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I'm relatively new to SO and there are a bunch of things you can't do on the site without reputation so I thought hey, I'll answer some questions and gain some reputation etc. So I started looking at the newest unanswered questions on the site and immediately noticed 2 things:

  • Incoming questions are often very vague, or not even really a question. (Here's some code, what am I doing wrong? Without saying what they tried and what the result was. Or: how do I use the facebook graph API? Uh, what have you tried so far, have you read the obvious doc link, what specifically are you trying to do. Or: I need to do so-and-so for a project, I'm too lazy to write the code myself, someone please provide a snippet that does X.)

  • People are answering these within a few minutes anyway! Often with answers that are actually useful. So there's not much incentive for people to try harder when asking questions.

On the one hand, this makes SO a great resource for newbies or the lazy -- come put very little effort into a question, get an answer and often a useful solution, great.

OTOH it doesn't make SO a great resource for building the canonical list of good questions and answers, which I believe is the charter.

In the spirit of teaching people to fish: Is there accepted wisdom/protocol/methods for answering weak questions with advice on asking better questions, some document on SO or elsewhere that we can point posters to, especially new posters? Is there a gentle form of such advice that's proven useful? Or is it best to ignore the problem, let whoever is willing to answer vague questions, and trust that these questions and their answers won't get upvoted enough to be seen in later searches? (On the good side: when I've found myself on SO because it was linked from outside, especially from a Google query, the questions and answers have been much higher quality; it's just the raw new-question stream that seems much worse.)

(Note: I did search for this question on meta and see some related discussion but mostly in old closed threads, and I didn't find anything specifically on protocol for responding to vague/poorly put questions, so I'm asking this as a new question.)

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Welcome to the wonderful world of Stack Overflow. If we could solve some of these problems we'd be a happy bunch, so all suggestions welcome! – ChrisF Jan 11 '11 at 20:02
Whatever you do, please don't link to a certain open-source fanatic's anti-social, long-winded screed on the subject. That's the canonical answer to a question nobody asked. – Aarobot Jan 11 '11 at 20:28
@Aarobot: heh, agreed. A pro-social, concise screed on the subject in the spirit and tone of StackOverflow might be helpful though? – metamatt Jan 11 '11 at 20:37
Textually berate them....? – MVCylon Jan 11 '11 at 20:40
In that case, have you read Jon Skeet's version, or the How To Ask page? – Aarobot Jan 11 '11 at 20:41
Yeah, the how-to-ask page is good. Have people seen positive results from politely posting a link to that and saying "please read this and update your question and you'll get better answers"? – metamatt Jan 11 '11 at 20:50
That's kind of hard to measure, unless you go so far as to follow up on the posting habits of the person you gave the link to. And that's a little bit... creepy. – Aarobot Jan 11 '11 at 21:22
up vote 6 down vote accepted

SO is relatively friendly to hazy questions - there will often be somebody willing to answer anyway. But that is not a reason to encourage lazy behaviour, or to waste time answering questions that can't really be answered yet! My personal protocol for such questions is:

If it's salvageable:

  • If the intent is clear but just badly put, consider editing the question
  • If the intent is unclear, don't answer; add a comment asking for clarification instead
  • If your comment asking for clarification is ignored or rejected, ignore the question. If you want to (and don't mind getting a negative reaction), say so in a separate comment

If it's beyond fixing or really borderline maliciously lazy:

  • Downvote
  • Vote to close as "not a real question"
  • If malice is obvious, leave acidic comment
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Thanks for the response. I'd considered a couple of those -- I have occasionally added a comment asking for clarification but it seems likely that'll just get ignored or lost in the noise once real answers start coming in; I don't yet have the right to downvote or vote to close but I look forward to using it wisely once I earn it :) – metamatt Jan 11 '11 at 20:07
@meta I know what you mean. I tend to think that if comments asking for clarification are ignored, the question isn't worth wasting time with. Q&A is a two-way street. – Pëkka Jan 11 '11 at 20:09
Couldn't agree more. I consider the ability to edit the question (so that it can be improved) one of the biggest powers of SO. – BalusC Jan 11 '11 at 22:59

Faux answers. I have no scientific proof that they help reducing the bad question influx, but they are sometimes appropriate.

Oftentimes the lazy askers don't respond to any comments. And in the process of guessing what a question means, the participants frequently leave the actual answer in the comments. Too many comments contain an actual answer, because people think the note is not helpful enough in its own right.

That's why I think it's sometimes senseful to answer with a short note (google this, have you tried that) as answer. If the question is unclear, answer on a best guest practice. The results being, that you (1) might be right, (2) illustrate the ambiguity of a question more clearly to the asker, (3) divert unwarranted attention from substandard questions by making them appear answered.

Point (2) is important to get attention and betterment from the asker. Because SO encourages bad behaviour else.

  • Point out that you think the question is unclear (I'm not sure this is what you mean, but try ...).
  • If it's a plzsendtehcodez question, you can (and should) still answer with a description of the algorithm.
  • Links to related (near-duplicate) questions are actually helpful. If the asker writes incomprehensible, chances are that it's an actual beginner question. Which likely has come up before. Google links are not mean.

If you think a faux answer is not helpful or nice enough, make it community wiki to avert downvotes (never seen one though). But anyway, prefer answers for approximating what the question might be about instead of comment-debugging.

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A very constructive approach. Not bad. – Pëkka Jan 12 '11 at 1:30

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