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I read a lot more SE sites than I'm a contributor to, but something I've slowly noticed is that there is a tendency to prefer making rules about questions rather than making rules about answers, even when there is a clear benefit (in my mind anyway) to the latter. I'm wondering why.

An example: a lot of the sites have rules to close questions that ask for legal advice. This makes a lot of sense! However a big topic of discussion on some of those sites is whether specific questions are valid and how to decide if a question is too similar to a request for legal advice (e.g., this question on Academia.SE that opens with "We seem to have a very inconsistent policy with respect to questions on legal issues related to academia.").

Interestingly, all the sites with these policies that I've come across (academia, workplace, and freelancing come to mind) consistently put the onus of correctly interpreting their legal-advice rules on the asker of the question, who is far far more likely to have little or no experience with the community that wrote the rules than the answerer. This topic in particular is tricky because, in order to understand what constitutes a question on legal advice, you generally have to read some trail of long discussions buried in the meta site. Why don't sites instead state that answers giving legal advice beyond "get a lawyer" are out-of-scope?

Obviously this only applies to some rules, but I'm wondering why we so favor rules about questions over rules about answers, even while the site struggles to be welcoming to new users. Duplicate question and off-topic rules are easy examples of good question-based rules. Questions that are overly-broad are another. Questions whose answers are primarily opinion-based I think is somewhere in the middle. Why not have answers that are opinion-based be out-of-scope? In my experience, some of the most valuable sets of answers on SE can be found attached to questions that boil down to "Something happened; what would you do if you were me?"

(Apologies if this is a duplicate! I couldn't figure out what search terms to use, but also I feel like this has probably been discussed before.)

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    Just a guess, but it might be because there's no way to "close" an answer, or mark it as being against the rules, without flat-out deleting it. – Sonic the Stay-Home Hedgehog Feb 13 at 0:29
  • "Why don't sites instead state that answers giving legal advice beyond "get a lawyer" are out-of-scope?" Sorry, but isn't this self-evident? If you had such a rule, every single compliant answer would be "get a lawyer", and then there would literally be no point in having the site. – Asteroids With Wings Feb 13 at 0:31
  • @SonictheAnonymousHedgehog Yeah, I probably should have incorporated that observation into the question, since it's the obvious answer. I'm not proposing a change either. But obviously this feature of the site could have changed over its long life, and still could change, even if it's hard. – nben Feb 13 at 0:31
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    Yep, I can confirm @SonictheAnonymousHedgehog's assesment, there's many a time a "low quality answer" review-queue has thrown-up something opinion based, or something which simply duplicates another answer. That's the system as it's evolved. Proposals to change it? – Tantalus' touch. Feb 13 at 0:32
  • @AsteroidsWithWings Many of the sites close questions that have only one simple obvious answer, and that's not a problem. You seem to be suggesting that questions either have "get a lawyer" as the ONLY answer or they have another answer, but this isn't really the case, and if you read through the threads I linked, it's clear that the communities have a hard time deciding this boundary. – nben Feb 13 at 0:34
  • @nben: I'm not suggesting anything; I made a response to a specific query (by you) which I quoted. – Asteroids With Wings Feb 13 at 0:34
  • @AsteroidsWithWings To explain: you state that "every single compliant answer would be "get a lawyer"". I am pointing out that the sites I linked are full of questions that can be answered both with "get a lawyer" as well as with other recommendations that are legitimately helpful to readers, and there are long discussions trying to make sure that the latter answers don't get suppressed by closing questions that border on questions for legal advice. So I don't see why you say that every compliant answer would be "get a lawyer". – nben Feb 13 at 0:39
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    Old but still relevant: Optimizing For Pearls, Not Sand – goldPseudo Feb 13 at 2:08
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    @goldPseudo ...and it in turn, links back to relevant post right here at MSE, "when I go to... home page, I see a ton of questions. If most of those are terrible... with little to no indication that I'd be wasting my time by reading them, the value proposition of visiting and participating... is diminished: I have better things to do... I can't say "these questions suck, show me this question I just thought up instead": that'd be silly. So, it's imperative the question list have a high signal-to-noise ratio..." – gnat Feb 13 at 8:18
  • @SonictheAnonymousHedgehog Correct. We can mark answers as low-quality and give them a banner for such, but not for topicality. – Mast Feb 13 at 8:49
  • @nben Sorry, not sure how to be clearer. You suggested that sites should state that each answer giving legal advice fall into the following categories: (a) they say "get a lawyer", or (b) they are out-of-scope i.e. off-topic. I am literally only rewording this statement when I say that it means every such answer that doesn't say "get a lawyer" would be non-compliant to the site rules. It's literally the thing that you said. (cont.) – Asteroids With Wings Feb 13 at 13:32
  • So, for some reason, you're arguing with your own statement. ;) My addition was to point out that it's self-evident why site's don't do this: they'd only ever have one answer to those questions ("get a lawyer") and thus the site would be completely pointless. No need to hash this out any further though if we're still not aligned. Cheers! – Asteroids With Wings Feb 13 at 13:32
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If a question can not be answered within site rules, it is more efficient to lock the question than deleting each individual answer.

Locking the question also communicates to the question author why they are not getting an answer.

And of course we have rules for answers. It's just they are not broken nearly as often (among other things because people writing answers are, on average, more familiar with the site), and therefore the feedback process is not automated to the same extent. But try writing an answer that just links to an external site, for instance, and people will remind you that link-only answers are frowned upon.

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  • Questions that cannot be answered within site rules should absolutely be closed, but that's not the issue I'm raising. In many cases the communities have long long discussions about how precisely to decide if a question is asking about (eg) "legal advice" because it is still so valuable to the community to allow very adjacent questions to be answered. The current enforcement of that policy is discouraging to new users, and that could be alleviated by shifting the onus to the answerers. It should reduce administrative burden because the answerers will, as you say, not break the rules as much – nben Feb 13 at 1:08
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    But if the question was intended in an off-topic way, the question author deserves to learn why all answers are side stepping the question - and that's currently accomplished by locking the question. – meriton Feb 13 at 1:15
  • Yeah, so I think that providing timely feedback is a legitimate concern with my suggestion, but I also don't see how question closure is a requirement for giving advice about how to ask a question. It would be fine for someone to answer saying this hey, question is likely unanswerable due to site rules, here's how you can fix it, but questions that do not break the rules will still be allowed (because sometimes they're valuable). – nben Feb 13 at 1:21
  • In fairness, I suppose I have in mind the somewhat narrow experience of being a new user who has just had an earnest question closed over a vague rule; perhaps that experience is the breadth of the problem, but my suggestion might be a better approach to that new-user experience. – nben Feb 13 at 1:24
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    When you say “lock” the question you seem to be talking about closing it. Locking is a different and much less often used set of tools. – PolyGeo Feb 13 at 2:49
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These rules are mostly about protecting the question asker and to some extent the rest of the community as a whole.

Other related issues are prohibitions on personal medical advice and homework help that would allow a student to complete an assignment without actually learning anything.


Two related answers:

  1. If we allow these questions to remain open, they will often get bad answers that violate the rules. We could wait to act on those answers at that time, but it's possible the damage is already done: if someone asks a question looking for medical advice, they could get a bad answer (that isn't even necessarily from someone familiar with the community and the rules) and act on that advice before the community has time to react to the answer and have it removed, downvoted, etc. Additionally, this encourages the person to continue asking these sorts of questions.
  2. Questions of this type often have no non-rule-breaking answer except for a really boring one like "Sorry this question can't be answered here because ________", or "Ask your doctor/lawyer/and such". We typically prefer that this sort of non-answer answer instead be conveyed by closing the question, and perhaps leaving a helpful comment explaining the policy.

As a side note, the communities I participate in that are of a more scientific nature also have a lot of restrictions on answers, primarily dealing with referencing the content. The difference there is that it's not a problem with a question evoking unreferenced answers, but the answer itself lacking support.

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  • Yeah, I get that sometimes the question should be closed quickly and that's the priority. Medical advice is a good example. The argument that they will often get bad answers I want to push back on a bit, though. There are long long discussions in the various meta sites about how to decide whether a question should be closed for these reasons, and it's not because they all get mostly bad answers, it's because there are legitimately helpful answers to many of them that don't violate the rules. I do think non-answerable questions should be closed, but that's a different issue. – nben Feb 13 at 0:44
  • @nben Yeah. I think some of the controversy is when a decent answer is possible, but an answer that falls under my (1) is also likely. In some cases you might have to skip the ok answer to prevent bad/harmful ones. I think the best solution we have is to let each community decide on their local meta what works for them in those situations and where the borders are. Distinct communities that get questions of similar classes might ultimately settle on different borders (say, Academia vs Workplace). – Bryan Krause Feb 13 at 0:48
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    I would also point out that closing does not mean death of a question, it's just closed and not accepting answers. I don't have a good example in my pocket to share, but there have been numerous times that I observed a closed question on, say, Academia, reopened and answered when a user made a solid case (either on meta or a comment) that they could supply a suitable answer, perhaps with some edits to the question to help nudge it in the "okay" direction. I think this case-by-case process works better than trying to come up with a more perfect rule. – Bryan Krause Feb 13 at 0:51
  • Yeah, I definitely wouldn't advocate for a full-site-wide rule--more wanted to raise the idea that we can be friendlier to new users by shifting this burden when possible. I don't feel like I've seen it discussed much. In fairness, I think having a question closed is probably the death of many new users on this site. I've totally seen questions revived also, but if your first good-faith question results in a closure over a policy you don't really understand and an appeals process that requires more research, I'm guessing it's pretty discouraging. – nben Feb 13 at 0:55
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The primary goal/vision around here was (or is, depending on who you ask): to create high quality content for future readers on scale.

Sure: the rules that were derived from to enable that goal make it hard for new users to ask "good" "on topic" questions. Even experienced users have problems with that (my personal two cent: I found it much harder to get to the Socratic badge for 100 "good" questions than to acquire the Legendary badge on stackoverflow).

But the point is: when your vision is to get to overall high quality content, then you have to manage at the "source" side of things, not at the "sink".

Meaning: low quality questions lead to:

  • low quality answers. When I started on stackoverflow, I was surprised that "where can I find this or that" questions are off topic there. After I saw some older examples of such questions, and the tons of low quality answers and spam on them ... I figured: that was a very wise move.
  • distraction. On a reasonable sized community, there is plenty of churn each day. Which makes it harder for the experts willing to answer to identify those questions that can be answered without guessing and vague handshaking.

And adding more personal experience: I am also a frequent writer on quora. They have "question quality" moderation, too ... but are much less aggressive about it. One consequence: you often see vague questions with dozens or hundreds of answers, with very varying quality. And that makes it really hard to dig up the two useful bits of information that might be hiding in such a pig pile of stuff.

Finally: moderation requires time, and people willing to spend that time. And moderating out "bad" questions is easier and faster to do compared to trying to separate the "reasonable" from the "bad" answers on a dubious question.

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  • I like the bad questions cause bad answers statement a lot but want to add that the opposite is not true. Good questions can still have bad answers and that's why rules on answers beyond downvoting are a good idea too. – Trilarion Feb 13 at 21:57
  • @Trilarion And I think we have those. "Downvote bad content, but only delete stuff that is not even trying to answer". – GhostCat Feb 14 at 10:27

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