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I read this question today and the top voted answer said this:

I understand now. You've mistaken Stack Overflow for a help site.

Stack Overflow is a knowledge database that uses the question and answer format as a means of categorizing knowledge. If you ask a question, it's likely that someone else will ask something similar enough to it that Google will lead them to that question. And therefore, they will be lead to the answer. Thus, knowledge will be properly transmitted.

That got me thinking about some questions I've read / helped with recently. For example, this question. The question is not phrased in a way that will ever be useful to a future user. Additionally, someone who is having a similar problem will not find it via a Google or a Stack Overflow search. For example:

As an exercise to yourself, see if you can make that question come up without typing "codingbat" or the numbers 10 or 20. I was able to do it, but only by copying and pasting a portion of the question: "positive int values, return the larger value [java]"... and it was the 12th result. If you add "Given the" it becomes the first result, but my point still holds, such a question is nearly useless to future users, unless they're doing THAT CodingBat question. So really the question should be closed as "too localized"... except it's not really, because it could be useful if it was tagged / phrased in a more productive way.

So, what should be done? Some options:

  • Do nothing: If people want to help a user with a question that probably won't help any future users, go ahead, even though it isn't the main focus of Stack Overflow
  • Change the goal: Redefine Stack Overflow as a help site as part of it's mission statement
  • Add a new Stack Exchange site: One for people asking for help for too localized questions but aren't complete enough for the Code Review SE
  • Increase enforcement: Somehow change the culture to start policing these kinds of questions more?

I put do nothing first, because I understand that I might be seeing a problem where there isn't one. Am I seeing ghosts, or is there actually something haunted in the closet?

share|improve this question
A question like the one you linked might possibly be closed as "too localized". That said, keep in mind that a site of the size of SO will never be a perfect reflection of its own mission statement. – Bart May 7 '13 at 19:21
Don't forget that SO is a community Q&A site. You can increase the quality standards all you want, but if you don't communicate that change to the community and have it accepted by them, all you're going to end up doing is driving your users away. And they are the people that actually populate your site with content. – Rachel May 7 '13 at 19:39
question mark in the title doesn't feel right; it would better be exclamation "Question quality standards are not harsh enough!" – gnat May 7 '13 at 21:50
A couple of points. First, in addition to not being a help site, SE is not a library of tutorials. Some people ask questions that reveal that they have not learned the fundamentals about the subject they are embarking on. Database design attracts a lot of people who want to bootstrap their way up by trial&error or Q&A instead of learning the fundamentals. Second, people who don't know the answer often don't know the right way to phrase the question. questions are about ignorance (no pejorative intended). Ignorance obscures clarity. – Walter Mitty May 14 '13 at 10:43
up vote 15 down vote accepted

Your Google searches reflect the bias of someone who knows the answer. Someone to whom the words "max" and "range" occur in formulating the question will be well served by anything at all they find, including but not limited to SO questions. But people don't all know those words or think that way. They will search using non jargon words like "largest" and "number" or with the words from the exercise they are trying. Either way, they'll bump into these less-formally worded questions.

One of the hardest lessons for software developers is Your users are not like you. It is true here too. You came across a question that doesn't reveal itself using your search words. That in and of itself doesn't mean it's a low quality question. It's rich in words that beginners will use, and it has answers that help beginners. Not a problem. The title, however, is crappy and I think I will go and edit it now.

share|improve this answer
They might even search for codingbat. – Robert Harvey May 7 '13 at 19:32
In fact, I Googled "Codingbat larger value" just before Kate modified the title. Seems a logical search based on the problem statement. And guess what... second answer was the SO post. – Bart May 7 '13 at 19:38
@Bart That's if they're looking for answers to that puzzle problem – durron597 May 7 '13 at 20:10
@durron597 Sure. Which doesn't seem all that far fetched of an idea. You should see the number of project Euler posts. – Bart May 7 '13 at 20:11
By the way, I completely agree that it's not a low quality question - except maybe in the choice of title - that's why I answered it. I just thought it wasn't useful to future users (in its old form), and that's what inspired this question. – durron597 May 7 '13 at 20:24

If I understand your question correctly, your "feature request" is to blacklist CodingBat? :)

Seriously, though, I have no problem with questions that discuss coding exercises. While they are a bit localized, so are most questions that are asked on Stack Overflow nowadays.

YOU: How do I foo the bar?

ME: What have you tried?

YOU: I wrote this code, but it didn't work.

ME: You forgot the equals sign.

YOU: Oh.

The Stack Overflow community prefers demonstration of effort over broad applicability of questions, and the example question you linked satisfies that metric.

share|improve this answer
That last sentence is what I was looking for, though I'd love to hear more thoughts before I checkmark anything – durron597 May 7 '13 at 19:25

They say that SO (and all the siblings derived therefrom) is built around gamification.

Boy, if that is true, then it is the worst online game evar.

Every game I have played (all three of them, Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, Pacman and Super Mario driving cars on a Nintendo for 4-year olds, so I have broad experience in the subject) have featured the concept of levels.

I suspect you, dear reader, also have experience in the field - but to summarise, when you set out in a normal game, you get an easy level to start with. Few obstacles, few enemies and you are asked to perform relatively easy tasks.

As you progress to higher levels, all of this will become more difficult; more enemies (who are more powerful, too), more difficult tasks, and the environment gets more difficult to navigate. The game gets more and more difficult to play.

SO turns this traditional gaming ethos on its head. When you sign up for SO and define your persona, you are hurdled directly into a maelstrom of sharks with more powerful weapons than yours (they can downvote you, they can close vote your question, they can even post comments on other peoples' posts) and they won't hesitate to use them. Your only real weapon is your knowledge and eloquence, but your enemies often have even more of that, too.

If you survive the initial phase then you will also gain these powers, step by step. You get more powers and a better understanding of the game - while your co-players to a large degree will be newcomers, and hence not worth much as adversaries or opponents. The game gets easier to play as you progress.

So maybe a solution could be to take the gamification aspect seriously and make sure that newcomers are playing at level 1 where the tasks are simpler (less stringent demands for both questions and answers) and the enemies (aka "the community") don't have as powerful weapons, or can't use them as often.

Of course, as users advance through the levels, they will end up meeting the community at its full force - but by being introduced gradually they should be better prepared.

share|improve this answer
And how would we uphold the desired level of quality? That seems to be thrown out of the window with what you propose. – Bart May 7 '13 at 20:44
@Bart That is true. I am not sure it is a problem, as long as it stays within the community. A typical newcomer question is pretty localized, so if it doesn't show up in Google, then I am not sure many people will miss it. Of course, systems will be needed (akin to badges) to ensure that before people "advance" to the next level they know how to make a decent post. Otherwise they will just have to stay at the level where they are. – Monolo May 7 '13 at 20:50
The only problem with your theory is that new users who ask ill-formed, under-specified questions: 1) Have a disproproportionate effect on the community as a whole, and 2) Are unlikely to get better. New users with knowledge and eloquence seldom have a problem adapting to the community's standards, regardless of the supposed presence of powerful weapons. – Robert Harvey May 7 '13 at 23:11
@RobertHarvey First off, if the "analysis" presented here were a piece academic work, it certainly would not be ready for publication just yet, so all comments welcome :-) That said, to your point 1) I actually believe that providing some sort of entry-level area with fewer demands would lower the negative effect on "the community as a whole", for the simple reason that it would be somewhat protected from the rest of the community (and vice versa). Which leads to your point 2) yes, there has to be a way to ensure that people have the adequate skills before they advance. More work needed here! – Monolo May 9 '13 at 8:42

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