18

This is a pretty general topic, so before I get started, I want to explain a couple things:

For context, I primarily use Stack Overflow, so a lot of my opinions, examples, or rationalizations may be hard to understand if you are a frequenter of other sites.

I'm formatting this question as follows: I offer general exposition first, then my detailed question, then the specific example that sparked this whole thought in my head (sections separated by these fancy bar lines). So if you're uninterested in my specific example, just read the first two sections. Alternatively, if you want my example first, read the 3rd section first.

(Somehow I made it two years on this network without knowing there's a chat feature. I made this post while under that misinformity. Feel free to add any additional thoughts but understand the chat feature is basically the answer to this question, so long as the other person has 20 rep.)


General Exposition:

I've been reading a lot of meta questions lately (too many, in fact), and the general idea I've gotten from them is: the philosophy of Stack Exchange is for users to ask questions that are specific enough that the title will attract Googlers, but also questions that are general enough so that the answer to the question is helpful to many Googlers.

Obviously, there's many displays of when questions don't fit into this philosophy. Here's a few:

  • A person asks a question when their problem is literally just a usage or syntax error and requires debugging.

  • A person doesn't understand a fundamental concept of programming (e.g. object-oriented coding, static items) and, consequently, doesn't have the knowledge to even know what question they should be asking.

  • And, my favorite, as demonstrated by this discussion: People seeking general reference material.

(That last point is hard to see as "not applicable" to the philosophy, so read the OP's post and a couple answers if you're confused.)

I'm at a loss, because my personal philosophy that I've discovered (and one that I personally think is good for the community), is that Stack Exchange is here to help people. And really that's all there is to it.

The loss I'm at comes from the general consensus over the debate:

The top answer on this discussion (and, I assume as consequence, the general consensus) outlines that we shouldn't stop other people from answering bad questions, but we should still avoid answering them ourselves, instead commenting with a "here's how to improve your question", even if in some cases the question is answerable, just not perfect (complex, right?)

The answer below that top answer that says "I'm okay with answering imperfect questions" got a measly 1/5 of the points the top answer did, so clearly my philosophy and that answer's philosophy are not part of the general consensus.

Therefore, my long-awaited discussion question:


The Question:

How can I help someone with a bad question? They have a problem that is not appropriate for the format of Stack Exchange, but I still want to help them. In other words, what forums, websites, references can I send these people to (If you want general categories, see that first list I made above)? What advice can I offer? How can I guide them through their personal version of the issue while still conforming to Stack Exchange conventions?


My Specific Example:

I only recently discovered my commitment to this idea when I spent a good half-hour of my time helping someone who posted a terrible question (note - it looks better now because it is fixed, see the original version). These were the situations the asker was in:

  • They were assigned homework (so they were probably stressed and under a time crunch).

  • They needed to utilize a concept they had little or no knowledge about (static variables) to get data from one place to another. They knew what they wanted the program to do, but had no idea where to start.

  • They probably didn't have much experience coding, and therefore didn't know what debugging was, didn't know how to use the javadoc, and were still strengthening their handle on the concepts of computational thinking.

From those situations, they tried their best and poured out a question...

  • with a code dump

  • with an irrelevant, unhelpful title: "How to program my toString"

  • without letting us know if it was homework or not

  • with unhelpful introduction: barely told us what they needed help with, didn't set up a scenario or explain their code example

At the heart of this question was simply a struggle to understand fundamentals, so I largely edited their question to fit that issue and offered an answer explaining it. From there, they sent me several comments looking for more help with their specific issue, but to conform to the Stack Exchange format I knew I couldn't really help them in a good way.

12

The point of Stack Exchange is to help not just the person with the problem, but the thousands of people with a somewhat similar problem who would benefit from a better question and better answers.

So

  • for the person that does not clearly express their question - when you're confident you understand what they're trying to ask - help them make their question better via edits. Especially helpful is to get meaningful titles and relevant tags, since these two things help posts be found more easily.

  • for the person who doesn't know enough to even articulate their needs clearly, ask some searching questions that help identify what they need; it may sometimes require a short indication of the distinction between similar terms for example.

  • for the person that asks an overly specific question, help them identify a "canonical" question of which their overly specific one is an instance, where ideas can be explained, but which still responds to their need.

... and so on. One strategy that is occasionally useful is to try to figure out how you'd have liked to have asked if you had a similar problem, and failing that, to figure out what answer you'd like to have had, and helping the question attract those helpful answers. Such a strategy is likely to lead to improvements.

You indicate that in your example, the question is now better, but you were unable to help improve it - so this is a chance to learn. When you see a question improve, ask yourself how that was achieved - was it edited by the poster, or someone else? How did the person who improved it figure out how to do so? Was there any hint along the way that the improvement would help?

You don't necessarily have to fix everything about a question - just everything you can. If you can improve the spelling, the grammar and any ambiguous terminology, maybe the next person might be able to figure out a better tag and improve the title, and maybe similar questions start to show up in the sidebar; maybe a third persons now sees enough to ask just the right question that reveals what the main issue is.

Practice, patience and effort can lead to many questions being vastly improved. Some you won't be able to improve ... but if they do improve, try to work out how that happened because it might give you some idea of a way to do it better next time.

10

This is just my personal opinion, of course, I don't know whether other people will agree.

In general, I take the "philosophy of the Stack Exchange network" to be as you said: help people. The trouble people sometimes get into isn't a matter of philosophical differences, it's that some users seem to take the platform itself for something it isn't.

Stack Exchange is a network of Q&A sites, not discussion forums, not a freelancing website, not a social network, not a blogging platform, and not any of that other stuff that people try and fit into these three types of text boxes. Yeah, it's free-flowing text inside these boxes, but that doesn't mean this format is the best for absolutely anything anyone would like to post.

The reason that question was bad to start off with wasn't because it was ugly, but rather because it was impossible to answer successfully in our format--at best, it was unclear what the person was asking.

Aside from the inherent subjectivity of, well, literally everything, the rules of what fits here are pretty binary: either it does, or it doesn't.

So to your question of what you do with these types of posts, take them in two steps:

  1. Establish whether this is the right place for the question. Is the Q&A model we use, the appropriate method of transmitting and documenting the information that the user is trying to post or retrieve?

  2. Based on that, you go one of three routes:

    1. If it is the right place, help them in comments and with edits to make it more clear and answerable.
    2. If it isn't the right place but you still want and know how to help the person, I see absolutely no problem pointing them to an off-site resources. We aren't competing with, say, a gaming forum where someone can ask for recommendations. It's not like pointing someone to one will hurt Stack Exchange in any way, especially if we're closing their question anyway.
    3. Otherwise, walk away!

Certainly you shouldn't use comments to go into long discussions in the interest of helping people, but don't think of that as a punishment; consider that comments just aren't the right format to help people like that. If you find yourself wanting to go into long comment discussions, ask the person to join you in chat! They'll need 20 rep points, but most people can manage that, even just through some good suggested edits.

Long story short, look at these "philosophies" not as intangible community-built rules, although there are certainly a few of those floating around, but as guidelines that are put forward by the format itself. Some things just don't fit, and it's generally pretty obvious what those things are. As a standard catch-all for "I want to help you but this isn't the right format," just use chat.

  • 1
    There's a chat feature?? I've been here for 2 years and it's taken me this long to find out there's a chat feature?! Smh. Thanks for the detailed answer. – snickers10m May 2 '15 at 7:00

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .