Friendliness/Quality Divide

OK, that question probably does not make a lot of sense on its own, so let me at least explain the last part. With "friendliness/quality divide" I mean the currently apparently opposing goals of being welcoming to newcomers vs. maintaining a high quality standard in questions. There's been a post in the SO blog about this that illustrates the issue well.

The Negative Approach

Maintaining a high quality standard is achieved - more or less - by rejecting bad (often just "not yet good") quality questions. However, this currently works in a negative way: A question is posted in all its glory, and at that point it's a "complete" question; people can see and answer it.

Then another user comes along and says why it's not good enough. We can sugarcoat it as much as we want, ultimately the message is "your question sucks because X". It might very well be closed for that reason. At that point that feels more like demoting a question that was already there.

"Your question sucks because you didn't do the research", "Your question sucks because you don't have a verifiable example", you all know these reasons. They are valid reasons and changing those is not the solution to this problem. IMHO, a user (and often a high-rep on, at that) telling another user "what you did sucks" is what causes friction.

The Positive Approach

I imagine a "positive" approach as one where a question starts out as a "prototype" (or however you want to call it). The point is, it's not yet ready, not yet a "complete" question - and there's a checklist of steps that have to be verified in order for it to get promoted to a "complete" question. A "complete" question can then be answered.

We already have a "quality checklist". These could be "checked" by other users. Imagine a question where it's unclear what they are asking. A user might see this feedback:

  • appropriate amount of research - YES
  • has a verifiable example - NO, BUT DOES NOT NEED ONE
  • has a clear, answerable question - (no votes)

"Your question sucks because X" becomes "Just do X and you're there!" - but most importantly, quality isn't sacrificed to achieve that.

I also don't see any issue with letting somebody who checked these boxes answer the question. It seems that this way, it's not really less convenient to answer a question - it might even be an improvement.

In conclusion

Obviously, this is not a 100% worked out system yet, but I see a potential to reconcile friendliness and quality without sacrificing parts of either. Of course, I might be forgetting things. For example, I didn't go into the technical side at all.

You are hereby cordially invited to tell me why my idea sucks.

(Or what you like about it, if you're so inclined.)

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    "Your question sucks because X" There is a difference between constructive criticism and unconstructive or rude comments. The latter should be flagged, but there is nothing wrong with constructive criticism. It is not inherently unfriendly and shouldn't be percieved as such. – user204841 Jul 19 '19 at 11:10
  • To clarify: which actual comments do you believe to be unfriendly? (I don't mean "your question sucks" comments, if you see those, flag). Is "Please provide your code" unfriendly? Or "This question should be closed because asking for tutorials is off-topic"? – user204841 Jul 19 '19 at 11:16
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    "bad (often just "not yet good") quality questions" sadly untrue, on SO. Only a small fraction of the many bad questions posted are redeemable. – Raedwald Jul 19 '19 at 11:31
  • @ModusTollens OK, first off: I very much agree with you. I'm not talking about a literal "Your idea sucks because". I'm talking about how the current system can make well meant positive criticism can come off as that. Because 5 people telling you in nice words that your question is inadequate... well, the message is still, in frank words, "it sucks". – Raphael Schmitz Jul 19 '19 at 11:35
  • @Raedwald Admittedly, I'm not on SO that much, but it seems like those questions would never get to "complete question" status then. – Raphael Schmitz Jul 19 '19 at 11:36
  • @RaphaelSchmitz The message might be percieved as such, true. A better approach would be to teach new users about how Stack Exchange works to adjust their expectations and avoid such misunderstandings. – user204841 Jul 19 '19 at 11:38
  • @ModusTollens "A better approach would be to teach new users about how Stack Exchange works to adjust their expectations and avoid such misunderstandings." again I can only agree with you... and I think that that is exactly what the positive approach would achieve! The current approach - sending new users to read some text boxes - hasn't been working out so well the last years. – Raphael Schmitz Jul 19 '19 at 11:49
  • People seem to understand the concept of "wanting the answer to be good", where it all fails is not realizing that a good answer is preceded by a good question. Personally (IRL) I'm OK with people asking their question as-is and accepting the answer that they get, here that doesn't work so well when others must decipher the exchange and come away with an understanding of what is being asked and the purported answer being offered. – Rob Jul 19 '19 at 13:00
  • @Rob True, if you just do away with quality standards you get... well, Quora, basically. – Raphael Schmitz Jul 19 '19 at 13:06
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    Asking others to spend more time on other's questions is a pretty common request. It's feasible in one sense, but I don't think it's reasonable to expect volunteers to put in yet more effort to shape up new questions. As a further thought, I'm quite sure that new users would see the lack of, "promotion" as also being unfriendly. Curation, at some level, will always feel unfriendly to those who's contributions are being curated. – fbueckert Jul 19 '19 at 13:10
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    Related: meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/381671/… – rene Jul 19 '19 at 13:28
  • @fbueckert Consider that you don't have to do anything for abysmal questions, and the volunteers' effort is reserved for where there is actual value. Plus, for me writing an answer takes upwards of half an hour - I personally wouldn't be bothered by 3 clicks beforehand meaning "I confirm that the question is up to these standards." However, don't get me wrong, not making it more difficult for answerers is a valid concern. – Raphael Schmitz Jul 19 '19 at 13:29
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    We don't have to do anything for abysmal questions, but the cynical side of me says we're still going to feel, "unfriendly" to those whose questions we don't promote, and will still complain about it. Having standards online is seen as hostile, and I'm not sure why. I mean, Harvard rejects applicants left and right, and have a deserved reputation for producing quality graduates. Nobody thinks they're hostile (or at least, if they do, I haven't heard about it). At some point not every place is for every person, and that's okay. – fbueckert Jul 19 '19 at 13:37
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    @RaphaelSchmitz Please define unfriendliness in objective terms. Otherwise your question (feature-request) renders completely unuseful here. – πάντα ῥεῖ Jul 19 '19 at 17:04
  • @fbueckert I'm sure you yourself are aware of how much this "just leave the bad apples alone" argument comes up in different forms ranging from thought policing to curious optimistic proposals. I'm trying to recall a good answer to this argument, but I think how the various previous platforms turned out to be should be an obvious learning experience as to why eliminating either side of "promote good" and "shun bad" is bound to fail. Perhaps, in an ideal world, promotion is done so thoroughly all the time not to make the janitorial work necessary, but I can't think of how it can work in SO. – M.A.R. Jul 19 '19 at 18:32

How is your proposed solution different from what we have right now? A question that is off-topic or missing vital information can be put on hold. This comes with a message describing what is wrong with it.

It is put on hold so that OP (or others) can edit it into shape, and in the best case, it will be reopened when it becomes a "complete" question.

Isn't that basically what you're proposing?

Users "check boxes" by voting to close, close message describing what is wrong in a helpful way, question is given time to become "complete" and answerable.

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  • 1
    In a way, yes. It's really mostly a psychological effect. By having a question start out in (basically) "on hold" mode, what users get from other users is positive (users confirming the quality of your question) instead of negative (users telling you what you did wasn't good enough). – Raphael Schmitz Jul 19 '19 at 11:41
  • Put another way, other users say if a question is adequate or not. So why would a new user be able to create a question in "adequate" status, when that decision is up to others anyway? The difference is not so much a change in "business rules", but rather an UI improvement. Communicating "user XY didn't like your question", vs. "you didn't do X yet". – Raphael Schmitz Jul 19 '19 at 11:56
  • But the premise is a bit wrong - we aren't communicating "user XY didn't like your question" right now. – user204841 Jul 19 '19 at 12:12
  • Communication takes more than one party. I'd even go as far as putting it only on the receiver: If the receiver understands "user XY didn't like your question", then that is what has been communicated. Doesn't really matter what the sender intended it to be. – Raphael Schmitz Jul 19 '19 at 12:18
  • And put yet another way, if you as experience user don't see a difference, that is intended. It is a very, very different experience for new users though. – Raphael Schmitz Jul 19 '19 at 12:30
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    @RaphaelSchmitz "If the receiver understands [...], then that is what has been communicated" - I don't want to sound negative or frustrated here, but how comes the fault is always immediately seen on established user side? Communication is two-way, both sides are responsible. That's what is being taught in communication classes as well. Can we meet in the middle and agree the fault can originate at receiver side as well? – user204841 Jul 19 '19 at 12:39
  • Oh, I don't want to assault any fault to anybody there. I even say it doesn't matter what the sender intended it to be, and I meant to heavily imply that they had good intentions. Overall I would say the established users are the ones who get it right. That's why that part shouldn't really change; they should still be the arbiters of quality. The new users, who tend to understand the feedback the wrong way, are the target of the change, really. – Raphael Schmitz Jul 19 '19 at 12:52
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    @RaphaelSchmitz "It is a very, very different experience for new users though." When I was a new user, I spent about half an hour looking at some questions and answers, and reviewing the FAQ. After that, I understood quite well how things worked, and what both voting to close a question and having a closed question meant. I knew all of that long before I ever posted a question or an answer myself. To say that new users don't understand is making it sound like they're not intelligent. Only people who haven't educated themselves (new or not) don't understand how things work. – Jason Bassford Jul 19 '19 at 18:02
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    @JasonBassford: The argument "I did it, so that means it's fine" isn't a good argument for or against any particular action. If there's a barrier to understanding, the fact that a person or population managed to vault that particular barrier doesn't mean the barrier isn't there. Granted, I don't think this particular suggestion helps in any meaningful way, but I don't find this argument against it particularly convincing either. – Nicol Bolas Jul 19 '19 at 20:08
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    @ModusTollens: "how comes the fault is always immediately seen on established user side?" It isn't. The person delivering a message generally has more control than the person receiving it. The giver can change their phrasing, reduce needless info, work out what is causing a misunderstanding, etc. The receiver is a passive agent, only able to respond to what is presented. We fault new users who ask questions that don't communicate well, so why should that not apply to established users too? Everyone should endeavor to consider their audience and properly craft their messages accordingly. – Nicol Bolas Jul 19 '19 at 20:24
  • @NicolBolas That's what I wanted to express, actually. Everyone should. – user204841 Jul 19 '19 at 20:27
  • @ModusTollens: Indeed, SE as a system is terrible at communicating. Consider our torturous use of language, like the use of "off topic" for circumstances that don't have to do with topics at all. We call lacking an MCVE "off topic", even though it has nothing to do with topicality. We do this because of a UI decision that has had exactly the effect I said it would. SE as a system likes to take words ("exact duplicate", for example) and pretend that they don't mean what they say they mean. – Nicol Bolas Jul 19 '19 at 20:30
  • @NicolBolas My point was that it's not an issue of new users not understanding and experienced users understanding. By saying that, it's insulting new users. (Or possibly insulting experienced users who still don't understand.) It's not a user's newness that's at question here—that's giving the wrong focus to the issue. It's how easy it is to discover the information needed. Saying more new users don't understand, while more experienced users do understand, is simply correlative; it's not causative. – Jason Bassford Jul 19 '19 at 20:47
  • @JasonBassford: Focusing on newness is important because you need to make sure to put information in a place where new users will discover it, while simultaneously not cluttering up the site for people who already know it. This is why the SO ask question wizard is not forced on users who have a modicum of rep. New users understanding less than experienced users is in part caused by their newness. A new user may circumvent this by expending effort on their part, but I would argue that they have then stopped being "new" by deliberately gaining experience on the site. – Nicol Bolas Jul 19 '19 at 21:47
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Would a positive approach to question validation help with the friendliness/quality divide?

I think the assumption you are making about a dichotomy between "friendliness" and "quality" is a false one. I think what we have already is a "positive" approach, in a sense.

"Your question sucks because you didn't do the research", "Your question sucks because you don't have a verifiable example", you all know these reasons. They are valid reasons and changing those is not the solution to this problem. IMHO, a user (and often a high-rep on, at that) telling another user "what you did sucks" is what causes friction.

I think the negativity here is in the eye of the beholder. I don't think anyone is saying "...your question sucks..." to new/inexperienced users. Many users lack tact in the way they present their criticisms, but ultimately everyone is, in some sense, a mentor to those who don't have as much experience. Questions need answers, and prompting/guiding/mentoring those asking the question to do everything they can to meet that requirements for a good response is never negative.

Re-expressing your points as the following:

  • "...because you didn't do the research" = "Having someone go out of their way to hunt down a method you've already tried would be a waste of their time and yours"
  • "...because you don't have a verifiable example" = "Someone has to take valuable time to attempt to reproduce your error, which is unfair to them, and preventing them from getting to the heart of your question."

might sugar coat it, and "Code of Conduct" it up, but the message is the same. It's a positive one that suggests ways to improve upon the question, which is the ultimate goal.

My greatest mentors have been ones that haven't been afraid to say "That's really not it. Start over again," and while they may not have won any awards for congeniality, they've always encouraged an improvement mindset. We need to do the same thing, and making some sort of a systematization like you propose won't buy any more goodwill or serve to improve questions to any great degree.

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  • "sugar coat it" Um, is the second one supposed to be the "sugar coated" version of the first? Because my read of the second one is a passive-aggressive way of calling someone a jerk. "Somebody is going to have to do the work you didn't do" is not a nicer way of saying "you need to do the work". – Nicol Bolas Jul 19 '19 at 21:48
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    I don't think it's calling someone a jerk at all. It's the truth, isn't it? For a complicated problem, it might take me an hour to get a MCVE working for someone. – jonsca Jul 19 '19 at 22:02
  • "I don't think it's calling someone a jerk at all. It's the truth, isn't it?" The problem is that you seem to think that these are mutually exclusive. There's no reason that someone cannot say something truthful while also doing it in an insulting way. Truth is not some kind of magical salve that lets you get away with saying anything you want in any way. Yes, you still need to tell the truth, but there are many ways of doing that; I see no reason to prefer the insulting ones. – Nicol Bolas Jul 19 '19 at 22:39
  • Where is the insult in those phrases? I'm honestly asking. – jonsca Jul 19 '19 at 22:52
  • The statements focus on how the asker should think of the poor "someone" who has to spend all this time to answer the question as it is written. It's an accusation that the asker is being very inconsiderate and therefore rude, seasoned with a dash of elitism in the implied reasoning that this "someone's" time is, or of a right ought to be considered, more important than that of the asker. – Nicol Bolas Jul 19 '19 at 23:09
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    People who write poor questions are being inconsiderate. It's hard to think that someone takes the tour and says, "well, they must have been just joking about those things so 'Help me design this finite state machine, my code has a seg fault' must be okay." My actual argument is that explaining these shortcomings to someone in more detail is better then giving them a "your question sucks..." or its equivalent, and is sufficient without having an elaborate checklist for people. – jonsca Jul 19 '19 at 23:14
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    Personally, and not to derail the discussion, I think it's safe to assume that someone having the expertise and offering to help is being taken away from something else, unless their sole purpose is to teach. – jonsca Jul 19 '19 at 23:18
  • "People who write poor questions are being inconsiderate." And now we're talking in circles, because I didn't reject whether or not the claim was valid, only whether expressing it in such a way was appropriate. My overall point is that what you call "sugar coating" it isn't actually "sugar coating" anything; it's just being passive-aggressive about it. As for your larger argument, I've been on the Internet for a long time, and I have yet to see a conversation that started off with some variation of "you're being very inconsiderate" actually be productive towards helping someone improve. – Nicol Bolas Jul 19 '19 at 23:24
  • Again, it's not a question of "is this true". It's a question of "will this actually create the desired behavior in the other person." And I don't see how your "sugar coated" version will do so. – Nicol Bolas Jul 19 '19 at 23:26
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    Perhaps I needed scare quotes around the "'sugar coated'" as well. My point is that an explanation is preferable to a "your question sucks..." (or equivalent). What you view as "passive aggressive," I view as being assertive in a diplomatic manner. I've been on the internet/SE a long time, too. Saying "please put more effort into writing a better question" in any form has very very rarely yielded anything productive, either. There's still a graveyard of deleted one-off posts with a large number of users question banned over them. – jonsca Jul 19 '19 at 23:32

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