This is partly related to: Using the word “problem” in titles – however this one here is an actual .

Problem, Sir?

I am trying to edit a question that contains a specific error message, namely:

there is a problem with the Office database

Error messages are the first thing people search for on the internet, therefore I feel it is absolutely necessary to have the error message in the title of the respective question. It used to have it, and I didn't want to change much on the title apart from adding quotes.

However, I get …

… and frankly, this does not make sense. I have made almost 3000 edits on Super User now, and I don't believe I can't be trusted to add whatever I deem necessary to the title. From my experience, titles don't get much editin' love anyway, and it shouldn't be made harder to edit them.

Even more so, this "feature" makes it impossible to ever revise an old post without breaking it. "Problem" can occur in almost every error message there is. Would you rather have a post with the title …

Error in Outlook

… than …

"There was a problem with the connection" error in Outlook

Which one is more meaningful? Of course, this is just an example, and the question I linked to shows other issues like "problems" in the domain of mathematics.

And while I'm sure there are several posts where "problem" really does not make sense in the title, I think there are far more serious title issues that need fixing (which however can't be fixed by a simple blocking filter).

Feature Request

I therefore suggest that users with enough privileges should be able to edits posts freely, regardless of the current restrictions in place.

Given that "problem" in titles is mainly abused by new users, "enough privileges" could mean:

  • full edit privileges (2k),
  • review privileges (5k) (in case the above is not enough)
  • a certain number of edits approved, such as being awarded the strunk & white badge
  • 16
    +1 I wanted to edit a post on SO that had "Problem" in the title, to fix several spelling errors & other snafus, but couldn't save it the revisions because the OP had put "Problem" in the title and I left it there. I didn't want to change the title - just fix some bugs in the question. I left it as-is, rather than try to pass the test. So, an ugly question sits around because of a staring match on words in titles. Why should I make the question conform to pass an obviously inappropriate automatic rule? An enforced edit is as enlightened as the machine that enforces it.
    – Iterator
    Commented Oct 9, 2011 at 15:00
  • 68
    +1 This is restriction is one of the worst features ever implemented on SO. It's right up there with the expanding search bar. Commented Oct 9, 2011 at 17:09
  • 1
    @NullUserException I know, and while it might be helpful to eliminate some bad titles, it's just so ridiculous when you begin to think about it. I have 23k reputation all around the SE network, I've edited over 3000 posts, and I can't put the word "problem" into my title, even when I try to fix others' posts?
    – slhck
    Commented Oct 9, 2011 at 17:15
  • 2
    @Kevin any feedback on why this is declined?
    – Pekka
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 8:55
  • 9
    Why don't you guys take the constructive criticism and try to work around these issues. The community wants it. Why would you "status-decline" it with no reason.
    – JonH
    Commented Dec 2, 2011 at 20:03
  • I guess it's a way of them saying: Problem?
    – prusswan
    Commented Feb 16, 2012 at 7:02
  • Bump for this question. Trying to correct the spelling in the title.
    – Sam DeHaan
    Commented Apr 27, 2012 at 20:07
  • @SamDeHaan I have to say though, the question you linked to is really not a good fit for Stack Exchange.
    – slhck
    Commented Apr 27, 2012 at 22:21
  • @slhck Yes, but it's one of the questions old enough that the community has decided to keep it around, so I would like to at least be able to correct the spelling.
    – Sam DeHaan
    Commented Apr 28, 2012 at 14:39
  • 1
    @KevinMontrose♦ Can you explain why this was declined. It's one of the worse aberrations on stack exchange.
    – Coyote
    Commented Jan 3, 2013 at 22:43

6 Answers 6


Why not allow problem if it's within a quoted statement?


Subject Line: I am having a problem with app XYZ (disallowed, as under current rules)

Subject Line: Crashed with "A problem occured in module DEF"? (allowed, as it's within quotes)

I imagine it should be straight-forward to incorporate this as a validation rule. Sure it could be exploited, but people exploiting or misrepresenting through the subject line get downvoted/moderated anyways. This proposed validation would still filter most subject lines according to the original intent, but allow @slhck's subject line through (which I agree is useful when hardcoded error messages are involved).

Overall, this would satisfy @slhck's situation while not separating abilities into two classes of user as @Frédéric and @Kevin brought up.

  • 11
    I personally don't want another arcane rule to memorize. Commented Dec 8, 2011 at 21:29
  • 35
    I am having a "problem" with app XYZ
    – Ben Lee
    Commented Dec 20, 2011 at 21:09
  • 1
    @BenLee Yea but how often do you see a title like that? If someone titles their question that way, they are probably a novice to the Q&A format or english writing, and the rest of their post is likely to have more serious issues than the title requiring community/mod edits/review. Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 23:54
  • 14
    @BenLee having a "problem" means you have no problem, right? So the question might then be deleted right away ;-)
    – Tomas
    Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 9:38
  • 2
    @Tomas, touche :).
    – Ben Lee
    Commented Jul 1, 2013 at 15:13

What we have here is very rudimentary spam filter. The system has a number of other approaches to spam:

Some are built into the system and others are ad-hoc solutions that are bolted on over time, develop institutional inertia, and will likely bug people for many years. (I'll let the reader categorize the above and other approaches I haven't thought of.)

When it comes to ad-hoc solutions, such as filtering on the word "problem", the system slowing devolves into a mass of unintelligible exceptions to the model. Most programmers have the mental tools to deal with that sort of system, but we are now inflicting it on non-programmers and that seems a mistake. (I gather this particular tweak is only for Stack Overflow itself, but I'm going to argue that there is a better way.)

A good sign that a solution is ad-hoc is that actual users (not fresh-off-the-street users, but people who have already participated in the site) start finding ways (such as Unicode) to get around the annoying rules. They start defending questions that end in "!??!!" on the basis of some obscure programming language where this is valid syntax. They aren't doing it to be annoying or because they legitimately like those sorts of questions or even want to read more of them, but because the rule is (in their opinion) stupid. Plus it's a basic hacker impulse to find clever ways around system limitations.

Ultimately the whole idea of creating an ad-hoc spam filter has been invalidated for years. Here's what Paul Graham says about them:

If I thought that I could keep up current rates of spam filtering, I would consider this problem solved. But it doesn't mean much to be able to filter out most present-day spam, because spam evolves. Indeed, most antispam techniques so far have been like pesticides that do nothing more than create a new, resistant strain of bugs.

If we are already going to try to automatically filter posts for "quality", why not go all the way and use a Bayesian filter? Given human votes, reputation, and a massive corpus of posts and edits, there ought to be more than enough information to work with. And of course there's ten years of prior art.

One additional benefit is that it will be possible to give users a qualitative reason for what's wrong with their question:

99.3% of questions that include the word "problem" in their title have a score of -3.
Maybe, just maybe, you should rephrase the question.

I'm not sure about implementation details, so this particular behavior might be as bad an idea as the current system. It would be a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy as people would learn not to use certain words and the only posts that have them would be bad ones. Perhaps adding reputation in the mix would make the filter more than just banning certain words. The point is to make the system more objective than just "I've seen a lot of bad questions that have the word "problem" in the title, so we should ban that word."

  • 7
    Good diagnosis. I don't think anyone disputes that the word is an indicator of crap; the <del>problem</del> issue is that there are legitimate, even necessary uses of the word that are now impossible.
    – jscs
    Commented Dec 8, 2011 at 21:22
  • 4
    @Problem That, and the fact that you even lose a good indicator of crappiness when you forbid the word.
    – slhck
    Commented Dec 8, 2011 at 22:55

You can do this already with some cheating.

Inserting U+200C ZERO WIDTH NON-JOINER somewhere in the word "problem" bypasses the filter. That character is invisible, and should be ignored by text processors that understand Unicode.

I applied this technique to a Super User question, and Stack Exchange search can still find it perfectly fine, as can Google. I did make sure to include a non-ZWNJ'd version of the error in the body of the question for search engines that don't handle Unicode quite right.

On Windows, you can copy a ZWNJ to your clipboard using the charmap utility. Search for "zero width" and U+200C is the second thing found.

I believe this loophole should not be closed. (Better yet, just implement the change asked for in this question.) I don't expect non-effort-expending users will exploit it to write bad titles, and if they do, they were warned. Sometimes, it really makes sense to have an error message in the title verbatim.


Update: In light of your comment, I guess I missed the main point of your question, and I should be more specific about the last paragraph of my original answer.

Truth is, I don't think that allowing trusted (2k+) users to bypass the problem filter is the way to go, mainly because:

  • Either the filter is useful (not having problem in question titles actually helps the site), and then I can't see why my edits or yours or Jon Skeet's should be able to bypass that filter,

  • Or it isn't, and putting problem into titles should be allowed for everyone.

I understand we want to discourage low-quality questions, and the aforementioned filter should apply to edits in order to prevent clever users from editing problem into their question titles right after posting them. Then again, I don't think 2k+ elitism would serve us there as well as it does on other aspects of the site.

In short, if the problem filter indeed causes problems, let's improve it for everyone or get rid of it altogether. Ignoring the issue while making 2k+ users immune to its effects looks like a fix for the symptom, not the root cause.

Original answer follows:

Well, to be fair, There is a problem with the Office database is an incredibly generic error message.

Your edit aims to give that message more prominence in searches, and that's fine, but are you really sure the question actually represents such a notable manifestation of that message? Or that the answers provided will solve more than, say, 10% of the problems related to that message?

Because if it's not the case, your edit might prove counter-productive in the long run, as it will shadow other, maybe more appropriate questions about the same message in searches (assuming, of course, you don't edit these questions as they come).

Now, regarding the filter, maybe we could allow problem in titles when enclosed in double " (and maybe single ') quote characters? That seems like a natural way to include an error message in the question title (you're using it twice in your question), and it doesn't offer a filter-circumvention path much stronger than pro-blem or zero-width spaces IMHO.

Or maybe we can get rid of the problem filter altogether, but I'm too young here to know the importance of the issue it was supposed to solve and how efficiently it ended up solving it. So, I can't really advocate that.

  • 52
    My point is: "There is a problem with the Office database" is the actual error message. I don't care if it's generic – that's Microsoft's fault, so to speak. There's not much context to add from the question (maybe Time Machine, maybe permissions), but from what I've experienced, the error message is the main "hook" here. Regarding the filter, I've thought the same (enclosing in quotes), but that still leaves the problems in other domains (like mathematical "problems"), and I'd just get rid of the filter for trusted users.
    – slhck
    Commented Oct 9, 2011 at 10:54
  • Concerning your edits: Yes, you do have a point there. That's why I added the option of allowing it for those who have proven to make good edits (e.g. by getting the strunk & white badge). I do think the rule itself a bad measure. It's crazy they came up with it, because it's really … sneaky in some way. And – as I said in my question – there are a lot of other things to fix in titles. If it were for me, the blocking shouldn't be there in the first place.
    – slhck
    Commented Oct 9, 2011 at 15:43
  • 21
    However, > I can't see why my edits or yours or Jon Skeet's should be able to bypass that filter – because you are given trust not to abuse "problem" in titles. The filter could still arguably be useful for new users who don't get the gist of the site.
    – slhck
    Commented Oct 9, 2011 at 15:44
  • 5
    Also new here. I suspect there may have been users who entered uninformative titles, like "Problem with C++ compiler warnings" or "Problem with arrays in Java" and so on. Extending my hypothesis forward in time: in order to nudge people toward more informative titles, someone created a heavy-handed filter. Now, the pendulum has swung enough that early "problem" questions remain & yet need edits - albeit not in the title (my case - see comment below the OP's question), or the actual term "Problem" needs to be in the title (the OP's question). (Continued)
    – Iterator
    Commented Oct 9, 2011 at 16:18
  • (Continued) Thus, some of us may be satisfied that excluding "Problem" in the title is reasonable for newer users, who should be encouraged to be informative in their titles, and yet more experienced users presumably already see the value of informative titles. Filtering "Problem" makes them focus on ways to get around the filter, rather than focusing on the site and the questions.
    – Iterator
    Commented Oct 9, 2011 at 16:19
  • 2
    The post this question is linked to, specifies legitimate uses for the word "problem," and requiring quotes to bypass the filter wouldn't improve matters. So, I think your second suggestion, remove the filter entirely, is the good one.
    – rcollyer
    Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 3:51

Is problem really meaningful or necessary in the title?

What I expect from a title is that it clearly tells me what problem the user is experiencing, and only that.

I care whether you have BSOD 0xED or 0x124 and their name, but I certainly not care about error messages, descriptions or similar specific details in the title. Looking at your example

there is a problem with the Office database

doesn't significantly mean anything, because it doesn't clearly tell me about the underlying problem.

A title that would literally copy an error message is just lazyness, you don't want titles to be like...

The system has rebooted without cleanly shutting down first?

But rather have a guiding title like

How can I troubleshoot my TDR crash that occurs while watching video streams?

Is problem really meaningful or necessary in your example?

Looking at your specific question, I see the following things:

  • A restore has happened (with TimeMachine)

  • Permission problems are related.

  • The database doesn't appear to load.

These details result in better alternatives for a title:

  • How do I fix my Office database after restoring a back-up?

  • Why does Office report database and permission errors after a restore?

These are more helpful for people scanning the question list and looking for something to answer.

As for search engine purposes, the question body is indexed too so that's not really an issue...

Are titles containing problem meaningless on Super User?

Putting your example aside, in general these titles containing problem are meaningless:

  • Can you solve my problem with my computer?

  • Why does my browser have a problem with visiting Stack Exchange?

  • Please help me with my slow computer problem?

Also note that I have a problem... is a quite commonly used forum title suffix.

Think of MLK saying "I have a dream...". Then question yourself "What dream? How can I help?"

As Jeff Atwood has shown me once; please don't make me read unnecessary text. Thanks.

Where there legitimate uses of "Problem" on Super User in the past?

Check out this search query and this search query. How good I am trying to look there, I don't see any legitimate uses of Problem there. Please note that Reputation, even in the 1st query, doesn't matter.

Here is a solution based on your low quality suggestion in the comments:

The proper solution is to add a hidden hasBeenFiltered field to the Ask Question page that gets enabled when a filtered word has been tried; which automatically gets the word on the low quality page, that tells on the low quality page what filter triggered. We keep the filter and perhaps add issue. That way, we don't have to edit problem or issue out ourselves in the case of better titles.

This way, it still gets filtered and we get to review them to handle the bad cases.

While Stack Overflow and Math.SE don't have this filter in place, this filter is a necessity on other SE sites as they don't have programming or mathematical problems. I doubt if Programmers.SE is an exception...

  • 13
    I disagree with you that having error messages in titles is pure laziness. When people get an error message, the first thing they do is type it in. Your alternative suggestions are good, but the first one needs interpretation (maybe it's not the backup that caused the problem?) and the second one actually contains "problem" again :) — my whole point is: By eliminating problem, you force users to think about a better title, but it's exactly these kinds of users who use "problem", who then fail to come up with a better title and just use something else, like "issue" (ctd …)
    – slhck
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 7:53
  • 4
    (…) … however, by doing that, you also restrict all legitimate uses, like the "Halting Problem", or any kind of mathematical problem, and there is no way to mention those in a title anymore. I wanted to make the distinction between having established users being able to use whatever they want in a title and restricting new users, which definitely is necessary on sites like Stack Overflow.
    – slhck
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 7:54
  • @slhck: The question title box is not a search box. Indeed the second contained problem, but errors fits as well. Indeed, words like issue are possible too but are less common. Perhaps the filter warning that comes up needs to be more descriptive, so they don't go for synonyms. "Why does my computer halt?" doesn't contain problem. I doubt if someone will ever have a problem with something like Problem Steps Recorder in Windows. Note that mathematical problems are of an exceptional kind, hence it's allowed on Math.SE. Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 16:30
  • @slhck: You should check out this search query and this search query. How good I am trying to look there, I don't see any legitimate uses of Problem there. Reputation, even in the 1st query, doesn't seem to matter. Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 16:49
  • Yes, these are terrible titles. I don't even doubt that, nor have I ever – the point though is, these aren't better, and that's the next synonym I'd use if I were lazy and problem wasn't allowed. The list could be continued.
    – slhck
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 16:57
  • @slhck: Then we should inspect them and add those to the filter. Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 17:29
  • 1
    Noooo, not any more filters please. It's the completely wrong approach to such a problem. What I've suggested elsewhere is just putting them into "low quality" automatically, and let others check it. There are so many other bad titles that you can't automatically filter, and by letting people make the mistakes you have a way of actually finding them. If you just remove "issue" and "problem", the titles will be just as bad as before, but you'll have no way to track them.
    – slhck
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 17:38
  • 3
    Also, "Why does my computer halt" is not what I mean by the "Halting Problem", c.f. 4600 results on Stack Overflow for it: stackoverflow.com/search?q=halting+problem
    – slhck
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 17:40
  • 2
    No, I don't have any statistics on whether it's working fine, because there is no way to find out. By eliminating the indicator of bad quality, you make it disappear, but you don't have a proof that it's actually improved anything.
    – slhck
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 17:40
  • @slhck: Do you have any statistics on whether the current "problem" filter is not working fine? A case-by-case analysis on the different titles tried by the user could help us come to a conclusion about that, but it's simply not worth spending time into that. Please note that less words in the title automatically contribute to the low quality filter... Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 17:41
  • @slhck: I do have proof, these search queries were full of crap. Please note that Stack Overflow and Mathematics are not Super User, "programming problems" and "mathematical problems" are exceptional compared to "computer problems". Which don't have their own terms like "halting problem"... Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 17:41
  • Please note that this filter is also not in place on Stack Overflow, just like it is not in place on Math.SE... So, we are talking about Super User and other SE sites here. Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 17:44
  • 2
    See, my whole point is: If I have a query with 5000 really bad problem titles (and I don't doubt that they're bad), then at least you can tell that they're bad. If you restrict people from using it, there are two possibilities: 1) they use a better title, 2) they use another crappy title without the word "problem". Either way, you can never find out what really happened.
    – slhck
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 17:45
  • Again, you did have proof that those queries were crap. Now, you can't perform this query anymore. How are you ever going to find the crap now?
    – slhck
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 17:50
  • 1
    I'd probably write a new feature request in the next few weeks. The way these requests (although they have 76 upvotes) are shut down makes me think it's better to wait a bit and then try again.
    – slhck
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 18:28

We're not open to tweaking validation rules based on reputation, the same quality filters and rules apply to everyone.

-ing this one accordingly.

Took a look at Frédéric Hamidi suggestion, namely to use quotes as a signal that "problem" is in an error message or similar and thus not indicative of a garbage title in those cases.

That is, Windows Problem! versus Getting "problem connecting to server" exception with .NET Socket tiles; both of which would currently be rejected.

While not a bad suggestion in and of itself, it turns out almost nobody actually tries to format tiles that way. Historically, < 0.2% of all problem bearing question titles exist between quotes on Stack Overflow (Server Fault < 0.5%, Super User < 0.8%).

Current trends are that < 0.2% of all rejected titles with problem in them contain problem between quotes on Stack Overflow. During the same period, Server Fault has 0 (of the 39 that were rejected for problem in the title), and Super User has 2 (of the 30 rejected). Small sample size of Server Fault and Super User, but the Stack Overflow trend is obviously steady.

So this suggestion not being implemented as it would have no effect, and it would complicate the title check pointlessly.

  • 19
    In which way is this a quality filter? I understand that you see a value in these filters for a large number of posts by new users, but you eliminate all legitimate uses of words by doing so. This might not even be based on reputation, as I suggested, but rather based on the abilities to make valuable editing contributions.
    – slhck
    Commented Nov 3, 2011 at 22:09
  • 23
    As an alternative, to keep the rules the same for everyone. Instead of preventing posting a question with 'problem' in the title, just show the message warning it might not be considered as a good question. Commented Nov 3, 2011 at 22:25
  • 2
    @Steven I already proposed automatically flagging such questions as "low quality" in order to have them in the /review queue, but they don't want that either, since it's more work for others.
    – slhck
    Commented Nov 3, 2011 at 22:53
  • 2
    @Steven It was just a comment, but could of course be made into a proper feature request, which could then be status-declined.
    – slhck
    Commented Nov 3, 2011 at 23:06
  • 23
    So what we need to do now is look for a Unicode replacement of P... or start using things like Pr0blem. Great.
    – Pekka
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 9:38
  • 6
    @Pekka: Próblém :P
    – Matt
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 16:32
  • 12
    Oh, that will do great things for searchability from Google... Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 17:06
  • 3
    @Tom When searching, what do you look at? A, or B? i.imgur.com/BLJqz.png (Funny thing is: You edited the title)
    – slhck
    Commented Nov 4, 2011 at 17:49
  • 3
    @Michael yeah, but if it's the only way to resist this "feature" that nobody except the SO team seems to want....
    – Pekka
    Commented Nov 5, 2011 at 9:50
  • 6
    This filter is 100% useless: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/107989/… Commented Nov 19, 2011 at 22:43
  • 3
  • 24
    -1 - The answer seems out of nature with the goal of stackoverflow. The response is a slap in the face to your users.
    – JonH
    Commented Dec 2, 2011 at 20:07
  • 7
    What a joke. What happened to the concept of 'trusted users'?
    – p.campbell
    Commented Dec 8, 2011 at 17:59
  • 10
    This is a community of experts. Clearly, the experts don't agree with this decision. Ignoring their opinion is very much against the "openness and community" spirit of SO.
    – BlueRaja
    Commented Dec 8, 2011 at 21:25
  • 8
    All I can say is that the number of questions with "problem" replaced by "issue" has significantly increased on Super User. Is that really what you want?
    – slhck
    Commented Dec 9, 2011 at 9:06

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