2

We already prohibit signatures and taglines from posts. Should we do the same with these phrases, under the theory that they are noise?

Note: There seems to be some confusion about this question, so to be clear, I'm not asking if we should blacklist these phrases, nor do I advocate a fishing expedition for existing instances. We don't do that with taglines and signatures now. I'm asking if these phrases should be manually edited out of new posts (since such phrases are essentially content-free), just like we do with signatures and taglines now.

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  • 9
    On another note, where does the phrase "any idea" come from, anyway, and why is it suddenly appearing in so many posts? Any idea?
    – user102937
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 23:08
  • 8
    I have no any idea. Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 23:11
  • I already nuke them on sight
    – Doorknob
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 23:30
  • 20
    I burn phrases like this often but I don't think they should be auto-nuked; it's prefectly possible to use the phrase "Is it possible..." in a way that usefully frames a constructive, quality question.
    – Ben Brocka
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 23:54
  • 5
    If it says anything, a search for "is it possible" closed:0 is:question sorted by votes reveals that downvotes start on page 9884/10062. In other words, ~98.2% of questions with "is it possible" have 0 or more votes. Additionally, those with score 1 or more start on 5562/10062, or in other words ~55.3% have upvotes.
    – user206222
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 0:11
  • 1
    @KnightswhosayNi you're not counting deleted or closed questions
    – Doorknob
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 0:25
  • @Doorknob Ah, so that's what I'm missing. That makes sense.
    – user206222
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 0:25
  • Maybe you can get robots to ask the questions and eliminate any scent of a human
    – spring
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 15:00
  • 1
    giving these same "edit-treatment" as to signatures and taglines sounds like a good idea to me. Consider editing your suggestion to clarify that just like with siglines, it is expected that editors wiping this garbage out will also do other cleanup if posts need it (IIRC there are couple MSO discussions explaining why edit suggestions that only remove thanks / signatures may get rejected)
    – gnat
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 15:27
  • I think a better solution would be to just ask the user for clarification about what they want when it is unclear. Simply changing posts to remove those phrases won't really teach anyone anything, and sometimes there is no definitive problem to replace it with. Other times, those phrases are perfectly valid, such as summarizing a post with lines like "Is it possible to perform X using Y parameters" or "Any idea how I can accomplish what I have described above?". I see such a proposal causing more confusion than anything else, and possibly active harm since it's such a broad phrase.
    – Rachel
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 15:27
  • @Rachel: My goal isn't teaching in this context; it is reducing noise, and I'm not advocating wholesale deletion. If people are tossing these phrases without any context, they're the ones causing confusion, not me.
    – user102937
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 15:33
  • @RobertHarvey I saw your comment below and think I understand your reasoning a bit better. The way your question is currently worded, it sounds like you are advocating for users doing a search for questions containing "Is it possible..." or "Any ideas...", and editing them out. I think a better idea would be a new post asking why questions which can be summarized with such broad questions are bad, and an answer explaining why they're bad and how to write the question better.
    – Rachel
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 15:39
  • @Rachel: No, no searches. If these phrases are already in old questions, and they haven't caused anyone any heartburn yet, they don't need to be bumped to the front page over such a trivial edit. But if they are newly asked, I want to be able to hit them with a nuclear-powered ball-peen hammer.
    – user102937
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 15:41
  • There is also "Any help (greatly) appreciated", which doesn't add anything to the question, if not a vague indication that all answers will be equally appreciated, i.e., the tone of a mild shopping question. I am reluctant to edit them out, however, because they are a natural way to close a broad question, and if you remove them, the post often feels amputated.
    – Monolo
    Commented May 1, 2013 at 5:57

9 Answers 9

21

Language is an amorphous beast and one that continually evolves and changes. I don't see how attempting to flag/black-list/prevent common phraseology is going to solve this particular challenge.

From a personal standpoint, I'd rather that rules be written, broadcast and we, as a community attempt to (adhere|point out|edit|flag|remove) than put pseudo-intelligent automation in place.

"Is this possible..."
"Struggling..."
"I need help..."
Or even, the somewhat amusing (if old): "Dude, where's my column"

Are all just ways of people expressing their question and wanting to seem approachable, friendly, human even!

If a user posts a question and they are confronted by rules, they often work around them. A case in point and where users are prevented from using the word 'problem' in a question:

enter image description here

So they use 'proble' instead and circumvent a basic (if pretty naive) rule and it's associated issues.

I've also seen code blocks included in posts because JSFiddles are required to have code associated with them too, so they post:

code code 

These type of solutions don't really address the cause, they just fix the symptoms and I don't see how further basic automation would add much more value (despite a wider community wish to see it magically fixed).

God help us if they start using leet!

EDIT:


In view of the updated question/context and because I seem to spend the majority of my time on SO editing questions (yes, I do enjoy it for some reason), be it because of:

  • I have the basic rep to do so
  • Glaring spelling errors, grammar, punctuation
  • Lack of descriptive context
  • An inability to explain their challenges logically (or sensibly)
  • Correct code blocks
  • Remove salutations/thanks etc

I don't believe the wholesale removal of colloquial terms or phrases is something that is easy to do or indeed, needed. Let me explain in terms of the elements of questions and how I see them:

Question titles

I'm unusually concerned with question titles and primarily because I know they play an enormous role in helping others find answers to questions; Be it through direct searching on SO (or other SE sites) or using search engines. How they are phrased is important and I'll readily edit questions to improve the chance of others benefitting from them - be it a one letter spelling fix or a complete re-write knowing how people search for answers.

When I search for answers, I often include the word 'problem' or 'solution' or 'fix' et al. I suspect others do too to capture the widest possible gamut knowing that others phrase and search using what I'd describe as human terms - I think about how others would search...

I realised today (I admit, with a terribly ironic twist) that a prime example of this is one of the 6 questions I've asked whilst being a user on SO for less than 6 months:

Is it possible to access CSS media query rules via javascript/DOM

If I search Google for: "access media queries via javascript", just look at the top 3 results:

enter image description here

Generally, did the question title:

  • Impede search? No.
  • Impact the answer(s)? No.
  • Offend or misrepresent my intentions? No.
  • Impact the quality/quantity of answers? No.
  • Provide a result when searching for the subject? YES

Note: I realise in citing this result, that the topic of SEO (search engine optimisation) is far more explicit, influential, involved and not the core point of my answer. This is just one example where a title has not been edited.

Question body

To a great degree, it doesn't matter that users include the terms 'any idea' or 'is it possible' (or many other terms) in their question body. As I mentioned in my original answer, I think it's entirely acceptable to do so - people often write as they would talk, so we can't expect any different as a community. I think we have to accept it rather than try to remove colloquial terms by default or en masse.

If it's a poor/awful/codez question within any particular realm or tag, regular/higher-rep users remove it at breakneck speed (sometimes I wonder if they enjoy the thift/speed at which a question can be closed - the fastest being about 90secs that I've seen). Some, spend a lot of time correcting and answering questions where there is less hope and which I applaud as they are trying to help users - as green as they may be.

I'd like (and continue) to think that many of the more established and long-term users would edit question contents with a view to improvement, but not for the sake of removing colloquial terms alone. I think this is a mistake and a red-herring in many cases, but others may differ in their views.

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  • 6
    Related: Houston, we have a porblem.
    – user206222
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 0:30
  • @KnightswhosayNi Hadn't seen that, but how apt!
    – nickhar
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 0:34
  • 2
    Sorry, but Stack Exchange has no place for humanness. Source: I'm a unicorn. Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 7:07
  • See the edit to my question.
    – user102937
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 14:38
  • Ah. Well part of my answer still holds true. Re-write/re-word where merited, but preserving context. @Ben Brockas comment covers it well: it's prefectly possible to use the phrase "Is it possible..." in a way that usefully frames a constructive, quality question - Although there are other phrases that should probably be removed instantly. I'll amend my answer.
    – nickhar
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 15:22
  • In my browser, the title of that first question reads in Google as "Is it possible to access CSS media query rules via ...". The following question is likewise cut off. i.sstatic.net/9WyaL.png I agree in general that there's no need for a rule here, but I strongly disagree with your assertion that content-free words at the start of a title have no affect on search. See also meta.stackexchange.com/a/149135
    – jscs
    Commented May 1, 2013 at 2:55
  • @JoshCaswell Disagreement accepted and understood. I've not covered all aspects in my answer, just cited what I see "when I type" as a basic example. SEO is a far more involved topic and conversation, which I consider outside the bounds of this post generally.
    – nickhar
    Commented May 1, 2013 at 3:03
  • @JoshCaswell ...BUT which I know as influential in writing titles - most of which OPs won't consider...
    – nickhar
    Commented May 1, 2013 at 3:11
  • True, it's not really an asker's job (though it's nice, and I try to when I ask) to consider future searchers.
    – jscs
    Commented May 1, 2013 at 3:24
11

I would rather we didn't automatically detect "bad phrases." I have three reasons, the last of which is the strongest:

  • there's a near-infinite supply of these and constantly tweaking the Low Quality rules is a never ending game
  • it's not fair to an asker, who may not have English as a first language, to just say "not good enough" but if you tell them what rule they've broken, they resort to pr0blem etc
  • these phrases are great for finding questions riddled with other problems that are not easy to find organically

Lately I've been searching for "my question is" (results) and it turns up badly written questions almost without fail. These questions have a lot more wrong with them than that phrase. I can just remove it, along with any so, basically, I guess, I think and so on that introduce it, and stick a question mark on the end of the sentence and the question is better. But, and this is huge, the question is pretty much invariably full of other problems: uncapitalized i, unformatted code, blither blather about how important the question is or how great any help at all would be, lists done wrong, endless setup followed by wall of code, and more.

If you don't let people type the easily-spotted mistakes, how will we find the posts full of harder-to-spot mistakes?

However, for hand removing, I strongly agree with editing out "any idea?" since it adds nothing. Perhaps we should have a question called "what noise phrases should I remove or replace when editing?" and an answer for each that says what to do about it. For "any idea" I would just remove it, but "is it possible?" can perhaps stay.

6
  • +1 Exactly. The tail is longer than most people think!
    – nickhar
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 1:17
  • 1
    See the edit to my question for some clarification.
    – user102937
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 14:41
  • Ah. Do we need official policy on what it's ok to edit out? Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 14:42
  • 2
    @KateGregory: No, but I get challenged on these sort of things all the time as a moderator, and I need community consensus.
    – user102937
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 15:02
  • @RobertHarvey Ahh that explains what prompted such a question. Perhaps that bit of information would be useful in the question itself? Or since this question already appears to be answered, maybe make a new post asking why broad questions which are summarized by phrases like "Any idea" or "Is it possible" are bad, and answer it with a post explaining that SO should be about specific problems, and you should explain both your problem problem and your goal when asking a question, and not just leave the question open ended and begging for broad discussions.
    – Rachel
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 15:35
  • 2
    @Rachel: As an inclusionist, you should appreciate this viewpoint: rather than voting to close the question, just edit the open-ended phrase out.
    – user102937
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 15:44
4

Edit: As the OP has been edited to clarify its purpose, I have added a new answer here. However, I'm leaving this one, because I think it's still relevant to this post's discussion.


I am going to paraphrase much of the answers given here and here, where it is suggested that we blacklist (or, in this case, autoedit) permutations of the phrase "It doesn't work."

There are an indefinite number of potential 'trigger phrases' which could be used to identify bad questions. While it's not really reasonable to oppose such blacklist/autoedit phrases (after all, they're typical of bad questions), how many do we have to blacklist/autoedit before people start paying attention to what we're trying to say?

I don't think this is going to impact the overall quality of question-asking. These questions will transmute into "It doesn't work" questions - except they won't have the phrase "It doesn't work."

Additionally, I think a casual "How should I go about doing this?" or "What's the issue here?" really shouldn't be an area of focus. I know we're all about eliminating noise, but really? Is this actually serious enough of an issue to deserve an automatic edit?

Just my two cents. (Please don't edit this line out)

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  • 6
    must resist temptation to edit the last line out :O
    – Doorknob
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 23:29
  • It is an indefinite number, but that number is relatively small, and I think users morph them as they notice that certain phrases like "it doesn't work" become socially unacceptable. "Any idea" is the new "it doesn't work."
    – user102937
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 23:33
  • 2
    @RobertHarvey How many times do you have to ban key phrases and words before there are no more left to ban? It's like killing mosquitoes. You can kill as many as you'd like, but there'll still be more. Also, since most users are just going to ignore it and find workarounds, it's not going to make that much of a difference in the long run.
    – user206222
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 23:35
  • Not banning, just banishing to purgatory with edits. But I need backup, otherwise it's just "Y U NO LEAVE MY PET PHRASE?"
    – user102937
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 23:36
  • @RobertHarvey Regardless of the terminology, this isn't a long term solution, which is really what we need.
    – user206222
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 23:36
  • 6
    Agreed. Add to the list "I get a weird error" and "SQL Server doesn't seem to like it" and "it's broken" and on and on and on. The phrases themselves are not the problem, it's that people are lazy, terrible troubleshooters, and terrible at conveying the actual problem. :-(
    – Aaron Bertrand Staff
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 23:53
  • It might be nice if “It doesn't work.” or a variation on that were to trigger a box reminding users that they need to say how it doesn't work. Think of it as a warning, not an error. At least like that it might save the first comment — often upvoted — that asks “how does it not work?” :-) Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 13:39
  • @DonalFellows some might see this as nagging, though. Especially if you're said "When I do x, I get error y. When I do z, it doesn't work either."
    – Aaron Bertrand Staff
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 13:48
3

Noting words and phrases is a mug's game. Better to train classifiers on the mass of available data to attach a 'crap score', after the general fashion of how (e.g. SpamAssassin) notices spam. The downside it that the only possible explanation would be:

"Your question is quite similar to many questions which the community has voted to be low quality, so we are not accepting it. Please review the faq to learn more about asking high quality questions."

2
  • 1
    A self-training Bayesian Filter? Maybe SE does that already (they're not saying).
    – user102937
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 23:34
  • 1
    cough quality filter cough
    – Doorknob
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 0:23
2

A month ago there was an interesting trial run of an automatized (hence scalable, and long term) service that allowed the system to enter into a constructive dialog with users of the site.

So instead of blocking posts and frustrating people (often newcomers), these phrases could provide cues to The Expert and have it pop up and guide them through the process of writing a good question.

It could even ask "What have you tried" and have the poster answer it before the question goes live.

I am aware that a few members of the community expressed doubts regarding the true value of the service, but I am convinced that much of that criticism was due to the fact that you had it in the face every fricking time you visited an SE site. If it only offers1 its services when it gets a cue, I think it will be appreciated. At least by the people like the OP who now has to do that work manually.

And before anyone jumps in and points out that it won't solve all cases, I just have to say: True! but it will certainly reduce the amount of cases to handle by mods and other users.

1: This is intended to be a euphemism. It really should be an offer they can't refuse.

2

These phrases tend to show up in questions where the OP is typically aware that what he's asking for is not possible. So the suck-factor tends to be high, proving that something is not possible is quite difficult, inevitably dated and very rarely appreciated. Which in itself is strange, there is no upper bound on the amount of time somebody can spend chasing a hopeless case.

But an answer that does provide a solution tends to be a gold nugget. A truly useful answer with an unexpected approach and the kind that I appreciate far more than the typical slosh. Let's not throw the opportunity for gold nuggets away.

1

To write an answer that addresses your revised question,

No, I do not think we should have a policy to edit out the phrases "Is it possible" or "Any ideas" from posts.

In many cases these phrases are valid, and to outlaw such phrases on the grounds that they might be a symptom of a quality problem leads to more harm than good.

  • I have seen these phrases used many times very constructively in questions, such as summarizing a post with something like "Is it possible to perform X using Y parameters" or "Any idea how I can accomplish what I have described above?", and do not think the existence of one of those phrases constitutes a bad post in need of editing.

  • There are cases where the summarized question cannot be edited into anything but "Is it possible...", and advocating removing that phrase simply leads to no question.

  • It doesn't teach anyone anything, and can lead to a lot of confusion. Simply editing certain phrases out just leads to someone going "What was wrong with asking if something is possible or not??". A better idea is to leave a comment asking for clarification for what the OP wants so the question is clear and the goal clearly stated.

  • Such a policy would probably also lead to misguided users doing searches on those phrases, and editing them out, which would result in many invalid edits and meta discussions.

To address a comment from you about the reasoning behind this proposal:

I get challenged on these sort of things all the time as a moderator, and I need community consensus

I think we can all agree that we don't want broad open-ended questions on the site, however your proposal would only attempt to treat one possible effect of the problem, instead of addressing the source of the problem itself.

So rather than picking phrases that are possible symptoms of a broad open-ended question and outlawing them, instead address the problem itself, and create a canonical reference resource explaining the problem with broad open-ended questions, how to identify them (this is where your phrases come into play), and how you can rewrite the question into an acceptable question for the site.

10
  • Again, I'm not advocating an outright ban, nor am I advocating removal of such phrases when they are used in context, nor am I advocating searches. I probably shouldn't have asked for permission; what I am actually asking seems self-evident to me. As to the problem of broad, open-ended questions, the solution is readily apparent: close them.
    – user102937
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 16:09
  • @RobertHarvey I think your question may need to be updated then, as the current title of Should the phrases “Any Idea” and “Is it Possible” be edited out of questions? and the existing post content does not give that impression.
    – Rachel
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 16:10
  • 3
    [sigh] . . . . .
    – user102937
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 16:12
  • Here's a good example: stackoverflow.com/q/16304525
    – user102937
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 16:25
  • @RobertHarvey That seems like a decent question to me.... sure it's been answered before, but it's not a question that you would bother to edit out "Is it possible" on to make it a valid question. I understand what you're saying that "it's always possible if you have enough money to throw at it", but most "is it possible" questions are looking for a common-sense solution, and not a hypothetical "if I had a billion dollars" solution, and users understand that.
    – Rachel
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 16:32
  • 2
    If you look at the question more closely, you will see that it is underspecified. All of the linked questions and the sole answer posted point to a solution that is the proper way to do this, but it is a solution that the OP can't use, for reasons that he didn't point out in the question. His question is of a general, philosophical nature, but his problem is very specific. "Is it possible" has, in effect, become a fishing expedition, and the question is not salvageable in its present form. Big waste of time for everyone.
    – user102937
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 16:36
  • @RobertHarvey The linked questions and the answer all tell how to show/hide a link based on the user's role. That is not actually the same as what the user is asking in his question, which is if you can access an Attribute from Razor code. Sure his code sample wants to hide a link based on the user's role, and he left a key bit of information out of his question (that standard authorization code wouldn't work due to this being a custom implementation), but it doesn't change the fact that the question (once clarified) is an OK one, and editing out "Is it possible" would not make a difference.
    – Rachel
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 16:43
  • Well, "Is it possible to use MVC Attributes on a Razor code" is Not a Real question, and it doesn't get any better in the question body, so. I see your edit, but not every question can be saved, Rachel.
    – user102937
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 16:45
  • @RobertHarvey Would "How can I use MVC attributes in Razor code?" be any better? I don't see how removing "Is it possible" changes the question being asked that much, or the answers it attracts. But anyways, I disagree that it is NARQ and think it's a valid question, and accept the fact you disagree, and we'll leave it at that. We're getting way off topic anyways :)
    – Rachel
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 16:49
  • 2
    This is what the question should look like. It specifies what the question actually is, the title is something that someone else can find in a Google Search, and it now has a (maybe) actionable answer.
    – user102937
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 17:06
0

https://stackoverflow.com/search?page=2&tab=newest&q=is%20it%20possible https://stackoverflow.com/search?page=2&tab=newest&q=java

Searching for "is it possible" and viewing newest and going through a few pages, it seems questions that match these keywords score a little better vote-wise than searching for "Java" does.

Here's mine:

https://stackoverflow.com/search?q=%22is+it+possible%22+user%3Adjechlin

Probably lower than my average question-pool but these seem to be acceptable-quality questions.

So no, we shouldn't disallow those phrases.

2
  • No, we shouldn't what?
    – user102937
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 23:47
  • @RobertHarvey fixed
    – djechlin
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 23:50
-1

My old answer doesn't quite satisfy the clarified/edited purpose of your question, so I'm going to post another one.

I don't think this is a valid reason to improve a post. If I see these phrases in a post which already is in need of editing, then I will remove it. However, that's only in the case where a question needs improving to begin with.

If a question doesn't need improvement, I think Any ideas? or What are your thoughts? are okay to add at the end of a post. The simple reason is: why bother? What changes about the post? Does its quality significantly improve as a result of cutting out "Any ideas?"

The answer here is a pretty straightforward no. If a post is bad, removing that phrase isn't going to improve it. If a post is good, adding it won't make it bad. Thus, it has effectively no impact on the overall quality of a post, and writing a policy about it is a pointless exercise.

6
  • 2
    Taglines and signatures have zero net effect on the post in the same way you describe, but we remove those.
    – user102937
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 17:37
  • @RobertHarvey Taglines and signatures aren't relevant to the question in any way.
    – user206222
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 17:38
  • You know what I'm gonna say next, right?
    – user102937
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 17:38
  • @RobertHarvey Yes, and I disagree. While a signature is not even remotely related to the question, Any ideas? is semantically related to the question. While cutting out taglines removes off topic information, removing Any ideas? removes a call to open a discussion. While redundant, it's still on topic.
    – user206222
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 17:39
  • 1
    I see removing a call to open a discussion as a good thing, seeing as we're not about that.
    – user102937
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 17:40
  • 1
    @RobertHarvey Discussion wasn't the right word. Rephrase it, and the intended meaning is the same: it opens a call for answers/solutions. Regardless, it's still on-topic for the question itself, whereas a tagline is not.
    – user206222
    Commented Apr 30, 2013 at 17:42

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