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Suddenly, the number of outstanding flagged answers went up. It used to be lower than that.

I was reviewing them, and it occurred to me that I see invalid "not an answer" flags more often than I would like, or expect.

It has been obvious to me that this flag is for answers that are semantically not answers.
That is, if an answer is blatantly wrong, it must not be flagged, because it is an answer (a wrong one). It must be downvoted instead.

However, people seem to apply the flag to irrelevant/wrong answers, because the answer, in their opinion, does not answer the question.

I personally find the flag description from the flagging popup box clear enough:

http://i.stack.imgur.com/HH8tN.png

It clearly states the reasons to flag as not-an-answer. Yet it seems to be not clear enough? Could we possibly make it even clearer?

EDIT

Alternatively, if this is actually not an abuse of the flag, can we have the policy on using this flag clarified please.

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4 Answers 4

I use the not an answer flag for answers that do not address the question. From the flag description (emphasis mine):

This was posted as an answer, but it does not answer the question. It should possibly be an edit, a comment, another question, or deleted altogether.

So I do think not an answer is legitimate for posts that clutter up the site, bringing no useful information. This is different from wrong answers that can be refuted, may be useful in slightly different circumstances, and should generally be deleted by their author if he decides the answer is indeed wrong. Examples of situations where I think the answer should be deleted whether the author wants it or not, and so the not an answer flag is the right reaction:

  • Answers that are clearly not addressing the question. For example, responding to a question that's explicitly about Linux with an answer that's intrinsically specific to Windows. Or answering with PHP code to a question that's about C#. These aren't even wrong, they're irrelevant.
  • Answers that include so little information that they clearly cannot be turned into a working solution by the asker. Things like “you should use jQuery” when the asker is clearly after help writing the jQuery code.
  • Answers that consist of just a link. I tend to just downvote them, because I know there's a wide support for allowing these answers. But I wouldn't blame someone who considers that see this link is not an answer.

On Stack Overflow, I have seen the not an answer being wrongly used sometimes, but not so often that I think there is a problem. I think the most common case of misuse is when the answer starts with a question, but nonetheless contains a solution (“this function is in the foo module, did you remember to import it?”).

If you have specific examples of misuse, it would help focus this discussion.

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Yes. All three bullets here are examples of the flag abuse I'm talking about. –  GSerg Jun 19 '11 at 14:09
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@GSerg: That's where we disagree then. I consider such answers irrelevant or abusive, hence material for deletion, hence valid uses of the not an answer flag. –  Gilles Jun 19 '11 at 14:18
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@Gilles And I consider them eligible for downvoting down to hell, which may make the author delete it (and earn the peer pressure badge). I would agree it's a rather philosophical question who's right here. Well, anyway, we can have the mods to clarify the site policy on this one. –  GSerg Jun 19 '11 at 14:23
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The prompt quoted is clear enough. Not 'not semantically an answer' but 'does not answer this question.' +1 –  Rosinante Jun 19 '11 at 14:53
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The first two bullets are not an answer, but I'd take a relevant link if it answered my problem any day. –  Lance Roberts Jun 20 '11 at 18:26
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I have an issue with your point Answers that are clearly not addressing the question. You are absolutely right they are not a satisfactory answer, but i think they should be down voted rather than flagged - after all that is what the voting facility is for. Using a down vote will alter the rep of the person answering, which is (supposed to be) a measure of how much you can trust their answer. Flagging the answer so it gets deleted means that someone got away with tendering a crap answer. –  slugster Jun 20 '11 at 22:07
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@slugster I prefer irrelevant answers to be deleted because they just clutter the site. Having good answers is more important than being precise about reputation (and downvotes have negligible impact on reputation anyway). Even wrong answers can contribute something (e.g. if they solve a slightly different problem that might help searchers, or they show a tempting but wrong approach), but irrelevant answers are just noise. –  Gilles Jun 20 '11 at 22:37
    
@Gilles Are you saying then that the ability to downvote answers is redundant and should be removed? Good questions upvoted, bad questions deleted? –  GSerg Jun 21 '11 at 22:57
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@GSerg: As I wrote above, I downvote wrong answers and (push to) delete answers with no relevant content. My criterion is: is this answer useful, even if it's as a warning of what not to do? Then I vote; if the answer is noise, it should not be on the site. –  Gilles Jun 21 '11 at 23:03
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http://i.stack.imgur.com/kHtFJ.png

Per recent discussion, flag description has been adjusted as follows (added words are in bold):

This was posted as an answer, but it does not attempt to answer the question...

Detailed explanation for the intended use of the flag was given by Joel Spolsky here and copied into 'not-an-answer' tag wiki:

  • Should have been a comment - this is not an answer, it is a comment on the question or on another answer.

  • Should have been an edit - this is not an answer, it is additional information about the question from the original asker.

  • Me-too! non-answer - this answer consists of nothing more than "Me too!" or "Did anyone find the answer?"

  • Conversational and irrelevant - this is not an answer, just a random conversation or rant, or meaningless typing that should be deleted.

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I would think that who is flagging the answers didn't read the "it should possibly be an edit, a comment, another question, or deleted altogether" part, or didn't read the description at all.

In the first case, what is probably confusing the users who are flagging is the "it does not answer the question" part.

Rephrasing the description as follows (or with similar words) could help.

This was posted as an answer, but it should possibly be an edit for the question, a comment, another question, or deleted altogether.

The "or deleted altogether" is probably what causes the flag to be used from who want to flag an answer because they think it should be deleted. Removing that part, or rephrasing it could help too.

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I flagged a question yesterday for that exact same reason (should've been an edit to the question), but it was marked invalid. It seems like they mark it as valid only if it is a blatant "thank you" or similar post. –  Lorem Ipsum Jun 19 '11 at 14:48
    
@yoda If I would see the OP that adds an answer which explains what they did, but it also contains another question (e.g. "does anybody know a better solution?"), then I would flag the answer as being an edit for the question. The problem is that some users confuse an SE site with a forum. –  kiamlaluno Jun 19 '11 at 14:58
    
Ah yes, this was not the OP.. some one else posted an answer which was just a typo correction. Usually typo corrections are solutions to the problem, but in this case it wasn't. It was just a simple typo correction. Oh well, it doesn't matter now though. –  Lorem Ipsum Jun 19 '11 at 15:34
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@yoda I agree with you that if somebody reports a typo, when the typo is not in the code for which the OP is wondering why it doesn't work, then that should be a comment. –  kiamlaluno Jun 19 '11 at 15:38
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I think that some are using it in place of a downvote. I would speculate that this is because the flag raiser doesn't have enough rep to be able to downvote, or because they don't want to lose the reputation for downvoting an answer. But due to Jeff's recent change to the way conflicting flags are handled, you now suffer no penalty if you flag it as invalid.

It would be good if someone with direct access to the database can do a quick check for:

  • the rep score of the first person to flag an answer as Not an answer
  • the original flag is later flagged as invalid

I believe this may show whether the flag is being misused, or just misunderstood.

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