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For quite some time, newer users seem to ask a lot of blatantly off-topic questions here on Meta. They are mostly programming questions that should have been closed asked on Stack Overflow, along with some other questions that would fit into Super User or Server Fault, as well as a few others that have totally nothing to do with the Stack Exchange network. I'm curious as this issue seems to be specific to Meta Stack Exchange (and MSO to some extent), and the frequency varies every day. What could be the cause?

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    We get development questions on Stack Overflow's Meta at about the same frequency. Some people are simply lost and desperate and will post their rubbish anywhere and everywhere in the hope of getting an answer. – Robert Longson Jan 14 '18 at 12:40
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    Regarding frequency, it's normal, even less than usual to be honest. I monitor it while online. The reason we might see more of those sometimes is because SE staff and high rep users are away, so it takes more time to close and delete those off topic questions. There were days when SE developers deleted about 10-20 of those daily, in matter of minutes from the OT questions being posted. And that was still normal rate. So all is good, no need to panic. – Shadow The Princess Wizard Jan 14 '18 at 15:49
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    @RobertLongson That's surprising. Meta.SO (and every other normal Meta) has a 5 rep requirement to post, that should take care of most off-topic questions. That's not the case with Meta.SE. – yannis Jan 14 '18 at 20:05
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    @yannis MSO looks even more similar to SO than MSE, so it's even more likely that they followed a link to MSO and didn't realize they are on a different site. – Sonic the Reinstate Monica-hog Jan 14 '18 at 20:41
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    Maybe it cuts out 99% of the problem, except that SO is 100 times larger so you still get the same volumes. It's either the question banned hoping for migration, which they don't realise won't and can't happen or those who just aren't paying attention as to which site they are on. – Robert Longson Jan 14 '18 at 21:14
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  • Great point mentioning that this doesn't seem to be a problem on other sites. I rarely see programming questions on Travel.SE, while I usually see a few here every day. – Columbia says Reinstate Monica Oct 31 '18 at 11:47
  • I did similar mistake today as my first question was placed in Stack Exchange network. Simply first I wasn’t able to differ between sites within network. There is Stack Overflow Meta and also Meta Stack Exchange. Now it is simple to differ gaining some experience like me today. It is included in our first steps as newcomers to this fascinating world ;-) And second, I wanted to earn badge for asking first question which was quite silly in fact. – Tomas Zverbik Jan 26 at 18:49
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    I’ve been asking users directly what led them to ask off-topic questions here. Some replied that these comments of mine weren’t very welcoming, and constructing a welcoming comment with such a direct question isn’t easy, yet a few minutes ago I had this insightful exchange in a comment thread under this question. Most likely they clicked on “I need to troubleshoot some software or hardware” which leads to Super User’s help page, where they see this. The site link is easily missed. – Sebastian Simon Apr 16 at 23:03
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I'd say there are many reasons for this.

One reason is that they end up following a link here, not realize that they are on a different site (since the site has the same interface), and then ask their (off-topic) question here. The number of off-topic questions asked per day for this reason suddenly increased a year and a half ago, when the Terms of Service were updated and people were notified of the change with a link to the relevant MSE post; see Sudden increase in off-topic posts on MSE. I suspect that it will increase again after the deployment of the new unified designs across the network, because more of the UI elements are common across the sites.

Another reason is that they are blocked from posting questions on the correct site, and find the meta site and think they can ask their question there and either get an answer before it gets closed or get their question moved (migrated) to the correct site. In reality, this doesn't work, as such questions do get closed on meta sites quickly, and migrations are blocked if they are blocked from posting questions on the destination site. (Side note: I've seen a few cases where users blocked from posting questions have posted non-answers.)

As per Tim Post, the above are the two main reasons for off-topic questions here:

About half of the people that ask programming questions [on MSE] are genuinely lost, the other half are blocked on Stack Overflow.

Based on what I've seen with blatantly off-topic questions lately, I think there are more reasons why people post these.

  • Some users post their question here because they are dissatisfied with their experience on the correct site, and hope that they can get a better experience here. It's like this: someone wants a Big Mac, and there's only one McDonald's in the area and the employees don't treat you well. There's also a car wash in the area, with excellent service, but you can't go to the car wash to get a Big Mac. For example, in a comment on this question (10k-only, copy for <10kers), the author states:

    I posted it here because [Stack Overflow] skewered me, and I don't know where else to get an expert's opinion on this!

  • Some users can think that this site is a "catch-all" site, the site for subjective questions, or that this is a place to have their question migrated to the right site.

  • Some users do Web searches for terms that happen to have special meaning within SE, and end up discovering our site through Google. After a brief glance, they may believe that this is the right site, and ask here, not bothering to read the guidance.

  • Finally, some users are actually asking for site recommendations (which are on-topic here), but don't phrase their question correctly and it ends up getting closed as off-topic. I've sometimes seen off-topic questions here edited into site recommendation questions after the author clarified they wanted a site recommendation and weren't trying to get their answer here.

It's difficult to reach into the minds of users who post off-topic questions here. The example in the first bullet was one of the very few cases where the author responded to our comments advising that such questions are off-topic; in the vast majority of cases, they don't respond at all.

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    the issue of users attempting to circumvent q-ban by posting at inappropriate site is such an annoyance that there is even a special feature that was introduced to address it: Block migration if user is suspended/question-blocked at destination – gnat Jan 14 '18 at 20:35
  • @gnat I've already addressed that in my answer ("migrations are blocked if they are blocked from posting questions on the destination site"). – Sonic the Reinstate Monica-hog Jan 14 '18 at 20:38
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    my point is that very introduction of such a migration block suggests that the issue is quite widespread (if it happened infrequently SE team wouldn't bother to change the system to prevent it) – gnat Jan 14 '18 at 20:50
  • Looks good now. – iBug says Reinstate Monica Jan 16 '18 at 16:01
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    I think we'll call this "The hugely-underanticipated unintentionally semi-ginormous tiny meta engagement un-survey survey!" (post will go up tomorrow about it) – Tim Post Jan 23 '18 at 17:09
  • Tim Post lost his keys to the Meta scope, and random off-topic questions all showed up :) – iBug says Reinstate Monica Jan 23 '18 at 17:34
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    @GhostCatsaysReinstateMonica You're welcome! Also, there's no need to comment on an unrelated post; you can @-reply to any user who edited a post in the comments on that post (even if they don't show up as a choice). – Sonic the Reinstate Monica-hog Nov 3 at 19:01
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I can't prove this with any data, but perhaps it is a valid theory:

Imagine the following conversation:

Bob: I'm having such problems with my bicycle lately.

Susan: You know there's a great site where you can ask questions about bicycles and receive good answers.

Bob: Really? What's the site?

Susan: Stack Exchange.

Now Susan has not told Bob that Stack Exchange is a network of 170+ sites. All Bob knows is that Stack Exchange is a platform where he can ask Bicycle questions. So Bob navigates to stackexchange.com and this is what he sees:

Screenshot of Stack Exchange homepage

Now Bob wants to ask his question about bicycles. He glances around and sees a bunch of other questions at the bottom, but doesn't see how to ask his own question. so he starts clicking around on some buttons. Right at the top of the page is a button that says "Meta":

Screenshot of top bar of Stack Exchange homepage

Trying his options, he clicks and finds himself on Meta Stack Exchange, which looks like this:

Screenshot of Meta Stack Exchange homepage

Here he sees a fuller list of questions, but more importantly he sees a button explicitly labeled "Ask Question":

Screenshot of a portion of the Meta Stack Exchange homepage

Remember, Bob is not aware that there are multiple Stack Exchange sites. All he knows is that he wants to ask a question and there's a button labeled "Ask Question". He thinks he has struck gold. He clicks on "Ask Question" and is prompted to sign up. Once he signs up then he can post his question.

The problem is that Bob is posting his question on Meta Stack Exchange. But his question belongs on Bicycles. Hence, he ends up posting a blatantly off-topic question on Meta. What would have happened, though, if there had not been a prominent link to Meta Stack Exchange at the top of the Stack Exchange homepage? Perhaps Bob would have been forced to look around a bit more and he would have realized that there are multiple sites on the network, and that he needs to find the specific site that deals with bicycles.

Now, in the other sites around the network that I participate in, I have rarely — if ever — seen questions posted that are blatantly off-topic for the site yet on-topic for other sites. (At most I have seen questions that are somewhat related to the site that are truly on-topic for another site.) Yet on Meta Stack Exchange I see such questions posted on a regular basis. Perhaps this is because Meta Stack Exchange is the only site on the network that is prominently displayed on the network homepage?

Maybe we can try to remove that prominent Meta link and see if it affects the number of blatantly off-topic questions?

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    Good observation and analysis (even if it might be just a guess)! – iBug says Reinstate Monica Jan 4 at 8:18
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    I recently came to this site more often. I found out many of the OPs of the off=topic questions have SO/SE accounts for years. I cannot use your observation to explain their behaviors. Some of them actually asked many questions on SO/SE with low or negative votes. The more possible reason is that they are banned from asking questions on SO, etc. – scaaahu Jan 26 at 11:29

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protected by Sonic the Reinstate Monica-hog Oct 14 at 3:14

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