There's a tl:dr waaay down at the bottom, though the juicy bits are the most important tbh.

I didn't understand the approach to using "not an answer" flag. I do now from a discussion with Robert Harvey (here) which made it clear.
But discussions in Meta should not be needed, and currently it's not clear what Stack wants with the "not an answer" flag from the current name and description of said flag.

I can possibly see why seasoned users/mods/staff could disagree, but perhaps this is the old familiarity chestnut. Whereby because you know something so clearly and have been familiar with it for so long, you cannot see why someone else wouldn’t know what you do.

Wouldn't it be beneficial for the flag to be clear to people without the need of an explanation from a hard knock stackie?

This is the answer that lead to this question:

When you try to process an OPERATOR you look forward 1 element in your token vector. What happens if the OPERATOR you are processing is the last element in your token vector?

While the first sentence is a statement, it "does not attempt to answer the question" (the first sentence of the description in the "not an answer" flag).
As the second sentence starts with "What happens if", and ends with a question mark, that is a question, rhetorical or otherwise, it too is "not the answer to the question".
As such I felt this answer as a whole was "not an answer".

And there is a flag named "it is not an answer" and even the description fits using it for this question "it does not attempt to answer the question".

Please tell me why I would not choose this flag? - Without the foresight of what Stack actually wants from this flag. From the name and description you provide, and in scenarios such as this question where it perfectly fits the flag's name and description, people will choose what has been provided.

I understand what a Rhetorical question is, and in other places this is fine. But Stack promotes a strict Q&A style, including being strict as to what are not answers.
Surely a rhetorical question must be defined as a non-answer?

A rhetorical question is a figure of speech in the form of a question that is asked in order to make a point. The question, a rhetorical device, is posed not to elicit a specific answer, but rather to encourage the listener to consider a message or viewpoint

Not only is this by definition "not an answer", it is a question that doesn't even warrant an answer. How can this be passed as an answer on a strict Q&A site?

This is precisely why I, and I'm sure many others, chose "not an answer" flag as it "does not attempt to answer the question"!

The other options to flag this are:

  • it is spam
  • it is offensive, abusive, or hate speech
  • it is not an answer
  • it is very low quality
  • other (needs ♦ moderator attention)

It was not spam and was not offensive or abusive. It was very low quality, but the description under "low quality" flag option clearly indicates this is not the flag for this scenario (perfect description and this logic should be applied to all other flags).

So we have "not an answer" and "Other" remaining.

Robert Harvey♦ stated (as have various others):

With answers like the one being discussed here, it is better to flag with a custom explanation, and explain why you feel the answer is actively harmful and merits removal

Why would I waste mine and moderator time writing out an explanation to explain in greater detail what would only be summarised as "not an answer", when there is already a flag for this?

Now I of course know that we don't even use flags for this particular scenario, we use downvotes.
This is only due to it not fitting in with Stacks required use of any of the flags.
But surely you can see by my explanation above why I was led to use the "not an answer" flag?

It would be interesting to know how many "not an answer" flags are declined each week. The total figure wouldn't confirm the reason for the total, so perhaps a rewording of the flag description would be good and then see if that average weekly total went down.

The flag option "not an answer" is a pretty simple meaning, and it's also quite generic. In fact, it could define most of the other flags as well!

Robert Harvey♦ stated:

Reserve your "Not an Answer" flags for things like "I have the same problem, has anyone found a solution," "I have a new question, how do you..." and "+1, would read again." For everything else that you still think should be removed, cast a custom moderator flag, and explain why

This is fine, and now it's explained if that's what Stack wants I can act as such, but no-one can know this from the current flag description which is nothing like what Robert explained.

So if the flag "not an answer" is not to explicitly be used for answers which are not answers by any old definition, and only the definition that Stack doesn't tell the users about, and as this does leave it open to personal interpretation, what Robert described most certainly should be implemented into the flag description, if not the name somehow too.

The "not an answer" flag name and description:

it is not an answer
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.

Breaking that down to how users would interpret it who are not familiar with how Stack want it to be used:

  • it is not an answer - is very generic and could even define some of the other flags;
  • This was posted as an answer - yes it was it's in the "answers" area;
  • it does not attempt to answer the question - again so very generic and also this could define some the other flags;
  • It should possibly be an edit, a comment, another question, or deleted altogether. - This is just a list of potential resulting actions from the previous sentence. As the previous sentence and name are generic and not clear cut, and the resulting actions are generic, this does not clearly define how the flag should be used either.

If it's for things like "I have the same problem, has anyone found a solution," "I have a new question, how do you..." and "+1, would read again.", why not state that in with the flag description?

This confusion is only worsened by frustration that from my trying to help out with the poorly worded tools provided, I receive "flags should only be used to make moderators aware of content that requires their intervention".
This is why I'm provide with the flag buttons, and was provided with a "not an answer" flag to mark this question which was clearly "not an a answer".

Even if this response is based on a choice from only a few mods have, it shouldn't have been declined with the way the current flag is worded.
Even if I'd used the "other" flag, clearly in this case it would have returned the same declined message, as would any other flag. As Stack's way is, any answer which is not spam, offensive or "poor quality" (based on "poor quality" flag's well worded description) shouldn't be flagged and should just be downvoted.

This is fine, I actually agree completely it is the best method as downvotes just push it down and hopefully get it improved... but you gotta explain more clearly how you want them to be used.

The wiki for this flag is well worded and explains it much better. Alas "viewed 40 times".

tl;dr from here
The "not an answer" flag name and description is far too generic for people to know how to use it properly. There are many things that are "not an answer" including some of the other flags!

To the point
My feature-request is a change to the "not an answer" flag description and/or name, to more closely resemble what Stack requires it to be used for.

How about:

it is not an answer
for answers such as "I have the same problem..", "I have a new question, how do you..." and "+1 this is great". For "bad" answers just downvote.

And at the top of the pop-up flag list:

If the answer you're flagging is just a "bad" answer, or does not match any of the below descriptions, or you feel flagging a moderator using "other" is not justified, simply downvote it

  • 7
    Please tell me why I would not choose this flag? -- Because you are asking a moderator to unilaterally remove an answer that not only addresses the question asked, but addresses the actual issue the question raises, without providing any valid reason why. You're basically saying "Delete this answer because it has a question mark in it."
    – user102937
    Sep 25 '13 at 2:44
  • 1
    Firstly, I'm not primarily asking anything, Stack asks me to raise flags. Stack is asking me, and by providing a flag "not an answer" based on its name and description. "You're basically saying "Delete this answer because it has a question mark in it."" I'm really not, at all. I'm saying delete this answer because it "is not an answer" and "it does not attempt to answer the question" and because "it's a question". It's not because of some potential "typo" question mark, but because it is a question by it's structure and words. I'm ultimately proposing changes to explain flags vs downvotes.
    – James
    Sep 25 '13 at 3:00
  • 2
    I can't see how that is not an attempt to answer the question. That it also contains a question is beside the point, and should be addressed separately. Sep 25 '13 at 3:05
  • @AndrewBarber but your saying that is part of my point exactly. By definition it's not an answer. A "question" cannot be defined as an "answer", otherwise this is a QA&AQ site... However by "Stack's" definition it does not want me to mark that particular answer as "not an answer", it wants me to downvote. This is NOT because it WAS an attempt at an answer (it wasn't one), but specifically that it WASN'T an answer Stack wants me to use flags for. So then my whole point is, as that answer by definition is "not an answer" & you provide a flag for that, it's confusing to the unseasoned folks.
    – James
    Sep 25 '13 at 11:34

We moderators are partially to blame for this.

Helpful flags are helpful (mostly)

In the past, some mods (myself included) would always dismiss flags as helpful if the flag resulted in some sort of corrective action, such as closing the question or deleting the answer, or could be construed as helpful, regardless of the veracity of the flag. Anyone helping us sweep the floors was a friend, even if they were using the wrong kind of broom to do it.

The theory was that, even if the user wasn't being entirely helpful, they were still pointing a finger at a post, stating that "something bad is happening here." If there really is something bad happening, we can usually figure out what it is, and take the necessary corrective action, even if the flag is somewhat misguided.

In short, we didn't want to discourage people from flagging, especially in the old days when we had this thing called "flag weight," yet another metric by which one was judged, fairly or unfairly.

This approach was not universally accepted, by any means. Some of the mods took a stricter approach at dismissing flags, requiring flags to be cast correctly, and warning the less strict mods that we would be conditioning the user community to use these flags improperly. Turns out they were right.

And that state of affairs might have stayed that way, had review queues not come into existence. But, with the appearance of robo-reviewers and the necessity of instituting review audits, it became crucial that flags be dismissed properly, with regard to the way they are being used, because the disposition of those flags drives the logic for the review audits.

The flag dialog is not a teaching device

So what does all this have to do with verbiage in a flagging dialog? Quite simple, really: We don't expect the flagging dialog to teach people every nuance there is to know about flagging. Yes, you heard me right. The flagging dialog is not about teaching people how to flag. It is about giving people a place to say "Something bad is happening here. Can you please look at it, and take the appropriate action?"

"But Robert," you say. "You just contradicted yourself. You said that the way you flag is important, but now you're saying that it isn't." Quite right; here's why. Most people are not interested in being career flaggers; they just want a way to report a problem. We expect people not to be perfect in their flagging. That's why there are multiple votes in review queues, and why we collect multiple votes in the flag queue for flagged posts, and, for that matter, why we let more than one person vote on a question or answer.

Fine tuning your flagging skills is done the same way you learn anything else: you get feedback, ask questions, and improve. Nobody (least of all the mods) expects anyone on Stack Exchange to get their flagging perfect the first time.

So why not improve the verbiage in the flag dialog anyway?

In no way do we want to discourage the casual flagger. The current verbiage is intended to be general advice, not a detailed treatise on how to use the flagging dialog. We still would like people to use their flags properly, but ultimately we want to hear about the actionable problems; the way you tell us about those problems is ultimately of secondary importance.

In other words, please flag anyway. Don't worry about getting it perfect; we care more about knowing about the problems than we do about the perfectly executed flag, and getting the occasional flag declined is not the end of the world anyway.

Seasoned users will recognize that there is a lot of intrinsic meaning in the current verbiage, if they care to look for it rather than speculate on the reasons why new users might not understand it:

but it does not attempt to answer the question

Seems pretty self-evident. The poster has some other motivation besides answering the question. What's not directly stated (but is implied) is that any answer that is an attempt at answering the question that was asked counts as an answer.

It should possibly be an edit, a comment, another question, or deleted altogether.

In other words, if it feels more appropriate as one of these other things, it probably doesn't belong in an answer.

If all else fails, communicate!

Moderators are not mind readers. If you flag an answer as "Not an Answer," but the moderator reviewing your flag can see clearly that it is some form of answer, they're going to decline your flag, because you haven't told them what is actually wrong. If they don't see a question, a comment, an edit or reason for deletion there instead of an answer, they're going to decline your flag.

The way you fix this (assuming that your concern is really actionable) is to cast a custom flag. In the custom flag description, explain what the problem is with the post, and what you want the mod to do about it. The chances of your flag being acted upon go up dramatically.

  • Thanks for the time to make a detailed answer :) But surely then the review queues were only a plaster over a gaping wound? Sew up the wound! ie ensure all flag names/descriptions/usages are accurate/logical so people use them correctly, and make them all part of the auto-mod so if enough people vote it will potentially reduce review queue. More people might be inclined to use flags & more often if they make more sense (& not scary like you're flagging a mod and not sure if it's right or not). Which will in turn reduce mod/reviewer time spent.
    – James
    Sep 25 '13 at 12:11
  • "The flag dialog is not a teaching device" - re everything you wrote under that: They don't have to be teaching devices, just make changes it so the flags are descriptive/logical. "fine tuning flag skills, feedback, improvements etc" is surely just yours and users time wasted when it doesn't need to be this way? Users will flag more with logically named and described flags, & for a better purpose. Surely this will only help mods, reviewers and the site in general if everyone is flagging more appropriately? Especially if they're all auto-mod enabled when enough votes for same flag is reached.
    – James
    Sep 25 '13 at 12:20
  • "Most people are not interested in being career flaggers; they just want a way to report a problem" and "In no way do we want to discourage the casual flagger." Surely these are perfect arguments for changing and improving the current flags?
    – James
    Sep 25 '13 at 12:27
  • You state "we want to hear about the actionable problems; the way you tell us about those problems is ultimately of secondary importance" - I disagree strongly here. We must be able to accurately portray issues to you (ie flag), or we wont understand the tools and we and you ARE guessing what is meant by the flag. This is just a conflict. Also, otherwise, it's all too generic for a site that requires (sometimes demands) professionalism and accuracy from user actions, including flagging.
    – James
    Sep 25 '13 at 12:41
  • If I flag incorrectly it gets denied. This is wasted time for us and Stack, when it could be avoided. Plus I eventually lose flag rights if I do it too often. So there is actually no "flag away" and "the way I tell you about problems is secondary importance" is not true, unless I get it right! And I cannot get it right when the tools are not clear in their requirements from the only info of them I have to go by - their name and description. As you said, "The flag dialog is not a teaching device" - as such they need to be logically named in order to be used correctly for the benefit of all.
    – James
    Sep 25 '13 at 12:47
  • Again I'm not arguing with you Robert (or anyone else) just disagreeing with the way the flag system is. Now you have explained it all (thanks again) I understand the bigger picture much more clearly, however I still do not see any valid argument to not improve the flag names and descriptions to make people use them more accurately and more frequently. Including not just because "this is the way it was and the way it ended up being". I suppose ultimately the amount of work and risk of such a big change is the worry. Changing such a big part of the site such as flagging might end up backfiring
    – James
    Sep 25 '13 at 12:50
  • Basically, what I am saying is that, if you're blaming dialog verbiage for flags that get declined, you're taking your eye off the ball. It doesn't matter how you flag; what matters is that there is a genuine, actionable problem with the post, and that the moderator can figure out from your flag what that problem is.
    – user102937
    Sep 25 '13 at 15:49
  • "doesn't matter how you flag" That's not strictly true. If I choose the wrong flag it's declined. Meta has Qs asking why X flag was denied & answers (inc from mods) stating why "Other" flag was more appropriate. The fact I've raised this question means a user is confused by the flag, I can't be the only one. Not teaching users how Stack defines "not an answer" to use the "not an answer" flag, coupled with also providing a generic flag name & description leaves it wide open to personal interpretation. So the flag can be accurately & logically applied to numerous (incorrect) scenarios.
    – James
    Sep 25 '13 at 16:27
  • Flags get declined for only one of two reasons: either it was not an actionable flag, or the mod couldn't figure out why you were flagging.
    – user102937
    Sep 25 '13 at 16:29
  • "or the mod couldn't figure out why you were flagging" and this can happen because the user's interpretation of "not an answer" is different to the site's, because of the aforementioned poor flag description and name.
    – James
    Sep 25 '13 at 16:32
  • And this can happen because you didn't take the time to explain yourself using a Custom flag, rather than a canned flag. The importance of this cannot be overstated. It takes precedence over all other concerns, including the verbiage of the "Not an Answer" dialog.
    – user102937
    Sep 25 '13 at 16:35
  • So if an answer is "This is great thanks! How did you fix XYZ?" and I use "Other" flag and write "not really an answer, I feel it's a thanks and question", this will not be declined?
    – James
    Sep 25 '13 at 16:56
  • No, it will not be declined. It identifies the correct problem, and the problem is actionable.
    – user102937
    Sep 25 '13 at 16:58
  • ok on that occasion great, although I would have chosen to use "not an answer" as it isn't an answer, & it would have just been pure luck that I'd used the correct flag as I see that flag as more than that. I flagged the answer quoted above in this question as "not an answer" flag because it arguably was not an answer. It was declined. If I had flagged as "Other" and said "it is a question, regardless of being rhetorical" would it have been declined?
    – James
    Sep 25 '13 at 17:37
  • 1
    ok ta. I still feel "it was not an answer" is a badly worded flag, but I'll eat my right arm without sauce before debating that one all over again :P thanks for your time in explaining.
    – James
    Sep 25 '13 at 17:52

This is just a list of potential resulting actions from the previous sentence.

No, it's not "just" that. It's part of the description for the flag, existing to clarify the previous sentence. Because, yeah, it's pretty generic up to that point - so we're giving you a list of things that we consider "not answers", namely: posts that should rather be comments, edits, completely separate questions, or simply deleted.

No other flag description ends with "a list of potential resulting actions" - why would you think this one would? And why are you parsing two short sentences as though they were four separate thoughts? Also, have you noticed how many question-marks I'm using in this answer? That's not even intentional!

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