The famous What Stack Overflow is not question (10k+ only) was deleted a couple of weeks ago. The reason was the (real or perceived) rudeness that accompanied the question's use. The question was split into sub-headings (answers) that you could link to when you saw a user do something that went against Stack Overflow's rules. The headings would read, for example,

Stack Overflow is not your research assistant

and link to the right "chapter" in the question. It was deemed that headings like this, posted on their own with no explanation, are not the nicest way to greet a new user who isn't familiar with the site's rules, and I tend to agree.

However, the question itself, and its contents, was tremendously useful in guiding new users on what they did "wrong", and how to fix it. To me, this question and linking to it had the signs of the "just-in-time documentation" that Jeff is so often on about, in that people were directed specifically to what they need to know. You have to admit that the rationale for many of Stack Overflow's intricacies live on Meta and are very hard to find for an outsider.

Also, the question's contents were polished to be very, very polite. It was the headings that were the problem. (Of course, you can argue that the real problem lay with commenters using the content in a rude way, but that argument has been had and it's a different discussion.)

Would it make sense resurrecting WSOIN using headings that, even when posted on their own, sound more neutral? For the question's heading, I was thinking about something like

How to ask a question on Stack Overflow and not die trying

and for the format of the sub-headings, instead of "Stack Overflow is not....", this:

Should I do (thing that you should never, ever do on Stack Overflow)?

With some exceptions where the format doesn't really sound good.

So looking at the real WSOIN, some examples:

Stack Overflow is not your research assistant

becomes What research should I do before asking a question on Stack Overflow?

or maybe Should I ask a question on Stack Overflow without doing prior research?


Stack Overflow doesn't provide product or service recommendations

becomes Should I ask for product or service recommendations on Stack Overflow?


Stack Overflow won't do your homework for you

becomes Should I copy & paste homework questions?

or What should I beware of when asking homework questions?


Stack Overflow is not tied to your deadline

becomes Should I mention deadlines and mark questions "Urgent!!!"?

and so on and so on. You get the drift.

However, before people start working on this, there needs to be a statement from the management whether something like this has a chance. Nobody expects a guarantee that it will live; I understand no one can give that. But does it have a chance to survive if results are good?

I don't think anybody is going to go through the crapload of work that Robert and others went through for WSOIN when the only result is that it gets deleted again.

  • **Cough**, **cough** – casperOne Aug 8 '12 at 16:02
  • As you know I didn't have a problem with WSOiN. But if the problem really was the rudeness or snark used in comments linking to it, then how can we ensure that the nice and friendly titles you propose are actually used? Or is that only something we can hope for and demonstrate by doing it ourselves? – Bart Aug 8 '12 at 16:07
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    @Bart all the examples that Shog posted when he explained why he deleted the question are verbatim copies of headings in WSOIN. I was under the impression that was the main problem – Pekka Aug 8 '12 at 16:11
  • Ah true. If we can rely on that, it might be worth considering. – Bart Aug 8 '12 at 16:12
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    What happened to automatic titles in comments? If, for example, I link this post: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/142710/…, I get a bare URL. Didn't linked comments used to insert the title of the post? If we still had that, we could put each answer in its own post with a friendly title, problem solved. – user102937 Aug 8 '12 at 16:12
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    @Robert I think that was a userscript that did it? IIRC. Interesting suggestion either way – Pekka Aug 8 '12 at 16:13
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    I don't really like the new wording; it's sort of more condescending in a way; I wouldn't make an FAQ saying "Should I deface buildings?" I'd have a sign that says "Don't deface buildings". If it's not a question one could honestly ask in good faith it just sounds out of place. – Ben Brocka Aug 8 '12 at 16:20
  • @RobertHarvey I wish question URLs auto resolved to titles, would save a lot of time – Ben Brocka Aug 8 '12 at 16:20
  • @BenBrocka You could use this thingy that Tim Stone made: Comment Link AutoPrettifier – Josh Darnell Aug 8 '12 at 16:26
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    I'd swear that capability was core at one time. – user102937 Aug 8 '12 at 16:29
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    @Pekka: I was about to create a [faq-proposed] for "Stack Overflow is not a Research Assistant," and found this. – user102937 Aug 8 '12 at 17:13
  • @Ben in cases like that you would use different wording. (see eg. the "prior research" example where it's a bit like that) – Pekka Aug 9 '12 at 8:38

WSOiN was an attempt to codify all of the ways new people could trip over their feet when interacting with SO for the first time. It's primary purpose was to be an educational tool, not a Wiffle bat.

If we're going to resurrect any of this material, I think we first need to consider:

  1. The FAQ and "How to Ask" are better than they used to be. Some improvements were made at about the same time as WSOiN that codify some of the subjects identified in WSOiN.

  2. The FAQ and the FAQ tag on Meta should be the first ports of call. If these resources are inadequate, how can we shore them up so that they are better? What subjects are already covered by existing material, and what needs to be added?

  3. How do we keep it from being a laundry list of don'ts?

Despite the controversial nature of Accept Rate, nobody argues that How does accept rate work? and How does accepting an answer work? are rude, do not serve their purpose, and should be removed. So there are ways to approach this without offending people.

I agree with Shog9. Let's figure out what's essential in WSOiN that is missing from the FAQ tag on Meta, and write [faq-proposed] questions for each topic. Let's use the process that we already created for this purpose.


The "titles as comments" thing was arguably not even a problem with WSOiN itself - if folks had written detailed, specific comments* addressing problems with a question and included Meta links at the end ("for more on this, see...") WSOiN could possibly have been fixed in place.

Before we get all nostalgic though, WSOiN did have problems beyond simply making snarky, link-only comments all too tempting. Answers by Jon and Pops in How can the "What Stack Overflow Is Not" post be improved? say it best:

My best advice then is to focus on writing discrete questions and answers that address specific scenarios, describing those scenarios in the question and addressing them in the answer. Focusing on existing entries is probably a good start - many of these are real questions that people asked. Also, resist the impulse to lump a dozen different problems into one broad category: book requests are not the same as camera shopping questions.

And above all, try to assume the best - the folks who don't want to do right won't bother reading these at all. If these end up being yet another thinly-veiled outlet for frustration and anger, they'll suffer the same fate as their predecessor.

*To be fair, some people did do this. Not very many, and not very often, but I did encounter a few.

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    Given the "Summer of Love" thing, the choice for me boils down to either linking to a canonical resource, or saying nothing at all and just flagging the post for removal or closure. The question them becomes, which is nicer: providing some sort of explanation, or providing no explanation at all? – user102937 Aug 8 '12 at 16:33
  • Wasn't aware of the evangelist thing. Demonstrating absurdity by being absurd, you can make the same argument about the Bible; people are going to misuse it, so we might as well bury it. Any tool can be misused; you can't expect people to use it correctly all of the time. – user102937 Aug 8 '12 at 16:36
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    The Bible has the context though. What irks me are the organizations that effectively publish "What Christianity is Not" texts, lists of badness coupled with quotes... Yes, I'm sure they're very convenient when you're standing outside the rock concert screaming at those who pass by - but as a tool for evangelism, they do more harm than good. – Shog9 Aug 8 '12 at 16:39
  • @Shog9 So in other words, we should be linking to the FAQ question(s) directly, not linking to some question summarizing the FAQ? – Servy Aug 8 '12 at 16:45
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    Linking to the FAQ sounds sensible and yeah, cramming everything into one question is dangerous, but then there should be a canonical resource like WSOIN consisting of links to each FAQ question. If what we have were already sufficient, people would link to the FAQ all the time, which isn't happening. – Pekka Aug 8 '12 at 16:48
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    One more thought: I'm not that worried about evangelists. Throwing around WSOIN links even if you didn't really understand what they were about was cool because they sounded so catchy, and were totally in your face. SO is not your research assistant. SLAP! A revised WSOIN would be much less flashy... and where it's too conscise, it might serve as a starting point for more detailed, existing faq. The thing about WSOIN is that it was a one-stop shop everyone could memorize and find within seconds. That is probably what made it so successful... and that is needed again – Pekka Aug 8 '12 at 16:57
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    @Shog9: You did it to me again, didn't you? You tricked me into more work. :P – user102937 Aug 8 '12 at 17:08

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