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A related question/discussion point to this one posted just now, but with a completely different rationale.

Whenever a question is closed because it doesn't contain SSCCE, or specific code, it also gets marked as "off-topic". I would argue that this is confusing, especially to new users, since they see "off-topic" in prominent font, and then the actual reason of the hold/close.

Off-topic has a quite specific meaning,

Not related to the matter under discussion...

which I don't think the following two points fit into:

  • "Questions concerning problems with code you've written must describe the specific problem — and include valid code to reproduce it — in the question itself. See SSCCE.org for guidance. " (how is not posting your code "off-topic", especially when the inquirer indicated that such code exists?)

  • Questions asking for code must demonstrate a minimal understanding of the problem being solved. Include attempted solutions, why they didn't work, and the expected results. See also: Stack Overflow question checklist (how is not demonstrating minimal understanding of the subject matter "off-topic"?)

Shouldn't those two sub-cases be in another category, like "not enough information"?

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Blame the site specific custom close reasons. All of them are grouped under "off topic" despite the fact that several of them (at least on SO) are not really off topic just lacking. –  psubsee2003 Aug 6 '13 at 12:41
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Yes, they should be sub-items of "unclear what you're asking". –  Cody Gray Aug 6 '13 at 12:43
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@psubee2003: I'm not sure if I understand: do all site-specific reasons have to be grouped under "off topic"? Is that a system limitation? Shouldn't the system be changed then? –  TheTerribleSwiftTomato Aug 6 '13 at 12:46
    
to me, anything that site faq (aka help center) explicitly states as not being welcome, qualifies as off-topic. As an example, at Programmers, there are 7 categories listed as such: "not about..." –  gnat Aug 6 '13 at 12:46
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"off-topic" should be renamed to "site-specific close reasons" IMO –  Jan Dvorak Aug 6 '13 at 12:47
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@gnat: to you, maybe, yes, but you're acquainted with the terminology already. To others, it might unnecessarily "make them think", due to the specific meaning of "off-topic". –  TheTerribleSwiftTomato Aug 6 '13 at 12:47
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@TheTerribleSwiftTomato unnecessarily "make them think" sounds like an oxymoron at the sites devoted to thinking, asking questins and answering them. These 7 items are written by blood, sweat and tears of multiple askers and answerers, so "not about" for them unambiguously means off-topic –  gnat Aug 6 '13 at 12:50
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I do agree with @gnat though. Since those reasons indiciate issues that don't comply with the help center, they are off topic, but I think it can be confusing for someone, especially if there is a language barrier. –  psubsee2003 Aug 6 '13 at 12:51
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It's definitely confusing. That Stack Overflow is a programming Q&A site is quite obvious. So the obvious conclusion when you see a question closed as "off topic" is that it does not relate to programming. That's not the case, though, it just doesn't fit into our guidelines of an acceptable question. Heck, I'm a regular participant on Meta and a native English speaker, and I find it silly and confusing. –  Cody Gray Aug 6 '13 at 12:56
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@TheTerribleSwiftTomato to me, as a Programmers close-voter, there is no slowdown when I see familiar topics-to-avoid listed in off-topic reasons. Though... your reasoning makes a good food for thought anyway (upvoted for that). Even if your request gets declined, hope it will get a well thought out reason for that, that would make at least as good food for thought –  gnat Aug 6 '13 at 13:12
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I think there's a big difference between the Programmers "off-topic" reasons and some of the ones on Stack Overflow (e.g. the two highlighted in this very question). The choices on Programmers do seem logically off-topic to me. @gnat –  Cody Gray Aug 6 '13 at 13:13
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if the common point of the off-topic reasons it not complying to the guidelines in the help center, why not say so? Violates question guidelines, specifically ... –  kleopatra Aug 6 '13 at 13:18
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I'm actually surprised that this hasn't already been changed by now. I honestly don't understand why there is any opposition to clearing up this language. –  Ben Lee Aug 8 '13 at 19:16
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9 Answers 9

History

Over time, some close reasons that were carefully named came to be re-interpreted, and ultimately, misused.

Example: Too Localized.

Other carefully-chosen names repeatedly caused conflict due to the difference between the everyday meaning of the word and the Stack Exchange meaning of the word.

Example: Not constructive.
(To clarify, most people think this means being over-critical, whereas SE used it to mean open-to-debate, or even just having too large a number of OK possible answers.)

Solution: New, shiny close reasons that describe the actual reason.

Example: Primarily opinion-based.

What we should learn from history

Name your close reason with words that describe clearly to a newcomer what's wrong. Avoid redefining an everyday term such as constructive or on-topic. If it takes a paragraph to explain why not including code should be described as off-topic, it means you're not using language the same way as everyone else does.

(To clarify, most people think this means you've changed the subject matter to be something irrelevant, whereas Stack Exchange is now using it to mean that the question falls foul of one of the site's rules about what questions should be like.)

What should we do?

The best solution is simply to ditch the phrase off-topic, and use the actual close reason or a summary thereof when talking to users, and in the close dialog, group them as "site-specific reasons" instead of "off-topic".

Example: replace phrases like "closed as off topic: .... gave the reason .... should contain code" with "closed as bug not containing code".

That'll take too much time. Is there a simple, easy fix?

Yes, just find-and-replace the phrase off-topic with one that doesn't have a different meaning to what you're saying.

Examples:

  • inadmissible
  • doesn't meet community guidelines
  • doesn't meet community standards
  • against site guidelines
  • breaks a site rule
  • not permitted
  • etc... etc....

The key thing is to say what you mean, directly.

If you can just simply replace "off-topic" with "inadmissible" or similar, why hasn't it happened yet?

The people who can change it are also the people who have been calling it off-topic for the longest, and are most familiar with the reasoning that led to the label off-topic. The more experience you have with the phrase, the less you see it as a jarring misnomer, and the more you think it's normal.

Act now before we all forget what off-topic means to the rest of the world!

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I still don't see anything here that is a significant improvement over off-topic. The meaning of "off-topic" is not as cryptic as you make it out to be; it simply means that the question falls outside of the site scope. The reasons why are clearly explained in the close banners. –  Robert Harvey Aug 6 '13 at 19:13
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@RobertHarvey for a newcomer who just got their first question closed (and preferably downvoted), a lot of things might seem cryptic I am afraid. MSO regulars with quick skin are free to believe otherwise, the question is how close are their beliefs to perception of er target audience of the closure –  gnat Aug 6 '13 at 19:49
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@RobertHarvey No, off-topic means content that is about something that is irrelevant to the site's subject matter, to everyone except people who have got used to lumping other stuff in there. It does not mean how you ask, it means what you're asking about. The only reason you think it's clear is that you're used to it. I didn't say it was cryptic, I said it was a misnomer. The significant difference in all the phrases I've suggested is that they're accurate and consistent with normal usage of English. –  AndrewC Aug 6 '13 at 22:20
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@AndrewC, here's your 100-point bounty back at ya. It addresses the same thing you gave me the bounty for originally, but this is stated better and posted on a more appropriate question. –  Ben Lee Aug 12 '13 at 4:13
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@AndrewC, thank you so much for this answer. My satisfaction in reading your cogent analysis and suggestion is matched only by my mystification at the defense of the current system. –  Peter Alfvin Aug 16 '13 at 15:05
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@PeterAlfvin: I have no problem with the idea in principle, but any new feature or bug fix would have to demonstrate that there is benefit greater than the effort required to fix it, over and above the effort required to re-educate the people who already know and understand what "off-topic" means within the context of Stack Overflow. Nobody here has demonstrated that this change will make any difference at all to new users, and my experience with new users leads me to believe that it will not make any difference. –  Robert Harvey Aug 16 '13 at 19:15
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@RobertHarvey - I'm not sure I'm up for trying to convince you if all these comments and votes haven't convinced you, but I'll give it a try. First, can you tell me what you mean by "new user"? Second, when you refer to "close voters" are you including <3k users who flag items for closing? Third, are you open to arguments about something needing to be changed for aesthetic reasons (e.g. because it turns people off, makes them feel bad about the site, etc.) even it's not an operational issue? –  Peter Alfvin Aug 16 '13 at 19:39
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@PeterAlfvin: 1. For the purposes of this conversation, new users are those people who have been referred to in this post that don't understand what "on-topic" means within the context of Stack Overflow. 2. No. 3. Only if there's a discernible benefit (alleviating people's itchiness doesn't count). Hint: Precedent is important to me. It's the reason I don't let people get away with txtspk in questions and answers, even if the poster claims that the English language is evolving and that he should be able to express himself however he wants. –  Robert Harvey Aug 16 '13 at 20:12
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@PeterAlfvin: Off-topic has meant what people think it means on Stack Overflow for quite some time now. –  Robert Harvey Aug 16 '13 at 20:29
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@RobertHarvey - Ok, my mistake. I thought it was introduced with the recent close-reason refactoring. –  Peter Alfvin Aug 16 '13 at 20:36
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@RobertHarvey - Looking at the SO user numbers, is seems there are 2M users <3k and 30k users >=3k. It only takes 15 points to flag a question, but the population isn't broken out at that fine a level. Do you happen to know how many users there are with >= 15 rep? Basically, my hypothesis is that the vast majority of people in the [15..3k) range are clueless about the flag/close hierarchy and are disinclined to flag or will flag incorrectly as a result of problems like the "off topic" wording. –  Peter Alfvin Aug 16 '13 at 21:07
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@PeterAlfvin: We have moderators and 10K users to sift through those flags, and we don't need an exact match; we just need to know that there's a problem with the post. Close flags are training wheels for voting to close anyway. Trust me; this thing's been well thought-out. –  Robert Harvey Aug 16 '13 at 21:07
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@RobertHarvey - I'm sorry, I don't get your points. I'm saying people either won't flag or will flag incorrectly because of the sloppy language. I don't see how moderators can detect absence of flagging or detect a wrong category, given that categorization reflects personal judgement and the voting process is supposed to reflect collective judgement. As for close flags, are you saying that those flags don't really matter/count - that they're just "practice"? (Sorry, I really am clueless as to how close flags work. If you can point me to documentation on that, I'll happily read it.) –  Peter Alfvin Aug 16 '13 at 21:11
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@RobertHarvey You seem to be completely ignoring the content of the first two sections of my answer. I am not advocating change because it's itchy - what a stupid reason! I'm advocating change because the experience of stack exchange is that inaccurately worded close reasons gradually twist into very badly used close reasons. Just how confusing did you think a word change to "doesn't meet site community guidelines" from "off topic" is to close voters that it requires re-education? This is a small change to wording to make a big change on the longevity of the current close reasons. –  AndrewC Aug 17 '13 at 19:50
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I think some of the current "off-topic" reasons are misplaced. If a new user sees "Put on hold as off-topic" where the actual reason was "must describe the specific problem" or "must demonstrate a minimal understanding", he/she will most likely be confused. –  keyser Aug 19 '13 at 13:56
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I have to say that I'm very disappointed with some of the moderator comments that have been made in this discussion.

First of all, there is a level of defensiveness for the status quo that is frankly mind boggling. It's not like the status quo is something old. The term "off topic" was never applied to "not enough information" or "not enough effort" before the recent change to the close system. The status quo is new; it's not something that's been around for 4 years or something.

Indeed, the "status quo" would be better described as the old close reasons. And under them, "off topic" meant off topic: that the subject of the question was not appropriate for this site. Questions with too little information were closed not as "off topic" but as "not a real question". And so forth.

So don't act like that we have years of experience with the current "off topic means whatever we want it to mean" thing we have going on. We shouldn't have to justify changing it; the current system needs to justify itself. It hasn't been around long enough to deserve the amount of deference being given to it.

Second, the idea that words mean what we decide they mean... well, the lunacy of that kinda speaks for itself. The last time I heard someone saying that was in a "Lewis Carroll" book, and it was from a character that would be considered certifiably insane by human standards.

"Topic" has a well defined meaning to people, just like other words like "website". We can no more start claiming that "website" means "stereo system" than we can that "topic" somehow means "how I asked the question."

A question that is "off topic" is a question that, fundamentally, cannot be fixed without basically turning it into a different question. If it's not on-topic for SO, then that means it is fundamentally about stuff that SO is not about. That it's about bicycling or cars or boats or whatever, not about programming.

I understand that we instituted this system to allow more close messages. But why is it connected to the phrase "off topic"? Or more to the point, why does it have to be? There's no reason for us to consider questions that are poorly phrased to be off topic, even though the topic of the question is very much allowed.

Third is the hyper-defensive classification of people who are against the current "off topic" notion as merely being "itchy". That's so far wrong that it reaches the point of being disingenuous to the opposing side and borderline insulting.

This is not some phantasmal issue people are talking about. These misunderstandings happen daily now. Just look around on MSO; there are many questions from new users, asking why their question was "off topic." And when you talk to them, most of the time, it's not the specific close reason that they're confused about. It's the fact that it's called "off topic", which makes about as much sense to them as calling it "sideways".

Can new users get used to it? Certainly. But that's incredibly stupid. Remember: we instituted the new system to make it easier for new users. To give them better, more easily digestible close messages. If they have to get used to oddball wording in order to understand things, then the system has failed.

As for what we should do with those two close reasons, the answer is obvious: "needs repair". Because that's what we're trying to tell the OP: this is what's wrong with your question, now go fix that. Add some code so that we can see what's happening. Or tell us what you tried, so we can narrow things down.

There are really only two kinds of close reasons: the ones where we expect people to fix their questions, and the ones where we don't. Vague, or il-phrased questions are perfectly on-topic; they're just stated poorly. Subjective questions can sometimes be fixed, but the vast majority of them are fundamentally broken, as are questions about finding tools and libraries (again, usually). Off topic is one of the "unfixable" kinds of questions. If a question is off topic, then to get it on topic, you have to ask a rather different question.

That's really how we should split these. There should be a "needs repair" setting, and beneath that we have the two stock reasons (unclear and too broad), as well as some site-specific ones. There would also be "off topic" for things that are really off-topic. And there would be too subjective. Oh, and duplicate of course.

I agree that sites need to have specific off-topic reasons for things that really are off-topic (for example, asking for resources is a topic, and therefore it is something that can be off-topic for a site). But we shouldn't lump all site-specific close reasons under "off-topic". And being too lazy to do the UI work to do this right is certainly no excuse.

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After awarding current one, my second exemplary answer bounty here will probably go to this post. I even already picked a hit-phrase to use in the coming bounty message: "Can new users get used to it? Certainly. But that's incredibly stupid. Remember: we instituted the new system to make it easier for new users. To give them better, more easily digestible close messages. If they have to get used to oddball wording in order to understand things, then the system has failed." –  gnat Aug 24 '13 at 16:41
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I voted you up and I thank you for posting this. I think my own answer would require less work, but as you say, "being too lazy to do the UI work to do this right is certainly no excuse". So, for the sake of keeping it in mind as a possibly simpler option, I'm keeping my answer, but clearly, yours is the best. –  Miklos Aubert Aug 26 '13 at 11:10
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Thank you for posting this and for addressing the general issue of defensiveness as well as the specifics of this situation. I also think getting a clearer focus of the "needs repair" vs. "not redeemable" can help us with the whole mess involving downvoting questions without comments, close reason invisibility, etc. Thank you again. –  Peter Alfvin Aug 26 '13 at 16:10
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I don't know how I missed this when you posted it a couple of days ago. This is a fantastic answer, not least because I agree with all of it. You've just articulated it even more clearly. If gnat wasn't already in the process of awarding you a bonus bounty, I'd have to seriously consider doing the same. –  Cody Gray Aug 27 '13 at 9:09
    
"doesn't meet community guidelines" might be better than "needs repair". With the latter, some askers will feel entitled to a reopening after they "did what you asked me to." Also, "guidelines" are sufficiently vague that they're sure to apply to SE sites beyond SO. –  Frank Aug 30 '13 at 17:02
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@Frank: "With the latter, some askers will feel entitled to a reopening after they "did what you asked me to."" They are entitled to re-openning after fixing it. If the question they ask doesn't contain enough information, and they add sufficient information, the question should be re-opened. The "Needs repair" tag is for things that can be fixed. Things like asking for programming recommendation questions generally can't be fixed without turning it into another question. That could go under "doesn't meet community guidelines" or whatever. –  Nicol Bolas Aug 30 '13 at 22:42
    
Apparently you missed the discussion where we pointed out that all of the site-specific close reasons are under the "off-topic" bullet. So to fix the problem, you'd have to either change the bullet's caption, or rework the close system. Don't tell me that reworking the close system is a trivial amount of work, because you don't actually know that it is. –  Robert Harvey Sep 9 '13 at 22:54
    
The sole example that you cite as proof that new users are rampantly confused about closures on their new questions is nearly three years old. Do you have any actual evidence? –  Robert Harvey Sep 9 '13 at 23:00
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I propose replacing "off-topic" with the phrase

"not a good fit for this site"

(oh yeah, rock that heading, baby)

I think it would nicely tie together the various site-specific reasons why a question should be closed:

  1. its subject matter
  2. its vagueness or lack of information
  3. or anything else!

In my understanding of the words "good fit", it also has the benefit of being free of judgemental overtones, unlike "inadmissible" for instance. I had previously proposed "unfit for this site" or simply "unfit", but as @random noted in a comment, this too can be seen as disapproving (even though we would be saying the question is unfit, which to my mind cannot be taken as meaning the question is incapable or incompetent, let alone the person who asks)

I think the idea of a question's fitness should be fairly easy to understand for everyone, whatever their current level of experience with the site.

Let's see how that would look in the flagging pop-over :

Flagging > This question doesn't belong here because it is
  . duplicate of...
  . not a good fit for this site because...
  . unclear what you're asking
  . too broad
  . primarily opinion-based

Or in the phrases :

[closed] as not a good fit for this site

[put on hold] as not a good fit for this site

Another reason I like the word "fit" is the inherent notion of a gradient. A question can be "an easy fit", "not very fit", "almost fit", "not fit at all"... words like "off-topic" or "inadmissible" sound like much more binary, yes/no, with-us-or-against-us kind of deals.

You can easily understand why a question is "put on hold as not a good fit". It could become a good fit, but the asker has to work on it, that's why it was "put on hold".

Arguments against other proposals

Two other proposals seem to have the favour of consideration by the moderators here :

"doesn't meet community guidelines" : I would argue that this is not helping people like me, the <3K flaggers. One still has to learn the meaning of the phrase, and what's behind it in the flagging pop-up, to get comfortable with it. When I flag a post because there's no SSCCE, I want a simple label or phrase to tell me (or remind me) where I should click. "Community guidelines" looks a little too serious or severe. I just want to say, hey, look, mods, something is a little off here. I think "not a good fit for this site" really captures what I'm thinking about the post I'm trying to flag. "Meeting community guidelines" has no gradient either : can a question "almost meet the community guidelines" or "barely meet the community guidelines"? Well... maybe, but you really have to strain the definition of the verb "to meet". The notion of fitness is more useful.

"out of scope" : the word scope is a little too close to the word "topic", so I think it has the same problems as "off-topic". I think when when a question lacks an SSCCE, it's much more natural to think "it doesn't fit in" than "it's out of scope". Again, scope is too binary, it's "what we want or don't want to see". "Fitness" carries the hope that a question can be made better.

Personally, as a <3K user, I can't seem to get used to the phrase "off-topic" when I'm flagging posts. I may find my way more easily after a couple of flags, but it seems like every morning on my first flag of the day, I have to retrace my steps... I really hope we can find something better.

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"Unfit" does draw a disapproving and judgemental tone. Incompetent is part of the definition for unfit. Scope is the issue here though for reasons to mainly close –  random Aug 23 '13 at 20:43
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Agree with @random, although the last paragraph is spot on - same thing's happening to me. –  TheTerribleSwiftTomato Aug 23 '13 at 20:56
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Thanks for your comments, please see my improved answer. –  Miklos Aubert Aug 24 '13 at 9:34
    
I was about to leave an answer similar to this one, so yea, this is what I'd like to see. –  George Stocker Aug 24 '13 at 13:19
    
Just a while ago, I was flagging an answer and I realized something... there actually isn't any way to flag a post as purely "off-topic". The only options you have under the "off-topic" category are : 1. redirect to Super User, 2. ask for SSCCE, 3. refer to SO question checklist, 4. Redirect to Server Fault, 5. off-topic because asking for recommendations etc., and 6. belongs to another site of SE, which lists five possible targets for migration. Well, what if none of the targets are good? What if it's simply off-topic. The "off-topic" category doesn't even offer that possibility. Wow. –  Miklos Aubert Aug 25 '13 at 18:25
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My only concern is that this would quickly become a catch-all for every single question that merits closing, and the users would end up as baffled as before because there is no indication why it is not a good fit for the site or how to fix it –  jmac Aug 27 '13 at 5:20
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@jmac, you are right about that. That's also why I prefer Nicol Bolas' answer : the best thing to do would be to completely rethink the UI and use clear language like "needs repair". I'm keeping my answer because I think it's an easier solution, but that's about it. –  Miklos Aubert Aug 27 '13 at 8:28
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I know there's been a huge debate on this already, but I cannot see why it wont be changed.

What is Stack's "off topic" meaning?
The term "off topic" is mostly used to describe and define "Types of questions Stack does not permit", or "not suitable" etc.

Those who feel it's clear enough, remember, something you have clear in your own mind that you understand perfectly, may likely not be clear at all to someone who has just discovered this 'something' and has no idea about it.

This is not necessarily about new users then, it's specifically about people who do not know that when stack refers to "off topic" it means "questions Stack does not permit".
That's a potential for a lot of people, and a great deal of new comers, because they would never guess this correlation from logic, experience of other sites (as it's unique to Stack), or even by eating unicorn dust on the errie first quarter of the lunar phase.

Here, only comments and answers could be deemed specifically as "off topic" as they're off topic to the question.

The fact the message then goes on to state:

Questions asking for code must demonstrate a minimal understanding of the problem being solved

Only confuses the issue even more as they continue to ponder: What is a topic? And now wonder: What has a topic got to do with my understanding of my problem?

I've seen this on questions where the reason "Too broad" would have been more suitable, but that's another issue altogether.

People not knowing Stack's definition of "off topic" probably think tags could be "topics", the question and subject could the topic as they define the topic. Not much else could be surmised as a "topic" for one to consider why it could be "off topic".

So the questioner asks a question, uses tags relevant to the question and the subject is a good summary of question and ties in the tags. They understand the problem they are asking about just fine. They believe it to be all good.
But no, because the issue was none of what they logically surmised it to be, as it's "not a question Stack allows".

Why should it be changed?
The fact these messages are to educate people and push them in the right direction, why use something quite vague to attempt to educate them?
Most other messages are pretty tight and describe the actual issue to even someone not familiar with Stack's specific ways.
Educate them so they can write a better question and contribute to the site - isn't this part of the aim?
You might as well just close it and have no message, in fact this would be better as it removes some confusion from the currently misleading message they get.

Potential negative outcome
So then they either:
1) Leave the site and not return;
2) Write another question, still not understanding the real issue so just as bad as the first;
3) Edit their question (as is suggested), still not understanding the real issue so don't improve it;
4) Come to Meta and ask what "off topic" means;
5) Lurk around and find out for themselves what "off topic" means;

Why they're bad outcomes:
1 obvious. 2 & 3 is a waste of their time, and likely other people's time who vote and potentially mods time, 4 same as 2 & 3 but additional people having to answer and post "dupe" links.
5 is only likely a waste of their time, but once they find out will join the group of "why is this saying off topic when it could instead say XYZ" and they become annoyed. They might even post on Meta suggesting a change, yet another thread about it...

Adding to 4 - They ask on Meta and yet again their question is closed. Even though the reasons to us/mods are clear why this would happen, from their perspective as a new user, getting their question closed that was asking why their other question was closed is not nice

Change it to what?
It's not all about one message, it's impossible to cater for all close/on hold scenarios with one message. It's about ensuring that every scenario is covered to provide people with a clear indication to the specific reason their question is closed or put on hold.

So used in conjunction with "too broad" and "Unclear what you're asking", as well as other comments, changing "off topic" to something more clear will stop all the confusion and frustration.

Just encapsulate the actual reason for the close/hold based on something that non-Stackies would understand, as seems to have happened fairly well with all other messages.

"Question is not suitable for this site". This is backed up by the current statement informing them that it can be re-opened if they can "edit the question to fit in with the rules" and a link to more info.

If they don't read the info from the link, well, you can't teach a dead monkey to fish...

Change makes people run for the hills
I understand the concern that introducing a new title may require having to educate people and bring confusion/more work/etc. However, it's quite simple.
Where you choose "off topic", put some new text to identify the change, such as:

o Off topic - will now show the message "Question is not suitable for this site"

Then whoever is selecting knows the old familiar off topic will now show a new message, and decide if the new message still fits in with their reasons for close.
And once after months it is familiar with everyone, drop the text "off topic".

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To quote Robert from a comment:

I still don't see anything here that is a significant improvement over off-topic. The meaning of "off-topic" is not as cryptic as you make it out to be; it simply means that the question falls outside of the site scope. The reasons why are clearly explained in the close banners.

I think that is a lot better than the current catch-all: "off-topic" sort of sounds like it's saying the question has nothing to do with the topic of the site (eg. programming for Stack Overflow), which may or may not be true when the question is closed for "not describing the specific problem and including valid code to reproduce it".

If we mean to say that the question falls outside the scope of the site (which is constrained by several factors besides topicality), why not say that explicitly?

This would mean that you don't need to move site specific close reasons elsewhere: if your objection is about the question not being a good fit for that particular site, it indicates that the question falls outside the site scope (either because it doesn't have anything to do with the site's topic, or because it violates other constraints on the types of questions that particular site welcomes).

To illustrate what I'm talking about:

enter image description here

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Some custom close reasons don't have anything to do with scope... The "no shopping questions" reason, for instance. –  Robert Harvey Aug 9 '13 at 4:30
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@RobertHarvey How does that not have anything to do with scope? "Hey, know any good open source libraries to do XYZ?" is a question about programming, but doesn't fit within the evolving scope of programming questions that Stack Overflow has come to consider acceptable. Similarly, requests for tutorials, "write/debug-my-code-plz" etc. are about programming, but do not fit within the limited scope of programming questions the site now covers. –  Asad Aug 9 '13 at 4:32
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Do you honestly think "out of scope" is any less obtuse to a new user than "off-topic?" –  Robert Harvey Aug 9 '13 at 4:35
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@RobertHarvey I would think so, but I can't exactly see things through the eyes of a new user, having become familiar with how the close system works. –  Asad Aug 9 '13 at 4:39
    
Exactly. Which means all this hulabaloo is only relevant to new users, not existing users who already understand the system the way it is now. –  Robert Harvey Aug 9 '13 at 4:40
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To me the scope of something is pretty much the same as the topic of that thing, but with some refinement. Stack Overflow's topic is programming, the scope is refined in ways such as which programming questions belong on Stack Overflow vs which ones belong instead on Programmers.SE but a question like "Why is C++ better than Java" might be on the topic of programming and within the scope of programming, but still a bad question because it's subjective. Subjective ≠ off-topic. Sorry if I chose bad examples but hopefully my point is still clear. Scope is not quite as set as topic though. –  hippietrail Aug 9 '13 at 4:41
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@RobertHarvey I would say if off-topic was a reason under "not within site scope", that would make the difference more explicit. Then again, changing things around like this could be pretty painful for people who have just become used to the current terminology. –  Asad Aug 9 '13 at 4:42
    
Indeed. I'm not at all sure it's worth it. People need to come up with some better arguments here besides "it makes me itchy." –  Robert Harvey Aug 9 '13 at 4:44
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@RobertHarvey, do you really think the crux of the arguments we are all making is "It makes me itchy?" That's just obtuse. It has nothing to do with making me itchy and everything to do with being a confusing incorrect term. –  Ben Lee Aug 9 '13 at 15:36
    
@BenLee: Any proposal for a change in wording should produce benefits over and above the confusion that will be caused by making the change, and the work required to make the change. –  Robert Harvey Aug 9 '13 at 15:45
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@RobertHarvey, I agree. I still think it should be changed. –  Ben Lee Aug 9 '13 at 15:46
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Argghhhhhh! The highlight green burns me eyes! –  Old Checkmark Aug 9 '13 at 18:31
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@AndrewC: I don't see how you're coming to that conclusion. People are not voting that question closed because of the words "off-topic," they are voting it closed because they think it is a library recommendation (which, in a way, it is). That perception won't change if you change the words "off-topic" to "site-specific close reason." –  Robert Harvey Aug 9 '13 at 23:10
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No, most of them are voting to close it because someone else did, and they're not reading the close reason carefully, and they associate it with off-topicness. If library recommendations are off-topic then questions about what SDK this guy should use are also off-topic, because they're about the same topic. However, if requests for library recommendations are disallowed it doesn't make library content questions disallowed. jeurgen got it wrong, but was acting logically and perhaps even correctly using the language SO served him with the meaning most people ascribe to it. –  AndrewC Aug 9 '13 at 23:17
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@Asad - ??? More wordy than "The Stack Overflow community does not allow these questions"? In any event, I'm fine with anything in this spirit, including "Site-specific close reasons" or reorganizing to take the on-topic reasons out of the off-topic category. Just don't use wording that forces me to frequently lie if I select it. –  Peter Alfvin Aug 16 '13 at 19:31
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Strictly-speaking, those two reasons are intended to capture some of the meaning of the old "Not a Real Question" close reason that was lost as we reworked the system to be more specific.

Of course, for folks who only read the first line of the close reason, the old way was no less confusing: they are real questions after all, just not ones we want to encourage here. If anything, Off Topic is slightly more accurate: we (as a community) have decided to disallow certain questions based on their form; the "topic" must be a programming question clearly defined and stated in the question body itself.

It's a stretch, but we've been redefining "programming question" to meet our specific needs for years now - the alternative isn't something anyone seems particularly interested in.

And sure, you can argue that these two close reasons would be slightly more appropriate as sub-reasons of a different top-level close reason such as "Unclear" - but since there's no support for sub-reasons of anything other than Off Topic in the current system, that's not gonna happen any time soon.

As for the notion expressed in the comments (and a few other answers here) that the term "Off topic" is itself inherently confusing, and can be replaced with something else wholesale resulting in the instant edification of all future new users... You're dreaming. Folks aren't shocked and confused when told that questions on the best PDF library are off-topic for Stack Overflow because of the term "off-topic" - they're shocked and confused because it seems like the sort of topic that would be acceptable on a site for professional and enthusiast programmers.

But don't take my word for it. Go ahead - find a sincere, off-topic question from a new user and instead of telling them that it's off-topic tell them that it's "inadmissible", or "against community guidelines" or "an abomination before the volcano god" or whatever. Anything other than a useful answer to their question or specific guidance on how they can improve their question to be on-topic and answerable. Seriously - try it. Let me know if you find a magic phrase that makes folks happy...

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So @Robert, if someone posts some examples of users being confused why their post is being called off-topic, you will wholeheartedly support a change? Because no matter how much this was vetted, if it isn't succeeding then there is no merit in discussing coulda shoulda wouldas. –  jmac Sep 10 '13 at 4:07
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From the Workplace: 1 2 3 -- this is just from a quick search, and has been an existing problem since before the close reasons were reworked, as well as afterwards. Yes, we may need more examples, but Robert's prior post had said there was no evidence, which is hardly correct. –  jmac Sep 10 '13 at 4:57
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@jmac: as you note, two of those predate these changes completely; the last one was closed because it concerned a topic plainly excluded in the site's documentation - if anything, this is the meaning of "off-topic" that everyone agrees on... And yes, it still trips new folks up because they're not used to sites where problematic questions are excluded. I would suggest this is evidence that TWP may need to put more effort into documenting the process for turning very localized questions into more broadly-applicable ones... –  Shog9 Sep 10 '13 at 5:03
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I fully agree that TWP needs to work on their documentation, and we are doing that. The issue is that the words "Off Topic" don't mean to new users what we actually mean them as, which is "does not currently meet site guidelines" or something of the like. While it may be a huge hassle to fiddle with the menus to make them work great, be it now or two years ago, having "Off-Topic" act as a catch-all for "not good enough" certainly isn't helping newer users. –  jmac Sep 10 '13 at 5:21
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"does not meet community guidelines This question has been put on hold because it does not meet community guidelines. You can edit your post referring to these pointers and the post will be automatically reviewed." I don't know, that seems to work for me, and can be refined with the additional information required for each individual reason. Note there is no "Off-Topic" section in the FAQ –  jmac Sep 10 '13 at 5:31
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My point isn't to pre-empt the custom reasons, my expectation is that the reasons would be added to the message explaining the concept and linking to the appropriate resources without the troublesome Off-Topic label. As stated, there is no "Off-Topic" section in the help center, and no way to define what is Off-Topic beyond that blurb which isn't ideal. Stating community guidelines with an explanation of what those guidelines are is more intuitive and matches the help center text. –  jmac Sep 10 '13 at 5:57
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This decline justification looks rather weak. I mean... hey, I wouldn't mind fighting against the world for our interpretation of "off-topic" if I saw gains that would worth it - but there's nothing like that in this post. Per my experience reading comments in closed questions, I see complaints why-off-topic about 5-10 times a month, ant I can only guess that this is just a tip of the iceberg –  gnat Sep 10 '13 at 6:54
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I see nothing inherently confusing neither in the way how world views this term, nor in the way how SE views it. Inherent confusion if you wish is that these two visions differ, and if you decide to stand against the world defending your vision, you better find a good reason for that (BTW if you find such a reason I would probably be the first to join you, since I am already conditioned to feel OK about SE meaning of this term) –  gnat Sep 10 '13 at 7:15
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"The term OT isn't the source of the confusion" - I would buy that if (if) this statement was supported by facts. But it isn't. As I already mentioned, I see complaints why-off-topic about 5-10 times a month - and in comparison, I see complaints why-closed less frequently –  gnat Sep 10 '13 at 7:34
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that wictionary entry only helped me to understand how it happens that (since recent closures rework) I see why-off-topic complaints more than why-closed. If you give me data that it's not an issue, I will happily ignore the dictionary. As I already wrote, I am ready to join the fight for our interpretation of off-topic, I only need a good reason for that. Some good reason. Any good reason. Regarding your edit,... –  gnat Sep 10 '13 at 7:54
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@gnat: we're talking past each other here. I've seen plenty of folks complaining about their questions being closed as off-topic... This confusion was the reason why custom OT reasons were created, to allow more nuanced explanations and guidance. The argument being made here appears to be that prefixing even (or especially?) such detailed explanations with the trite "off topic" leads to confusion - that it is the terminology, and not the increasingly byzantine scopes on certain sites - which causes this distress. But where is the evidence of causation here? –  Shog9 Sep 10 '13 at 8:13
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Shame about the decline. Regarding justification, there's an unfortunate paradox: the most-likely-indisputable non-anecdotal and feasibly-obtainable (I don't have enough time and money to make a large scale study) proof could be located somewhere in the data that the SO/SE staff possess. That is, the user session flow data. I could feasibly do a crawl on closed answers and compare it with subsequent user participation, but I guess I'm not determined enough to spend time on that. Oh well, the Ridcully management method is a valid approach ;). –  TheTerribleSwiftTomato Sep 10 '13 at 16:57
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Just as a further FYI, on the help center for SO the following terms are used to mean off-topic: "not a good fit for this site", "questions to avoid asking/don't ask", "community guidelines" -- in fact, we even state in the help center that "off-topic" isn't intuitive: "What's on- and off-topic is not always intuitive, so it may be necessary to reword the question to fit this site's scope after reviewing the community guidelines." The best part? community guidelines doesn't actually link to anything. Good luck new users! –  jmac Sep 11 '13 at 7:46
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@jmac: You are probably interested in Please automatically include text covering site specific close reasons in the help center, which has been, absolutely absurdly, marked "declined". –  Josh Caswell Sep 13 '13 at 4:04
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@Josh spot on, I am interested in that. Also curious why it was declined. Thanks! –  jmac Sep 13 '13 at 5:00
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I want to point out that the arguably clunky choice of "off topic" is serving a very important function, and the only alternative in this thread that I think preserves this is "not within site scope," which I would agree is an improvement, because "scope" is more correct than "topic."

However, the basic problem the new, large category of "off topic" solves is this: many questions that askers might post here, like "where is the error in my code?" or "how do I build a social network?" are perfectly fine, good, intelligent questions - just, if asked to a GSI or friend or coworker, not if posted to SO. I would like to think that over the course of a work day, I ask many brilliant, insightful, subtle questions to one of my coworkers. Problem is, they don't contain an SSCCE. So they're a bad fit for SO, but were great questions when I asked them, and it's disingenuous to call perfectly reasonable things one might ask a professor or coworker, "not a real question," or "not constructive." Besides - why even get into that argument in the first place when you can simply say, "sorry, that type of question we decided doesn't work here."

With that in mind, let's review some alternatives proposed:

  • "inadmissible" - okay, why is it inadmissible? In our minds, in this thread, it's because they're off-topic. In real life... it's because they're somehow low quality and immoral and wrong. The point of "off-topic" is to get away from this editorialization.
  • "Doesn't Meet Community Standards." - same problem. Why moralize this? Questions I ask my coworker are great, high-quality, clean, politically correct, insightful, brilliant questions. I just don't always provide an SSCCE when I ask them. This has nothing to do with standards; and everything to do with topicality.
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The issue a lot of people have here is that "off-topic" is a misnomer: it is entirely possible to ask a question that is related to [site-topic] and yet have it fall short of the type of questions that particular site is intended for. I personally agree that having site specific close reasons grouped together is logical, I just take issue with the wording. Conversely, some questions are fundamentally incorrect for a QA platform (unclear question, repost, opinion-poll etc.) and it makes sense to have these separate from concerns of scope. –  Asad Aug 9 '13 at 4:17
    
Why moralize this? -- What do you mean? You make a judgment every time you vote to close a question. The reason "Doesn't Meet Community Standards" works is because the custom close reasons are almost always derived from community input, via the meta site. It not only perfectly describes the process, it's also perfectly easy to understand. –  Robert Harvey Aug 9 '13 at 4:32
    
@RobertHarvey Would you consider "Doesn't meet community guidelines" an improvement? It carries a very similar message about where the ruling comes from, but loses some of the critical tone that djechlin is objecting to. –  AndrewC Aug 9 '13 at 23:37
    
@AndrewC: Yes, because it captures the process that is used to create these close reasons (post on meta, community input, etc.) Contrast with "Doesn't meet arbitrary guidelines handed down by the Gods of SE, et al." –  Robert Harvey Aug 9 '13 at 23:39
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@@djechlin You've converted your usage of the word topic to the new SE meaning. SSCCE is not all about topic, it's to do with succinct completeness. Your questions with your coworkers cover the same topics as SO, they just aren't always valid SO questions. –  AndrewC Aug 9 '13 at 23:41
    
@RobertHarvey Thanks for the explanation of your emphasis on the word community. I understand that point now. –  AndrewC Aug 9 '13 at 23:42
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So a user asks a question, it's closed with the specific offtopic reason of not providing a reproducible code sample.

I can understand that new user reading the big "offtopic" and being a bit confused, at least some of the time, as they may be using a slightly different definition of the term than the site.

At that point the user has two options:

  1. Continue reading the close reason, seeing the more specific reason provided, and understanding what the problem is with their question.

  2. Ignore the rest of the close reason and go make a fuss in comments or on meta about their question being offtopic even though it's about programming.

For all of those that choose #1, I don't see it as a problem. So they're confused for 5 seconds. The problem solves itself so quickly that the negative consequences are quite low.

I'm not seeing people choose #2. Most people are just complaining about the 5 seconds of confusion that they had, but they've already worked out what "offtopic" means in context before they've even started complaining about it.

Since I've not seen a lot of cases in which it's really been a problem for question askers, I don't see a compelling need to make a change.

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See my point about "seconds" in response to Robert Harvey's post. –  TheTerribleSwiftTomato Aug 6 '13 at 16:51
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People choose option 2 more often than you might think. :) And it's not because of the words "off-topic," it's because they are miffed that they're question was closed. –  Robert Harvey Aug 6 '13 at 16:54
    
@RobertHarvey Well, yeah, but that's not solved by this change request, so I'm ignoring that case. –  Servy Aug 6 '13 at 17:00
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@TheTerribleSwiftTomato If your only goal is to save a bit of time for users there are plenty of other changes that could be implemented to possibly save a few seconds of users' lives throughout their use of the site. Mostly likely lots more that can save more time for much less effort than this proposed change. –  Servy Aug 6 '13 at 17:08
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@Servy : my goal is (at risk of buzzword-abuse) to increase the usability of the site. One view of UX is in the context of time saving - my "seconds" argument was aimed to transparently and somewhat-quantifiably present a case for this improvement. And, on that point, if you have a proposal that can save more time, why not propose it :)? –  TheTerribleSwiftTomato Aug 6 '13 at 17:19
    
@TheTerribleSwiftTomato There's a long list of feature requests. A significant percentage of them, in general, end up saving time as some form of the end goal. My point is merely that this is saving very little time, in exchange for a lot of work. It's value is therefore quite low. Were the todo list empty, perhaps this would be worth considering. I know it's not (despite not having access to what it actually is, not being a dev). –  Servy Aug 6 '13 at 17:21
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@Servy : and how do you know :)? I'm asking seriously, if you have some raw data, I'll gladly see it. Also, note that as aforementioned, time-saving was a partial, rhetorical argument, there are other, less tangible factors, such as "friendliness". How many people choose option 3: quit being active on SO because it's confusing why my question is "off-topic" despite being about coding a specific program? And yes, I know about Jeff Atwood's "vampires" argument - I don't believe it's relevant in this case, as willful leeching does not equal confusion. –  TheTerribleSwiftTomato Aug 6 '13 at 17:35
    
@TheTerribleSwiftTomato This is how I know, and also this. As to the people leaving, I'll turn your own argument against you. Do you have tangible evidence of that happening? If you have some raw data, I'll gladly see it. –  Servy Aug 6 '13 at 17:40
    
@Servy : maybe I was unclear - the "knowing" was in reference to the time-saving obtained. Upvotes are a nice heuristic, but they aren't by any means conclusive as to what feature saves more or less time (in comparison to, say, A/B testing). As to the raw data, no I don't (and I commend you for the nice argument reversal!), actually I was hoping the entire discussion would hinge on what said data would show :). –  TheTerribleSwiftTomato Aug 6 '13 at 17:54
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Your usual "feature requests must be thoroughly justified" conservatism doesn't apply here, @Servy; the revamped close interface is still a new feature that's still under the watchful eye of the team. They should be able to change a label with a minimum of fuss. –  Josh Caswell Aug 6 '13 at 19:02
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@JoshCaswell The proposal isn't to just change a label though. That's your alternative proposal. The OP's proposal is to have multiple different reasons, each with their own custom sub-reasons, which is a significant development change. –  Servy Aug 6 '13 at 19:08
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The proposal is to move two of the reasons to their own category. –  Josh Caswell Aug 7 '13 at 18:43
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@JoshCaswell Yes, which means having multiple categories of site-specific reasons. Currently there is only one, which simplifies the code and UI. Changing that is much more involved than just changing a label. –  Servy Aug 7 '13 at 18:44
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Topicality is determined by more than just the subject matter. Were it not, we could simply say that the topic is Programming. And yet, we have several sites devoted to Programming, each having a wildly divergent scope from the others.

On Stack Overflow, we generally require questions to have code in them to be on-topic for the site, as the site is a "by coders, for coders" site. The same is not true of Programmers. So while both sites share the "no shopping" close reason, only SO has code-specific close reasons.

Over time, I began getting into the habit of calling a question "off-topic" when it didn't meet the scope requirements of the site. On Stack Overflow, code is generally a requirement if you are posting a troubleshooting or "how do I do this" question. Such questions without code do not meet the scope, and are therefore "off-topic" by definition.

So while I understand why putting the site-specific close reasons under "off-topic" makes some people itchy, it's not exactly hard to figure out, and it would be a challenge finding something that works better than that.


If you really want to change "Off-Topic," how about "Doesn't Meet Community Standards."

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Programmers are indeed often pedantic in that they prefer precise categories, but this is nothing to do with pedantry. Conversely, my proposal is about usability, especially in the context of new users. Sure, you're accustomed, I'm (starting to get) accustomed, but there are probably millions of users who don't yet associate "off-topic" with "post your code". You could even argue it could take them a second to adjust, but a second multiplied by a large number of users is potentially years in time better spent on actively participating on the site. –  TheTerribleSwiftTomato Aug 6 '13 at 16:30
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The question proposed "not enough information". Why do you consider it same or worse than "off-topic"? –  TheTerribleSwiftTomato Aug 6 '13 at 16:35
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Because that would constrain the site-specific close reasons to only embody reasons of "not enough information;" some site-specific close reasons, like the "no shopping" one, don't have anything to do with insufficient information. They have everything to do with scope. –  Robert Harvey Aug 6 '13 at 16:37
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I'm not sure if we're on the same page: do you think I'm positing to rename the "off-topic" category entirely? If so, that's not the point, I'm merely suggesting to categorize two specific Stack Overflow hold/close reasons to something else instead. –  TheTerribleSwiftTomato Aug 6 '13 at 16:45
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How would you do that? Those are site-specific close reasons; they are under the "off-topic" bullet because we added them as custom reasons for the site. They are custom reasons because... well, they are not generic; they don't apply to any other site. Every site gets a limited number of custom close reason slots; these always go under "off-topic." –  Robert Harvey Aug 6 '13 at 16:51
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First of all, thanks, I have almost no knowledge of StackExchange internals, so I appreciate the clarification. However, I'd argue that in this case the point is still valid - if the only/major reason is confined to system-inherent generalization limitations, shouldn't we hack the system (in the original sense of the word)? –  TheTerribleSwiftTomato Aug 6 '13 at 16:59
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You claimed that it would be a challenge to find something that works better, yet I've suggested several phrases that are much more accurate. You claim it would take significant programmer resources, where I see a simple search and edit task for a few phrases. –  AndrewC Aug 6 '13 at 22:22
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@RobertHarvey It's still OK to call that inadmissible - you can say it's inadmissible because it's off-topic, but you can't say it's off-topic because it doesn't demonstrate enough understanding without bending the meaning of off-topic beyond reasonable and normal parameters. –  AndrewC Aug 6 '13 at 22:35
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@RobertHarvey That would be more thorough, but your argument that this can't be resolved simply and quickly is wrong. The simple fix works. Why argue so strongly against something that's getting asked repeatedly by different people if you don't care? There's a button marked x at the top of the tab you can use for your meh vote. (I don't understand why you refer to courtroom, I was just answering your question. Lawyers don't have a monopoly on the word reasonable.) –  AndrewC Aug 6 '13 at 22:48
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@RobertHarvey Are you deliberately misunderstanding me and missing the point, or is it by accident? Topic is subject matter, whereas inclusion of code, demonstration of effort, demonstration of prior understanding are nothing to do with the topic, but all to do with how you ask. Saying that's about keeping focussed on what's on-topic is just factually incorrect. –  AndrewC Aug 6 '13 at 23:11
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@RobertHarvey "Questions asking for code must demonstrate a minimal understanding of the problem being solved. Include attempted solutions, why they didn't work,and the expected results." Regarding pedantry, do/did you object to the pedantic rewording of "not constructive" to "primarily opinion-based"? That was exactly the same sort of change I'm advocating here. –  AndrewC Aug 7 '13 at 1:06
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@AndrewC: The only rewording I might be able to get behind is "Doesn't meet community standards" in place of "Off-topic." –  Robert Harvey Aug 7 '13 at 3:24
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I've added it to my list! :) –  AndrewC Aug 7 '13 at 6:53
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This may sound like pedantry, but topicality isn't determined by anything more than the primary subject matter, whereas scope is. High level calculus material falls outside the scope of a high school calculus book, but both have the same topic. –  Asad Aug 9 '13 at 3:41
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This answer is wrong from the first premise: "Topicality is determined by more than just the subject matter." Nope. Topic -is- subject matter. What's permissible is determined by more than just the subject matter/topic. –  AndrewC Aug 17 '13 at 19:56
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