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In short, the bikeshed problem:

If you go before the Board of Directors and ask for 1.5 billion dollars to build a nuclear reactor, no one will review or discuss the details of the plant. They will assume that experts have been over every inch of the plans, and not want to look foolish by asking a silly question.

However, if you ask the same group to approve a 30 dollar expenditure for lumber with which to build a bikeshed (presumably a British term for the smallest possible building) then be prepared for a 45 minute discussion about all aspects of the bikeshed, including the color of the paint. The explanation for this is that everyone can grasp the scale of a bikeshed.

To transform this problem to Stack Overflow terms, questions that are trivial such as "How to convert a C string to a QString or "What is the difference between . and ->" get a lot more views, answers and votes than real questions of the form "How do I frob this widget" that bother real professionals. Fewer views mean less possible votes for good answers and hence less incentive for people to answer.

How can Stack Exchange solve this problem?

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If you want more views, retag it with [c++] – random Nov 29 '09 at 0:41
If you want even more views than the suggestion above, retag it with [c#]. – random Nov 29 '09 at 1:47
if you want even more views than the two suggestions above, retag it with [the language that must not be named]. except, y'know, name it. – quack quixote Nov 29 '09 at 2:58
-1 talking about frobbing widgets is awfully vague. Be more specific with your questions. – Andrew Grimm Jun 11 '10 at 4:14
If you want more yet more views, tag it both [c] and [c++]. – detly Jun 11 '10 at 6:45
There's actually an equivalent on the meta site, which is whenever you say anything, someone with a GREAT SENSE OF HUMOUR comes along and starts talking about ferking hilarious things like waffles (ha! ha! ha!) in order to get upvotes. – delete Jun 11 '10 at 23:25
@Kinopiko: I should have accused shoosh of waffling. – Andrew Grimm Jun 14 '10 at 6:02
+1 to counter Andrew's lack of love for frobbing widgets. Being somebody who has frobbed a few widgets in my time, I can see the value of widget frobbing and support their inclusion to this well structured question. – Evan Plaice Jun 2 '11 at 21:03
+1 Because your 666 reputation was bothering me – ChristopherW Mar 28 '13 at 12:00
I see Paul Graham calls it a Fluff Principle: The most dangerous thing for the frontpage is stuff that's too easy to upvote. If someone proves a new theorem, it takes some work by the reader to decide whether or not to upvote it. An amusing cartoon takes less. A rant with a rallying cry as the title takes zero, because people vote it up without even reading it. – Val Dec 27 '13 at 16:15
@Braiam I don't think that any other site is big enough to have this problem so voted to Leave Closed. – Shadow Wizard Oct 19 '14 at 7:22
@ShadowWizard I see you don't spend much time on Mathematics. – user259867 Oct 19 '14 at 7:31
@CareBear can you give some examples from there or discussion on their meta? – Shadow Wizard Oct 19 '14 at 7:33
@ShadowWizard Exhibit A, Exhibit B, meta discussion. – user259867 Oct 19 '14 at 7:46
@CareBear OK, you got me. Voted to reopen. – Shadow Wizard Oct 19 '14 at 7:47

10 Answers 10

Chess doesn't have this problem

Chess has the Chess rating system. If a grandmaster beats a newbie, then he only gets little score (and the newbie loses little), because it was a trivial game. But if a newbie beats a grandmaster, the change of score is massive because that means the newbie might've had an excellent game. On SE, this might translate to:

who's asking -> || newbie      | grandmaster    |
who's answering ||             |                |
      v         ||             |                |
newbie          || as today    | answer gets    |
                ||             | lots of points |
grandmaster     || answer gets | as today       |
                || few points  |                |

Or, in other words, not all questions are equal, not all answers are equal. That's also what I. J. Kennedy says in his answer.

Note I've had this similar question: Is it OK for Stack Exchange to treat all questions / answers equally?

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wait, who is "winning" here? There is no game, only people answering questions. How do you define "win" versus "loss"? – Jeff Atwood Sep 22 '11 at 4:18
@JeffAtwood. It's just a silly comparison. No one is "winning" as opposed to "losing", but people get upvotes for answers, and thus score. But currently, simple answers are more valuable than challenging ones, and that's what the OP's question is about. As far as upvote score is concerned, there is no incentive for answering challenging quesitons compared to trivial ones... – Lukas Eder Sep 22 '11 at 17:49
This problem with this approach is that it's currently not possible to distinguish the true "grandmasters" from the Fastest Guns in West who grinded their way to the top by answering trivial questions. – Emile Cormier Feb 27 '12 at 3:43
@EmileCormier one way to at least partly distinguish that is to cross-check rep generated from answers with the scores of the associated questions, and cross-check rep generated from questions with the scores of the associated answers. – The Community Feb 28 '12 at 3:07
I may be a grandmaster at Python, but if I were to ask a question about iPhone development you can count on me being a complete n00b. Chess is much simpler when it comes to determining who's a grandmaster and who's a newbie; there is really only one dimension to measure there. And no, I don't think per-tag score will solve that either; I've answered connect-my-iPhone-app-to-a-python-server questions already. – Martijn Pieters Jun 15 '12 at 9:00
You have an idea but it doesn't mean it will work or achieve what you want. We have to look at the whole picture. Making changes to the system like this doesn't mean the system will get better results, it can result in worse results. – Kaveh Aug 1 '12 at 0:25
How to make sure users(players) play fair game? Grand masters can always delete their questions soon after getting answers. Can't they? – SparKot Mar 4 '13 at 9:27
real questions of the form "How do I frob this widget"

I disagree with Shog9.

Here's a frob this widget question from me that is both, not a paint shed question, and something that I really need help to answer.

The problem is, there are 400 questions something along the lines of.

Importing best practices

Still best practices - importing in the middle of a file

How are 'import module' and 'from module import *'

Or, why is 'from module import *' bad

Pertaining to cyclic imports

These are the five base cases, now mix and match every permutation of these questions until you get 400 unique questions and you now have 400 bikesheds sitting between the highly experienced/talented Stack Overflow users and my hard/impossible question to answer.

Edit: So 400 is an obvious exaggeration. So, to demonstrate I added links. Welcome to bikeshed-land. If you don't see a common theme I'll give you a hint. It rhymes with rubjective. We're talking about low hanging fruit here and a lot, if not most of those question have 5+ upvotes.


Removed the 'canonical' jargon (as Jeff Atwood has steered me down the correct path on that topic in a different post) and 'ranty' examples not related to the topic.

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Link to questions generated by mix and matching of permutations please? – Andrew Grimm Jun 11 '10 at 4:13
done... and, thanks for the downvote. I know it sounded rant-y, but it was an honest answer. I'm frustrated because I spent 5 hours last night reading bikesheds in an attempt to find a solution before I posted a question. When I did finally post a question the only answer I got was the equivalent to 'that's interesting, why'd you want to do that'? Whatever happened to rejecting subjective questions/answers on SO being the norm? – Evan Plaice Jun 11 '10 at 5:01
Good point but those subjective questions are just so fun to answer :) – Earlz Jun 11 '10 at 6:55
@Earlz I'll admit, I've provided my fair share to cWikis like the infamous 'anti-joel questions' too. Just as long as SO doesn't follow down the same road as reddit. I really like SO as a source of useful info. – Evan Plaice Jun 11 '10 at 7:09
Subjective answers are especially frustrating when you don't have the rep to down-vote them, and some just beg to be down-voted. – Evan Plaice Jun 11 '10 at 7:11
Thanks for the edit. (BTW, was the "thanks for the downvote" serious or sarcasm?) I suspect some of those questions are duplicates of each other, but I'm not a mod so I can't really say. I think it's rather poor that people answer questions rather than check if it's a duplicate though. – Andrew Grimm Jun 11 '10 at 7:20
@Andrew Grimm the "thanks for the downvote" was both serious and sarcasm. I really don't like being immediately down-voted after I answer a question because, often times it's done by drive-by down-voters who provide no feedback (I love critiques as long as good feedback to help me improve is included). I didn't know whether you down-voted it or not but the answer was worth editing/emphasizing based on your comment either way so I did. – Evan Plaice Jun 11 '10 at 7:38
@Hans "What's special about guys called "Evan"?" I don't think I'm qualified enough to answer that question. – Evan Plaice Jun 11 '10 at 23:55
I asked this question stackoverflow.com/questions/6058390/when-to-use-which-for and now I'm feeling kinda dirty. I was actually looking for an incisive complete answer which, the accepted answer didn't really give. I wonder now If I was guilty of "bike shedding". (Yikes, perhaps I'm doing it again at 1 remove.) – Jodrell Jun 2 '11 at 11:05
@Jodrell Naww, I guess bike shedding is still kosher (no rules exist to go against it), it just makes it harder overall to get answers to niche questions. But I have a pretty substantial 'who cares' bias right now cause I haven't spent much time on SO lately. Ask when I re-up on some nerd-rage and I might give you a different answer. ;) – Evan Plaice Jun 2 '11 at 21:10
@Evan, can you supply an example of a question which gave lots of false matches to these? Surely your other keywords distinguish it. As to the 'from module import *' examples, annoying though they may be to advanced users, almost each one is subtly different. I agree that more aggressive closing-on-duplicates (and editing to correct titles) would be awesome, and should be rewarded by points, in those cases where it is accurate. – smci Jul 17 '11 at 21:22
I'm also experiencing the flipside of the new-user dilemma: higher-rep users (wrongly) voting knee-jerk to 'close as duplicate' simply based on the title keywords or tags, without bothering to check whether the question is dupe or not. That's equally frustrating. – smci Jul 17 '11 at 21:30
IMO your first link doesn't constitute widget frobbing at all. – The Community Feb 28 '12 at 3:13

How can SE solve this problem?

From the very beginning, I've thought SE should weight upvotes by the reputation of the voter. In fact for a while, I just assumed that's the way it worked, it seemed so natural. An upvote from Jon Skeet is more meaningful than one from noobee1knoobee. I think a system like that would do wonders to alleviate the infamous bikeshed problem. The actual weight of an upvote should probably be something like the logarithm of the repution of the upvoter. Over time, I believe this system would converge to the "right" scores for questions and answers, which should be the objective, right?

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"ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS." ... to quote Orwell – waffles Feb 25 '11 at 2:10
If all users are exactly equal, why have an elaborate reputation system? – I. J. Kennedy Mar 1 '11 at 7:43
It's too late to implement this now. Some folks with high rep might have built their high rep by answering trivial questions with disproportionate upvotes. – Emile Cormier Feb 27 '12 at 3:46
Why is it too late? If you can go retroactively and update everyone's rep, it would work. I'm not saying it's straightforward, but it doesn't seem impossible. – max Apr 16 '12 at 0:35
theoretically, the votes should be re-calculable from the user activity, hence if the voting system changes, we could - in Git terms - rebase the reputation a user has – Sebastian Godelet Apr 12 '14 at 19:48

real questions of the form "How do I frob this widget"

Frobbing widgets is a trivial application of any of a number of general-purpose frobbing techniques. Anyone who has picked up an introductory programming book will know the advantages and disadvantages of each, and anyone who has reached adulthood without undergoing a full frontal lobotomy will need only a casual glance at the relevant widget interface in order to write up a custom frob function.

Therefore, these questions get relatively little attention because they offer nothing of interest to most readers. Hardly filling the role of the Nuclear Reactor in your analogy, they are perhaps a better match for the movements of a painter's arm as he holds the brush applying the committee-chosen paint to the new bikeshed.

Fortunately, SO has the equivalent of occupational therapists... and, perhaps, brush-stroke fetishists... to answer these questions.

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Either this is some form of meta-so bell-air and I don't get it, or you're serious... – shoosh Nov 29 '09 at 7:34
+1, widget frobbing is just as bikeshed as string conversion, if not more so. – The Community Feb 28 '12 at 3:10
Hah! I can't decide if this answer is intended as a joke or not... – einpoklum Oct 8 '14 at 21:22
Cute response, but not relevant to the question because that was just a contrived example which you took literally (albeit for the purposes of parody but still…) As such, this should have been a comment, not an answer since you did not attempt to actually address the posted concern. – Synetech Jul 11 at 19:12

How can SE solve this problem?

SE solves this problem by featuring questions for a cost in reputation. They are called bounties, and will put the question in a list of featured questions, with the incentive that good a good answer will receive a larger reputation boost than normal.

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Train more experts so more people can grasp the concept of more complex problems. Which SE is doing by sharing knowledge.

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Offer a bounty for your question. It's not up to SE (as a service) to get answers to your tough question. It's up to the community. Make it worth the time to look up and research (and test if it's code or something that requires testing).

As for bike shed questions, I've personally started voting them down (when it's the really obviously basic type. Otherwise, find a duplicate, etc). It's okay to vote down bad questions, it's what it's for.

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Views don't help your question be answered. Views from domain experts are what helps your non-bikeshedding questions get answered.

Forget about reputation, hide tags that have too much noise, use good tags, and ignore the din.

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Agreed - using only very specific tags helps. – Oak Jun 12 '10 at 12:22
"Views from domain experts" ∝ "Views", so pretty much anything which increases views (short of something that attracts you downvotes) is going to help your question get answered. I've seen this happen before with my own questions - using generic tags (like C#) really does help. – Justin Aug 30 '11 at 13:59


  • try to build your own subcommunity that cares about your interest (tagging is important here)


  • forget about Stack Overflow and use a much more specialized website

In both cases, you shouldn't consider reputation important at all (it looked as a good idea at first, but now I think that it was bad: how many forums have reputation? How many have reputation points-farming questions and answers?) Anyway, I recommend the first approach (and remember: forget reputation, you won't gain many digits, and it doesn't matter).

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you are recomending something like "this is what it is, be satisfied, we should even close meta, nothing will ever change, please do nothing"... – please delete me Apr 23 '10 at 16:53

I'm guessing someone has already suggested it in other contexts, but

I wish we could separate two kinds of 'upvote wishes':

  • "Hey, I just had the exact same problem as you, dude!" ... as opposed to
  • "This question is thought-provoking, well-presented, promotes useful discussion etc."
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