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Since its inception Stack Exchange has tried to make it as easy as possible to ask a question, most of the time. This was done by implementing the concept of an "unregistered" user, identified only by a cookie, who otherwise does not have to log in to a Stack Exchange site.

The unregistered user does indeed make it easy for anyone to ask or answer a question. Unfortunately, it has a number of problems, which frustrate the guest users, discourage community participation, and encourage lower quality.

User Experience

  • Guest users who clear or lose their cookies can no longer comment on their posts or accept an answer on their questions. The SE network has many thousands of such "lost" accounts and their associated questions and answers, and since the account is "unregistered" there isn't an obvious way to recover the account. The hapless users then create new accounts, registered or unregistered, post answers as comments, need approval to edit their own questions, etc.
  • Guest users sometimes register with a different email address than the one with which they made their first contribution, resulting in two accounts. Or they run into a bug which causes them to have two accounts anyway. These accounts then need to be merged, but the process to do this is also non-obvious to the user and the tool is no longer accessible to moderators.
  • Guest users cannot take ownership of a migrated question or answer without first registering on the original site, then signing in on the new site with the same credentials, and hoping that Stack Exchange associates them to the same profile properly (which sometimes doesn't happen). Merging profiles in this scenario, different from merging accounts, is another non-obvious process which even some moderators are unaware exists; the user is likely to be hopelessly lost.
  • Not to mention all the various bugs and edge cases in the system which users sometimes stumble upon. These all have to be dealt with, the user becomes confused and frustrated, and that funny smell in the office just might be the code...

Quality

  • Overall, the quality of contributions from guest users is significantly lower than that from users who sign in to accounts,(1) (2) which is why some sites already do not allow unregistered users to ask questions. Low quality questions make regular answerers very unhappy. Low quality answers also are a pain, but to a lesser extent.
  • The existence of the post as guest feature implicitly encourages low quality, drive-by contributions. Because little effort needs to be put into the post, and the user has no connection to the community, this is very often what happens. Many guest users do not respond to comments and requests for clarification, do not accept answers, and do not return to the site once their question has been answered. As described above, sometimes it may simply be impossible for them to do so.

These things being so, it should therefore be required for anyone to register or sign in to an account before their question or answer is posted, anywhere on the network.

This does not mean that users should not be able to type in their question or answer before registering or signing in; that could remain in place below the textarea, as it is now, or it could be altered in some way. One possible way to do this is to simply replace the Post as guest form with a signup form.

Proposed signup form

Whatever the specific user experience, it should be as easy as possible for a new user to sign up or log in.

Pros

  • New users must be more motivated to join the site to make their first contribution successfully. This may discourage some people who would otherwise have contributed low quality worthless questions or answers. While this seems to be the case on the few sites which already prohibit questions from unregistered users, it is ultimately difficult to measure.
  • The process of obtaining an account on a Stack Exchange site can be simplified somewhat. Since the account/profile system is already a Byzantine labyrinth with many traps for the unwary, the simplification implied by this proposed change can only help.

Cons

  • New users must be more motivated to join the site to make their first contribution successfully. This may discourage some people who would otherwise have contributed high quality valuable questions or answers. While this probably would only rarely be the case, it is ultimately difficult to measure.
  • There might have been another down side to this, but if there was I've forgotten it.
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    Which reminds me of something I deleted today.. – ɥʇǝS Nov 17 '14 at 3:12
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    @ɥʇǝS O_O.... that gem – Braiam Nov 17 '14 at 3:17
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    Are you against asking as guest, or against answering and editing as well? Your arguments are pretty much only about questions. – Gilles Nov 17 '14 at 7:47
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    related complaint at TWP meta: test failed: a question from unregistered, 0-score account "...All I can say is WTF. Totally new users are literally invited to drop anything at the site without even a hint to help them understand what it is about and how it works." – gnat Nov 17 '14 at 12:59
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    ...FWIW, requiring registration to ask question can be requested (and granted) per-site, based on site-specific stats. Here is an example of how this was made at Programmers – gnat Nov 17 '14 at 13:48
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    And the 3-months later conclusion that "After digging into this a bit further, I can't find any conclusive evidence that this has really helped much." meta.programmers.stackexchange.com/a/5379/285 – Kate Gregory Nov 17 '14 at 14:16
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    @Rafflesiaarnoldii 2600 removed questions at your site in October 2014 speak rather loud in favor of requiring registration... – gnat Nov 17 '14 at 17:53
  • @Gilles For the most part, what I said applies to both questions and answers. When I meant one or the other, I named it explicitly. – Michael Hampton Nov 17 '14 at 20:38
  • I agree. I think you should be registred to be able to post. Before finding this I had started this same topic on the SE I use most meta.spanish.stackexchange.com/questions/2473/… – DGaleano Oct 4 '16 at 14:37
  • Many unregistered users come to [scifi.se.com] for story identification then never get a notification or email or anything and never come back, so completely obviously true answers aren’t ever accepted. I don’t like this feature. – Stormblessed Apr 29 at 0:27
  • The past three new posts on Science Fiction & Fantasy have been two trolls and one NaA. All three users were unregistered. EDIT: A fourth unregistered user, this one with an NaA. – Stormblessed Apr 29 at 4:17
  • A fifth now. I really don't like this feature – Stormblessed Apr 29 at 4:25
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First off, I'm not wild about doing anything to the registration system right now. Not on any one site, and definitely not network-wide. We're working on a design for a complete revamp of the global login system (the one that in theory lets you log in on one site and be logged in automatically on the rest) - hopefully, it'll work to make login and registration a whole lot simpler... But inevitably it'll be a lot of work and there'll be bugs; throwing a wrench into that by suddenly forcing a whole lot of people to register isn't a great idea.

At some point in the future, I think it'll make sense to just require registration to ask questions on sites that get more than a certain number of questions per day; in theory at least, the extra overhead would be offset by the reduction in confusion and support costs.

But that's far short of what you're proposing, and I have two major objections to doing anything like that right now:

1) this would be a support nightmare

  • There are folks on some sites that never register to post answers; if they lose the cookie, they just shrug, re-enter their info, and start posting again. By all appearances, they just don't care - and the last thing we need is a bunch of these folks emailing us irate that they can't post without remembering a password.
  • We've managed to fix a lot of bugs in our account recovery system over the past few months, but last I checked the bit where you can regain access to an unregistered account without someone like me holding your hand is still pretty broken; that absolutely needs to be fixed before we do anything to make it worse.
  • Associating accounts with migrated posts is an even bigger headache, one that this would do nothing to help - fortunately, it's fairly rare, but the solution there is to make cross-site accounts less confusing and then fix migrations.
  • Folks forgetting what email address they used is as much of a problem for registered accounts as it is for unregistered. Again, we've made some changes very recently to make this less problematic, but there are still edge-cases where it all falls apart and we spend a non-trivial amount of time every day fixing these manually.

The single best way to avoid having a bad time account-wise is to just use a valid email address that you own and intend to keep owning. Regardless of whether or not you register an account, you'll always be able to regain control of your posts if you do that. You might think registration helps there; you'd be wrong.

  • You can register an account without an email address at all. Folks don't usually do this, but when they do it nearly always leads to problems on down the road.
  • You can register an account with an email address that isn't, strictly-speaking, yours; folks who register using a work email account run into problems when they change employers.
  • You can register an account with a disposable email address (Mailinator, etc.).
  • You can register an account with a "disposable" email address (a real email account with Google or whoever that you don't actually ever check and eventually forget you created).

...and of course, people do all of these things. Particularly when they're signing up for a service they don't expect to ever use again. Which brings me to...

2) this would remove the ability to "try before you buy"

As I mentioned, we're doing a lot of work to try and make signing up as painless as possible, particularly when you already have an account on a different Stack Exchange site.

But it still feels like a big commitment.

I don't know about you, but I have waaaay too many accounts already. Accounts I don't remember the passwords to. Accounts I don't even remember the usernames or email addresses I used when signing up. Accounts that flood my inboxes on a daily basis with "helpful" reminders of things that I might be interested in, or suggestions that I might want to come back, or just plain old ads for things. Every time yet another site asks me to sign up before I can do something, I pause; do I really want to put yet another straw on this camel's back? If I must, I probably end up using a "disposable" email address; more often, I just decide it's not that important, and walk away.

And this is why Stack Exchange allowed unregistered accounts in the first place:

I found in my years of blogging at Coding Horror that the value of one person happening by with some gold nugget of absolutely the right information you need vastly outweighs the cost of ongoing moderation of anonymous posts.

This is particularly true on Stack Overflow where the cost of moderation is amortized across many thousands of trusted users via the reputation system.

If you get this right, it is an enormous competitive advantage. The value of some guy (or gal) somewhere happening across your page and knowing exactly the right bit of information -- and having zero friction to typing it in -- is something that I believe deeply in.

All of that is still just as true now as it was 6+ years ago when Stack Overflow was being designed. We still get folks dropping by every day who don't have accounts but do have something far more precious: information.

We're not Quora; badgering folks to sign up isn't the end-goal. We're here to compile an impossibly vast amount of information, and we have to think good and hard about any obstacles we put in the path of that information.

Note that this only applies to answers. Questions, on sites that've passed a certain threshold at least, are not in short supply; even if one person refrains from asking about a given problem, there are very likely others who will still post - and if not, we probably don't need the question. Indeed, we've so far seen very little evidence that requiring registration has any noticeable effect on asking - for good or bad. We tried requiring registration to address quality issues, we tried it to reduce spam and other forms of abuse... It did nothing. We've consistently had better results designing systems that ignored accounts almost entirely when there was little or no past history.

In closing, I understand why you want this. I felt much the same way at one time, until repeated attempts to use it resulted in at-best a temporary improvement followed by even bigger headaches. But registration - at least, as it's implemented today - is no silver bullet.

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    I agree that it's a burden to register just to post an answer. Signing up is useful only when one wants to gain reputation and participate more actively in the system. I, personally considered registering only when I wanted to flag and clean up stuff. Other sites which aim to be a collection of knowledge (e.g. wikipedia) also allow anonymous contributions for the same reason. A lot of useful information comes from users who are not willing to commit to the site for longer period, but have useful information which adds immense value to the knowledge base. – Infinite Recursion Nov 19 '14 at 4:04
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    First, I'm happy to see that Stack Exchange carefully considers the impact of changes like this. It's something I've been thinking about for a long time and it's good to see that reciprocated. And I'm also happy to see that a new account system is in the works. For me, signing in to a new SE site involves opening my password manager and typing in a very long passphrase... – Michael Hampton Nov 19 '14 at 4:10
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    "I found in my years of blogging at Coding Horror that the value of one person happening by with some gold nugget of absolutely the right information you need vastly outweighs the cost of ongoing moderation of anonymous posts." I'm not sure that, in my years at Stack Overflow, I've ever seen an anonymous user leave a true gold nugget. – Lightness Races in Orbit Nov 19 '14 at 14:20
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit: If any of you read or like Wikipedia articles, it has a lot of good content and a lot of useful contribution comes from unregistered users on Wikipedia (29.4% as per a study). SE should not restrict these useful contributors from contributing anonymously. – Infinite Recursion Nov 20 '14 at 9:06
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    @InfiniteRecursion: Well, currently SO does not restrict them from contributing, and yet they do not hugely contribute. I don't think statistics from some other website are particularly relevant; for whatever reason, this is not Wikipedia. – Lightness Races in Orbit Nov 20 '14 at 10:09
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    I know you're always busy, Shog9, but I'd ask you revisit this. While on a relatively small site, my largest workload of anything is dealing with crap answers/questions from people who are unregistered. The big bonus for not allowing unregistered Q/A would be, if someone will take the time to sign up, they are more than likely going to put a little more time into a Q/A. I can give you a 98% assurance, if someone has a Q/A and is unregistered, we'll never see them again after 24 hours (if we actually see them before that). Most are just hit/run. That's just a huge waste of time for everyone. – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Aug 17 '18 at 15:44
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    I would also request a re-visitation in the same context: a smaller site that manages to get spammed with low-quality (and repetitive) guest answers from what seems to be possibly a single person (with no way to account/track/confirm that as a guest, it seems). The "some gold nugget of absolutely the right information" argument seems to apply much less for non-technical sites, that require more subjective or narrative answers. Wish this were controllable per-site, a la guest questions. – Daniel R. Collins Feb 5 at 5:18
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We've had a similar complaint on Meta.Travel.SE recently so I was curious if unregistered users are contributing anything useful on StackOverflow after analyzing their contributions on Travel.SE. Using the magic of Data Explorer we can find the most upvoted questions asked by users who never came back to the site:

And here are the most upvoted answers by users who never came back to StackOverflow:

Would you rather ban unregistered users or have these posts on StackOverflow? Overall users who only visited the site once have contributed 6168 answers and 3806 questions with at least 5 upvotes. It might be a drop in the ocean compared to the total volume of posts on StackOverflow, but I'd say it's worth letting unregistered users interact with the site.

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I currently have over 40k reputation on my parent site (Information Security). I only started using this website because I was able to post as a guest. Before I registered, when I came across a question that I had an answer to, I'd post anonymously as a guest to be helpful. Eventually I found myself doing that enough that I decided to register. If it weren't for the ability to post as a guest, I would never have registered in the first place. Not everyone who has an answer has the time to formally register...

The ability to post as a guest is very useful and should absolutely not be removed.

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