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I have found Stack Overflow very useful for finding out information, largely because Google gives high page ranks to many useful questions.

Recently I have had experience of asking questions on Stack Overflow (not on this account) and found the community very quick to condemn questions which do not match certain criteria, for example: if the question is 'subjective', 'not a real question' or 'too vague'. Yet the FAQ says: 'No question is too trivial or too "newbie"'.

It seems a contradiction to welcome new programmers, but close their questions because they don't know how to write them specifically and clearly. It's also insulting to claim that someone's unclear question is 'not a real question', because it clearly is. It would be more appropriate and less offensive to say it's not a suitable question, surely?

As a newcomer I can't help but notice a lack of politeness and tolerance for questions which don't meet the exact criteria. Why is this?

Please note: I understand there might well be good reasons for this attitude; I am not trying to be inflammatory.

put on hold as off-topic by gnat, Jenayah, Sonic the Bracketed Hedgehog, Robert Longson, curiousdannii 19 hours ago

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "This question's topic is only applicable to one specific site in the Stack Exchange Network. Questions on Meta Stack Exchange should relate to features or policies that commonly apply to the network or the software that drives it, within the guidelines defined in the help center. You should ask this question on the meta site where your concern originated." – gnat, Jenayah, Robert Longson, curiousdannii
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    Point out some examples please. – random Oct 15 '09 at 15:08
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    I have faced a similar situation in another Stack Exchange site. SE is unfriendly and impolite towards questions that do not match their criteria. Even this comment may be flagged as "inappropriate" because they do not want to admit that they have a problem. – user182991 Apr 7 '12 at 9:53
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    I agree that there are some people very quick to anger over very little things – BenniMcBeno Sep 30 '13 at 6:44
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    Thats way too funny. I just asked a question on Meta Stack Overflow almost the same way and got downvoted for asking about downvotes on poorly asked questions. Apparently you get into trouble even if you choose to answer them. – logixologist Aug 1 '14 at 18:22
  • You'll need to ask a question on Meta Meta Stack Overflow if you want to discuss that ;) – peterjwest Aug 4 '14 at 11:05
  • The OP has a point. If the community is to condemn a question, then it should help the OP by suggesting or rewording the question. In my observations, readers are too quick to condemn questions instead of trying to understand and be helpful. From my POV, here is no need for the OP to cite examples. Some communities (askdifferent) are quick to condemn and others are at the other end of the spectrum (askubuntu) – gatorback Oct 25 '16 at 16:13
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Stack Overflow is designed to be a high-quality repository of programming questions and answers. Emphasis on answers -- questions which require extended discussions, have no clear and definitive answer, or are open-ended are in fact "not a real question" by the standards of Stack Overflow.

You cite the FAQ that no question is too trivial or newbie -- and this is correct. If you ask the difference between a 64-bit and 32-bit integer, that question is perfectly valid because it meets the other FAQ criteria:

  • Detailed and specific
  • Written clearly and simply
  • Of interest to at least one other programmer somewhere
  • Avoid asking questions that are subjective, argumentative, or require extended discussion.
  • This is not a discussion board, this is a place for questions that can be answered!
  • Please look around to see if your question has already been asked (and maybe even answered!) before you ask.

The idea behind all these criteria is to keep Stack Overflow a high-quality repository of valuable information. It is not meant to discourage new users, but rather to nudge them in the direction of asking clear, detailed and answerable programming questions.

Are there subjective questions and discussion/debate-type questions which have made it through in the past? Yes. When the site first launched, those were more accepted by the community than they are now. As times change, so do the social mores governing the trilogy sites.

There has been much discussion here on meta about the exact wording of "not a real question," but at the end of the day, it generally means subjective and/or unanswerable. Occasionally it means the question reads like Q-Bert's death sequence, but that's extremely rare. :)

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    Thanks for your detailed response. My problem is that SO implicitly redefines "not a real question" without explaining it and expects new users to understand. It would be like me calling you stupid without explaining that, in my town, stupid means very friendly. – peterjwest Oct 15 '09 at 16:09
  • That's a fair point. I do think that the "close reasons" post on meta ought to be linked from the FAQ. – John Rudy Oct 15 '09 at 16:23
  • And in that vein, I have posted a question about that specifically: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/26031/i-hate-long-titles :) – John Rudy Oct 15 '09 at 16:34
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Why such "aggressive criteria?"

The most powerful feature of the site is the ability ask and answer questions from day one, anonymously and without reputation.

The "price" you pay for that is super vigilant moderation by the community.

The site's only criteria for a valid question -- "Programming questions that can be answered" -- covers a large range of topics. The only way to keep such a large user base of from falling into chaos is to cast a wide circle but keep well-defined edges. Posts simply cannot solicit or devolve into long diatribes, extended discussions, or religious platform wars; otherwise, the entire system will break down.

But to provide that level of no-barrier, no-friction access, the community is asked to self-moderate the site to keep it focused and on-track. As your experience with the site grows, so does your abilities and responsibilities to moderate the site.

Through experience with the site, you learn why Stack Overflow has been so successful in the past. Then you work very vigilantly to keep it that way for the future.

That is why the Stack Overflow commmunity is so aggressive about question criteria.

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Closing questions is not, in itself, impolite. It's simply operating within the bounds of the system. For a new person, I'd probably also leave a polite comment explaining how the system works. Leaving rude comments, especially for new users, on questions should be flagged for moderator attention. Unless the OP has a history of rudeness, disregard for the system, or otherwise abusive behavior I don't see any reason for rude behavior on the part of answerers or commentors. Engage in abusive behavior, such as asking lots of dubious questions, though, and people may legitimately respond in kind.

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Please also see: Could we please be a bit nicer to new users?

Things were much more laid back in the beginning when questions were not so plentiful. Now that SO is so large, moderators and high rep users have been much more strict. This is to help keep SO's array of information clean and resourceful for future readers and google searchers. An information resource is a primary goal of SO and related sites. Limits have been put in place that help accomplish this goal.

You can always comment about issues with moderators decisions and 3k+ users can vote to re-open a question (5 votes needed). So if it gets closed, maybe ask for some pointers on how to make it a better question. Closed questions can be reversed if enough people feel it is worthy. Remember to not get discouraged by closed questions. It is the system in play.

  • And now you get to vote to close on Meta too! – random Oct 15 '09 at 16:09
  • What better question to cross the 3k level with to. – Troggy Oct 15 '09 at 16:48
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The whole idea of Stack Overflow is to have a high-quality narrow focus. Keeping it as pure as possible is crucial to keeping it high value instead of becoming Yahoo Answers.

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    Oh. I'm just insecure! I'm glad to know that there's an actual reason that I can fall back on. – Welbog Oct 15 '09 at 15:13
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    trust me, that won't happen. IMHO, we could loosen the grip just a little :D – Gordon Gustafson Dec 19 '09 at 19:39
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By request:

I'll address this part of your question:

I don't understand how these questions fit the criteria and how my question does not.

It comes back to the same thing your financial adviser tells you:
"Past results do not guarantee future performance."

Some of those questions perhaps should be closed, but mainly it comes down to the mood of the community at the time you post it: who's online, how much off-topic stuff have they seen lately, do they have enough rep to vote to close, etc.

Stack Overflow is designed so that a certain very small amount of off-topic questions can make it through the community-driven filter. The community does need some of this content from time to time. It's basically like winning the lottery; there's even a prize, as a good off-topic question can earn you a gold badge or two. Continuing the lottery analogy: you're odds aren't much better, and the smart decision is to just not play. Whining about "losing" your off-topic question won't help you any more than whining about losing the lottery would.

The one consolation I can give you is that the process isn't over yet. The question is still out there, and those with enough reputation points can see it or vote to re-open it. If you can convince a few high-rep users to vote to open the question, it will be opened. But it's an uphill battle.

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I have had a consistently very bad experience on Stack Overflow for about three years now. In my experience, moderation is not simply "super vigilant" and aiming at high quality content, as the other answers claim, but especially high rep users are often aggressively rude and disparaging.

I was one of the highest rep users on two other SE sites, but the endlessly repeating ignorance of newbie users was irritating me so much, that I found myself making snarky comments instead of giving helpful answers. I decided to close both accounts and leave those communities, because I realized that I needed to get out of my dysfunctional internet habits – using SE out of boredom and to vent the frustration from my job and private life, instead of taking care of those problems.

From my own experience, I would recommend that those SO users that find themselves irritated to the point of becoming aggressive, turn off their computers, leave their reclusion, and work on their real life social skills. It is really illuminating to interact face to face for a change.

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    That is indeed good advice. If your online-life is starting to influence your personal well being it is best to take a step back. I try to keep in mind that without face to face communication my messages might come across as rude or belittling but in the cases when it escalates it is hard, if not impossible, to return to a level of mutual understanding. That needs more practice for me. – rene Jun 2 '17 at 9:55
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No question is too newbie, but many are too vague. I've found myself linking an awful lot to How to ask Questions the Smart Way.

I wish this link was on the "Ask a Question" page, especially for low-rep posters.

  • If you are a newbie, and if you are not a native speaker of English, you will often lack the terminology to search for what you want to know and you are at the same time unable to express your question in non-vague terms. The general rule should be that before you downvote, close, or post some snide remark, you should either make an honest effort to understand what the asker is trying to ask, or, if you don't have the patience for that, move on. – user360188 Jun 2 '17 at 8:58
  • Especially high rep users have an increased responsibility to hold themselves to the same high standards that they expect of those new to the site and programming. If you want others to adhere to the site rules, begin by not being impolite yourself. – user360188 Jun 2 '17 at 9:04
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For what it's worth, I understand how you feel. I'm not a noob to programming - since I was 8, worked at Microsoft for 3 years and am 33 now - but we're all noobs to something at some point.

User Random asked for an example, so here's my personal encounter with the very worst kind of person:

Single HTML anchor tag actually renders TWICE! Screenshot

It seems to me that Stack Overflow works, but a side effect of the system is that with the reward and ranking structure so central, it tends to amplify some of our less desirable human qualities and fosters a class system, replete with the full range of personalities within.

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    I'm not sure who in that question you mean by "very worst kind of person". Do you mean Yi Jiang, who wrote a huge answer and even apologized for his sarcastic comment? – Pëkka Mar 4 '12 at 22:12
  • "I want to come up with an elaborate answer with regards to the numerous mistakes in the code (not just the self-closed anchor), but every time I try to do that I fall over and laugh. It really is a case of garbage in garbage out. – Yi Jiang" If you cannot see how insulting that is, then you have lost your empathy, @Pëkka. – user360188 Jun 2 '17 at 7:56
  • @what Yi Jiang apologized for that specific comment in his answer, and the OP accepted the apology. Oh, and I'm really really sorry if you feel offended by that comment. I really am. Consider this me making up for that, okay? That seems like an amicable resolution, no? I guess we should flag the comment as offensive/not constructive now, though. There's no reason for it to continue to exist. Don't think flagging existed back when this happened... Going to flag now; feel free to do the same. – Pëkka Jun 2 '17 at 8:36
  • @Pëkka Despite the apology, that comment is an example for the kind of derision that I have come to view as a common feature of Stack Overflow, and most of the time the commenters don't apologize but use their reputation to further harrass other users by spite-downvoting or even closing questions for invalid reasons. – user360188 Jun 2 '17 at 8:51
  • @what How can an instance where the commenter apologized be an example for all those instances where the commenter doesn't apologize and goes on to do bad things? Unfortunately, that occasionally happens... so far, no one has found a good way to police tone and behaviour in a millions-strong, anonymous global community (not for lack of trying). – Pëkka Jun 2 '17 at 9:19
  • Not sure the "reputation" argument is of any relevance - anyone above 125 points can downvote, and above 3000 points closevote. (Note that closing requires five users to agree, making it very hard to use as a tool for harassment.) – Pëkka Jun 2 '17 at 9:20
  • @Pëkka If I slap you and apologize, that slap is still an example for a slap. And an apology doesn't undo the pain. – user360188 Jun 2 '17 at 9:20
  • @what even the nicest person can sometimes make an ill-advised comment - out of hastiness, tiredness, personal frustrations, whatever. The correct course of action is to recognize it as an error and apologize. If that's not good enough for you then maybe you are the one lacking empathy here. Yes, there is a problem with people making snarky comments on SO and not even thinking about questioning their behaviour... but this specific user isn't an example of that. – Pëkka Jun 2 '17 at 9:23
  • @what And an apology doesn't undo the pain. true - but it's the pain of a five years old insulting comment that the commenter apologized for, and neither you or I was harmed by. How is that of any relevance today? It just needs to be reported and deleted, which wasn't possible back then but is now. – Pëkka Jun 2 '17 at 9:24
  • The problem is that if you are a newbie, being insulted is a consistent experience on SO. And if someone is too tired or vents personal frustrations, it is time for them to turn off their computer. I understand this only too well, as I have been on both sides (see my own answer here). – user360188 Jun 2 '17 at 9:27
  • @what I read your answer and don't really disagree with your description of the dynamic, nor the recommendation you give - although I'm not optimistic a lot of people will take it to heart! – Pëkka Jun 2 '17 at 9:28

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