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Sometimes people ask questions that make it look like they're doing things wrong (the most common example being storing sensitive data) and it's easy to tell them to abandon their project and use someone else's solution, and often in such ways that can be embarrassing.

Still, no one likes to be embarrassed, no matter their competency level, and there are better ways to react than others.

Also, when reading such questions and finding embarrassing answers, it's often difficult to tell the author that they should be softer, because when confronted, they are often themselves meta-embarrassed (embarrassed of posting an embarrassing answer, and not willing to admit it; and therefore fixing nothing).

What are common patterns of embarrassing answers (so that it can be easier to spot them) and how can they be transformed into something better (so that authors can be directed here for help on how to make their answers better)?

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While I applaud you looking out for your fellow wo/man, I'm honestly not really sure what you are asking for here. In "real-world" discourse, toes will be stepped on, and sometimes the truth hurts. I think you can only shield people from so much before there's an atmosphere of anxiety superimposed on the "meta-" situation that you describe. If the asker has made a mistake, it should probably be pointed out gingerly, but people come here for (computer) support, not (counseling) support. –  jonsca Jul 2 '11 at 21:04
@jonsca, I'm pretty sure there are identifiable constructs in answers such that it would be possible to tell someone, "hey, your answer has [name identifiable pattern here], and it could be improved if you made these changes [link here]". –  zneak Jul 3 '11 at 6:33
I think you'd be entering quite a mire of natural language processing. What are the characteristics of a post that are universally hurtful? If I write "yeesh" after every point I make, would that sarcasm bother someone? Could you detect multiple exclamation points and user that? What if I wrote "Voila!!" (extraneous information, and could be flagged, I realize, but why reject and ding my post as if I had said "Idiot!!.") –  jonsca Jul 3 '11 at 7:03
@jonsca, I'm not willing to penalize anyone posting an aggressive answer, and flagging is probably not the right option either in most cases. Also, making an automatic system to detect such patterns would be a daunting task (if even possible with current technologies). To be improvable, answers don't need to be universally hurtful–in fact, they likely never are, unless authors are genuinely mischievous (in which case flagging is the appropriate reaction). Authors just need to be better aware that they might be a little too strong, and that there are easy ways to make their post look better. –  zneak Jul 4 '11 at 5:30

1 Answer 1

The sites are trying to be repositories of useful, accurate information. Not fluffy bunnies and rainbows (though there are sometimes exceptions for unicorns). If someone is doing something horribly, embarrassingly wrong, they need to be told so, so that they can do it better. Keep in mind that the answers should serve the whole community, not just the asker. If something is Doomed to Failure, rather than just being a sub-optimal solution, that should be made perfectly clear so others don't fall into the same trap. If, after their question has been turned into a "teachable moment", they're a bit embarrassed, that's ok. It's just part of learning. And it's better to be embarrassed by some internet strangers you'll never see again than embarrassed in front of your boss when something goes predictably wrong.

If the responses are coming off as overly mean or condescending though, then it's just fine to edit them into a more neutral, informational tone. Just as long as the importance of not doing the bad thing isn't lost. The author, if they even notice, should get the idea without any sort of public confrontation. If they do decide to get bucky and start an edit war to keep their insults, flag it for a moderator. In severe cases you can also flag as "not welcome in our community".

Also, if they're doing something for a job and they're clearly in over their head, telling them to use a pre-existing solution is very likely the best answer. Best for the asker, and best for their employer. Especially for security issues like you mentioned, people shouldn't be rolling their own without very good reason.

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They sure need to be told that they're doing it wrong. However, it's often told in a way that hardly brings people to agree on their own. I've seen a lots of posts starting with "you're doing it wrong", often with important regards on the issue, but I've rarely (if ever) seen one accepted. It always ends up being a less helpful but less embarrassing answer that gets selected; and it's not helping anyone, neither the asker nor future users, if suboptimal answers get selected because the technically best answer capitalized on how wrong the asker is. –  zneak Jul 2 '11 at 23:21
Like I said, if it's coming off as mean go ahead and edit. But we shouldn't avoid telling people they're wrong when they are. If they're too embarrassed to accept the one that says they're wrong, it'll still benefits others who might be looking at the same problem. –  Brad Mace Jul 3 '11 at 5:35
I've never ever said you shouldn't tell people they're wrong. I'm saying it would benefit everyone if people actually knew how to tell someone they're wrong. You can have the best answer in the world, if you start off with "You are completely wrong and it should be obvious", the asker will very likely settle for the second best answer. For anonymous users, there will be an advertisement banner between the selected answer and yours. In other words, no one's ever gonna read it. –  zneak Jul 3 '11 at 6:20
ok... we seem to be in agreement as far as I can tell. If there's another point you want people to address perhaps you can revise your question to elaborate on what it is. –  Brad Mace Jul 3 '11 at 18:21

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