68

Every day, good-hearted people come to these sites and run into serious problems. And then you come here or to another meta site, seeking to propose a solution to the problem you've encountered... And no one cares.

  • Your discussion gets ignored
  • Your feature-request gets downvoted
  • Your bug gets slapped with

Sound familiar? Has this ever happened to you? Well, it shouldn't have to be this way. Chances are, people do care; they just don't understand what you're talking about. When you're super-excited to share the brilliant solution everyone needs to know about, it can be really hard to remember that you're talking to people who don't live inside your head and who need some really basic information to even begin to understand the information you're trying to convey; so you rush straight to the solution and skip everything else. Don't feel bad; I've done it too. Heck, most of my co-workers have done it; even Jeff Atwood did it once or twice. If the folks who built these sites still screw up when trying to use them, you can't feel too bad about doing it too...

...That said, you totally don't have to screw up! Meta sites can be a real effective venue for solving problems, if you just take a little bit of time and follow one little rule...

Show Your Work

Remember when you were like 5 years old, and a teacher would give you some simple math problem? What is 121/11 ? And you'd smile triumphantly, and write down 11 and hand in your paper... And it'd land back on your desk with a big red circle and the words, "show your work".

It didn't matter that you were right. The teacher wanted to know how you were right. Which meant long division (or that weird thing with boxes if you're younger than me). If you got the process wrong, having the right answer wouldn't help - you'd just get tripped up on down the road with some harder problem.

Meta works the same way, except we can't even know if you're right unless we can follow your work; otherwise you just get a few hundred people trying to guess if you're right or not - which is hard, and tends to not go in your favor. You don't want that. You want us to follow your line of reasoning all the way from "I don't like this" to "...and that's how to fix the quality problem forever", nodding our heads and smiling the whole way.

Oh yeah - for this to be effective, your work has to actually... y'know, work. For example:

  • If you wanna discuss the scourge of low-quality Xcode questions, you have to actually provide at least a few examples of Xcode questions and demonstrate how they're causing problems.
  • If you wanna propose additional guidance for folks asking Xcode questions as a solution to the above, you gotta demonstrate how the guidance you propose could actually be used to improve poor ones.
  • If you wanna propose forcing people to comment when downvoting as a solution to unfixed questions, you have to demonstrate both the problem (downvoted questions frequently lacking comments and not being fixed) and how the solution would address it (evidence that informative comments generate fixes, evidence that mandatory comments are generally informative).

If your chain of reasoning falls apart... Or is missing critical steps... Then your post will likely be badly-received.

Oh. There's one more little thing you might want to keep in mind...

Bonus tip: Keep it short.

If it takes you a full page just to describe the problem, chances are most people aren't gonna read far enough to find the solution you're proposing... Or they'll skip your entire post and just vote based on the title. Hope you wrote a good title...

There's a trick to this too: you don't have to put everything into one post!

  • Chances are, the problem has already been discussed at length before; if you did your research, you can just link to those past discussion(s) and get by with a brief summary.

  • If the problem has never been discussed before, or if previous discussions have suffered from not showing their work... Then maybe you should just discuss the problem and save proposing fixes for another day. Who knows, someone else may think up an even better solution than the one you were about to propose!

Fatigue is a terrible thing, both for the folks reading your post and for you the writer; if you can remember to wrap it up when you get tired, your readers will thank you too.

And on that note...

Further reading:

  • 118
    Irony: "If it takes you a full page just to describe the problem, chances are most people aren't gonna read far enough to find the solution you're proposing..." was on page 2 for me. – Monica Cellio May 23 '17 at 20:04
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    "Show your work: one simple trick to make ---meta--- Stack Exchange effective" - FTFY – Oded May 23 '17 at 20:12
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    "effective" word in the title sounds misleading because readers may interpret it like showing the work gains something besides meta upvotes. This doesn't look like the case, see eg Can we have a guaranteed pipeline for responses from Stack Exchange? and multiple posts linked in there – gnat May 23 '17 at 20:19
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    @gnat: What do you consider the goal of meta to be? From the announcement, I'd say this advice is helpful to being able to have effective meta conversations. It's also a necessary step toward actually changing the system. But I agree, it's not sufficient. (Assuming that's what you are talking about.) – Jon Ericson May 23 '17 at 20:29
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    I wonder how many people didn't quit before reading "Bonus tip: Keep it short." and lolled like me. – GolezTrol May 23 '17 at 20:29
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    Eh; primary value of meta is getting input & discussion from other members of the site, @gnat. There are better bug-trackers, and UserVoice worked fine as a feature wish-list... But both generally lack an effective way for folks to provide considered responses, and are worthless if you wanna collaborate to find a solution to some social issue. If you're gonna participate on a meta site, your first and primary audience is your peers, not the dev team; quite honestly, we don't have nearly the insight into most problems that y'all do. – Shog9 May 23 '17 at 20:33
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    If only I'd known back in elementary school, I could have complimented the teacher on their freehand circle. – Don't Panic May 23 '17 at 20:35
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    @Shog9 what's your question? – Pierre.Vriens May 23 '17 at 20:37
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    @Pierre.Vriens: 46 minutes. That's not going to break the record, I'm afraid. – Jon Ericson May 23 '17 at 20:38
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    I know gnat already hinted at this, but what about things like this which is almost certainly a bug (and should probably be dealt with) but seem to have fallen through the cracks? – DavidG May 23 '17 at 20:48
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    tl;dr.​‍​‍​‍​‍​‍ – Won't May 23 '17 at 20:53
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    Who would do long division at 5? – Dmitry Kudriavtsev May 23 '17 at 21:21
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    Can you show your work? Following your own maxim, you should probably give some examples to demonstrate that showing your work correlates positively with a good meta response. (Also, if this is an announcement or a blog post posted as a question, I would appreciate it if you pointed that out up front. I failed to parse this as a meta question.) – Joonas Ilmavirta May 23 '17 at 21:23
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    Actually I have the feeling that people do understand what I post and I keep it short but the team actually does not care (to respond). – juergen d May 23 '17 at 21:58
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    "This simple meta trick will drive CMs crazy." – Jason C May 24 '17 at 2:08
36

Treating good questions with the appropriate attention is the best way to help people change in the way you want

Thanks for this useful guidance, I agree with everything. Except...

...what happens next? There are a zillion good questions, which follow your instructions to the letter, are highly upvoted and they are routinely "ignored". I put that in quotes because I know they are read. The fact is that they are left unanswered by you guys.

Sometimes the community can take care of itself, however on things like bugs and feature requests, we are basically waiting for the magnificent Stack Overflow posse to do something.

Now - I can understand that even highly upvoted feature requests and bugs take time to be implemented, or might never get done. What I think you could improve is to communicate what your intentions are up front instead of having this stuff disappear in a black hole.

So: yes with all you say, but can I equally ask SE staff to take care to at least acknowledge highly-upvoted, short, self-explanatory meta requests?


A couple of examples that happened to me in the past 2 months: 60-score feature request without answer, 40-score bug report without answer. I'm sure there are dozens of similar examples.

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    totally agree with this – Tilwin Joy May 24 '17 at 14:55
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    Yeah, this is a big problem: we have, essentially, no prioritization, so it becomes entirely too easy to spend excessive amounts of time on things that don't matter (dead-end meta posts, chat drama) while neglecting the things that a non-trivial number of people actually care about. Addressing this dysfunction is my primary goal this year. – Shog9 May 24 '17 at 16:00
  • @Shog9 you know you have my full support as always ;-) :doit: – Sklivvz May 24 '17 at 19:01
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    @Shog9 5 months down the line, nothing happened... – Sklivvz Oct 8 '17 at 22:01
28

This seems to take care of the 80% use-case (shall we say), but it doesn't seem to address the more long-standing, venerable, and received discussions which...

  • Don't immediately lead to a resolution (not that this is surprising; consensus amongst strangers is tough) (example),
  • Aren't acknowledged as an enhancement (example), or
  • Aren't communicated that this is acknowledged as a bug (example).

Unfortunately this time, these three things need to be addressed as part of this flow to make Meta feel more effective. Without the feedback loop, it doesn't matter if we tick off all of the boxes on your list; we're still kind of stuck not really knowing. This is the metaphorical equivalent of getting a blank homework paper back from my teacher; without any indication of what I did right, I don't know if I did anything right at all.

I truly believe that the above points need to be addressed, too. There should be some clear process that gives Meta-goers some clear thoughts around the consensus of their feature request, and there really should be some work done on communicating if something's a feature request or a bug - even if automated, saying "declined" after a few weeks is better than not hearing back after years.

  • You're implying that "effective" means "Get the powers that be at SE to respond"... I disagree. Regardless of whether the SE staff implement (or plan to implement) your feature request, what's important is phrasing it in a way that the other users can clearly understand what it is that you want and either agree or disagree. MSE gets lots of really poor questions that don't really make their case. I think this is attempting to address that. Yes, getting a response from SE would be nice but I don't really think that's necessarily the only goal. – Catija May 23 '17 at 22:41
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    @Catija: A feature request that has a thousand users behind it but no response from higher up is equivalent to no feature request. Without any indication that anyone's even acknowledged it, they float off into the void, often never to return again. – Makoto May 23 '17 at 22:44
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    The feedback loop is an important point; something that's bothered me for years now is the ever-growing list of unanswered questions on meta (both this meta and MSO). I've said this before, but... I don't think auto-declining things helps here; you're still getting crickets, you still don't actually know if anyone's read the post or not. A big part of what motivated this today was seeing someone lamenting that their call for consensus on a meta site (not this one) had gone mostly unaddressed - they had no idea of they were completely off the mark, or if they'd just been overlooked. – Shog9 May 23 '17 at 22:44
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    @Catija what you describe makes meta feel like a "self-help group for commiserating" – gnat May 23 '17 at 22:45
  • @Shog9: I don't disagree necessarily; automated responses aren't the most pleasing responses, but they're still responses. Much of that boils down to how Stack Overflow (the company) does its backlog grooming. Ultimately, we as mere mortals want to see some kind of general acknowledgement of our conversations which require the company's input. As for general discussions...that's more of a CM matter, isn't it? Would codifying discussions as "official" or something analogous help? This is a tricky problem to solve and I'm not sure it's easily done through just commenting on it. – Makoto May 23 '17 at 22:55
  • @gnat and Makoto but the first paragraph of the question is specifically about posts that are ignored/downvoted/tagged non-repro... highly popular FRs are not really what this question is about. I'm not saying that having a word-of-god answer isn't awesome. I know I've complained about not getting a response or even a status note in the past... probably even here somewhere. My point is that that's not what this post is discussing... Why would staff spend their time on a poorly-researched, downvoted or non-reproduceable question? – Catija May 23 '17 at 22:56
  • Heck, if it gets a non-repro tag, staff (or a moderator on another site) had to have responded to it. – Catija May 23 '17 at 22:57
  • @Catija: Perhaps you're right. I'm only acknowledging that this seems to cover 80% of the issue (stemming from the 80-20 rule in agile development). This time, I find myself more on the 20% side than the 80% side, which is where the aim of this Meta post is meant to go. So yes, perhaps I am derailing this a wee bit, and that's definitely not my intention. However, I do feel like this kind of thing is important to bring up regardless, since "doing all the things right" is sharply undercut by "not hearing anything ever". – Makoto May 23 '17 at 23:01
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    @Catija yes but it's followed by sort of a twist reading like posts that aren't "ignored/downvoted/tagged non-repro" are effective. Effective in what? in bringing their authors and readers sense of joy and entertainment, and maybe even a bit of catharsis? That kind of effectiveness would make meta sort of a "self-help group for commiserating" wouldn't it – gnat May 23 '17 at 23:01
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    I can address the Documentation meta post: we had overwhelming feedback right after launch and immediately fell in the hole a few hundred meta posts. Most weeks I go through the [documentation] tag to find bugs and feature requests to work on. But we have a small team and a lot of glaring problems to fix, so we have to prioritize somehow. I can see how the Ctrl-W thing you describe is annoying, so I don't want to belittle it. That said, it's a UI tweak when we really need an overhaul. – Jon Ericson May 23 '17 at 23:04
  • @gnat I think that MSE is a bit of an outlier... As a mod I at least attempt, with my fellow site mods, to address somehow every question that's posed on our site meta... and most of them don't require any action on the part of the CMs. I've generally found most of the sites I use to be similar... so I don't really see your point, I guess. Even on MSE, while I'm not a fan, sometimes the posts get workaround answers for scripts that do what the user wants... they may not fix it within the site directly but they do get some help. – Catija May 23 '17 at 23:05
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    Someone suggested at one point just deleting bugs after a certain age, essentially archiving them away to reduce noise; this would also tend to resolve the "crickets" problem in a rather more final way than simply status-tagging... That said, we occasionally do get to fix long-ignored bugs, and it's kinda satisfying to briefly bury the front page of a meta with completed bug reports. – Shog9 May 23 '17 at 23:24
  • @Shog9: Well...trial something. At the bare minimum, bugs which are truly ancient (like the one I highlighted) would be buried with minimal fanfare, and bugs which are truly nefarious will be lauded when squashed. – Makoto May 24 '17 at 2:32
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    "I put so much effort into my meta post and all I've got were these lousy upvotes" – gnat May 24 '17 at 5:41
8

It's worth remembering there are different classes of meta posts on different sites. And effectiveness may have different metrics here. With discussions, I'm looking at votes, up or down. With feature requests, the ideal is getting the feature accepted or rejected, but I have a few I know someone has looked at. Bugs need to be squished. More or less, I want attention (in the nice way) and I seem to get it.

On MSE, most of my questions are bug reports or questions about odd bits of site culture. If it involves rendering, I include a screenshot. If it doesn't, and involves a browser, I include OS (since different OSes have different fonts available, and render things differently) and browser (ditto). SE versions also have builds - and I include that when I remember (I forgot, and just found it through going through old questions for this answer).

While I have a few outstanding FRs, many of them seem to be fixed, even if team sometimes doesn't realise it, and at least at some point, someone in team has at least noticed. Odd site culture ones are less useful, but get tons of attention.

I treat policy questions as if I'm trying to convince someone in 5 minutes or I'm asking someone at an information counter and there's a queue behind me. I lay out the problem, suggest a solution and wait. In many cases, stuff gets fixed, or discussed in the comments.

On per site metas it's a slightly more multifaceted problem. Least on SU in addition to the mod team, we have a few users who post answers at least as good as, or better than anything I write - and least on MSE I try to be that guy. Some things do need higher powers but policy questions on per-site metas are easily answerable by someone who knows the site. Getting and keeping those people on meta is tricky. We did it, I suppose, but I have no idea how.

I don't particularly like the idea of deleting bugs cause they are not fixed. Feature requests, maybe but even then, an appropriate tag or an answer saying why it can't be feels better from a user perspective. Even then, seeing an edit from someone from TPTB on a question shows me it's been looked at.

Also, clever titles help.I wouldn't suggest being too clever though.

3

I'd like to contribute two prime examples of how not to get your point across; two feature requests I made that ended up being downvoted and derided, but eventually implemented!

In this one I didn't fully explain why this was important, it's too short with no evidence:

How can I show that the duplicate question answers my question?

In this one I've approached it wrong and triggered a few people by mentioning 'Gamification', when if I'd given it more thought would have come across a lot better.

Allow users to set 'target' badges

3

I'd like to try an experiment.

I do not know if I support this or object to it (I do believe I actually have a counter-intuitive case against this advice, strangely enough, but it may be a weak case, and I'd like to do this experiment first, because it is decent advice). In an effort to stick to the "show your work" advice, I have chosen a random sample of 72 various types of meta posts from across the network, and am asking anybody with some time to help rate the posts. If you are interested in participating:

  1. Visit this Google sheet and choose File → Make A Copy.
  2. Follow the instructions in the sheet:

    Go through some or all of the links below and fill in the "your rating" column with the following:

    • 0: Contains no attempt at supporting evidence.
    • 1: Contains at least some attempt at supporting evidence, even if poor.
    • 2: Contains a pretty decent attempt at supporting evidence.
    • 3: Contains a great amount of supporting evidence.
    • x: Does not apply (for whatever reason, try to use sparingly, this means this sample just wasn't appropriate.)


    Also fill in the "too long" column with one of the following:

    • n: A comfortable length.
    • y: Definitely too long.
    • s: Way too short (last minute add-on by request).
    • x: No opinion, or can't tell.


    Important: Try to rate objectively, that is, based on the amount of evidence provided rather than based on whether or not you personally find it convincing or [dis]agree with the topic.

    Fill in as much as you can, every bit helps.

  3. When you are finished (or as finished as you want to be), post a share link (be sure to click 'share' in the top right of the sheet to make it accessible) to your copy of the doc in the comments here. If you don't intend to view all 71 posts try to pick a random sample rather than starting at the top, hopefully this will increase coverage. Try to rate at least 20.

Once sufficient data is gathered we can take a look. I am purposely not sharing the details of how these posts were sampled until after data is collected.

Yes, this may fail miserably. It may turn out to be a huge, thankless waste of time. But, I've got my fingers crossed.

  • Why community wiki? Also perhaps you can set up a google sheet to track the other google sheets, rather ham have to trawl through what's likely to be a mess of comments? – Dan Bron May 24 '17 at 15:42
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    I bloody hope you do something useful with this because it took me more then a few cups of coffee to go over your list ... – rene May 25 '17 at 7:33
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    here – bjb568 May 26 '17 at 16:58
  • and mine – Journeyman Geek May 27 '17 at 7:22

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