5

This is how I tend to use SE sites:

  1. I work.
  2. I run into a problem I cannot solve myself (at least not easily, without devoting very substantial time or effort I cannot now devote). For example:
    1. I don't know how to progress in my task.
    2. I can see more than one way to progress, but cannot evaluate which way to choose.
    3. I cannot explain to myself why something that seems true is indeed true.
    4. Etc.
  3. I need help of someone more knowledgeable/experienced than me to progres!
  4. Type the question into an appropriate SE site
  5. Does the Similar questions box show this question? If yes, read. If not, ask.

From then... this is a coin flip for me. I'm notoriously incapable of grasping the fine lines between an on-topic question and off-topic question. Very often there are two very similar questions, one of which is highly upvoted, while the other one is severly downvoted and/or closed - and I cannot spot the difference!

Thus, unfortunately, I cannot craft my question so that it would be well-received, nor can I predict whether my question will be well-received or not.

I have a hypothesis on why does this happen. Am I not using SE for the wrong purpose?

I read this blog post from Jeff Atwood blog: What does Stack Overflow want to be when it grows up?

Excerpt from this post:

Stack Overflow ultimately has much more in common with Wikipedia than a discussion forum. By this I mean questions and answers on Stack Overflow are not primarily judged by their usefulness to a specific individual, but by how many other programmers that question or answer can potentially help over time.

And then:

The choice of audience wasn't meant to be an exclusionary decision in any way, but Stack Overflow was definitely designed as a fairly strict system of peer review, which is great (IMNSHO, obviously) for already practicing professionals, but pretty much everything you would not want as a student or beginner. This is why I cringe so hard I practically turn myself inside out when people on Twitter mention that they have pointed their students at Stack Overflow. What you'd want for a beginner or a student in the field of programming is almost the exact opposite of what Stack Overflow does at every turn (...) Can you use Stack Overflow to learn how to program from first principles? Well, technically you can do anything with any software. You could try to have actual conversations on Reddit, if you're a masochist. But the answer is yes. You could learn how to program on Stack Overflow, in theory, if you are a prodigy who is comfortable with the light competitive aspects (reputation, closing, downvoting) and also perfectly willing to define all your contributions to the site in terms of utility to others, not just yourself as a student attempting to learn things. But I suuuuuuper would not recommend it. There are far better websites and systems out there for learning to be a programmer. Could Stack Overflow build beginner and student friendly systems like this? I don't know, and it's certainly not my call to make. 🤔

OK, so this seems to be a problem of mine, I'm afraid?

My hypothesis:

SE is like Wikipedia - I should edit there if I am a knowledgeable individual who wants to contribute his knowledge to the public. If, however, I am in need of advice of more knowledgeable / experienced people than me - I should use SE as a read-only resource, or if I want to ask, I should look for other alternatives - forums, reddit, IRL talking to experienced people. (Yes, reddit and forums have the problem of incompetent people giving out wrong advice while SE attempts to bring these to a minimum - but this is not an excuse to use SE for purposes it is not designed for)

Is the above correct? Can this be the source of my incapability of understanding the fine lines between on-topic and off-topic questions?

...Should I stop writing questions on SE sites?

closed as unclear what you're asking by anonymous, Pierre.Vriens, Ward, πάντα ῥεῖ, Stormblessed Nov 3 at 20:04

Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 7
    Do you read the help pages of the Stack sites you post on? They have a section on what is on-topic and what isn't. – Modus Tollens Nov 3 at 16:34
  • So you're doing research by looking if your title matches a different question and that's it? – Tom Nov 3 at 16:55
  • If you only want to type your title use the network search: stackexchange.com/… – rene Nov 3 at 16:59
  • 1
    The title of the question is about purpose but in the body of the question your purpose it's not explicit. While it could apparently it is clear (your purpose is to get help from knowledgeable people to solve problems) I kindly suggest you make it explicit or edit the question title to something like "Is SE only well receiving contributions from knowledgeable individuals?" – Rubén Nov 3 at 17:13
  • 1
    @Tom I wish more people did that - it would prevents tons of duplicates across the network – Jan Doggen Nov 3 at 17:27
  • @JanDoggen I wish people would do proper research. – Tom Nov 3 at 19:14
19

I'm notoriously incapable of grasping the fine lines between an on-topic question and off-topic question.

Well, you need to fix that. Here are some filters to pass your question through:

  • is the actual content relevant to the site you've chosen? (Don't ask Android development questions on the cooking site, don't ask for details of a particular ferry crossing on Super User.)
  • is the question objectively answerable? (Don't ask "What is the best way to X" -- ask for the relevant differences between approach A and B when Xing. Don't ask if something is "worth it" or why the designers of a product or tool made a particular decision.)
  • is the question answerable in a typical answer size? (Don't ask what started World War 1 or how to become a software developer or for some public speaking advice.) If you want a tutorial, or lessons, look elsewhere.
  • Will you be able to mark a particular answer as accepted if you get more than one? (Don't ask for lists, don't ask for examples, don't ask for suggestions that will all be equally useful.)
  • Have you provided enough information? ("Why am I getting this error message" questions need to include the message, the tools you're using, and the code you think is causing the problem.) Provide code as code, not screenshots. Ditto errors.

Try looking at some open and closed questions on your sites through those lenses. Probably you will understand far more why they are closed now. If you don't, read the close reasons, then read the question again. Can you see where it is too broad, or opinion based? Some sites have special reasons. For example Travel has "We Are Not Travel Agents" for questions asking for a nice warm place to go on holiday that isn't just beaches.

In the space of an hour, you'll have far more confidence about whether the question you want to ask is on topic or not. You've already done the hard parts: you care whether it is or not, and you search before asking. Adding this part to it won't be much more work and will give you a more solid footing.

13

It sounds to me like you are not doing nearly enough research on your problem before posting a question.

Between step 2 "I run into a problem" and step 2 deciding "I cannot solve [it]", you should be spending hours, if not days, attempting to solve it. That means reading articles, searching this site, studying books, experimenting, brainstorming on a long walk around the park...

That's also where your step 5 is going wrong: vastly inadequate research. Just glancing down a list of titles is not research. That's probably why your questions are not well-received: they're not fleshed out or thought out and are possibly well-covered elsewhere. Or your desperation to have someone fix the problem for you right away leads you to post perhaps questions that don't really belong here in the first place.

(I didn't actually look at any of your questions; just taking your concerns at face value!)

Other than that, you're using the site fine. Just make sure you don't come asking for our free time at the very first sign of difficulty. Yes, I'm afraid, you have to put in some effort yourself!


From then... this is a coin flip for me. I'm notoriously incapable of grasping the fine lines between an on-topic question and off-topic question. Very often there are two very similar questions, one of which is highly upvoted, while the other one is severly downvoted and/or closed - and I cannot spot the difference!

Thus, unfortunately, I cannot craft my question so that it would be well-received, nor can I predict whether my question will be well-received or not.

This aspect is hard to answer.

Sometimes, questions that shouldn't be here get a huge amount of positive reception anyway, because enough people who don't care about the site's purpose want to "help", or because the question was somehow surprising or entertaining.

Sometimes, questions that should be here get downvoted to oblivion just because they were posted before (you did say there were at least one of the same question!) or because it took the OP a while to form it properly.

It's impossible to know, in general, which was the case here. It is probably true that trying to use the existing repository as a guide to what's on-topic is not easy.

4

If, however, I am in need of advice of more knowledgeable / experienced people than me - I should use SE as a read-only resource

I strongly disagree.

Yes, it is not easy to write well received questions. But that isn't really the point (please bear with me for a second). When you post a question on stackoverflow, or any other site on this network, this here:

Does the Similar questions box show this question? If yes, read. If not, ask.

Is almost good enough. The only thing I would do upfront (and which you probably do, but it is not obvious from your question here): look into other places, like search engines in general, or search on a place like quora.com. And of course: you should carefully study what the help center and META discussions tell you what is on resp. off topic.

If your question shows reasonable prior research, and it is not an obvious DUP, then go ask it. You did what is expected of you then.

Also yes: unfortunately, you are correct about "flipping a coin". Good questions can go with 0 upvotes, bad ones sometimes collect 1, 2. Depending on the time of day, and the tags used, such bad questions get eventually downvoted, closed and deleted. But questions that show that you cared, they rarely face such that fate.

But that doesn't really matter. On average, when you prepare your questions well, and you ask, you will end up with positive feedback, be it answers or upvotes.

Maybe the one trick: be around to improve your question! Instantly, for at least one, two hours! Most often, even terrible questions receive comments that explain "how to improve that content" quickly. That is the true "watershed" moment: whether you are around and willing to update your content, or whether you are one of those who drop something, to then walk away, expecting to come back tomorrow and find a perfect answer written up.

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