I have noticed a trend that bothers me.

It is not uncommon that questions, especially of new or non-regular users, are of poor quality. This leads to the inevitable "What have you tried?". There have been discussions about this on meta, I am sure.

However, I also see a trend of negative, or passive-aggressive comments on the questions as opposed to using constructive feedback to help the OP formulate a better question. Then the problem snowballs as others see an opening to assert their "seniority" or "experience" by adding their own criticism.

I think this can make SO a generally unwelcoming place for newbies. Is there room to improve here?

Maybe another way of saying this is I feel like often more time is spent commenting about lack of effort or not reading docs than actually helping the OP. One comment that says "Please be more specific" or "What have you tried?" is plenty. 5 or 6 is overkill.

You can see the OP's frustration in this question:

Changing the margin of a single list item in a div

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    Some would say that "what have you tried?" is also passive-aggressive. – Oded Feb 22 '13 at 20:01
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    I agree. Unfortunately, it is almost inevitable on most SO questions now. – Jeff B Feb 22 '13 at 20:04
  • The thing is, the issue of whether such low quality questions have a place on Stack Overflow, though discussed extensively, has never been resolved. If a question can be definitely answered by reading the documentation or a 1 minute test, does it belong on Stack Overflow? – Oded Feb 22 '13 at 20:06
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    I'm not really interested in whether the question belongs or not, per se, because as you say, it has been discussed ad naseum. However, the way we respond reflects on SO. Do we want SO to be viewed as an Ivory Tower... some exclusive club that is not tolerant of anything but perfection? – Jeff B Feb 22 '13 at 20:15
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    I posted a comment there. A moderator ninja edited it and made it better. Thank you anonymous moderator. – yannis Feb 22 '13 at 20:18
  • Now I'm afraid to ask, was my comment not friendly enough? (For what it's worth, I also did not downvote.) – Frédéric Hamidi Feb 22 '13 at 20:23
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    @FrédéricHamidi, no, actually, I don't think your comment was particularly unfriendly. Combined with the 5 others around it with several up votes on each will certainly make the OP think twice about ever asking a question again though. – Jeff B Feb 22 '13 at 20:26
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    @Jeff, but if he spends that time reading the docs, everyone wins in the long term. – Frédéric Hamidi Feb 22 '13 at 20:27
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    I have never been one to learn from reading docs... so I have a certain amount of sympathy for some of these posters. And sometimes, finding the answer in the docs is not trivial. I guess reading the entire spec/doc is trivial, but unwieldy. But, I digress... – Jeff B Feb 22 '13 at 20:29
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    @CameronFredman Perhaps not an exact duplicate, because it's asking what friendly people should do (as opposed to asking if we shouldn't be friendly in the first place), but certainly there is a strong conceptual relation between the two. – Andrew Barber Feb 22 '13 at 22:14

The best advice I can give would be to just lead by example.

You can't force people to change their ways, but by setting a higher standard with your actions you can set an example of how other users of the site should act.

When I encounter comments like that, I usually try to leave a friendlier version of the comment explaining the problem better for the OP, like this:

Hi @newUser, like @someRudeUser said [insert some friendlier version of rude comment along with explanation about why]

In addition, if the comment is egregiously bad then I will flag is as rude/offensive or not-constructive.

On a related note, I recently wrote up a fairly long answer to the question What are the most effective ways to guide new users? regarding how to treat new users who don't understand the site. Not sure if anything there can help answer your exact question here, but if you're reading this because you want to try and make the site better for new users, then it might be worth reading through.

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    I used to include a @username mention (like your @someRudeUser), but I stopped when I realized I'm pointing fingers and there's no need for that. Now I'm only including a @username mention when the earlier comment isn't rude, just incomplete (and I'm adding to it with my comment). – yannis Feb 22 '13 at 21:12
  • Good information. Perhaps this is a case of "Someone on the internet is wrong!", both in the case of me wanting to correct the commenting behavior, and of the commenters wanting to correct the OP. Leading by example is usually the correct answer in life, but is often difficult to do. – Jeff B Feb 22 '13 at 21:29
  • Strictly speaking, this is an excellent answer to the question posed here. (though I also agree with Yannis about being careful when to @ someone else). "Lead by example"... well; @JeffB already said it, so I won't say it again! – Andrew Barber Feb 22 '13 at 21:42
  • Don't give comments any mercy; if you feel they are rude in any way, flag them. They are designed to be temporary anyway. – user102937 Feb 24 '13 at 17:53

This is the worst1 comment in there:

Whoa... back off everyone. In being quick to point out question standards, we often pile on and forget to be welcoming, respectful, and constructive. – Jeff B 25 mins ago

You didn't expect that, did you? Well, let me explain:

  1. You are antagonizing people who are already in a certain mood (judging by the comments they've left a few minutes ago). That's... not smart and rarely ends up well.
  2. The OP may feel a tad better (for a couple of seconds), but there's absolutely nothing useful in your comment.

Instead of that comment you could have posted something like this:

Hi <random user>, as others have already mentioned you don't tell us what you've already tried. This probably explains the downvotes you've received so far, we expect all questions to show at least some minimal prior effort. If you have tried something, please update your question to tell us what that is. It doesn't matter if it didn't work, it will help answerers give you more specific and useful answers.

Why is that better? For one, you aren't fuelling the fire, you aren't antagonizing anyone. More importantly, instead of telling others to be welcoming, respectful, and constructive, you are showing them how to be welcoming, respectful, and constructive.

Show, don't tell. Lead by example.

1 Slight exaggeration to prove a point.

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    Point taken. I'd like to believe that all of those that comment, myself included, are well-meaning. I was feeling sympathetic to the OP after the deluge of comments. Your suggested comment would have been good by itself, but in light of the earlier comments, I think it would have felt like another person piling on, just more politely. I think once you get past 5 or 6 comments in those cases, it is difficult to regain any sense of order. – Jeff B Feb 22 '13 at 20:42
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    @JeffB I try to post such comments when I spot unfriendly comments piling up on Programmers, and they usually work. I've noticed several regulars adjusting their comments to be a little bit more like mine. Remember, your comment will stay there for everyone who'll read the question ever, you may not see immediate effects and it might not matter for the OP in question, but it will matter in the long run. That said, on Programmers I do have the benefit of having a diamond next to my username (which also includes the ability to clear the pile up right after I post my comment). – yannis Feb 22 '13 at 20:50

Don't ask crappy questions.

don't ask crappy questions.

Don't ask Crappy questions.

Oh, and what Rosinante said. (comments purged)

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    Don't try to become a programmer. Don't try to become a programmer. Don't try to become a programmer. Or how else is one supposed to read such a question? This really just shows that you want SO to be an elite site that doesn't allow people to have questions about simple things. And when someone is confused/frustrated about a problem that appeared to them, simply it happens that their question is such as well. – yo' Feb 22 '13 at 20:30
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    @tohecz: Learn the basics first. Then ask. To do otherwise just demonstrates laziness. – user102937 Feb 22 '13 at 20:31
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    @tohecz, no, no. We are an elite site that allows people to ask good questions about simple things. There are examples of that everywhere. – Frédéric Hamidi Feb 22 '13 at 20:31
  • @FrédéricHamidi ... and who is not good, let us stone him. Throw first who is sinless. – yo' Feb 22 '13 at 20:34
  • What, exactly, is wrong with wanting to be elite? – user164207 Feb 22 '13 at 20:35
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    @RobertHarvey: I agree, but I think those with experience often forget how difficult the basics can be sometimes. If it weren't for some kind souls early in my learnings, I might have given up at some "simple" roadblocks. Mind you, SO was many years from existing at the time, and internet docs would have been wonderful.... – Jeff B Feb 22 '13 at 20:36
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    @tohecz, that's not about who. It's all about the quality of the question. We're not judging the questioner. People improve. Streams of bytes stored in databases usually don't. We favor signal over noise. – Frédéric Hamidi Feb 22 '13 at 20:37
  • @JackManey Then make a disclaimer at the beginning: Yeah, and before you enter, you should know that this is an elitist site and if you are green, don't ever step in. – yo' Feb 22 '13 at 20:45
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    Yeah, and before you enter, take some time to get to know the site and how it works. Have some respect for the community, before jumping into the deep end with your street clothes on. – user102937 Feb 22 '13 at 20:46
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    @tohecz - You're confusing the desire to be elite with the desire to stay away from initiates. Those two things are not synonymous. Not even close. – user164207 Feb 22 '13 at 20:47
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    @tohecz, I resent that. Elite is definitely not the same as elitist. If you think Stack Overflow is a little too elitist sometimes, please read or join one of the several related discussions on this meta site. – Frédéric Hamidi Feb 22 '13 at 20:47
  • Elite? Pffft, you are all a bunch of noobs, you can't even spell 1337 correctly. – yannis Feb 22 '13 at 20:52
  • @RobertHarvey In the linked question I see no comment ponting to a FAQ about how to ask a good question. Maybe as a moderator you might go and add one? ;) – yo' Feb 22 '13 at 20:58
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    @FrédéricHamidi I apology, English is not my mother language and I had no idea about elite and elitist meaning different things. – yo' Feb 22 '13 at 20:59
  • @Yannis, but the joke would have been too obvious then... – Frédéric Hamidi Feb 22 '13 at 21:01

Flag unfriendly comments.

flag unfriendly Comments.

flag Unfriendly comments.

Oh, and what Robert Harvey said.

  • Maybe we should flag unfriendly comments! – Taryn Feb 22 '13 at 20:19
  • But again, flagging the unfriendly comments is just "repressive". IMHO, adding friendly ones is as important! – yo' Feb 22 '13 at 20:24
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    If a comment really is rude, it should be flagged. if the question is crap, it should be closed. Both are true. – Rosinante Feb 22 '13 at 20:31
  • Frag unfriendly comments! Damn, I'm doing it wrong. – Raedwald Oct 11 '13 at 23:31

I agree that everyone is new at one point and doesn't know much until they learn the concepts, but Robert Harvey is spot on... do not ask crap questions, (or if you do, make it look like you are trying to learn).

I am effectively clueless on proper programming concepts, mostly self taught and do it for fun, and somehow I managed to not get any downvoted questions on SO when I first started, nor closed questions. In fact, I think I have written more questions that I have discarded before submitting than I have submitted as a whole, simply because the act of writing a good question usually will solve your problem.

There are plenty of beginner-level questions that manage to get upvotes and good answers. What makes them different than the crap questions? The posters are respectful, respect the rules of the community, and at least make an attempt to try. It is usually when a post shows zero effort do you end up with the pile-on downvotes votes and comments. The SO community is not here to serve people with questions and just spit out code. We are hear to help, and in some way, I think we are here to teach. The more the OP is willing to help themselves, the fewer rude comments and downvotes you see.1

1 - this is an unscientific observation and not based on any real data

  • You were able to start well on SO, some others have a longer learning curve considering "how to ask a good question". Does it disqualify them from the site? And what you say is nicely said if you are an active member for couple months, but harder done if for couple minutes. – yo' Feb 22 '13 at 20:52
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    @tohecz learning curve shouldn't matter. You don't have to know anything to ask a good question. You just have to do your research and explore the community. I can't get the link working for some reason, but Robert Harvey's comment above is perfect. Some people just jump right in and ask a question and expect an immediate answer. But the people that take the time to learn usually fair better. – psubsee2003 Feb 22 '13 at 20:55
  • Programming learning curve does not matter. Question-asking learning curve does. – yo' Feb 22 '13 at 21:10
  • I sort-of disagree with your last paragraph. If the asker puts in visible effort, it's not a crap question, even if trivial. – Daniel Fischer Feb 22 '13 at 21:31
  • @DanielFischer fair point, wording could have been different, but I was trying to tie good beginning questions to crap questions to show they are the same just asked better – psubsee2003 Feb 22 '13 at 21:55
  • Yes, that's why I only sort-of disagreed. – Daniel Fischer Feb 22 '13 at 21:58
  • @DanielFischer I adjusted the paragraph, is that better? – psubsee2003 Feb 22 '13 at 21:58
  • The original was already good enough for me to upvote your answer. I'm not sure "beginner-level" captures it completely, but I can't come up with something better. – Daniel Fischer Feb 22 '13 at 22:03
  • May be, s/beginner-level/fairly trivial but well written/ ? – user210447 Feb 23 '13 at 0:48

I'm an "occasional programmer" and this is what makes me not to go to SO to ask my questions.

What can be done with that in general? I don't know.

What can every single visitor of the site do with that?

  • Try to be as positive as possible.

  • Are there already 5 short (and passive-agressive) comments already? Don't care! The questioner needs to know what exactly has he done wrong, so adding a well-stated, friendly comment does not hurt.

  • Using proper English (especially capital letter at the beginning) shows that you care about that person.

  • Is the answer in a manual? Point it out to in a comment: they might learn it themselves and be happy.

  • Are there any really rude comments? Flag them. This is especially true for comments like this one:

    "This question does not show any research effort; it is unclear or not useful (click again to undo)"

    Such comment is a non-constructive criticism that can never lead to any improvements.

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    Not to put too fine a point on this, but demonstrating that you care about everyone that shows up here is just mindless tree-huggery. Everyone should expect civility, but no one should expect to have their hand held. – user102937 Feb 22 '13 at 20:33
  • @RobertHarvey If you refer to "proper English" that IMHO using proper English (as much as you know how to) is a sign of civility that should everyone expect, as you say. Maybe I should have written: "... so that you show you treat the OP as a human being." – yo' Feb 22 '13 at 20:50
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    Some will always choose to be offended no matter how nice you are, especially those who think the site guidelines are unfair. – user102937 Feb 22 '13 at 20:55
  • @RobertHarvey I don't see your point about "some"; some people will always choose to steal, let's cut the hands of all people. – yo' Feb 22 '13 at 21:09
  • @tohecz I think what Robert is saying is more like, "some people will always choose to steal, so let's be polite, but not let those who steal walk off with all our stuff". (Sorry about the stealing analogy, but you started it ;) – Andrew Barber Feb 22 '13 at 21:15
  • @AndrewBarber Yeah, but it seems that we see the stealing at a different point. For Robert, it is "asking a crappy question", for me it is "not being able to learn even when given a chance". – yo' Feb 22 '13 at 21:17
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    I think that asking many "crappy" questions and ignoring the advice one has been given about them to improve them is quite rude, and shows a complete lack of concern for the time people donate to help. I am under no obligation to show that kind of person any special consideration. (Note: Nowhere in this comment am I condoning 'rude' comments) – Andrew Barber Feb 22 '13 at 21:22
  • @tohecz The example given as a "rude comment" isn't rude, it's concise/blunt. To be rude it needs to be "offensively impolite or ill-mannered". – Dave Newton Feb 22 '13 at 21:23
  • @DaveNewton I don't know English into such details, but TFD suggests, beside the other synonyms, "rough or harsh in sound, appearance, or behaviour", which it IMHO is, showing: "You're not worth more than this copy-paste". – yo' Feb 22 '13 at 21:31
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    To be semantic for a bit, I do think that the inclusion of the parenthetical text in the example comment does push the comment a little bit toward being unnecessarily dismissive. Remove that part, and the comment is OK to me. Not great, but OK. – Andrew Barber Feb 22 '13 at 21:44

I may be in the minority but I think 'crappy' questions are often the best questions.

My reasoning is that when someone asks a really easy question, it gives people who know the really easy answer a chance to explain it really well.

These very deep explanations of something that is 'simple' or can be read in a help document, are often exactly what someone who is asking a 'crappy' question needs.

When I start learning a new technology I go to SO first because there are so many 'simple' questions with great answers that often teach me way more than reading the documentation can, because the information is focused. I think 'crappy' questions are an opportunity to really help people.

Sadly the overall mentality that I have observed is to down vote and shame the OP. it occasionally feels like you have to be a bit masochistic to ask a 'crappy' question, even if you really just need another person to explain it to you.

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    You are making a very common mistake: Confusing simple or basic questions with crappy questions. – Andrew Barber Feb 22 '13 at 21:28
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    Fair enough, however where do you draw the line? Sometimes the non English speaking users have trouble putting exactly what they need into the question. Which can easily turn a 'simple' question into a 'crappy' question. – Pow-Ian Feb 22 '13 at 21:30
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    Sometimes that is a problem, but I've seen plenty of people for whom English is a second+ language formulate good questions, just with slightly confusing wording. Problem-Solving is the same, no matter what language one speaks. – Andrew Barber Feb 22 '13 at 21:32
  • Again fair point, however can we reasonably assume that someone new enough to a technology would even know how to make heads or tails of help documentation? I feel it really comes down to people just need something explained occasionally. I have read all the documentation about jQuery deferred there is to consume and I even read a few blogs about its use. I was no closer to understanding it however until I saw it in practice in a SO answer. Then it clicked because the answer was focused and the individual who answered explained what the documentation failed to offer; meaningful context. – Pow-Ian Feb 22 '13 at 21:38
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    Sounds to me like you came across an example of a good answer; what you describe in your situation is exactly what Stack Overflow is here for. The problem is, many people come here far before putting in anywhere near the effort you describe. Which can be just fine - if they are putting in at least enough work to put together a question that is even possible to answer. – Andrew Barber Feb 22 '13 at 21:40
  • But there is a possible answer for every question. I think a better tact would be to edit the question and see if it can be improved. Don't get me wrong I am not trying to defend the questions which obviously can be Googled for an adequate answer, but even those can be answered in the comments with a link. Leaving a comment that seems to project that the individual should never have asked in the first place is just not conducive to a respectful and open community. – Pow-Ian Feb 22 '13 at 21:44
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    What if I asked you, "My car won't start, can you help me?" How would you answer that? You could try to list off the thousand possible things, which would confuse me and everyone else who came along, or you could simply ask, "What have you tried?" I explain, "I took the key from my house and it won't fit into my car's ignition". Suddenly, the question becomes easy to answer, where it was basically impossible before. – Andrew Barber Feb 22 '13 at 21:48
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    Well actually I am the kind of individual who would ask you for the key and try it myself simply because I need to see what is wrong before I can even try to think about how to fix it. And in the case of SO I do the same thing. If an OP did not make a fiddle the first thing I do is try to replicate their problem in a fiddle. 100% of the time if it is in my skill set I am able to find a solution to their issue this way. – Pow-Ian Feb 22 '13 at 21:53
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    How can you make a fiddle when they don't even give you their code, or don't even tell you what "it's not working" means, or what they wanted it to do. And on Stack Overflow - or Motor Vehicle Maint. and Repair you can't simply ask me for my key and try it - you have to ask me if I tried it. – Andrew Barber Feb 22 '13 at 21:56
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    I am not trying to defend the questions that are obviously not questions. I am trying to defend those who simply can't word their questions well and are berated for their inability to properly express their query. Obviously someone who is not actually asking a question should have the question closed. Even in those instances they don't deserve to be treated with disrespect, the 'question' should just be closed. – Pow-Ian Feb 22 '13 at 22:48
  • let us continue this discussion in chat – Andrew Barber Feb 22 '13 at 23:42

I don't see how this is so bad, considering the OP got 19 rep points for posting the question. The way such questions should be handled is by closing.

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    Rep is not everything. And if they are not familiar with the rep system, they only see -1 and not +19. – yo' Feb 22 '13 at 20:29
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    What does rep have to do with unhelpful comments? – jscs Feb 22 '13 at 20:31
  • Not to mention the rep was accumulated due to the traffic generated from this question. Before I started the thread, the OP was at 0/-4. – Jeff B Feb 22 '13 at 20:31
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    @JoshCaswell: Indeed. "Hey, I didn't get the answer to my question, but I have 19 'reps'! Where can I spend them?" – Jeff B Feb 22 '13 at 20:33
  • @tohecz; no one claimed rep "is everything". – Dour High Arch Feb 22 '13 at 21:11
  • No, it is something, but not enough for the situtation "not to be bad", as you write. – yo' Feb 22 '13 at 21:12
  • @Josh, since you asked; unhelpful comments attract sympathy upvotes, which gains rep. In case it is not clear; I oppose unhelpful comments as well, but for different reasons than you. – Dour High Arch Feb 22 '13 at 21:13
  • I'm not sure that causal relationship exists, but even if I did, I still wouldn't understand why you think rep is a compensation. – jscs Feb 22 '13 at 21:26

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