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I have found Stack Overflow very useful for finding out information, largely because Google gives high page ranks to many useful questions.

Recently I have had experience of asking questions on Stack Overflow (not on this account) and found the community very quick to condemn questions which do not match certain criteria, for example: if the question is 'subjective', 'not a real question' or 'too vague'. Yet the FAQ says: 'No question is too trivial or too "newbie"'.

It seems a contradiction to welcome new programmers, but close their questions because they don't know how to write them specifically and clearly. It's also insulting to claim that someone's unclear question is 'not a real question', because it clearly is. It would be more appropriate and less offensive to say it's not a suitable question, surely?

As a newcomer I can't help but notice a lack of politeness and tolerance for questions which don't meet the exact criteria. Why is this?

Please note: I understand there might well be good reasons for this attitude; I am not trying to be inflammatory.

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Point out some examples please. – random Oct 15 '09 at 15:08
I have faced a similar situation in another Stack Exchange site. SE is unfriendly and impolite towards questions that do not match their criteria. Even this comment may be flagged as "inappropriate" because they do not want to admit that they have a problem. – user182991 Apr 7 '12 at 9:53
I agree that there are some people very quick to anger over very little things – IgotaHat Sep 30 '13 at 6:44
Thats way too funny. I just asked a question on Meta Stack Overflow almost the same way and got downvoted for asking about downvotes on poorly asked questions. Apparently you get into trouble even if you choose to answer them. – logixologist Aug 1 '14 at 18:22
You'll need to ask a question on Meta Meta Stack Overflow if you want to discuss that ;) – peterjwest Aug 4 '14 at 11:05
up vote 30 down vote accepted

Stack Overflow is designed to be a high-quality repository of programming questions and answers. Emphasis on answers -- questions which require extended discussions, have no clear and definitive answer, or are open-ended are in fact "not a real question" by the standards of Stack Overflow.

You cite the FAQ that no question is too trivial or newbie -- and this is correct. If you ask the difference between a 64-bit and 32-bit integer, that question is perfectly valid because it meets the other FAQ criteria:

  • Detailed and specific
  • Written clearly and simply
  • Of interest to at least one other programmer somewhere
  • Avoid asking questions that are subjective, argumentative, or require extended discussion.
  • This is not a discussion board, this is a place for questions that can be answered!
  • Please look around to see if your question has already been asked (and maybe even answered!) before you ask.

The idea behind all these criteria is to keep Stack Overflow a high-quality repository of valuable information. It is not meant to discourage new users, but rather to nudge them in the direction of asking clear, detailed and answerable programming questions.

Are there subjective questions and discussion/debate-type questions which have made it through in the past? Yes. When the site first launched, those were more accepted by the community than they are now. As times change, so do the social mores governing the trilogy sites.

There has been much discussion here on meta about the exact wording of "not a real question," but at the end of the day, it generally means subjective and/or unanswerable. Occasionally it means the question reads like Q-Bert's death sequence, but that's extremely rare. :)

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Thanks for your detailed response. My problem is that SO implicitly redefines "not a real question" without explaining it and expects new users to understand. It would be like me calling you stupid without explaining that, in my town, stupid means very friendly. – peterjwest Oct 15 '09 at 16:09
That's a fair point. I do think that the "close reasons" post on meta ought to be linked from the FAQ. – John Rudy Oct 15 '09 at 16:23
And in that vein, I have posted a question about that specifically: :) – John Rudy Oct 15 '09 at 16:34

Why such "aggressive criteria?"

The most powerful feature of the site is the ability ask and answer questions from day one, anonymously and without reputation.

The "price" you pay for that is super vigilant moderation by the community.

The site's only criteria for a valid question -- "Programming questions that can be answered" -- covers a large range of topics. The only way to keep such a large user base of from falling into chaos is to cast a wide circle but keep well-defined edges. Posts simply cannot solicit or devolve into long diatribes, extended discussions, or religious platform wars; otherwise, the entire system will break down.

But to provide that level of no-barrier, no-friction access, the community is asked to self-moderate the site to keep it focused and on-track. As your experience with the site grows, so does your abilities and responsibilities to moderate the site.

Through experience with the site, you learn why Stack Overflow has been so successful in the past. Then you work very vigilantly to keep it that way for the future.

That is why the Stack Overflow commmunity is so aggressive about question criteria.

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Closing questions is not, in itself, impolite. It's simply operating within the bounds of the system. For a new person, I'd probably also leave a polite comment explaining how the system works. Leaving rude comments, especially for new users, on questions should be flagged for moderator attention. Unless the OP has a history of rudeness, disregard for the system, or otherwise abusive behavior I don't see any reason for rude behavior on the part of answerers or commentors. Engage in abusive behavior, such as asking lots of dubious questions, though, and people may legitimately respond in kind.

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Please also see: Could we please be a bit nicer to new users?

Things were much more laid back in the beginning when questions were not so plentiful. Now that SO is so large, moderators and high rep users have been much more strict. This is to help keep SO's array of information clean and resourceful for future readers and google searchers. An information resource is a primary goal of SO and related sites. Limits have been put in place that help accomplish this goal.

You can always comment about issues with moderators decisions and 3k+ users can vote to re-open a question (5 votes needed). So if it gets closed, maybe ask for some pointers on how to make it a better question. Closed questions can be reversed if enough people feel it is worthy. Remember to not get discouraged by closed questions. It is the system in play.

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And now you get to vote to close on Meta too! – random Oct 15 '09 at 16:09
What better question to cross the 3k level with to. – Troggy Oct 15 '09 at 16:48

The whole idea of Stack Overflow is to have a high-quality narrow focus. Keeping it as pure as possible is crucial to keeping it high value instead of becoming Yahoo Answers.

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Oh. I'm just insecure! I'm glad to know that there's an actual reason that I can fall back on. – JSONBog Oct 15 '09 at 15:13
trust me, that won't happen. IMHO, we could loosen the grip just a little :D – Gordon Gustafson Dec 19 '09 at 19:39

By request:

I'll address this part of your question:

I don't understand how these questions fit the criteria and how my question does not.

It comes back to the same thing your financial adviser tells you:
"Past results do not guarantee future performance."

Some of those questions perhaps should be closed, but mainly it comes down to the mood of the community at the time you post it: who's online, how much off-topic stuff have they seen lately, do they have enough rep to vote to close, etc.

Stack Overflow is designed so that a certain very small amount of off-topic questions can make it through the community-driven filter. The community does need some of this content from time to time. It's basically like winning the lottery; there's even a prize, as a good off-topic question can earn you a gold badge or two. Continuing the lottery analogy: you're odds aren't much better, and the smart decision is to just not play. Whining about "losing" your off-topic question won't help you any more than whining about losing the lottery would.

The one consolation I can give you is that the process isn't over yet. The question is still out there, and those with enough reputation points can see it or vote to re-open it. If you can convince a few high-rep users to vote to open the question, it will be opened. But it's an uphill battle.

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No question is too newbie, but many are too vague. I've found myself linking an awful lot to How to ask Questions the Smart Way.

I wish this link was on the "Ask a Question" page, especially for low-rep posters.

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For what it's worth, I understand how you feel. I'm not a noob to programming - since I was 8, worked at Microsoft for 3 years and am 33 now - but we're all noobs to something at some point.

User Random asked for an example, so here's my personal encounter with the very worst kind of person:

Single HTML Anchor Tag Actually Renders TWICE! Screenshot

It seems to me that Stack Overflow works, but a side effect of the system is that with the reward and ranking structure so central, it tends to amplify some of our less desirable human qualities and fosters a class system, replete with the full range of personalities within.

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I'm not sure who in that question you mean by "very worst kind of person". Do you mean Yi Jiang, who wrote a huge answer and even apologized for his sarcastic comment? – Pëkka Mar 4 '12 at 22:12

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