, we are a Q&A site for questions about Foo, and your question about Baz is off-topic here. To learn more about our exact site definition, check out our [FAQ]

    Also if you're sick of writing the same comments repeatedly, I would recommend checking out the Pro-forma comments Script that allows you to easily add a pre-built comment into the comment box, and modify them before posting.

  • Leave a detailed edit notice (or comment) directed specifically at them when editing their posts.

    It's easy to get offended when someone changes what you say, so explaining the purpose of the edit so they can understand why it was made goes a huge way towards preventing an emotional reaction to the edit, and helping them understand the site better.

    Be descriptive in your explanation too. For example, don't just say Removed signature as that doesn't explain anything to them, but instead say something like Removed signature because we want all the content in the question to be relevant to the problem so users don't have to scroll through extra content. For more information see http://meta.stackexchange.com/a/3021/158605

  • Don't be dismissive

    If you want to comment just to point out something wrong with a post and never see the question again, refrain from commenting altogether. These comments can be very unwelcoming to a new user, and it's easy to take them as rude or elitist. So don't comment unless you're actually interested in personally helping the user understand their mistake so they can avoid making the same mistake in the future.

  • Don't call them or their posts names when you're talking to other users about them

    Chances are, that user will come across your post, comment, or perhaps even chat message, and who wants to stick around on a site where you or your contributions are not welcome? I know I've come across meta posts, comments, and even chat messages that have referenced me or my posts, sometimes years after the remark was made. Sure my first posts were bad, but hey I was new and didn't know any better :)

  • Be a bit more lenient when voting on meta posts by new meta users

    Many users don't understand that voting on meta is different, and it comes as a bit of a shock when their meta questions get 10x more downvotes than anything they've ever gotten before on the main site. Sure downvote the post if it's bad, but if there's already a lot of downvotes there, you really don't need to add your own as well.

  • Don't support this behavior by others by upvoting their comments

    One comment perceived as rude or unwelcome usually isn't enough to drive someone away from the site, but seeing that comment get upvoted gives the impression that the site's community agrees with it and are the same way. If you see a comment that may be considered unwelcome but that is factually accurate, don't be afraid to repost the same thing in different words using a friendlier tone.

    I know I've sometimes left comments like Hi UserName, like @SomeRudeUser said, your question is considered off-topic for our site because blah blah blah

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"ask if it's a homework question, and explain why those aren't welcome here"...what site are your referring to here? –  Bart Feb 13 '13 at 19:33
@Bart Sorry I should have specified. I was thinking of SO and Programmers at the time I wrote that, as I have often seen people automatically assume some questions are homework questions, and leave unfriendly comments. In at least one case I can think of, this assumption turned out to be incorrect, and I don't believe I ever saw that user again. –  Rachel Feb 13 '13 at 19:42
This is anecdotal, but I've noticed if I explain the bigger picture of why we close questions when voting to close a specific question, the question asker seems to take it better. They're still unhappy, but I see far fewer angry retorts than when people just say "it's off topic" or "not constructive". –  Troyen Feb 14 '13 at 1:21
This is high grade canonical-answer quality. Shameless plug: writing these comments is work, but you can make it easier for yourself! ;) –  Benjol Feb 14 '13 at 6:25
I knew I'd be voting this post up from the very first sentence: "Treat new users like actual people". Many thanks for taking the time to write this Rachel, it is very helpful indeed. –  Jack Douglas Feb 14 '13 at 10:59
Thanks @Benjol I've updated my answer to include a link to that script. –  Rachel Feb 14 '13 at 13:47
Thank You Very Much greAt answer –  Adel Feb 17 '13 at 0:22
"So keep in mind when leaving comments that the user is new and simply don't know the site rules, or even that the site has rules" A user who doesn't make any attempt at following the rules, even a cursory one, is likely to be a spectacularly low return on any investment you make. To me, this advice only applies to users who are getting close and put in some effort. Are they trying to fit in? Or are they Pee-Wee Herman in a biker bar? blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/11/the-pee-wee-herman-rule –  Jeff Atwood Mar 13 '13 at 7:56
@JeffAtwood To me, this advice applies to everyone, not just specific individuals that I deem "worthy" enough to be treated decently. I was once one of those new people that had no clue the site had rules, so I can relate. The world is a big place, and I try to treat everyone equally. –  Rachel Mar 13 '13 at 12:13
@rachel that's a noble goal, but I try to spend most of my time with people that reciprocate my effort. I have a limited amount of time before I am dead forever, and I prefer to spend that time interacting with those who make some reasonable attempt to meet me half way. –  Jeff Atwood Mar 13 '13 at 23:08
@Rachel I like the address them by name idea... but do you do that with everyone, including those named user######? –  psubsee2003 Mar 29 '13 at 0:16
@psubsee2003 Sometimes I do, but other times I just leave it at "Hello". I guess it depends on my level of laziness that day and if @user[Tab] autocompletes their name or not :) –  Rachel Mar 29 '13 at 11:54

In order to answer this, you would need a way to divide the giant bucket of "questions asked by new users" into three piles:

  • Drive-by questions from users who haven't put any thought into it, haven't "joined up" in any meaningful sense, and just braindumped into the Ask Question page
  • First questions asked by those who are joining and will learn even if they get a rough start
  • First questions asked by those who will only become "productive citizens" if they get the right kind of treatment off the bat

At a wild guess I would say 50%, 40%, and 10% are reasonable approximations for those buckets on Stack Overflow. Perhaps on smaller communities they are different.

The first bucket, it doesn't matter how the user feels because they're not coming back. Edit if you can, comment, close, downvote, delete - whatever! This interaction is only about the question, not the user.

For the second bucket it matters, but again it's more about the question than the user so focus on that.

The third bucket (which is hard to spot) is about the user. In order of nicest to meanest you can:

  • Edit for grammar and spelling, and for our style (for example, remove rambling backgrounds and promises to appreciate help)
  • Leave comments asking the user to edit for missing information (what language are you programming in, what country are you planning to visit, what kind of cheese is it)
  • Leave comments that ask questions, but don't explain the mechanics of how to answer them
  • Leave comments that the question can't be answered because information is missing
  • Downvote
  • Vote to close (VTC) as Not constructive (NC), Not a real question NARQ, Too localised (TL), etc. - all of which are kind of code for "you suck"
  • Leave comments complaining about the user's laziness or selfishness
  • Attempt to link to LMGTFY, or ask if they've searched, etc.
  • Vote to delete (VTD)

In this bucket I try to stay as close to the top of the list as possible. But you can't always tell who you're dealing with. The other buckets are much larger and VTC and VTD are usually the right thing to do.

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Thanks! How much of this changes for new-user answers as opposed to questions? –  Monica Cellio Feb 13 '13 at 17:06
Good question @MonicaCellio! Drive by answers are rarer. Still the group that will improve if treated nicely, and leave or fail to improve if treated harshly is, I think, a minority. I would leave the actions in the same order but add "flag as not an answer" instead of VTC or VTD. I would comment on a link-only answer explaining why it needs to be improved, also. The nice way of dealing with a bad answer is to comment, then wait 2-24 hours before flagging in case the user improves it. That takes great patience - I do it on some small beta sites –  Kate Gregory Feb 13 '13 at 17:13

I strongly suspect that Monica's post is a reflection of her experience on the hermenuetics site. That site is a very unusual beast in comparison to the much of the rest of the network. To say that it's not much like Stack Overflow is a wild understatement. Its close relatives are the various sites with particular religions as audiences.

On the one hand, the site is collecting new people slowly. On the other hand, the few new people who show up tend to need a bit of help in aligning themselves with the intended norms of the community. So, the tradeoff is more piquant here than it might be elsewhere -- the community wants to grow. The community needs to channel new contributors to avoid becoming a secondary echo of the Christianity site. (In practical terms, the majority of the new visitors, by a long chalk, come from a Christian background.) The community has been slow to attract people from 'expert' community, for at least one definition of 'expert' (academics in Near Eastern Languages and Culture).

If anyone is expecting me to turn all this into an 'answer' with actual advice, I'm afraid that they are in for a disappointment. This post is a discussion contribution to help others understand the situation and tune contributions accordingly.

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The question arises out of the Hermeneutics site, yes, but I suspect the problem is more general which is why I asked here. Hermeneutics is one of several sites that will tend to attract users who have an opinion about a question and want to share it, hence my question about the back-it-up principle. BH, The Workplace, and probably several others attract users who need extra guidance on how to participate constructively, and there have been different opinions on the BH meta about how to handle this. Hence my search for broader perspective. –  Monica Cellio Feb 17 '13 at 1:52
+1 I thought I recognized that gravatar ;) –  Jack Douglas Feb 27 '13 at 17:24

Personally, I edit their post to fit, then post a comment about what they need to look at in the future (formatting, code blocks, actually asking a question, using me, and being clear). I always ask for them to post code if the question relies on code, and try to not criticize too hard, as they are new and probably have no frame of reference (or haven't looked at any yet).

Although I cut them a little slack because they are new, I still hold them to a general professional standard of grammar.

And if you have a different action than mine, then use yours. There is no "one size fits all" when it comes to criticism.

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I'd like to chime in here and mention that the issue of editing a new user's post can definitely be a negative experience for any user. It all depends on what exactly is "edited" .

  • Fixing grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitals.
    This is 100% fine and is encouraged all the way. No one is going to complain that you crossed their t's and dotted their i's. Most of these things should have been caught in a proof read but the global scale of these sites means that people are not necessarily coming from English speaking countries.

  • Code formatting. I guess this one is mostly aimed towards SOFU.
    This is also a positive thing. The grey area here is why there were formatting problems to start with. Bad coding style, being oblivious to markdown , not knowing the Ctrl+k shortcut... Ignoring the fact that this might come from outright laziness, the end result will be beneficial for all parties.

  • Signatures/sign off's, redundant tag specifications, ramblings, l33t jibber-jabber (I like to think that doesn't happen elsewhere) and all other "noise"
    Here is where the problems begin. This is where any user, new or veteran, has the potential to be outraged by what they believe to be a detrimental edit to their master piece!

If you are making edits related to my 3rd bullet - you really should add a comment explaining the reasoning behind the changes. Feel free to make these types of comments explaining other peoples edits too. How to phrase the comment and what exactly to say is a different discussion though.

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One concrete improvement that could be made is a way (perhaps using a flag?) to add a standard, friendlier version of the ubiquitous "What have you tried?" comment to questions that don't detail what they have tried - perhaps with a link to information about writing a good question.

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For a developer who is not active on forums or newsgroups, the Stack Overflow experience can be very humbling. You might have thought of yourself as a great developer, but on Stack Overflow, you're just average.

So it's easy for a new user to take an edit or a downvote as something personal. Therefore, I think that if someone is at making a good effort, you should welcome them. Use downvoting or edits sparingly. If you do, explain yourself along with a token of welcome.

A bad way to welcome a new user is to correct them right from the bat. The worst way to welcome a new user is to close their question. Instead, lead by example and let them grow.

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while it may be the worst way to welcome that user, it may be the best thing for the site. And remember, closing isn't deleting. It's pressing pause while the question is edited. –  Kate Gregory Feb 23 '13 at 22:04

I was thinking about it a couple of days back and in addition to the answers and comments above (about treating new people like people and showing them how to ask questions instead of closing or down voting), I think it could be a great idea to go through a wizard style registration with easy to read points on how to ask good questions, etc. (keeping in mind that it should be easy enough and not a 100 step wizard)

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