One of the things that really bothers me lately about SO is the preponderance of crappy questions. People, especially new users, consistently fail to:

  • Provide enough information to figure what they're trying to do
  • Indicate what part of the problem is confusing them (e.g., is it null-terminated strings or nested for loops?)
  • Indicate what they tried already (seen often in a comment: I tried x library already, but its implementation of SVD is too slow for my dataset)
  • Indicate their level of proficiency
  • Provide feedback of any kind (upvotes for those who are on the right track, best answers to those who answered the question)

Often, it seems like other SO users take this as an opportunity to punish users, with downvotes and snarky comments. This is an old old old thread in programming & nerd culture where we simply are not very friendly to the very new and very naive.

One thing that I think would help would be a notice on the ask a question page that gives some tips for asking a good question. Sort of like a very succinct how to ask questions , but directly on the "ask" page. The important part of it being on that page is that new users are unlikely to know about or look for FAQs.

The important point here is that just because someone starts off as a crappy, or not very involved user doesn't mean they need to stay that way. If users find that this website is helpful and friendly, even the crappiest of users can turn into great contributers. The payoff is that we build a healthier community, with a higher quality level discourse. We just have to help new people get started.

First Meta post, so I hope I'm doing this right


Reminder: this is why, when you see a good question by a new user, you should vote it up!

In my experience, well asked questions are rare, and well asked questions from new users should be cherished like freakin' diamonds!

These are the kinds of users we want on the site, those that can ask questions in a reasonable way. So please vote up GENEROUSLY questions that are clear, readable, and make sense!

  • 5
    +1 good answer by newb Oct 6 '09 at 6:45
  • What about the other kind of questions? Questions so bad, you can't even edit anything out of them... What do we do about them? Downvotes should play a bigger role in this. If after asking more than 5 questions you haven't learned anything, there should be a much higher penalty than just -2. Will -5 for a downvote ever be implemented?
    – alex
    Oct 6 '09 at 7:29
  • This is fine, and I do, but we also have a responsibility to create the community we want, and I think we can do better. Oct 6 '09 at 8:15
  • @Jeff Atwood I know the question; I'm just eager to see it implemented.
    – alex
    Oct 6 '09 at 8:17

The vast majority of the time I see new users setting themselves up for failure, the SO regulars are reasonably helpful. Within a minute or two, someone will edit the question for readability and at least one comment of "we need x information to answer your question". The occasional snarky comment, but just a bit of fun - when balanced with actual helpful answers, nothing that would scare a user away. There are a few with a bit of a sour attitude, but for the most part I just don't see this among the high-rep users. So I guess I'm saying, where are you seeing this?


There are no hapless newbies on SO. The Stack Overflow policy is clear: everyone gets a hap. Now, that's not to say that some users don't waste their haps, pissing them away like so much cheap beer... but there's really not much that can be done about that.

Hap firmly in hand, the new SOistani faces much the same challenge in asking his question that he would face anywhere else: figuring out what it is he's actually trying to do, and then finding a way to effectively communicate this to an unknown population of readers. All the haps in the world won't make this any less difficult... some will manage, some won't. And so it goes...

  • It's not so much that everyone gets a hap - it's that the haps are there if you go looking for them. Granted they aren't hard to find, but by putting extra help for new users on the ask-a-question page, we are basically handing out the haps at the door when you arrive, so there's no possible way to miss it, unless you purposefully reject it (in which case, you probably deserve your downvotes). Oct 6 '09 at 8:17

Sturgeon's Law applies to communications skill as well as anything else. Most people (even most perspective programmers) are rotten communicators, and many will never invest the effort required to become mediocre at it.

If you present the user with too much text on the "Ask a Question" page, they'll just ignore it. Read the caption on the entry areas and go about their business.

So this suggestion, while not bad, will likely have a minor effect.


Perhaps we can give the newbie some more tips other than suggesting they read the FAQ. Perhaps while they are composing their first question, we can give them a link (in a very large font!) to How to Ask Questions the Smart Way. This link could also be repeated if their questions are getting downvoted.

I'm picturing some sort of animated bouncing animated pony with a text bubble: "You seem to be having trouble. Why don't I help you ask your question better? -- TheXXI"

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