I'm not sure if there's already an existing term for this, so I'm inventing my own.

(tl;dr: I call them "chameleon questions" because they change every time you submit or edit an answer. If you're already intimately familiar with the phenomenon, please skip past the first set of bullet points to where I ask for recommendations.)

I think many of us have experienced this on occasion:

  1. You open up a narrow-looking question, usually dealing with some specific error message. The question probably contains a snippet of sloppy but not quite awful code; code indicating that the author, typically a new/low-rep user, possibly a Mort, doesn't really know what he's doing. I'm not trying to be condescending here, he's probably very intelligent and hardworking, but in this specific case, he's clearly in way over his head.

  2. However, as a question, it's not really too bad. The goal and problem are both clearly stated. The code is formatted (sort of). Mort was polite and checked his spelling. The question looks answerable, although from a rep perspective* it's an obvious dead-end, it's had maybe 3 views in the past 30 minutes.

  3. So you decide, you know what, this person took the time to write up the question properly, he deserves an answer, put on your good citizen hat and throw him a bone. You slog through the ugly code, find the offending line, direct his attention to it and explain why it's wrong and how it needs to be fixed.

  4. Later, he leaves a comment saying that yes, that was indeed the problem and your answer helped him fix it (great!). Oh, but, now there's another problem (uh-oh...). Something else is broken. After letting out a long sigh, you read the comment and/or edited question, roll up your sleeves, and write up Take 2, hoping that's the end of it.

  5. And of course it's not the end. Now maybe the error is gone, but it's not doing what it's supposed to. If you're anything like me, your patience is now starting to wear thin. It's lousy code and you didn't volunteer to help him rewrite his whole app. And of course, the question still only has 12 views, and nobody has upvoted either the question or your answer, including the person you're helping, so this is turning out to be a genuinely thankless task in all respects. Welcome to "Family Tech Support", Web 2.0 Edition.

* Which is of course just an arbitrary number that none of us care about. Not really, anyway. Not very much, at least.

So, here's where I get to my question. At this point, do you:

  • Leave a comment, stating as politely as possible that you've done your best to help him answer the original question he asked, and if he has a new problem then he should start a new question? (I did this once, and actually ended up with an accept, but I felt kind of guilty afterwards, I don't think anybody answered his 2nd question).

  • Bite the bullet and edit your answer a 3rd, 4th, 5th time, however many times it takes to resolve his issue, knowing full well that he may not even remember to accept the answer once you're done? (I may work for free on SO, but that doesn't mean my time is worthless.)

  • Just abandon the question, hoping that it will force Mort to start thinking for himself?

  • Something else?

I've tried all three of the above and none of them ever quite feel right. I do want to help, but at the same time there are a lot more "lucrative" questions I could be answering. And I don't mind spending a lot of time on an answer either, if the question is interesting or important to me, but debugging is dull work.

I'd prefer not to reference specific questions here; I'm pretty sure that this is a shared experience, and my objective isn't to point fingers at "misbehaving" members. I'm more looking for some practical advice on how to dig myself out of these pits of despair.

Anybody have any other ideas?

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You're not going to change this question once I answer it, are you? –  tvanfosson Mar 22 '10 at 15:23
At first, I didn't know what you were talking about. By the time I got halfway through, it became painfully familiar. –  mmyers Mar 22 '10 at 15:24
@tvanfosson: Shhh, don't give away my evil plans! –  Aarobot Mar 22 '10 at 15:28
Someone has mentioned the russian dolls which would be a great synonym to the Chameleon Questions. I like the russian babushka version better :D –  user221081 Nov 28 '13 at 15:59
Also when you are editing the answer to help the User after 12 edit's the answer becomes a wiki, which doesn't feel that well. –  JimmyKane Jan 7 at 10:54
top 3 comments on this are all powers of 2! –  Cruncher Mar 10 at 19:45
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10 Answers

up vote 89 down vote accepted

Generally as long as the OP is still trying to solve the original problem or something closely related, i.e., my answer still makes sense, I'll keep helping. Once the topic starts to drift or it's clear that whatever I write the guy just isn't getting it, I'll just let the matter drop for awhile and make a mental note to check on it later when I'm less busy. I might make a suggestion a new direction might be better handled as a new question. Generally, I don't feel bad about this as most questions get answers and a new question is an opportunity for him to get more rep. Eventually, the time between check ups increases to the point where we both give up.

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You actually make a very good point about the timing. Responding to the changes, but with decreasing expedition, would seem to be a pretty good way of encouraging some independent thought while still maintaining an air of polite cooperation. If they're not sure when the next answer will arrive, they might try to solve it themselves, and if they've already solved it by your next update, so much the better. I like this strategy. –  Aarobot Mar 22 '10 at 16:05
@Aarobot: +1 for "decreasing expedition" –  Kerrek SB Mar 25 '12 at 14:38
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Since this was an older question, I feel the need to add a new answer:

Now that we have a real-time chat system, use it! I have found that chat is the perfect solution to questions that require a lot of back-and-forth. I would suggest posting a comment to your answer inviting the user to join you in a chat room. This will encourage new users to chat, but also lets others who are trying to answer know that you're in the chat room.

If the user joins you, ask for details in chat and update your answer with new suggestions, asking the user to refresh your answer. Optionally insert into your answer links to the detail provided by the user in chat, so others can see how you're miraculously learning more details about the user's question.

Here's an example of a question I answered while chatting with the asker, and it worked out very well.

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(I think this is a better answer for a question of mine which was closed as an exact dupe of this question...) –  The Unhandled Exception Jan 22 '11 at 20:43
What if the OP isn't online the same time your are? I've been in similar situations, but the back and forth were several hours (or sometimes) days apart. –  Herbert Dec 21 '11 at 23:41
@Herbert Good point. Chat is great realtime but the nature of Stack Exchange chat is not limited to realtime. Create a new room and invite the user into it. Try and schedule a time to meet in there if you like but remember that you can go back and forth in chat much like you do in comments, only better, because you can onebox, link to specific messages, search, star, etc etc. –  The Unhandled Exception Dec 21 '11 at 23:58
I haven't spent any time in chat. I assumed it would be like other chat systems, but apparently not. Good to know. There is one other problem though: once I was notified by the system to invite someone to chat (when there gets to be a lot of comments), but the OP didn't have enough rep to chat. –  Herbert Dec 22 '11 at 0:29
Thanks for the rep @Chris! –  The Unhandled Exception Dec 28 '11 at 14:32
I have tried this approach a couple of times, only to hit the 50(?) rep minimum for chatting. –  vascowhite May 6 '12 at 11:32
I think this is not the timesaver you're looking for. It likely leads to handholding, which takes a lot of time. Devastating to repfarming too ;) –  Lodewijk Jul 25 '13 at 21:08
Some of us answer questions while we are at work. The chat system is blocked, while (fortunately) Stack Exchange is not blocked. –  Gilbert Le Blanc Aug 13 '13 at 13:47
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Really depends on the question, and the mood I'm in. If the questions are closely related and I think I can get a good answer out of it, I'll put the time in; if it's devolving into a hand-holding discussion, I'll probably just walk away (and may even delete my answer).

In at least one instance, I've rolled back the question and asked the author to post a new one.

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I never thought about deleting my answer... would that be to avoid possible future downvotes, or is it intended to send a particular message to the question author (or both)? –  Aarobot Mar 22 '10 at 15:21
I'd only delete if the question changed so much that my answer made no sense any more -- which has happened. Stinks to get downvoted for an answer that previously made sense but then is completely inappropriate when the question changes. –  tvanfosson Mar 22 '10 at 15:30
@Aaronaught: what tvanfosson said - when the question changes so much (due to additions or outright revisions) that my answer is rendered either irrelevant or woefully incomplete. –  Shog9 Mar 22 '10 at 15:42
@Shog9 - what if the user change the question to a related issue but also REMOVE the old question content? Your answer does not make sense anymore because you suggested a solution that he is now using and cannot use correctly. See this: link Suggested how to delete an item, now he is using the suggested method but has posted another problem, removing the original form the question. –  SPArchaeologist Apr 11 '13 at 8:55
In this case the question is still related to deleting an item, but the original explanation is now "not needed". My answer does not answer the question anymore. I can edit it to match the new question, but I believe that if you edit the question with a new issue you should leave the original question there. As it was A, now it is A+B - not now it's C an let's forget about A. –  SPArchaeologist Apr 11 '13 at 8:58
+1 for the rollback –  Samuel Liew Aug 1 '13 at 14:11
@Aarobot: Both. I've deleted 3 or 4 of my answers when it was obvious that I was fished or I've gotten angry at the questioner. –  Gilbert Le Blanc Aug 13 '13 at 13:50
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Here is the approach that has been proven to work pretty well for me. 1, 2

As soon as I sense that Oh, but, now there's another problem I reply with comment like this:

Looks like <refer to original problem> is solved isn't it? As for <refer to "next" problem>, that would be a different question, consider posting it separately.

Interesting that above approach "utilizes" your question to deal with the kind of issues you're asking about. Feels pretty meta.

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yes! i will be copying and pasting it xD –  user221081 Sep 24 '13 at 12:44
+1 for the meta feeling. –  Amal Murali Oct 6 '13 at 10:10
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I know exactly what you mean. In fact, these questions typically cause me to add many "Update" portions to my answers, over, and over, and over again. I generally try to stick with it for a few iterations - not everybody can get their point across the first time. Some times it takes some exercising to explain exactly what their problem is. After about 3 or 4 updates, it does start getting a bit fatiguing. If I cannot answer the question in about 4 exchanges, I will likely leave my answer for a reference, and abandon the mission.

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Usually I'll do the comment thing until we get to the point where I finally understand the problem rather than constantly re-editing. Once you have a handle on the real problem, that's the time to update. Comments seem to have better convergence rate than back and forth editing. –  tvanfosson Mar 22 '10 at 15:32
Comments are best, but typically the wording of the questions leads you to believe you understand it, which leads to an answer. Then the OP clarifies with a comment on your answer, causing you to edit your answer, ad nauseum. –  Jonathan Sampson Mar 22 '10 at 15:36
I'm just saying that I'd respond with a comment until my understanding is refined. If the first comment works, then I go back and update immediately. Sometimes it takes a number of comments before I feel that I adequately understand how my first answer needs to be modified. –  tvanfosson Mar 22 '10 at 15:45
Ah, I see what you mean. That's typically the approach I take as well, not wanting to pummel my answer with unnecessary edits. –  Jonathan Sampson Mar 22 '10 at 15:47
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Another possibility would be to implement a "Create followup question" feature, normalizing the process to some extent.

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Sometimes a question just feels like it's missing something. I can't really describe it in words. It's like they've told you the problem, but there's one minute, seemingly insignificant detail they've omitted that turns the entire problem upside-down.

Whenever I get this feeling about a question, I now hit the Back button immediately. (It took me a few tries before I learned this lesson.)

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You could at least leave a comment like "Is this the problem you're trying to fix or are you describing what is going wrong with your 'bug fix'?" –  Tobias Kienzler Jul 27 '10 at 8:53
@TobiasKienzler: XY Problems are particularly tricky. There's usually a considerable amount of back and forth before it becomes obvious. Of course, some people have better XYfu than I do. –  Herbert Dec 21 '11 at 23:50
@Herbert true, but abandoning a potentially XY-y question without even letting the OP know why no one replies is not going to make the internet a better place... –  Tobias Kienzler Dec 22 '11 at 8:52
@TobiasKienzler: I totally agree. –  Herbert Dec 22 '11 at 15:43
What do you mean by "XY Problem"? –  John Feb 23 '12 at 22:13
@John. XY Problem. –  TRiG is Timothy Richard Green Apr 2 '12 at 20:58
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I give the asker something to do. Make him/her show effort to see if I want to keep showing effort on my side. I say something like

Please expand your question further. Give more detail to clarify your problem more. Add necessary info from your comments into your question...

I am busy in the SQL area and I often tell the user to add a SQLFiddle to demonstrate the problem further. That takes time and many users don't bother to take the effort. But if they do I am willing to help.

If the user shows effort I try to keep up if the question isn't a total different one.

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I think the situation where the question is edited to ask something different is a clear case for why it's often considered best practice (but maybe not on stackoverflow?) to restate the question in your answer.

Say "doing x and y is appropriate", and not "that is appropriate", so that the worst that your answer can become is irrelevant, as opposed to wrong.

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I am one of the askers you describe. I know this is late, but someone just now told me about this post. I have read your entire question and understand it completely.

I disagree with a word you used: "worthless." Your efforts might cause people to stop contributing to this site, and by extension, to a better world.

We don't answer questions for payment or peacockery. We do it to build a more active community. And we still get credit for our actions. Just look at missionaries and open source community contributors.

But the problem still bores answerers like you, and of course askers like me.

Luckily, we are all developers, and as such we are all familiar with using computers to do repetitive, boring, reusable tasks.

[Everything from here down, except for the last bit about your English, is what you should copy to one or more new post(s). -Ed.]

I suggest that Stack Overflow add the following features to solve the problem:

  1. Implement a more intelligent pre-/post-processor

    • Provide an AI that could tell prospective authors about similar/possible duplicate questions before they submit new posts. It could act like Wolfram Alpha.

    • Provide an AI that could send notifications about new questions to users who might be able to answer them. Allow this AI to mark answers "accepted" when it thinks they're good enough.

  2. Add more automatic rules

    • Don't just notify askers of activity. Automatically bump questions with low activity, like my poor unanswered questions.

    • Send notifications through IM clients (IRC/XMPP/&c).

  3. Add more actions for users

    • Add a fork action to existing answered questions. This would let users ask related/follow-up questions based on the solved problems, and keep related information together. Visitors would be able to learn from the initial question — and its answers — and then move on to related topics; this would help them more than a single question would.

    • Add a quote and link or split action for sections. Most of the boring questions you mention could be split into many smaller questions. Some or all of the sections might have been solved before, and we could link the sections to the existing solutions. This would help askers and answerers focus their efforts on unsolved sections.

    • Add a merge or join or union action for questions. Askers often post questions that are just parts of their real problems. For example, one person configuring nginx might ask about configuring the nginx proxy module while another might ask about configuring the nginx cache module. If we could put those and other related questions in some kind of "nginx configuration group," it could be a treasure house for all people trying to set nginx up.

Sorry for the poor English in the initial revision, I am Chinese. I welcome comments about solecisms and weird usage that can help me improve my English.

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Welcome to Meta, thanks for taking the time to respond! You should post the second half of this answer as a separate question and add the [feature-request] tag, and then edit this post to add a link to the new question. –  Pops Feb 23 '12 at 16:48
+1 for "peacockery". Love it. –  jrturton Feb 23 '12 at 17:19
I do not agree that using a Q&A forum for long and drawn-out troubleshooting sessions helps to build a better community; on the contrary, it erodes the community by fatiguing and jading the best contributors. The rest of your answer, as @PopularDemand says, belongs in separate [feature-request] questions, not here, and most of them are either already rejected or hopelessly misguided from a usability perspective (a fork action? seriously?) –  Aarobot Aug 18 '12 at 15:23
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