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Off topic questions hurt the SO knowledge base, generate resentment, and are a complete waste of a moderator's time. Take this post for example:

http://stackoverflow.com/questions/11319965/virtualbox-usb-device-with-uuid-is-busy-and-can-not-attach-usb-device-on-guest

I ran into this issue yesterday after doing a Google search. I had a very similar Virtual Box problem for a non-Ubuntu guest OS. The post was closed as off topic, presumably because it relates to Ubuntu yet was posted in Stack Overflow which is for programming. But because it was closed, the best answer didn’t rise to the top. A user like myself (or the 6,887 other people that viewed that post) had to sort through the comments for the answer. The closure of this question and all closures like it hurt the SO knowledge base by converting answers into comments. This violates a basic tenant of what I thought Stack Overflow stood for. Closed posts are no longer Q&A. They might as well be on Experts Exchange!

This isn’t a one-off example. I find numerous of these types of questions every day. I’ve started finding more closed questions in my day to day usage of SO than open ones! Sadly, even if we were to re-open all of these questions immediately the damage has already been done because answers are now hidden in comments.

Now one might argue that Off Topic posts are detrimental to the community because knowledgeable people won’t find the question in order to answer it. Maybe, but this post had plenty of relevant tags associated with it that people watch. People found it. People answered it. Ultimately this post contained the answer I needed. And if it had been in Ubuntu I would have been less likely to find it (since my problem was with a different guest OS). So how much harm was really done in the migration? Very little if any. Was closing it the appropriate response? No, perhaps a kindly moderator could have simply migrate it rather than closing it. It certainly would have been a better use of the moderator's time.

I talked to moderator George Stocker on twitter about this and he said migration of older posts has been disabled because of this policy change from a year ago Disable migration for questions older than 60 days which says migrations amounts to paper shuffling and is a waste of time. I tend to agree, although primarily because changing URL’s would hurt SEO, which is how I typically find content. My fear, however is that this policy change has prompted countless “Off Topic” closings rather than migrations, and done significant harm to SO’s content. So one solution might be to reverse this policy change. But as I’ll cover later that’s not the best solution.

One could argue that off topic posts are detrimental to users because information consumers won't find the content they're looking for. In other words I wouldn’t have found my virtualization post above. Now that’s just complete BS. The vast majority of consumers (like myself) use Google and don't give a rats ass which site a post lives in. And we don't care because “Off Topic” amounts to a categorization error. It’s like someone attached the wrong tag. Does it make sense to close questions because someone attached the wrong tag? Absolutely not. It's bureaucracy and red tape and everything I would expect out of old school forums not the enlightened Q&A forum that the SO founders envisioned.

My final point is that closing posts creates negative energy and hard feelings and resentment towards Stack Overflow. I have seen this in my office. At least three people at my company have had posts closed on them and they now have negative feelings toward SO. Moderator that close posts come off as being jerks, no matter how well meaning they may be. Having a question closed on you feels like a rejection from the leadership at Stack Overflow. Most of us (the silent masses) mistakenly believe that SO is a site for programmers. It’s a subtle distinction, and one I’ve only recently realized, that the site is actually for programming topics. But the misconception is widespread enough that it might as well be true that the site is for programmers (in which case my post above would be on topic). So let’s let it be for programmers and allow us programmers to use the tag system for how we categorize rather than some binning at the Stack Exchange level that we don’t understand or frankly want to understand. Recategorize our posts if it will help you sleep at night. In exchange I assure we will not add posts related to knitting, parenthood, basketweaving, or whatever other non-programming content SE may currently be doing.

So let’s keep SO a positive place. Let’s re-route the moderator energy applied to closing posts toward either recategorizing posts quickly, or if it’s been a while just ignoring them and spend that time being constructive, answering questions, and actually helping people. And in addition to removing the off topic category let’s re-open all off topic closed posts immediately. Enough harm has already been done. Let’s allow the community to start repairing the damage.

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closed as not constructive by Diago, Martijn Pieters, PeeHaa, Toon Krijthe, hims056 Mar 18 '13 at 14:45

As it currently stands, this question is not a good fit for our Q&A format. We expect answers to be supported by facts, references, or expertise, but this question will likely solicit debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion. If you feel that this question can be improved and possibly reopened, visit the help center for guidance.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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You forgot to ask to undelete everything as well. Seriously now: if something was closed it was closed for a reason. If you have specific questions in mind that should be reopened post links or flag them. –  Shadow Wizard Mar 18 '13 at 13:44
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Interesting ideas. But some questions really are off-topic for SO, for example, what if I ask about the difference between a perl and normal knit stitch? It would completely confuse people following the perl tag, but it could be a completely constructive question, for another site. –  Richard J. Ross III Mar 18 '13 at 13:45
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@ShaWizDowArd on the other hand, we do have people closing questions for the hell of it on popular questions linked at other sites. It doesn't always have to have a reason for being closed, I've even occasionally seen a mod close a completely on-topic question on a whim, as he didn't understand the question that was being asked! –  Richard J. Ross III Mar 18 '13 at 13:46
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I have to admit, I started spacing out around the fourth or fifth paragraph. –  LittleBobbyTables Mar 18 '13 at 13:48
    
@Richard may be so, but those should be addressed one by one; reopening ALL questions is really really bad idea. –  Shadow Wizard Mar 18 '13 at 13:50
    
@ShaWizDowArd I agree entirely. I just like to play devil's advocate occasionally. –  Richard J. Ross III Mar 18 '13 at 13:50
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Closing something because it is "off topic" (according to an arbitrary categorization) does not mean the question is invalid. –  marlhammer Mar 18 '13 at 13:51
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@marlhammer well...yes, it does, in the sense that it's invalid for that site. It doesn't really matter how "valid" it is by any other measure. If it's not fit for the site, it shouldn't be on the site. The best Physics question in the world is still completely off topic on a programming site. –  Ben Brocka Mar 18 '13 at 14:24
    
@BenBrocka In that case I think questions should be deleted not closed. As mentioned elsewhere on this page people get here via Google and they don't care what site it's on. If I post a question about knitting and it gets closed it still exists on SO. –  joeferner Mar 18 '13 at 14:32
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@joeferner: You can't delete a question that isn't closed. The moderator probably left the question undeleted so that the OP could see it and ask it on an appropriate site. –  Nicol Bolas Mar 18 '13 at 14:35
    
@BenBrocka. I think this is a case where SO is concerned with maintaining a distinction that most user's don't care about. I come to SO from Google. I don't care how SO categorizes your pages, I do not access SO content that way. I care about finding the answer to the question my search results hit. –  marlhammer Mar 18 '13 at 14:47
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@marlhammer If people stopped answering programming questions because they were impossible to find among questions on all other topics, most users would start caring pretty fast. –  Bill the Lizard Mar 18 '13 at 14:52
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@LittleBobbyTables I couldn't get past the title. –  Grant Thomas Mar 18 '13 at 16:46
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2 Answers

The closure of this question and all closures like it hurt the SO knowledge base by converting answers into comments.

You're right. A moderator should delete those comments.

Off-topic questions are closed because they're off topic. They are not what Stack Overflow exists to support, promote, or handle. By leaving them open, you're saying that it's OK to ask anything on SO, whether it's related to programming or not.

Now one might argue that Off Topic posts are detrimental to the community because knowledgeable people won’t find the question in order to answer it.

One could argue that off topic posts are detrimental to users because information consumers won't find the content they're looking for. In other words I wouldn’t have found my virtualization post above.

It's detrimental to the community because the community is not about answering any question. It's about answering programming questions. It'd be like calling up customer service for your ISP and asking about the weather; even if they answer you correctly, you're dialing the wrong number to get that answer.

In order to provide disincentives to asking off-topic questions, we shut them down.

My final point is that closing posts creates negative energy and hard feelings and resentment towards Stack Overflow. I have seen this in my office. At least three people at my company have had posts closed on them and they now have negative feelings toward SO.

Then our work here is done ;)

Positive energy is created through positive contributions. Negative energy is created through negative contributions. Garbage in, garbage out. In a proper community, those who adhere to that community's standards are readily accepted, and those who go against them are rejected until they accept those standards or move on.

This is exactly as it should be.

Most of us (the silent masses) mistakenly believe that SO is a site for programmers. It’s a subtle distinction, and one I’ve only recently realized, that the site is actually for programming topics. But the misconception is widespread enough that it might as well be true that the site is for programmers

If you misunderstand what the site is (and I refuse to believe in your "silent masses" who agree with you. Just because you know a couple of people who agree doesn't make them "masses"), then that indicates either a problem with you or a problem with our marketing. That does not mean we should conform to your misunderstood view of the site.

If such a misunderstanding exists, we should work to resolve that by making it more clear what the site is for. We should not abandon what we're about because some people don't get it.

In exchange I assure we will not add posts related to knitting, parenthood, basketweaving, or whatever other non-programming content SE may currently be doing.

Now you're just contradicting yourself. Programmers are perfectly capable of doing knitting, making baskets, engaging in procreative acts, and other "non-programming" activities. If this were just a site for programmers to ask arbitrary questions of other programmers, then these questions would have to be on-topic, because any programmer could also have these as part of their lives.

So let’s keep SO a positive place.

SO is a positive and inclusive place. It just doesn't include what you want it to.

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An excellent, well-thought answer to a question that... well... wasn't. –  LittleBobbyTables Mar 18 '13 at 14:08
    
You're definitely wrong about the silent masses. Questions on Meta are just the tip of the iceberg. –  Lance Roberts Mar 18 '13 at 14:19
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@LanceRoberts Even it that's the case, and there really are silent masses, then they should become....well....not silent. But saying that you speak on behalf of silent masses is an old (useless) trick to be honest. –  Bart Mar 18 '13 at 14:29
    
@Bart, It's hard to prove for sure, but based on the constant questions that come up with the small percentage of people who actually participate in Meta, I think there are some grounds for it. –  Lance Roberts Mar 18 '13 at 14:32
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@LanceRoberts: There are certainly a lot of people who don't participate on MSO. But the claim that he is speaking for them is dubious at best, manipulative rhetoric intended to inappropriately boost his claims at worst. It's easy to claim a "silent majority" and then suddenly speak for them. It's a lot harder to prove it. –  Nicol Bolas Mar 18 '13 at 14:34
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@LanceRoberts Sure. I won't doubt that there are large parts of the community, not participating on MSO, who have entirely different ideas of the direction this site should take. Whether or not I agree with them is besides the point. But you can't sit quietly on the sideline and then complain you're not heard. And anyone claiming to be the voice of this part of the community better come with proof. –  Bart Mar 18 '13 at 14:37
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You're right that answers that give the answer shouldn't be converted to comments, that's just wrong. I don't know if that's what actually happened here, since there is no way for non-mods to track it.

Your one really valid point is that a lot of people get here by Google, and so they don't care about where they end up, they just want the answer to their question. It has been officially stated in the past that the site wants people to find us through Google.

Having said that, the Q&A format that has been developed here is only good for technical questions. The question you linked to is technical so it fits the format, it's just on the wrong site (should have been on Super User). The reason you need to segregate questions by site is because of sheer numbers, sites like this can only scale so well before you experience degradation.

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Thank you for understanding what I was trying to say. I wasn't aware of the scaling issues. .. so given that my solution wasn't well received, do you have any suggestions for how to resolve the problem? –  Lee Richardson Mar 18 '13 at 14:28
    
As far as the specific question, I flagged it to be migrated to Super User, but not sure if they'll actually do that. In general, any specific ideas you come up with for closing and migration would be good. You'll probably have to mess around on the site for a while to understand some of the problems though. –  Lance Roberts Mar 18 '13 at 14:39
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@LanceRoberts Deleted answers converted to comments will still show as a deleted answer for anyone with 10k rep, so those comments did not start as answers. –  JNK Mar 18 '13 at 14:53
    
You should ask the question yourself on the right site, and if you think the comments add up to a useful answer you could use them to help you write an answer on the right site. Eventually Googlers will find your question on the right site and the internet will be a little less wrong. –  Kate Gregory Mar 18 '13 at 17:43
    
You could also add a comment to the closed question saying "This didn't belong here, it has been reasked on <whatever>" and providing a link. That will lead the Googlers to the right place and help them. People are likely to upvote your comment bubbling it above the other comments. –  Kate Gregory Mar 18 '13 at 17:45
    
@JNK, thanks, not quite 10k on SO yet –  Lance Roberts Mar 18 '13 at 17:50
    
@KateGregory, I agree. –  Lance Roberts Mar 18 '13 at 17:51
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