Somebody has to stop this, now.

I've been seeing questions getting closed for this nonsense reason. They aren't my questions but it bothers me a lot.

I searched MSO on the matter. The explanation given by the community so far is "vagueness". I saw some examples where people said "your question was too vague to be answered". Somebody on MSO even used the word "unanswerable".

First I find these arguments ridiculous. If a question is vague, the answers would naturally be vague, or none. The question would get downvotes, critical comments and would evolve into a better question over time, or simply be ignored, this is a Wiki after all, or isn't it?

Second, the application of this rule has been extremely biased. Take the famous "what's your most controversial programming opinion?" and "what's the funniest programming joke have you heard?". They are still open as wide as possible. Oh I hear you're saying "they are specific because they didn't omit to add first person in the sentence". So you're closing questions because it doesn't start with "What's your opinion on..." ? What kind of Gulliver's land are you from?

Third, I don't think the learning process is simply a matter of a question and the right answer. You can learn from opinions, incorrect answers and build your experience upon them. In the end you gain better knowledge on the matter or society itself. Such an open community is supposed to evolve, supposed to be open to opinions on the matter rather than specific answers.

I think the reasoning behind that rule is "to keep helpful content only and remove noise in site traffic". I already explained it's not noise, it's helpful. And I already explained it can simply be ignored by community if it's not found worthwhile.

The only justification I can give credit for is "insufficient server resources to hold vague questions in" and I don't believe in such nonsense either. I don't think "vague questions" would grow faster than specific questions.

One might argue that one can always reopen a question and correct the wrong. That's presenting release after a day as a solution to an wrongful arrest. "Correctability of wrong" doesn't make wrong less-wrong.

Currently the moderation is being hypocrite by applying rules inconsistently. It's not their fault, it's the fault of the rule itself. It prevents valuable information to be shared and synthesized by allowing blocks to be put on the flow of information. That's incredibly discomforting.

Here is my specific question: I see an unjust process in SO that I believe hurts the community and the future of SO. How can I convince "The SO guy" at the top to stop this besides yelling, or throwing in a single Meta Stack Overflow request among thousands? Because I think this has high priority, I think this has been doing serious damage.

  • 1
    I doubt the "open as wide as possible" part. Have a look at the history of the joke question and see how often it has been closed yet. And it won't be long before it gets closed again.
    – innaM
    Commented Nov 8, 2009 at 18:06
  • I don't care it's a rant. But it's a pretty long rant for no good reason! Commented Nov 8, 2009 at 21:05

4 Answers 4


From Describing Close Reasons:

not a real question

It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. This question is ambiguous and vague, and cannot be answered in its current form.

And, from the SO site FAQ:

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!

Those two quotes pretty much sum it up: if you don't know what you want to ask, then you need to figure that out before asking on SO. You can ask multiple questions in your search for an answer, describe the problems you're having, etc... But each question by itself has to be clear, specific, and answerable. If you want a forum where a tutor will go back and forth with you trying to draw out what you actually want and/or need, then go find one - SO is not the place for this.

That might sound harsh, but trust me - in the end, it saves everyone a lot of time and frustration. And sooner or later, every new programmer will need to learn how to sit down and think through his problem to the point where he has a concrete question that needs answering... encouraging this can only be a good thing.

And FWIW, the newbie questions I see closed as NaRQ usually get comments asking for clarification first - it's when the author doesn't respond that the close votes catch up.

  • Please then tell me, how do "what's your most controversial programming opinion?" and "what's the funniest programming joke have you heard?" fit in this explanation? Commented Nov 8, 2009 at 17:52
  • 8
    I don't particularly like either of those questions, nor do I think they're appropriate for SO. However, many many many users love them. And since SO is (to a large extent) community-moderated, they'll never die. So yeah, there's an exception to most of the "rules" on SO: if you post something that's tentatively programming-related and ridiculously popular, then it'll stick around. See also: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/11740/…
    – Shog9
    Commented Nov 8, 2009 at 17:58
  • 1
    Isn't that true only retroactively? If I could manage to close the question before it became popular, then I could prevent it from being popular. So right now you agree that SO closes questions that the community might like just because of timing. So SO punishes bad timing (such as asking a question in a low-traffic timefame). Commented Nov 8, 2009 at 18:04
  • 2
    Let's also not underestimate the influence of very high rep people. They can easily step on the rules while lesser beings have to deal with moderators, comments, critics, closes/reopens. Don't you think it's a problem? Commented Nov 8, 2009 at 18:06
  • 4
    @ssg: regarding your first point: if an off-topic / NaRQ question doesn't appeal to a significant number of readers right from the start, then it will be closed and stay closed. If it does, then even if it's closed, it will be quickly re-opened. The two questions you cite predate the adding of close/open actions to the revision history, but the latter has been closed and re-opened several times in just the last few months!
    – Shog9
    Commented Nov 8, 2009 at 18:35
  • 1
    @ssg, I doubt very much if people who have enough rep to vote to close questions really care much what I think. I do think that all community members have responsibility, though, to respond via comments when they see questions being closed inappropriately for whatever reason is chosen.
    – tvanfosson
    Commented Nov 8, 2009 at 19:47
  • I wrapped up my answers in a separate answer below. Commented Nov 9, 2009 at 19:55

Many of the subjective questions have one of two things in common. They are from back in the day when the community was smaller and a lot more lax on things like this, or they have gained momentum due to their popularity.

We should always try to enforce an unbiased rule to what should be allowed and what should not be.

Unfortunately there are questions that get by and gain momentum. As jeff stated a while back, it's ok to have fun once in a while.


Thanks to anyone who cared to comment. I know your time is precious, I appreciate your effort to fill me in on the matters which I wasn't aware of. I'm a relatively newbie in SO. And I apologize for not doing my research exhaustively. I would like to sum up the answers here that match my arguments. I'm using this area because it feels awkward to track multiple comment chains. I'm not sure how SO rules map to MSO, so since this is a discussion I think it's ok.

  • The examples I gave ('what's your most controversial programming opinion?' and 'what's your best programmer joke?') for unjust applications:

    • Shag9 said since the site was community driven, exceptions to rules were unavoidable.
    • Olaf said they were relatively old and community was getting more strict and controlled over new threads over time.
    • tvanfosson said exceptions weren't good enough reasons to remove the rule and sometimes they were just approximations.
  • My argument of "even vague, unanswerable questions are helpful":

    • Shag9 quoted FAQ saying: "...is not a discussion board".

First I think the words "...is community-driven" and "...because FAQ says so" are contradictory. I saw no [edit] button next to FAQ. So it's not community-driven (or tell me how it is). The community's driving powers are only inside the limits of FAQ.

Of course it's perfectly acceptable for someone who builds a web site to limit the scope based on his/her vision. I'm not saying we should remove the FAQ, I'm saying the excuse "community did it" is unacceptable. Because there is always "The-FAQ-Guy" who can correct the mistakes of a community. This is pretty much like a Sheriff who can prevent a lynch. A lynch cannot be excused because "hey the town is community driven and we don't take kindly robbers here, you should have read the FAQ".

About my examples Olaf, the programming joke question was opened on Oct 22. Your argument of "they were old and now community is getting better at handling those" is not correct. Community is just forced to hold on to what it likes only when moderation doesn't get in the way, randomly.

Shag9, you said removal of the rule would open floodgates. What data do you base that assumption on? Only intuition?

tvanfosson, I recommended removal of the rule because I think the lost value is much more than the damage that assumed-floodgates would cause when they are open.

SO community must first acknowledge the lost value in closed questions based on this reason. "You can always open them back, or discuss in comments" doesn't bring back the immediate value I could contribute just before the question was closed. I never visit that question again, it's almost guaranteed that the potential is lost forever if the user isn't very popular, or doesn't get very popular over time. tvanfosson, as you can see, your recommendation of doing civic duty doesn't help the case here.

How does Wikipedia handle this as a real community driven web site? I don't like it either for different reasons by the way. But I think it does a better job than SO in handling such cases. First there is a specific "notability" criteria to remove articles. Unless it's met no one can delete or ask for deletion of an article.

I know most of you regard SO as an oasis on the web, and so do I. I think it has a great potential (not in terms of traffic or money, but in terms of taking the web forward). I know many of you are offended of criticism when it's not put in polite-enough words with no bow first (hence you call it "rant"), but I only have been trying to emphasize the long term degrading affects of injustice and lack of appreciation of inherent value.

  • 3
    FWIW, I base my "floodgate" assertion on past experience, both on SO and on other programming sites / forums. As soon as you remove the consequences for posting poor questions, you get... lots of very poor questions. New users see existing questions and follow the example set by them - and yes, we've had plenty of wanna-be Cartoon / Controversial polls posted to SO. They suck time away from those looking for questions to answer, and they add noise to search results: a question that can't be answered won't be answered ...but may still show up on Google, even displacing those with answers.
    – Shog9
    Commented Nov 9, 2009 at 20:28
  • 1
    And yes, voting is inconsistent, and often ignores the FAQ. The alternative is a cadre of like-minded moderators with sweeping powers who never sleep and review each question prior to allowing it on the site. That doesn't scale. The FAQ provides guidelines for the community, and justification for moderators when they're called to step in, nothing more. Some questions - and the reactions to those questions - will always be controversial...
    – Shog9
    Commented Nov 9, 2009 at 20:32
  • Dear ex-Shag9, new Smellbog. It's technically easy to filter down poor questions in SO. Put a per-user "min experience limit" setting and people will strive for quality to get in your line of vision. And not every moderated question is poor either. Even if most of the closes are well justified, it doesn't justify the marginal loss there. I'm not even sure the loss is marginal though. My observation is that most closed questions I've seen had value in them and deserved an answer. [cont'd] Commented Nov 10, 2009 at 19:50
  • And your emphasis on "loss of quality in questions" has a strong bias about that quality questions are more helpful. That's not true. A poorly composed question about a broadly common problem would help more than an elaborate question about a corner case on a very specific and less-known technology. This of course assumes "answers to technical problems" is the only use SO has, which is not true. And I'm coming to that now [cont'd] Commented Nov 10, 2009 at 19:56
  • The "poor questions" you mentioned that you think deserve to be closed, had more views and votes than most of the "ok" questions in SO. Try to have a neutral look at SO's function here. Do you think it's a site solely for quality answers to quality questions, or do you think SO serves or can serve wider range of distinct purposes at the same time, such as having fun in a geeky context, sharing vague ideas and sharing vague information. Isn't it remotely possible where SO can be "more helpful" to Internet users than it's original narrow/specific goal, without losing context? [cont'd] Commented Nov 10, 2009 at 20:05
  • SO has two options: It can stick to it's core and run the wheel around it forever with fundamental flaws I mentioned. Well not forever but till the competition provides a better platform without those flaws, like what SO did to Experts-Exchange. OR, SO can embrace change/evolution and widen its scope without limiting itself to the original idea to catch up with community's inherent rights and expectations. [cont'd] Commented Nov 10, 2009 at 20:11
  • 1
    That's why I think this kind of foundational problems should get the most attention than adding a nifty AJAX feature that looks cool. It has to take priority because competition can easily wash away SO. Think about how you can convince Experts-Exchange to remove ad-bloat, hidden solutions and what answers they would give you. They would elaborate paragraphs, ridicule you for your long rants, and talk about how essential the ad management is to keep it up. I don't think it will stand two straight years to SO anymore. I don't want this to happen to SO either. Thanks. Commented Nov 10, 2009 at 20:16
  • 1
    "About my examples Olaf, the programming joke question was opened on Oct 22. Your argument of "they were old and now community is getting better at handling those" is not correct." -- That's Oct 22, 2008.
    – mmyers
    Commented Nov 12, 2009 at 16:24
  • @ssg: I think there's a strong chance that we're talking about entirely different sets of questions. At least, I hope so. As I already noted, the two questions you use as examples of inconsistency are still around because of their popularity, in spite of the fact that they don't actually solve any real problems. A few time-wasting questions will survive, but that's no reason to devote the site to it when /. and Reddit are still around. If you want SO to be Reddit + Programming Q&A, you're delusional - the two models are simply not compatible. So can we stop discussing that sort of question?
    – Shog9
    Commented Nov 12, 2009 at 16:41
  • The other set of questions - the sort i had initially assumed you were worried about - could produce decent, generally-useful programming Q&A, but for the fact that they are so poorly-written as to be unanswerable without additional information. A prime example are those that appear to ask a language/library-specific question but forget to specify the language or library! Now you're stuck: you can guess (and many do) and put the time into a good answer that will ultimately be completely wrong because you didn't guess correctly... or you can wait for the OP to come back and fix it.
    – Shog9
    Commented Nov 12, 2009 at 16:45
  • 1
    @mmyers: Thanks for correction, I think Olaf's point is valid then. @Shog9: My point is clear. SO has to be open to change and has to run the extra mile to understand community's needs, otherwise someone else will and SO will go down. I'm saying allowing a community to play police on legitimate questions with potentially valuable answers hurts the asker and community in the long run. About vague questions: Put them under a "vague"/"newbie" tab next to "newest, hot, etc" and you're done. You will not even see them if you don't want to. How does this hurt SO in any way? Commented Nov 19, 2009 at 12:01

Because the set of options for closing questions is not exhaustive (or freeform), sometimes you're forced to choose a reason that is closest to, but not exactly why you would close a question. Often, the reasons are misapplied -- at least according to the rules I would use.

The fact that you and I would disagree on whether the "not a real question" was the best approximation or not applied correctly isn't a reason to eliminate it as a reason. Sometimes -- as in the case of a blog post or rant disguised as a question -- "not a real question" is the absolute best reason to choose. The same would apply if the question is so poorly written that it can't be rescued even by the best editor.

That said, decisions on which questions remain open or get closed are community issues. Ultimately the community decides and, if the community is inconsistent, then it's only a product of the large and diverse community that has grown up around SO. The only way to improve this situation, having a small group of individuals who make the decisions, isn't really an improvement.

Because the reason has valid application and, despite the inconsistent application of that particular reason, I see no need to remove it.

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