I notice people frequently complaining on Meta about closings of not programming related, but programming tool related questions. The closings, to me, are usually perfectly rightful, but the FAQ contain a huge on-topicness loophole (emphasis mine):

  • a specific programming problem
  • a software algorithm
  • software tools commonly used by programmers
  • practical, answerable problems that are unique to the programming profession

Two anecdotal examples from the past two days:

Does the "software tools" line need to be removed or refined to make it clearer what kind of software tool related questions are acceptable?

Note: I am not against asking programming tool related questions on SO. I am against questions to do with programming tools that, by their very nature, are a better fit on Server Fault, Super User, or completely off topic. Example: "Visual Studio doesn't start up. What do I do?"

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    Useful related reading: responses from the Q4 2011 moderator candidates to a specific question about this in the first town hall - meta.stackexchange.com/questions/112443/… – BoltClock's a Unicorn Nov 21 '11 at 14:02
  • While a question could be on-topic, there are still other reasons to close it; for example, if the question is about an obscure tool that is used from few users, it could be closed as "too localized." Maybe the FAQ should be more specific about the software tools, but I am worried it should still be generic. I imagine what would happen if the FAQ exactly which tools should be considered "programmer tools": Users would start to say "this tool is not reported in the FAQ," just to then discover the question is about a new IDE that is used from 200+ users. – kiamlaluno Nov 21 '11 at 14:08
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    @kiamlaluno if the question is about an obscure tool that is used from few users, it could be closed as "too localized." - I don't believe that's a good reason to close a question, just a good reason why it might not get many answers. How few users is too few? Who decides when that threshold is reached? – Rob Moir Nov 21 '11 at 14:21
  • @DJ-Pon3 The description of that closing reason is clear: "This question is unlikely to ever help any future visitors; it is only relevant to a small geographic area, a specific moment in time, or an extraordinarily narrow situation that is not generally applicable to the worldwide audience of the internet." – kiamlaluno Nov 21 '11 at 14:23
  • @kiamlaluno The description is clear, yes. I just disagree with your interpretation of it. If SO/SU/SF is meant to be a repository of knowledge then we should welcome input on products that are currently available to purchase/deploy, imho. Questions on tools are perfectly valid, even if they're not used by everyone. There is an argument that "too localised" would be a valid close reason with a suggestion to contact that tool's tech support people and ask them, however. – Rob Moir Nov 21 '11 at 15:11
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    @kiamlaluno No, just because a tool is obscure (and how do you define obscure? because you haven't heard of it?) doesn't mean the question is too localized. Please read meta.stackexchange.com/questions/4818/… Asking about an in-house tool never distributed outside a specific company would be too localized. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Nov 21 '11 at 18:36
  • @Gilles I was not referring to what I don't know, but to what Stack Overflow's users don't know. If the question doesn't get an answer, it is probable the tool is not so used. – kiamlaluno Nov 21 '11 at 19:16
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    If the question doesn't get an answer, it is probable the tool is not so used -- that doesn't really support closing the question, at least not straight away. After all, closing a question makes it very difficult to answer it too. – Rob Moir Nov 24 '11 at 13:12

I think questions about programming tools are perfectly acceptable and in fact I wasn't even aware that there wasn't consensus about this.

I don't see why we should forbid them:

  • They can be answered objectively
  • They apply exclusively to programmers, and not to other professions (this is why questions about "notepad" are off topic: they apply to others too)
  • Visual Studio alone has 17,937 questions, with 600 new questions asked every month, and this is the first time I hear someone complaining about this
  • Like you said, they are explicitly allowed in the FAQ and they are one of only three topics considered the "core topics" for the website: specific programming problems, algorithms and tools.

So I don't really see the problem.

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    Of course many questions about programming tools are perfectly acceptable - but others aren't. For example, a question about Visual studio not starting up after a RAM upgrade wouldn't be. However, people can argue that as there is no such distinction in the FAQ, they're entitled to ask them – Pekka Nov 21 '11 at 14:09
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    @Pekka: and it would be a stupid argument because it wouldn't be a problem with visual studio itself. If someone argues otherwise, do you really think they would care about what the FAQ says? – Thomas Bonini Nov 21 '11 at 14:11
  • there are many edge cases where it could be argued that the problem is with Visual Studio - but it still doesn't belong on SO. At the moment you can ask pretty much any such question and say "but look at the FAQ, it says there it's ok" – Pekka Nov 21 '11 at 14:13
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    @Pekka: Forget on/off-topicness - technical support questions like that should be closed as too localized, with a comment redirecting them to the appropriate support avenue. – BoltClock's a Unicorn Nov 21 '11 at 14:14
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    @Pekka It depends. If your implicit answer is 'the new ram is faulty' then yes. The answer could however be "The new ram invalidated your copy of Windows and Visual Studio refuses to launch on a non-genuine copy of Windows" for all I know, and that answer would probably be programming-specific enough to warrant an answer here. – badp Nov 22 '11 at 15:57

Software tools commonly used by programmers refers to things like:

  • IDE's,
  • source code control, and
  • programming libraries such as jQuery.

It doesn't refer to:

  • blogging software,
  • Microsoft Word, or
  • YAST.

Even though programmers might use all of those things, they do not directly pertain to programming.

Addressing your linked examples:

Subversion is a programming tool. Questions about source control get asked on Stack Overflow all the time without incident. However, the question itself is "Not Constructive." It's asking for a comprehensive list of things to think about when securing a Subversion server. It is a poll.

Sometimes questions get migrated or closed because they are not good questions. Good questions that are of interest to the community are seldom wrongly closed. Changing the FAQ won't help that.

The auto-complete function in an IDE question seems innocuous on its face. But it's too localized; it almost certainly is answered by the product documentation or support, and the OP has already posted his question on the AVR forum.

When marginal questions get asked, people begin hunting for the easiest possible way to close them. The problem with these questions is not the FAQ. The problem with these questions is they are not good questions (in the SE sense).

  • What if other people have the same question as the IDE one, try a Google and don't find anything? Isn't this the long-tail effect SO is aiming at? It is a programming tool after all, and the feature is apparently not obvious since someone had to ask. I disagree on that good questions are seldom closed; questions about software tools are often closed as off-topic even when they're not. I've seen many good and relevant version control questions with multiple close-votes in the Vote-to-Close queue. – Emil Vikström Oct 9 '12 at 16:58
  • questions about software tools are often closed as off-topic even when they're not. -- [citation-needed]. I've seen many good and relevant version control questions with multiple close-votes in the Vote-to-Close queue. -- [citation-needed]. – user102937 Oct 9 '12 at 17:09
  • Robert, I will start collecting examples. – Emil Vikström Oct 9 '12 at 17:13
  • Post them in a new meta question if you like. Just make sure they are good questions. If they're crappy questions anyway, there's no point in reopening them. – user102937 Oct 9 '12 at 17:14

It's the age old problem with a FAQ. If you're not precise enough people complain that its vague and if you're too precise then people complain that the FAQ is unreadable because of the hundreds of items you've had to list and clarify. And then it isn't read anyway...

I don't want to pick on the particular people who voted to close the questions you mention, so talking in very general terms, I wonder if the problem is that people with close powers don't always take the time to understand the nuances of the FAQ, just as I think some of the migration issues that we pop over from SF and moan about sometimes are down to people who never pop into meta and don't see that we've all agreed to try and "never migrate crap" (not trying to sideline your discussion into something else, by the way, just saying I think its all a symptom of the same problem).

I thought the I believe my question should not have been closed - how can I get it re-opened? question was closed a little harshly, I suspect some people simply mis-understood what it was related to, as its not a common IDE. If I had the rep on SO I'd certainly be voting to re-open it.


There's a difference between a programmer's problem, and a programming problem

There are a lot of problems a programmer might run into , but if the problem is not one of programming - or can be solved by programming - then it's not on topic.

Honestly, though, there's a balance to be maintained here. We don't want to become the one-stop-shop for all programmer problems, but it's useful to entertain some of them.

It's also worthwhile considering creating new sites where the gap is too big. I could see a site dedicated to version control succeeding - however it's been decided that such questions do belong on stackoverflow.

So our best bet right now is to simply stick with the imprecise wording and determine things on a case by case basis.

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