2 deleted 5 characters in body; edited tags
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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  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.

    Notice removed Reward existing answer by Chris Frederick
    Bounty Ended with The Unhandled Exception's answer chosen by Chris Frederick
    Notice added Reward existing answer by Chris Frederick
    Bounty Started worth 50 reputation by Chris Frederick
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Exit strategies for "chameleon questions"

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:

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?