What does the not an answer flag mean?

My interpretation is that this flag is intended for things which clearly are not answers. In other words, "this shouldn't exist, because it does not intend to answer the question".

It's the difference between a value judgement ("how good is this answer?"), handled with voting, and a clear "this shouldn't exist (as an answer)". The latter is junk that either should have been something else (e.g. a comment, edit etc.) or is clearly worthless (e.g. spam).

I think that downvoting is the mechanism for dealing with wrong answers, answers that answer the wrong question, or irrelevant answers. This is important because a moderator may not always have the context to know whether an answer is helpful or not, or may just be wrong. In my opinion, a mod should not be authorised to make such a unilateral value judgement.

Is this correct? Are there circumstances where making a value judgement for this flag is acceptable? I'd like a canonical ruling or community consensus to point to for reference for such flag declines.

(Context: I am a moderator on Board and Card Games. I have a repeated mod flag where the OP believes I should delete the answer because it doesn't answer his question. However, I believe it is a good faith answer, and I'm happy to watch it stand or fall on its merit. It requires me to understand the question to know whether the answer is or isn't sufficient. I think it is outside of my jurisdiction as a moderator/human exception handler to act.)

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    I usually summarize it like this: "Anything which a moderator can judge not to be an answer, without having to look at the actual question asked". And that seems to work pretty well for me flagging-wise. – Bart Feb 14 '13 at 22:07
  • we can't, because there is (and likely will always be) a controversy / ambiguity about using this flag for link-only answers – gnat Feb 14 '13 at 22:11
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    @Bart - I like that description. If only it was official/consensus... – ire_and_curses Feb 14 '13 at 22:20
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    @Bart If someone answers an entirely different question rather than the one that was asked, would you consider the NAA flag wrong? – Eliah Kagan Feb 14 '13 at 22:41
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    @Bart: you realize that just means NaA is anything a moderator thinks is NaA, right? The "without looking at the question" part probably improves your accuracy when moderators don't take time to look at the question, but you still need to have a pretty good idea of how the moderators will judge an answer - which is the whole point of this question. – Shog9 Feb 14 '13 at 23:34
  • @EliahKagan No, but at that point I usually go for a custom flag, explaining how it's not an answer, just to be on the safe side. – Bart Feb 15 '13 at 5:36
  • @Shog9 The particular phrasing might seem to imply that, but it's really not the case. I consider it more of a lucky overlap. It's also not a description I would recommend adopting, but I find it sometimes even helps in explaining why a flag might have been rejected. As I said in my previous comment, if it's NaA and does not fit my first description, I usually go for a custom explanation. The more clear we as users can be, the easier it is on a moderator, I can only assume. – Bart Feb 15 '13 at 5:38
  • It's worth noting that while spam is technically not an answer, it has it's own flag reason you can flag for, so you shouldn't be flagging spam posts as NaA, although if that does happen such flags probably shouldn't be denied either. – Servy Feb 15 '13 at 14:41

The description for the flag reads,

This was posted as an answer, but it does not attempt to answer the question. It should possibly be an edit, a comment, another question, or deleted altogether.

Emphasis mine. If a post clearly makes an honest attempt to answer, even if it fails to do so, then NaA does not apply. Yes, this requires you to judge intent - if that's not trivial (as in Robert's examples) then you probably shouldn't try - that said, it's sometimes necessary to make assumptions, particularly when dealing with more subjective topics. Mods exist to make hard decisions.

If you get a NaA flag on an answer that clearly does attempt to answer the question, decline it. There's even a canned message:

flags should not be used to indicate technical inaccuracies, or an altogether wrong answer

If the flagger feels the answer is so dangerously wrong that it's a hazard to others, a black mark on the site, etc... Then they have comments, votes, and custom flag reasons with which to communicate this. If you're unable to make a call yourself, discuss with your fellow moderators or raise the topic on meta.

See also: The limits to a Very Low Quality answer

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  • I'm not confused. I'm looking for some precision, which hasn't been forthcoming so far. I guess I'm not being clear enough. Tangential answers. What are these? In my specific example, the OP provided extra information in a custom flag reason. He presented technical evidence that the answer was worthless. As a moderator, am I supposed to judge this evidence somehow? If so, how? Using my experience of the subject area? In other words, as an ordinary user? If so, why would my user experience give me authorisation to take a moderation action (deletion)? – ire_and_curses Feb 14 '13 at 23:07
  • Take a look at Bart's popular comment above. "Anything which a moderator can judge not to be an answer, without having to look at the actual question asked." Why is this attractive? Because there's no moderator subjectivity involved. Can't tell without reading the question? Then leave it. As a mod, this guarantees you can't egregiously act on something you really shouldn't have. Any thoughts? – ire_and_curses Feb 14 '13 at 23:11
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    If everything could be objectively evaluated, there would be no need for moderators, @ire. The community could just take care of itself. – user102937 Feb 14 '13 at 23:17
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    It guarantees nothing, @ire - it's a tautology. I've seen answers which make perfect sense in the context of the question flagged as NaA because they were phrased in the form of a question. As a moderator, you're expected to use context, experience, and judgement to evaluate these - and when questioned on it, be willing to say, right or wrong, "the buck stops here: I felt that answer contributed nothing / I was wrong and will correct the error". You will get people asking you to abuse your power, and you will have to tell them to STFU. That's part of being a moderator. – Shog9 Feb 14 '13 at 23:22
  • That being said, "tangential" answers are not something you should normally be particularly concerned about; I included them merely as an example of something that might appear to be an answer without actually making any effort to answer the question being asked (on some sites cough Politics cough tangential rants posted as answers are not uncommon, but this seems to be an exception). – Shog9 Feb 14 '13 at 23:30
  • discuss with your fellow moderators... - ironic in this instance, as the user doing the flagging, as well as being the OP and presumably a subject expert, was in fact a previous pro tempore moderator for the site. It sounds like you're saying my opinion is more correct because I happen to be the (unelected, pro tempore) moderator now - which doesn't make much sense to me. – ire_and_curses Feb 15 '13 at 0:01
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    I'm not saying your opinion is worth more than anyone else's, @ire. You're not an elected king of B&CG - rather, you're there to represent the entire community, who will certainly let you know if your decisions are wrong. Presumably, the folks who voted for you trust your judgement to some extent at least. Also, no matter how much you like or trust someone else, never assume they can't be biased in specific instances. – Shog9 Feb 15 '13 at 0:11
  • @Shog9 The "folks who voted for you" bit breaks down a little on beta sites, which B&CG still is. – Adam Lear Feb 15 '13 at 1:30
  • Well, in that case "folks" == "us" @Anna ;-P – Shog9 Feb 15 '13 at 1:37

I am answering as a long time user of Stack Overflow and several of the other Stack Exchange sites - not in any official capacity.

Your understanding is 100% right.

not an answer is there for things that are not intended to be answers - comments, follow on questions, spam and such.

Downvoting and eventually deleting is indeed the mechanism for dealing with incorrect/bad/actively harmful answers.

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    "Downvoting and eventually deleting is indeed the mechanism for dealing with incorrect/bad/actively harmful answers." Well I personally agree, but the bit about deleting contradicts another answer of yours: meta.stackexchange.com/a/163733/159834 So which is it? – user159834 Feb 15 '13 at 0:25
  • @WesleyMurch This brings us back to the question of: “If it is not appropriate for the Community to “gang-of-three” delete negatively scored answers, what is the purpose of that privilege?” I’ve seen some answers deleted at -3 and others that stick around well under -50. Is there a right and wrong here? – tchrist Feb 15 '13 at 2:52
  • @WesleyMurch - my point was about immediate deleting, but yes, I can be inconsistent. – Oded Feb 15 '13 at 9:37

"Not an Answer" is about people posting something that is not really an answer at all.


@George: I don't think your code works, it should be this <whatever>.

I have the same problem. Has anyone else found a solution?

Jimmy's solution works. Thank you.

Check out this blog post for the solution [link]

I have a question...

I have a comment...

In the case of answers that answer a different question than the one that was asked, I prefer that the community comment and downvote rather than casting flags, although I reserve the right as a moderator to delete the answer anyway if I feel that it isn't really adding any value.

Moderation should not require evaluating a post for its content-worthiness (i.e. whether the answer is right or wrong). That's what votes are for.

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  • It's the I reserve the right as a moderator to delete the answer anyway part that I'm most interested in. As a moderation best practice, is that a right that I should indeed reserve? I believe it isn't. It's a value judgement, on the post's perceived worth. As a moderator, why do I have the right to make that call? – ire_and_curses Feb 14 '13 at 22:16
  • @ire_and_curses - A value judgement. And if, as a moderator, you also have the expertise to make that judgement? – Oded Feb 14 '13 at 22:20
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    @ire_and_curses If you can make that call. If I see an answer that clearly is harmful, but that judgment relies on me having expert knowledge, I don't leave it on the site just because I wasn't supposed to know the difference. Does that make sense? If an answer already has three downvotes, two flags and several comments explaining why it's bad, I'm not going to hang my hat on "Well, no matter how wretched this answer is, it's still an answer," I'm probably going to push it into the dust bin anyway. – user102937 Feb 14 '13 at 22:20
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    @ire: tangential answers are, sometimes, very valuable. Other times, someone posting a waffle recipe as an answer to your question about emacs is just a distraction. When in doubt, a moderator will leave these around for some good ol' mob justice, but in many cases (an awful lot of spam) there is no doubt. – Shog9 Feb 14 '13 at 22:22
  • @Robert Harvey - I understand, but I think this conflates two separate roles. Many expert users might feel the same way about this downvoted answer. But they can't just delete it. You can, but only because you are a moderator. Should you? I say, only if it makes sense from a moderation perspective. The reason this matters is that otherwise, you open yourself to user privilege escalation by proxy. Annoyed experts will flag you to point out things that "should be deleted". Sometimes you will agree. Too much power! This is a slippery slope. – ire_and_curses Feb 14 '13 at 22:24
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    @ire: If someone feels strongly that something doesn't belong on the site, they can make their case in a flag with a custom explanation. These kinds of edge cases are the very soul of moderation; we are here, in part, for those situations where the community cannot come to agreement, and needs a ruling. – user102937 Feb 14 '13 at 22:28
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    I always thought "How do I get to the railway station?" "You can buy the best shoes at xyz." qualified as NaA. I guess the fact that it doesn't (necessarily) could use more publicity. – Daniel Fischer Feb 14 '13 at 22:30
  • @DanielFischer: That's a good example. I delete those when I can determine from the content that they're really not an answer. It's not always clear from the content, however, and strictly speaking, that's not what the NaA flag is for. The NaA flag is for those answers where it is clear that, regardless of the content, the poster is not really posting an answer but is posting something else, like a comment, question or advertisement. – user102937 Feb 14 '13 at 22:32
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    @RobertHarvey Okay, how about a more realistic answer that I see more often. I see a lot of posts where someone is asking a question and there is an answer stating that the OP's code is vulnerable to SQL injection and explains how to fix that despite the fact that it's completely unrelated to the problem the OP is asking about. I consider that to be a good comment, but a delete-worthy answer, despite the fact that it could be a great answer for a question specifically asking about SQL injection vulnerabilities in their code. Such answers also tend to get upvotes, not downvotes. – Servy Feb 15 '13 at 14:45
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    @servy You're right; those are delete-worthy. They're delete worthy for the same reason all non-answers are delete-worthy: people come to the site looking for answers. – user102937 Feb 16 '13 at 3:55
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    @RobertHarvey And yet your post is stating that an answer which answers a completely different question that what the OP is asking for should only be downvoted, not deleted. I gave an example of such a situation that I commonly see. What makes this example not apply to the statements in your answer? – Servy Feb 18 '13 at 2:55
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    @Servy: If it's this hard to explain it, it's not a good rule. Confine your "Not an Answer" flags to posts that are not answers at all, and you shouldn't go wrong. See also meta.stackexchange.com/a/167966/102937 – user102937 Feb 18 '13 at 6:19

Others have listed the classic NaA: it's really a question, an update from the OP, a comment on the question, a comment on one or more other answers, a promise to answer the question later today (my personal fave) and so on.

There is one tricky area with NaA, and I when I meet it I usually decide to use an Other flag and explain. That's when the "answer" contains a bunch of words that appear to be related to the question but aren't, you know, an answer. For example, recently someone asked on English why water with a high mineral content is called "hard" water. One person answered with a whole pile of chemistry explaining what the minerals are, what levels constitute hard and soft, and so on, and none of it was wrong, but none of it was about the origin of this naming convention.

In the end I flagged it Not an Answer, which was dismissed as helpful but the answer is still there, with a score of -3 at the moment. I was considering Very Low Quality, since no amount of editing and formatting could introduce etymology into the answer. The problem with both of those is it puts extra work on the moderator. In this case there was already a comment The question is not "what is hard water" but "why is it called hard water" so I used that as a shortcut.

To me, it doesn't matter that the person intended to answer the question if in fact they didn't. I think NaA flags are the right choice when the answer doesn't answer the question. But I can see that determining that could be a challenge for a mod, so in the absence of a nice clear NaA comment, I go with the "other" flag and explain. I doubt SO will ever have an unambiguous rule on NaA, so I recommend you embrace the ambiguity and the Other flag in equal measure.

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  • it doesn't matter that the person intended to answer the question if in fact they didn't. You provide a nice example, and clearly the answer isn't valuable. But does that mean it should be deleted by a mod? It will be downvoted. It will be placed at the bottom of the screen. It will grey out if it gets downvoted enough. The answerer may eventually delete it himself, to spare the embarrassment, avoid further downvotes, and get a badge. If it stays, it will point out something that isn't helpful, but which at least one person thought was. – ire_and_curses Feb 15 '13 at 16:58
  • My point here is that the mechanism already exists to deal with these cases. Moderation should be for exceptional situations. This is not exceptional. – ire_and_curses Feb 15 '13 at 16:59
  • My second point is that while your example is clear, many real-world examples are not. At all. Which puts a lot of trust, by the community, in the moderator's decision. In the example I provided, there have now been two upvotes. Another subject expert has also commented that he believes the answer is valuable. This was a situation in which the 'other' flag was used (the second time). So: what if I'd deleted the answer? It seems reasonable enough (flagger is an expert, and the OP). But the community, it turns out, disagrees. That's why I, as a mod, shouldn't have this right. – ire_and_curses Feb 15 '13 at 17:02

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