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There are situations where the questions are not-so-good idea or a bit questionable. For a hypothetical example, let's say someone asks

What's the cheapest way to Elbonia?

One could answer this literally involving parachutes, or warn the questioner that there's an outbreak of monkey flu in Elbonia, which doesn't directly answer the question.

In SO, there may be similar situation where one asks "How can I do XXX using YYY?" and someone starts to question the question itself and answer back "Don't use YYY, use ZZZ." (ZZZ may be Eclipse, Python, MVC pattern, etc..)

I feel like the reactions of the voters are inconsistent on these Rosh Gadol (in Joel's words) answers. Sometimes they are upvoted by many and accepted, other times they are heavily downvoted. The same sometimes goes for literal answers.

In general, should the answerer question the intent of the questions? Or should one assume that the questioner knows what he or she is talking about, including the fact that there is monkey flu in Elbonia?

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5 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

I would say that the best method is a combination of the two. Offer the questioner some advice about the best way to do it, but then also try to provide some insight into the way that they are asking it. This insight may help to show them just why the way they want to do it is not the best, e.g.

I would advise you not to go to Elbonia because there is an outbreak of monkey flu there. However, if you know for a fact that you do have to go to Elbonia, then I would suggest using a parachute. Note that if you do use this method, you run the risk of landing on a monkey and thereby catching the afore-mentioned monkey flu.

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This happens all the time.

The problem (not the answer to the question) is this. Many SO posters are looking for quick points, they favour short quick answers, and get quite upset with anyone who sees the bigger picture, the deeper problem, and speaks to that.

Of course the best thing to do is answer the question and speak to the deeper problem.

For me, this is not an ambiguous issue: the question is usually "How do I fight this fire", often more than one question from the same poster. They are not duplicates, but the are the exact same fire in two or three different [code] locations. I answer the question and tell them the fire is a symptom, not the cause; then tell them how to deal with the cause so that they have less fires. That's my concept of "professional programmer".

But be prepared for the "community" to argue and fight in the commentary. They will even get into arguing definitions, etc. All of which indicate that they actually have no actual experience in the subject, they have just read a page somewhere on the web, and they are answering from that. They have not connected the symptom with the cause, and instead of asking a question, they use their powers and vote you down, for being off-topic or for connecting dots that they have not connected. The Piranha Effect. It is hard to do, because they attack your answer without understanding the deeper problem, or they attack your answer on an ostensibly "technical" basis, but ignore them.

About half the time the OP recognises that, yes, there is a deeper problem, your answer is a head and shoulders above the rest, and they comment to you only. That shuts the mob up, and they go elsewhere looking for churning water. Now you have an engagement, and you move ahead with just the OP. Point proved, but you get small points, hard won.

The other half of the time, the OP comments on every answer, either because they feel they should be polite or evaluate every answer or whatever. This gives the piranhas the "proof" that their mediocre answer was correct or had some value; that there absurd comments had some value, so the water keeps churning, and your points keep decreasing.

This is especially the case when one or two posters with high rep comment against your answer. Then you get mass hysteria and a lynch mob. The technical facts are ignored, everyone focuses on the one allegation, true or false, without any evidence, and the feeding frenzy begins. That is what people are really here for: emotional interaction and validation; the immediate feedback of their actions; that other (low tech) people think the same way. Sometimes your perfectly correct answer will get deleted.

The real problem is, in a community where there is no real authority, and the only credibility is based on rep, the answers get cut down to the level of the community, which is not very high in terms of technical ability, anyone with 125 can vote any answer down. Those with high rep are not real authorities, they are really providers of answers that the low tech community can understand. Quick short answers win rep, long thoughtful answers (anything that requires scrolling or opening a link) get voted down. The "authorities" are in reality low-level techs who can draw and shoot faster.

Absence of authority results in anarchy, posing as "democracy".

Once in a while the OP, from the outset, will give you such a great comment, that causes the sharks to exit fast. Then you get focused interaction, and the page is clean of mediocre commentary and argument.

Therefore, if you are going to speak to the deeper problem, be prepared for the battles and the negative rep. This is not a site for, the rep system does not support, high level technical questions or answers.

(Watch the Piranha Effect being proved on this Answer. If you scared of the truth, shoot the messenger. I love it.)

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I find these accusations to the community to be untrue for the most part. Technically sound answers eventually would get upvoted if they were written in clear and concise manner. Long answers are downvoted when they are redundant or irrelevant. It's easy to criticize that the community is not up to the par with all the technical levels required to vote the answers; however, a true expert should be able to explain the matter to willing ears in plain language. An understandable answer is more valuable than an insightful one that nobody understands. (I didn't -1) –  Eugene Yokota Dec 21 '10 at 22:34
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Maybe you're getting downvoted a lot for using terms like "amateurs, nonsense, shocking stupidity, fools, and silly advice." (Just a sample from your history.) You've been warned repeatedly about your abrasive behavior, and yet you still don't seem to get it. Try this as a scientific experiment: Keep posting answers that speak to the deeper problem, but lose the attitude. See if you don't have to delete fewer answers due to downvotes. –  Bill the Lizard Dec 22 '10 at 14:47
    
I agree, short quick answers do tend to get voted up and it is a shame that well thought out answers do not win. I also agree that any sort of abrasive language is not appropriate. –  andrew Feb 11 '11 at 10:04
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It has become clear to me in the past year that there are a lot of people being given software development jobs who should not have them. There are also a lot of people who are being given jobs to do that are well out of their current reach. In both cases, the people I'm referring to have learned what they currently know through non-traditional paths, especially Google.

These paths may have taught them utter nonsense, as Google returns the good with the bad, and many of these people do not have the experience to judge between them.

My (least-)favorite case is .NET developers who Google for "web service security", then decide they need to use WSE because those are the articles that show up in the search. Bing is no better, and shows Web Service Security Patterns - Community Technical Preview as the first search hit.

It is a disservice to such users to give them any information about WSE until you're certain they really do want to use it. Same with other stupid ideas.

Once they decide they want to do it, go ahead and help them to the best of your ability, but you're not helping by helping them do the wrong thing.

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+1 Concisely put. Agree completely. The state of the "industry" these days. –  PerformanceDBA Dec 21 '10 at 20:32
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I always try firstly to answer the question directly however if I notice they are going about things in a sub optimal or non standard way I tend to include an N.B section and show them how I would approach the solution. This lets them make a choice without knocking their original approach.

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If it is obvious that someone is trying to do something that they shouldn't be doing, it should be considered an obligation to set them down the correct path by informing them of the errors of their ways.

Also, you should attempt to acquiesce to their requests by providing them an answer if possible. If every time someone comes to this site and makes a request and someone tries to turn them in a different direction, it may be likely that they themselves will turn in a different direction and never bother returning to SO because it will appear as if nobody really wants to answer anything they ask.

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