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DISCLAIMER: This is not yet another post trying to discuss what NAA posts are and / or answers to different questions are NAA. What this post is trying to do is to find a way to stop people for having to discuss that in the first place.


This post is meant to be a follow up on Shog9 original "Your answer is in another castle: when is an answer not an answer?" post.

With that question, Shog attempted to shed some light on the very widespread confusion about what actually a Not An Answer (NAA) post is. He makes some pretty valid arguments and also explains the subtle difference between Not An Answer and Link Only Answer.

His original post ends with an apparently very clear image:

If I asked for an Apple, please don't give me an Orange

... Seems clear, right? If someone asked for an apple:

  • giving them an apple is the right answer.
  • giving them an orange is not an answer.
  • giving them an apple core is a partial answer
  • pointing them to a place where they can buy an apple is probably a Link Only Answer (borderline NAA)
  • and finally a moldy apple is a Low Quality Answer.

Seems pretty basic, right?
Let's then concentrate on the Orange picture. This seems to hint that giving an orange to someone asking for an apple is not to be considered an answer.

With that in mind, have a look at some questions about declined NAA flags / NAA post handling:

Even without reading all the referenced posts, it should be clear that there is a lot of confusion regarding the NAA flag: some users argue that an unrelated answer (answering another question) is NAA, while others state that an answer to the wrong question is wrong but still an answer. This is somehow aggravated by the fact that many time opposing arguments are also made to justify flags handling in both directions, sometimes by referencing the orange picture, sometimes by stating that mods can't evaluate if an answer is really answering the question and so on.

The wording used to describe "NAA" flags doesn't help either:

Again, "does not attempt to answer the question" has been interpreted in both ways, either to prove that giving an orange to someone who specifically asked for an apple is NAA or to say that only post that aren't semantically answers are NAA (for example a comment or a "me too" message).

This is not even a problem just Stack Overflow has. Out of curiosity, I visited some random network sites chatrooms and asked the users there what their view of the issue was. Once again, I got mixed answers going in both directions.

Therefore, I am asking for suggestion about how we can put an end to all this confusion once and for all.

My original idea was to change the original FAQS post and /or the flag description to use some wording that is less open to interpretation. That, obviously, would need the staff to first clarify what the official interpretation is in the first place (I think that they just consider NAA post that aren't answers at all, even to a different questions but since we had to come this far, I fear an extra confirmation is needed). That said, I am also open to other suggestions that would help to reduce the amount of "why my flag was declined" posts we are getting.


EDIT: Since some of the replies/comments have referenced the X/Y problem, I want to clarify that my argument wasn't specifically aimed at those kind of posts. Instead, I was thinking about answers that answer a different and unrelated question than the one that was asked, sometime offering an unasked for alternative in the process. Here are some samples to help clarify what I mean (all sample have been made up):

  • Question ask how Superman can fly, Answer explains why Batman can't instead
  • Question asks why Pluto is sometime not considered a planet, Answer explains why the moon isn't.
  • Question ask how to translate a sentence into French, Answer explains how to translate it into Italian
  • Question asks why a snippet of code copied from an online sample doesn't produce the same results as in the demo, Answer suggest moving to a different tool / framework instead.
  • Question asks who was the first Roman king, Answer explains how to build a steam engine.
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    The orange analogy is there to denote something that isn't even an answer, not an attempt to answer the question that fails to answer the question, possibly because the answerer misunderstood what the question was asking. It's not there to denote something that is an answer that just wasn't the answer that you think the question was asking for. – Servy Mar 26 '18 at 14:34
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    @Servy and that is probably totally true, I am not arguing that. My argument is that there is an evident confusion on the issue and - as proved by the multiple posts I linked - people still expect that answers to a different question should be deleted as NAA. I am asking about what we can do to reduce that confusion (and the number of rant-posts we get as a result) – SPArchaeologist Mar 26 '18 at 14:39
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    I am afraid there is no way to put an end to this, same way we can't impose strict rules on reviewing. Each person follows their own common sense and what they deem right, and only few will bother to wade through faqs and meta posts before flagging. Demanding them to do that will just make them stop flagging and hurt the system a lot. So in my opinion, leave it that way, let each use their own common sense, and deal with edge cases as they arise. – ShaWiz Mar 26 '18 at 14:44
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    @ShadowWizard If the words weren't so open to interpretation, we could at the very least dismiss "why was this flag declined" post as "you got that wrong". Instead, every time we have to argue about who is wrong in the first place - resulting in mods overriding the decisions of other mods, which instead gives the impression that you just have to get lucky and find a "smart" mod instead of the "evil mod that declined my valid flag" – SPArchaeologist Mar 26 '18 at 14:50
  • I agree that for moderators there should be strict policy, maybe even back off such things and let the community handle those via review only. – ShaWiz Mar 26 '18 at 14:53
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    The orange analogy is not bad, but on the site I'am on, if an user ask for apple, but the said apple is no longer possible or is a security risk to have, an orange can be a valid answer. – yagmoth555 Mar 27 '18 at 13:39
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    @yagmoth555 Usually, though, the important part of the answer is explaining why the apple is a bad choice. :) Depending on the site and question, those are often considered either a "frame challenge" or an "x/y problem". – Catija Mar 27 '18 at 14:47
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    @ShadowWizard The problem there is that users don't have a way to delete answers that otherwise fail to meet site standards but still manage to attract more upvotes than downvotes. This is particularly common on questions that appear on the HNQ list. – Catija Mar 27 '18 at 14:47
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I wrote that post - and threw together that collage - to try to establish a shared baseline understanding for answer flagging, a set of things that hopefully we could all agree on.

Because... Of course there are a great many things that we won't all agree on. Some sites have extremely strict standards for answers; others allow questions that are almost exclusively X-Y problems; still others are very tolerant of short hints vs. lengthy explanations. Heck... The sorts of answers that are useful to askers and readers can vary immensely even between tags on a single site. Trying to shoehorn every possible problem with possible answer to every possible question on every possible topic into a single short set of guidelines is impossible.

And that's fine. I'd rather be a part of a community that's able and willing to disagree on things, discuss them, and come to a consensus based on individual judgement than one which feels compelled to have a hard rule for every possible circumstance.

You lament the occasional instance where a dissatisfied flagger brings a case to meta. I rejoice in the ability of our people to evaluate posts on their merit and overturn moderator decisions when the need arises.

Every day, thousands upon thousands of answers are created, and thousands of flags are raised; it should surprise no one that there are occasional differences of opinion. We must have shared goals that inform our evaluations in these situations, but should never give up our ability to hold distinct and potentially contradictory opinions so long as we are all still working toward those goals.

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    Gotta bookmark this for later for the next everything-should-have-a-rule guy. Chemists are bureaucrats and I might need to link to it in our chat. – M.A.R. Mar 26 '18 at 22:38
  • "it should surprise no one that there are occasional differences of opinion" I agree, but there's a difference between accepting there is a difference of opinion, and using that as a basis to not investigate potential improvements – James Apr 17 '18 at 13:08
  • I don't think I've communicated effectively here, @James; I did not mean to imply that we should accept broad differences of opinion as to what the flag means, but rather that we should expect (and welcome discussion on) differences of opinion as to its applicability for individual posts on individual sites. – Shog9 Apr 23 '18 at 20:17
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The problem with NAA is different people see different definitions. Whether they should or not is another debate.

There are many meta debates about it.

The Stack Exchange community manager went to great lengths to make a long, descriptive post about what NAA is and should be. He even went to the extent of making an image about this.
Why would someone have to do this if NAA flag was already clear? (No offence Shog..:P)


The flag title:

not an answer

Stack is at it's core about two things, "Q" and "A". So when you see an A (an "answer") with some text in it, it's understandable to call it "an answer" regardless of the quality, accuracy, etc - which adds confusion for "NAA".

The everyday definition away from Stack Exchange specifics of an answer (a response or attempt to answer) is still an answer when it's "wrong". So in people's eyes it's not "NAA", it's just a "wrong answer". And the word "answer" is still there.

 


The flag description should explain it but instead it makes it worse:

The first sentence:

does not attempt to answer the question

"Attempt" means to try something, and one can fail an attempt. As such the lack of resulting success or quality has no bearing on that being defined as an "attempt".

So "does not attempt" is also a bit confusing for everyday definitions away from Stack Exchange specifics.

 


Dictionary Definition:

answer

  1. A thing that is said, written, or done as a reaction to a question, statement, or situation
  2. The correct solution to a question in a test or quiz
  3. A solution to a problem or dilemma.

Some people see an answer as "1", the real world definition, and has no requirement of being correct.
Stack Exchange use "2" and "3" for the specific requirements of NAA. This is fine, but it is "specific" to Stack Exchange and not obvious on face value.

So for Stack Exchange, and to satisfy the requirements of using "NAA" flag, an answer has to be either a "solution" or "correct solution".

In which case:
Change suggestion to the NAA flag to remove ambiguity and confusion:

not a valid answer
This does not answer the question in the manner required for this site. It should possibly be an edit, a comment, another question, or deleted altogether.

The above suggestion:

  1. Removes all ambiguity regarding what the definition of an answer is because it still calls it an answer, it's just not "valid" for this site.
  2. Caters for the following response types:
    • "Thanks that solved it for me"
    • "I'm having this issue too"
    • "What do you see when you display the error?"
    • "Click this link for your answer on the blog post [link]"
  3. Caters for use on any of the sites, due to the "for this site" bit, used for any scenarios a site specifically needs.

 


Quoting Shog9's comment:

Your proposed wording doesn't actually remove ambiguity; it just pushes it somewhere else.

The proposed word "valid" in the suggested flag title removes a lot of ambiguity, of whether this is an answer or not. Yes there's some ambiguity about what is a "valid" answer is now, but surely that is a vastly smaller debate. And such ambiguity is present in all flags, with the potential to not know what something should be in some debatable specifics.

I think we'd need to do something akin to what we did with the "Off Topic" close reason: link to another page that clarifies what those requirements are.

But that means people have to go read the help page to review and flag? If we're saying that there's some ambiguity here, which you made a huge post and an image to explain, potentially linking the flag to Help Centre is surely a half measure? Why not just change the flag and negate the need for images, long posts, debates, and links to the Help Centre?

I'm not really saying my suggestion fixes all possible issues, just that it improves the current problem drastically without creating an equal issue from the change.

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    I'm not being pedantic, but saying you're not being pedantic doesn't necessarily mean that you aren't, just that you don't think you are :) If I post another question using the answer box, it doesn't magically turn into an answer. Flags are well-understood to be about the flagged content, not about the labels "question", "answer", and "comment". – ColleenV Mar 27 '18 at 12:06
  • "I'm not being pedantic, but saying you're not being pedantic doesn't necessarily mean that you aren't," what? I wasn't being pedantic. I said that because it sounded like I might have been but in fact wasn't. Gah I give up with this site – James Mar 27 '18 at 16:30
  • Your proposed wording doesn't actually remove ambiguity; it just pushes it somewhere else. I'm not necessarily averse to something like this, since it recognizes what I wrote in my answer: that what is required of answers does vary by context. But, I think we'd need to do something akin to what we did with the "Off Topic" close reason: link to another page that clarifies what those requirements are. – Shog9 Mar 28 '18 at 16:14
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    I don't fully agree "it doesn't remove ambiguity". the title alone is much better "not an answer" vs "not a valid answer". It is an answer within the realm of general confusion. "not valid" is a completely different thing altogether. It doesn't matter about any ambiguity about what an answer is or is not, just that this is not a valid one. – James Mar 28 '18 at 20:02
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    I must say that I agree with James. If someone specifically asked for explanation of a topic and someone tries to reply with an alternative approach he is de-facto circumventing the original question. This, in my humble opinion, qualifies as "not even attempting to answer the question" (or at least, not the question that was made) and has to be removed as noise. But I have seen multiple cases of moderator refusing to do that, even after the original question creator pointed out that he is NOT interested in alternatives but only in learning why the original approach didn't work. – SPArchaeologist Apr 17 '18 at 10:49
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    if that is really what we want, changing the faqs to something that doesn't give inexperienced users the illusion that answer have to attempt answering the question that was asked instead of making up a new one is a must. – SPArchaeologist Apr 17 '18 at 10:52
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    @ColleenV "If I post another question using the answer box, it doesn't magically turn into an answer". It absolutely does in terms of the fact that you posted it in an "answer"! That is the entire point of my post here, and you missed the point which is the entire problem with the NAA flag. People in the know see it as "this is NAA", most others, and this will likely be a high percentage, do not know that Stack defy the obvious definition that an answer is something in an answer box, and instead deem an answer is based on predetermined and specific criteria. – James Apr 17 '18 at 13:11
  • @James I got your point and I disagree with it, which is why I commented. I do not think we should be jumping through hoops for folks that believe a question in the box labeled answer doesn't qualify for the "not an answer" flag because of the way the box is labeled. If I put a piece of mouldy bread on a plate an label it "Prime Rib, medium rare", are you going to insist it's a steak? Or are we going to argue over whether it is medium rare? It is unlikely that folks who insist that bread is actually steak because of the label will be able to agree on wording for the NAA flag. – ColleenV Apr 18 '18 at 13:28
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    @ColleenV You still miss the point entirely, and your example is really silly and entirely unrelated to anything I have posted or discussed. We call it an answer in many ways, to have a flag that suddenly calls it "not" an answer needs the criteria of why we do that to be very clear. To believe that is "jumping through hoops" is entirely wrong. You are essentially saying "this complicated thing needs no explanation, people should just know" – James Apr 18 '18 at 16:49
  • Let me try again. Stack Exchange is a community. We're supposed to collaborate and explain, not beat each other about the head with definitions and rules. No wording of a guideline is going to be enough to unambiguously explain how to flag something in every situation, because flags are not black and white. It would be better in my opinion to have ambiguous guidelines so that folks unfamiliar with the community standards will ask about them instead of assuming they know from just reading the guideline. – ColleenV Apr 20 '18 at 12:52
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    @ColleenV "not beat each other about the head with definitions and rule" I really don't know where you get your analogies from but I never suggested such a thing, nor even being harsh or being over the top with suggestions. I think my suggestion is straight forward. To use the words from what you say we should do, my suggestion is about "collaborating": hence my answer/discussion here; And my suggestion for the changes for the NAA flag is "explaining" the NAA flag in a less ambiguous way, – James Apr 20 '18 at 16:18
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    @ColleenV Why not make a change if it adds improvement? Why label a potentially good change that might make something better as "beating each other around the head with definitions"?? The NAA flag already has a title and a description? My suggestion is a title and description. How is that beating each other around the head with definitions? – James Apr 20 '18 at 16:19
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    @ColleenV "No wording of a guideline is going to be enough to unambiguously explain how to flag something in every situation, because flags are not black and white" Ok sure. But, again, if we can make an improvement and make it less ambiguous, why not do that? Your argument is about not being over the top or doing something that is pointless, I don't disagree with that at all. So, do you have anything constructive to say about my actual proposal itself? Rather than, generic things which are irrelevant to my suggestion? – James Apr 20 '18 at 16:21

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