I'm not sure if there's already an existing term for this, so I'm inventing my own.

(tl;dr: I call them "chameleon questions" because they change every time you submit or edit an answer. If you're already intimately familiar with the phenomenon, please skip past the first set of bullet points to where I ask for recommendations.)

I think many of us have experienced this on occasion:

  1. You open up a narrow-looking question, usually dealing with some specific error message. The question probably contains a snippet of sloppy but not quite awful code; code indicating that the author, typically a new/low-rep user, possibly a Mort, doesn't really know what they're doing. I'm not trying to be condescending here, they're probably very intelligent and hardworking, but in this specific case, they're clearly in way over their head.

  2. However, as a question, it's not really too bad. The goal and problem are both clearly stated. The code is formatted (sort of). Mort was polite and checked their spelling. The question looks answerable, although from a rep perspective* it's an obvious dead-end, it's had maybe 3 views in the past 30 minutes.

  3. So you decide, you know what, this person took the time to write up the question properly, they deserve an answer, put on your good citizen hat and throw them a bone. You slog through the ugly code, find the offending line, direct their attention to it and explain why it's wrong and how it needs to be fixed.

  4. Later, they leave a comment saying that yes, that was indeed the problem and your answer helped them fix it (great!). Oh, but, now there's another problem (uh-oh...). Something else is broken. After letting out a long sigh, you read the comment and/or edited question, roll up your sleeves, and write up Take 2, hoping that's the end of it.

  5. And of course it's not the end. Now maybe the error is gone, but it's not doing what it's supposed to. If you're anything like me, your patience is now starting to wear thin. It's lousy code and you didn't volunteer to help them rewrite their whole app. And of course, the question still only has 12 views, and nobody has upvoted either the question or your answer, including the person you're helping, so this is turning out to be a genuinely thankless task in all respects. Welcome to "Family Tech Support", Web 2.0 Edition.

* Which is of course just an arbitrary number that none of us care about. Not really, anyway. Not very much, at least.

So, here's where I get to my question. At this point, do you:

  • Leave a comment, stating as politely as possible that you've done your best to help them answer the original question they asked, and if they have a new problem then they should start a new question? (I did this once, and actually ended up with an accept, but I felt kind of guilty afterwards, I don't think anybody answered their 2nd question).

  • Bite the bullet and edit your answer a 3rd, 4th, 5th time, however many times it takes to resolve their issue, knowing full well that they may not even remember to accept the answer once you're done? (I may work for free on SO, but that doesn't mean my time is worthless.)

  • Just abandon the question, hoping that it will force Mort to start thinking for himself?

  • Something else?

I've tried all three of the above and none of them ever quite feel right. I do want to help, but at the same time there are a lot more "lucrative" questions I could be answering. And I don't mind spending a lot of time on an answer either, if the question is interesting or important to me, but debugging is dull work.

I'd prefer not to reference specific questions here; I'm pretty sure that this is a shared experience, and my objective isn't to point fingers at "misbehaving" members. I'm more looking for some practical advice on how to dig myself out of these pits of despair.

Anybody have any other ideas?

  • 117
    At first, I didn't know what you were talking about. By the time I got halfway through, it became painfully familiar.
    – mmyers
    Commented Mar 22, 2010 at 15:24
  • 24
    Someone has mentioned the russian dolls which would be a great synonym to the Chameleon Questions. I like the russian babushka version better :D
    – user221081
    Commented Nov 28, 2013 at 15:59
  • 16
    The most painful part would be when after all you've tried and the time you spent for him, he just delete the question just bcz it gets one downvote and maybe starts a new question..! I'm talking about endless pain.
    – Ghasem
    Commented Aug 7, 2016 at 3:19
  • 20
    I've seen this sort of behavior with institutional software customers misusing a contractor's change request/bug tracking software. What happens is that a customer will submit a request like "Please make the banner blue", the engineer will implement it, and the testers will test it and send it back to the customer. The customer then hits the big "REJECT" button with the comment, "Great work, but we just realized that we also need the footer to flash pink. This is urgent thanks." This not only causes much wailing, but makes time-to-close and other metrics meaningless. ONE request per ticket! Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 11:39
  • 1
    See also: Should I re-ask if I've edited my question into oblivion?. As soon as the topic is changed and any answers would be invalidated it's a new question. This is too short for an answer. :)
    – Rob
    Commented Mar 29, 2019 at 22:00
  • 6
    I'm surprised by how charitable these answers have been towards these kinds of askers. If you answer someone's question then they should accept the answer. If they demand more work after you've answered the question then they are moving the goalpost and holding you hostage and it's not your responsibility to accommodate their bad behavior. Commented Aug 21, 2019 at 1:48
  • 1
    Unfortunately, I often fail to convey my ideas easily and succinctly the first time around. The reputation was at one point -8, now up to -1 amazingly. I have a sort of chameleon question here: stackoverflow.com/questions/43255053/…
    – AMDG
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 11:23
  • 3
    @Ruzihm: Is it your plan to go through every post on Meta having gender-specific terms and replace them with their non gender-specific equivalents? I admire your dedication to the cause, but even Stack Exchange says it isn't worth our time to go back and fix old posts.
    – user102937
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 23:37
  • @RobertHarvey no, just the ones that stand out to me subjectively :)
    – Ruzihm
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 23:42
  • Re my own answer, there is a dim possibility, blinking on & off slowly in a fog (and me, from the Sahara, having seen fog only once, at the age of 3), that it might gain acceptance (from which exception might itself be taken)....Somehow, I feel better now, and yet, it's not tactile...!
    – Edouard
    Commented Jun 8, 2020 at 3:08
  • The 'mort' link in point 1 appears to be broken. I'm editing in its new URL - please double-check if you're interested.
    – E.P.
    Commented Jun 9, 2020 at 11:49
  • As a new member, this confuses me a bit. It seems to me that the site encourages the editing of questions. I recently asked a question in meta that got several downvotes. I am sure that if I deleted it and uploaded it again with all the edits (I learnt a lot in the process) it wouldn't be that unpopular and many would reread it before downvoting again, which it doesn't happen as much limiting myself to editing. But I thought it would be wrong to do such a thing. Even if the nature of the question, and even title, changed significantly through the editing process. Wouldn't it be wrong?
    – Pablo GM
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 12:39
  • I've always called these people 'Help Vampires' - no matter how much blood you give, they want to suck more. I find just walking away works best for my own sanity; after the point at which I no longer care about theirs.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Mar 27, 2023 at 10:48

13 Answers 13


Generally as long as the OP is still trying to solve the original problem or something closely related, i.e., my answer still makes sense, I'll keep helping. Once the topic starts to drift or it's clear that whatever I write the person just isn't getting it, I'll just let the matter drop for awhile and make a mental note to check on it later when I'm less busy. I might make a suggestion a new direction might be better handled as a new question. Generally, I don't feel bad about this as most questions get answers and a new question is an opportunity for them to get more rep. Eventually, the time between check ups increases to the point where we both give up.

  • 112
    You actually make a very good point about the timing. Responding to the changes, but with decreasing expedition, would seem to be a pretty good way of encouraging some independent thought while still maintaining an air of polite cooperation. If they're not sure when the next answer will arrive, they might try to solve it themselves, and if they've already solved it by your next update, so much the better. I like this strategy.
    – Aarobot
    Commented Mar 22, 2010 at 16:05
  • 4
    re: '... and make a mental note to check on it later when I'm less busy.' Yep. That always works best for me.
    – user284374
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 22:30
  • @Aarobot it's also a great way to get rid of people who message you, I just wish there was a bot to automatically delay each reply with the timing for decreasing expedition built in :) Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 5:21
  • 3
    I like this exponential backoff policy.
    – ggorlen
    Commented May 9, 2020 at 20:02

Since this was an older question, I feel the need to add a new answer:

Now that we have a real-time chat system, use it! I have found that chat is the perfect solution to questions that require a lot of back-and-forth. I would suggest posting a comment to your answer inviting the user to join you in a chat room. This will encourage new users to chat, but also lets others who are trying to answer know that you're in the chat room.

If the user joins you, ask for details in chat and update your answer with new suggestions, asking the user to refresh your answer. Optionally insert into your answer links to the detail provided by the user in chat, so others can see how you're miraculously learning more details about the user's question.

Here's an example of a question I answered while chatting with the asker, and it worked out very well.

  • 1
    (I think this is a better answer for a question of mine which was closed as an exact dupe of this question...) Commented Jan 22, 2011 at 20:43
  • 11
    What if the OP isn't online the same time your are? I've been in similar situations, but the back and forth were several hours (or sometimes) days apart.
    – Herbert
    Commented Dec 21, 2011 at 23:41
  • 14
    @Herbert Good point. Chat is great realtime but the nature of Stack Exchange chat is not limited to realtime. Create a new room and invite the user into it. Try and schedule a time to meet in there if you like but remember that you can go back and forth in chat much like you do in comments, only better, because you can onebox, link to specific messages, search, star, etc etc. Commented Dec 21, 2011 at 23:58
  • 2
    I haven't spent any time in chat. I assumed it would be like other chat systems, but apparently not. Good to know. There is one other problem though: once I was notified by the system to invite someone to chat (when there gets to be a lot of comments), but the OP didn't have enough rep to chat.
    – Herbert
    Commented Dec 22, 2011 at 0:29
  • 11
    I have tried this approach a couple of times, only to hit the 50(?) rep minimum for chatting.
    – vascowhite
    Commented May 6, 2012 at 11:32
  • 24
    I think this is not the timesaver you're looking for. It likely leads to handholding, which takes a lot of time. Devastating to repfarming too ;)
    – Lodewijk
    Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 21:08
  • 2
    Some of us answer questions while we are at work. The chat system is blocked, while (fortunately) Stack Exchange is not blocked. Commented Aug 13, 2013 at 13:47
  • 3
    The other problem with the chat system is that there are no notifications - you have to remember to go back to the particular room each day. (Probably only an issue when you're in different time zones.) Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 21:38
  • 8
    I did this once. This is going to sound so condescending. I'm sorry. I'm bad. It felt like taking a puppy home when I couldn't keep it. It was hungry, so I fed it. Then it needed more, so I gave it more. It was nice. I wanted to help. But then I had to leave it where I found it. At first when it scratched at my door I talked to it, then I just had to pretend I couldn't hear it until it went away. I tried to do a good thing, so why did I just end up feeling guilty and sad? Commented Jul 11, 2019 at 17:59
  • @HarryJohnston: I believe that people still get notified of username mentions (i.e. @UsernameWithoutSpacesOrPunctuation), including those auto-generated by clicking the tiny reply button next to a message, but without that, you're right that it does require people to keep checking back.
    – V2Blast
    Commented Jan 30, 2020 at 22:38
  • 3
    @ScottHannen Yeah, the way I'd phrase that is, inviting someone to chat raises expectations that you're going to trouble shoot with them until it's solved. Me, I just don't want to get into this kind of relationship with anyone. I'm usually happy to help solve a problem I can see (ie, it's visible in the code), and I'd rather direct their attention to making their problem clearer, not me fixing it for them. Commented Mar 21, 2020 at 7:23
  • This is the solution for low quality answers as well. Commented Nov 15, 2021 at 8:49

Here is the approach that has been proven to work pretty well for me. 1, 2

As soon as I sense that Oh, but, now there's another problem I reply with comment like this:

Looks like <refer to original problem> is solved isn't it? As for <refer to "next" problem>, that would be a different question, consider posting it separately.

For easy copy-n-paste.

Looks like &lt;refer to original problem&gt; is solved isn't it? As for &lt;refer to "next" problem&gt;, that would be a **[different question](https://meta.stackexchange.com/questions/43478/exit-strategies-for-chameleon-questions "at Stack Exchange sites, “chameleon questions” are not quite welcome")**, consider posting it separately.

Interesting that above approach "utilizes" your question to deal with the kind of issues you're asking about. Feels pretty meta.

  • 12
    yes! i will be copying and pasting it xD
    – user221081
    Commented Sep 24, 2013 at 12:44
  • 5
    This is what I do. I usually add a "and leave a link to the new question in a comment here - maybe I'll have a chance to take a look at it tomorrow". That lets me off the hook for now, but I get notified of the link so I can remember to take a look in the morning. Usually I do this only if the person appears genuinely capable of learning/appreciative of the effort I expended.
    – Floris
    Commented May 31, 2014 at 4:47
  • 4
    This is what I do. With slightly different formulation: "Feel free to post a new question for this problem" :-)
    – Tomas
    Commented Dec 3, 2014 at 18:36
  • Is it me or does this read as extremely condescending?
    – user234461
    Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 17:29
  • 4
    I'm afraid it's only you @user234461 - I can imagine this feeling condescending only to some site old-timer, "how dare you remind me of things everybody knows already". But here we're talking about inexperienced newcomers who may have no idea that SE sites require one question per question (unlike traditional forums known to everyone). For these askers this is only an explanation of one (of many) site-specific rules that they need to follow to make things work, so that they get their questions well received and answered
    – gnat
    Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 21:50
  • 1
    ...this whole thing is about making it smooth for everybody, so that askers get their questions answered and answerers have their answers stay relevant
    – gnat
    Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 21:50
  • 2
    This is what I do too. Inform the (typically new) user that SE is a Q&A site, with one question per Question (;-)). Good questions are specific, typically how-to, and invite specific answers. If the OP persists, and especially if the additional questions are unrelated to the original, I sometimes vote to close as too broad or unclear. Such a moving-goal-post question is not fair to those answering (trying to chase the goal post), and it's not useful to other readers. In sum, it's about (1) informing new users and (rarely needed) (2) closing Qs that become too broad or unclear.
    – Drew
    Commented Jun 16, 2019 at 17:05

Really depends on the question, and the mood I'm in. If the questions are closely related and I think I can get a good answer out of it, I'll put the time in; if it's devolving into a hand-holding discussion, I'll probably just walk away (and may even delete my answer).

In at least one instance, I've rolled back the question and asked the author to post a new one.

  • 2
    I never thought about deleting my answer... would that be to avoid possible future downvotes, or is it intended to send a particular message to the question author (or both)?
    – Aarobot
    Commented Mar 22, 2010 at 15:21
  • 30
    I'd only delete if the question changed so much that my answer made no sense any more -- which has happened. Stinks to get downvoted for an answer that previously made sense but then is completely inappropriate when the question changes.
    – tvanfosson
    Commented Mar 22, 2010 at 15:30
  • 9
    @Aaronaught: what tvanfosson said - when the question changes so much (due to additions or outright revisions) that my answer is rendered either irrelevant or woefully incomplete.
    – Shog9
    Commented Mar 22, 2010 at 15:42
  • @Shog9 - what if the user change the question to a related issue but also REMOVE the old question content? Your answer does not make sense anymore because you suggested a solution that he is now using and cannot use correctly. See this: link Suggested how to delete an item, now he is using the suggested method but has posted another problem, removing the original form the question.
    – SPArcheon
    Commented Apr 11, 2013 at 8:55
  • 2
    In this case the question is still related to deleting an item, but the original explanation is now "not needed". My answer does not answer the question anymore. I can edit it to match the new question, but I believe that if you edit the question with a new issue you should leave the original question there. As it was A, now it is A+B - not now it's C an let's forget about A.
    – SPArcheon
    Commented Apr 11, 2013 at 8:58
  • 1
    @Aarobot: Both. I've deleted 3 or 4 of my answers when it was obvious that I was fished or I've gotten angry at the questioner. Commented Aug 13, 2013 at 13:50
  • 6
    Questions certainly should not be edited to the point of invalidating a posted answer. The only way a posted answer should be invalid is if it were invalid at the time it was posted.
    – nhgrif
    Commented May 31, 2014 at 12:28
  • 4
    Rather than deleting an answer that contains useful information, it might be better to just add a note at the top saying that the answer has been invalidated by subsequent changes to the question but that you're leaving it up in case it's useful to anyone. You could also make it community wiki to avoid reputation loss from downvotes. Commented Apr 22, 2015 at 9:46
  • 4
    @nhgrif: "Questions certainly should not be edited to the point of invalidating a posted answer." - well, that depends. In some cases, it is possible to misinterpret a question in such a way that it can mean something very different from what was intended (this can be caused by asker or answerer, both situations happen). In such a case, I'd consider it preferable to clarify the question and thereby essentially narrow it down to exclude one interpretation over leaving the question in a state where two different answers based upon different interpretations would be equally valid. Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 12:23
  • I am in such situation right now. (I'm not the asker or answerer) There are couple of answers which address the Q upto revision 4. But it has changed drastically that no answer is valid now. The answers are upvoted and the answerers don't want to delete them. OP is not willing to keep old version. What should I do?
    – Nog Shine
    Commented May 16, 2018 at 5:16
  • 3
    You can roll it back once, but if the asker wants to keep it let them, @Nog. In turn, they can't force the answerers to update their answers, and may find that by being obstinate about it they exhaust the goodwill extended to them. Such are the consequences.
    – Shog9
    Commented May 17, 2018 at 19:54

Another possibility would be to implement a "Create followup question" feature, normalizing the process to some extent.

  • That would actually be pretty nice, creating new kind of connection between posts. Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 15:00

I give the asker something to do. Make him/her show effort to see if I want to keep showing effort on my side. I say something like

Please expand your question further. Give more detail to clarify your problem more. Add necessary info from your comments into your question...

I am busy in the SQL area and I often tell the user to add a SQLFiddle to demonstrate the problem further. That takes time and many users don't bother to take the effort. But if they do I am willing to help.

If the user shows effort I try to keep up if the question isn't a total different one.

  • 2
    I like this answer, I didn't realize until now that I've actually been doing this. It works. Either the user will go through the necessary steps to oblige, or they will abandon the question as they would have anyways. Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 0:12
  • 2
    This actually just solved another issue at the same time, users that don't accept answers. I answered a question a while back and the user neglected to mark the answer as accepted (even after being reminded multiple times) yesterday they came back and asked in a comment if I could help them fix this new (and unrelated) problem for them. I looked at the code and found the solution, then told them that it was a different question and that they should accept the current answer and post a new question, and to reference the new question in a comment... Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 2:22
  • 3
    They didn't accept the answer right off the bat, but they did ask a new question and posted a link in the comments. After I answered the new question (completely expecting to not have the answer accepted) I was extremely surprised to have both answers upvoted and marked as accepted. Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 2:24

I know exactly what you mean. In fact, these questions typically cause me to add many "Update" portions to my answers, over, and over, and over again. I generally try to stick with it for a few iterations - not everybody can get their point across the first time. Some times it takes some exercising to explain exactly what their problem is. After about 3 or 4 updates, it does start getting a bit fatiguing. If I cannot answer the question in about 4 exchanges, I will likely leave my answer for a reference, and abandon the mission.

  • 2
    Usually I'll do the comment thing until we get to the point where I finally understand the problem rather than constantly re-editing. Once you have a handle on the real problem, that's the time to update. Comments seem to have better convergence rate than back and forth editing.
    – tvanfosson
    Commented Mar 22, 2010 at 15:32
  • 2
    Comments are best, but typically the wording of the questions leads you to believe you understand it, which leads to an answer. Then the OP clarifies with a comment on your answer, causing you to edit your answer, ad nauseum.
    – Sampson
    Commented Mar 22, 2010 at 15:36
  • I'm just saying that I'd respond with a comment until my understanding is refined. If the first comment works, then I go back and update immediately. Sometimes it takes a number of comments before I feel that I adequately understand how my first answer needs to be modified.
    – tvanfosson
    Commented Mar 22, 2010 at 15:45
  • Ah, I see what you mean. That's typically the approach I take as well, not wanting to pummel my answer with unnecessary edits.
    – Sampson
    Commented Mar 22, 2010 at 15:47

Sometimes a question just feels like it's missing something. I can't really describe it in words. It's like they've told you the problem, but there's one minute, seemingly insignificant detail they've omitted that turns the entire problem upside-down.

Whenever I get this feeling about a question, I now hit the Back button immediately. (It took me a few tries before I learned this lesson.)

  • 3
    You could at least leave a comment like "Is this the problem you're trying to fix or are you describing what is going wrong with your 'bug fix'?" Commented Jul 27, 2010 at 8:53
  • 2
    @TobiasKienzler: XY Problems are particularly tricky. There's usually a considerable amount of back and forth before it becomes obvious. Of course, some people have better XYfu than I do.
    – Herbert
    Commented Dec 21, 2011 at 23:50
  • 1
    @Herbert true, but abandoning a potentially XY-y question without even letting the OP know why no one replies is not going to make the internet a better place... Commented Dec 22, 2011 at 8:52

Perhaps this isn't a viable solution for other sites, but the one Mi Yodeya recommends is discussed here.

Instead, the question edit should be rolled back, regardless of who made it. When rolling back the edit it would be a good idea to leave a comment linking to that Meta policy so that everyone involved understands what is happening, and why.

If the asker really has a different question there is a simple solution: create a new post and ask it. Asking questions is free (except in rare situations) so there is not much to lose. The only issue would be that the asker may be stuck with a question that they don't care about. I don't think this is such a big deal, and it may even cause users to spend an extra minute making sure their question is clear before posting, which (I think) is something desirable.

Simple and straightforward: Rollback the edits, and leave a comment explaining why, with a recommendation to ask their edits instead as a follow-up question.


I think the situation where the question is edited to ask something different is a clear case for why it's often considered best practice (but maybe not on stackoverflow?) to restate the question in your answer.

Say "doing x and y is appropriate", and not "that is appropriate", so that the worst that your answer can become is irrelevant, as opposed to wrong.

  • 1
    Editing the question to invalidate the current answers is not allowed on stackoverflow. If you have found the answer to your question of your own accord but now have run into a new issue and there are no existing answers, then you can change the topic of your question. There is no reason to edit to invalidate an existing answer, as you are less likely to get an answer by editing an existing question with answers (especially if one of the answers has an upvote, which would remove it from the unanswered question queue) Commented Jun 12, 2015 at 2:26
  • @TinyGiant: "and there are no existing answers" - and no votes. Would hate to have one of my votes advertise something else than what I voted on. Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 12:29

Personally, I usually go back to question's edit history, copy the essential part of the old question and add it to the beginning of my answer as a citation, like this.

Often, I also leave a comment ranging from a neutral I've included the original question in my answer to an angry rant, depending on the mood. At least once such rant reversed 3 downvotes I got because my answer didn't match the question anymore.

I don't think that fixing the initial answer to match a new question, or removing an irrelevant answer is a good idea. If the initial answer was good, it might be helpful to someone, so it should stay. Granted, including the original question in the answer is sub-optimal and looks somewhat confusing, but leaving the answer irrelevant is just as confusing (if not more), and I don't see a better way to handle the situation.

  • 3
    I didn't downvote (I use your trick myself although very rarely) but as a general approach this feels slippery. Question and answer are expected to be easy to get for random web search visitors and these visitors in turn are expected to be unfamiliar with advanced system features like editing and post history. For such visitors quotes and answers to removed parts of question look irrelevant, they don't expect these in answers to question they have read (its latest revision)
    – gnat
    Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 22:00
  • @gnat I explained my point of view a bit more. I agree that this is sub-optimal, but I fail to see a better way. Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 7:03
  • 3
    if the question and answer made a good pair prior to edit then most typical approach at SE network is to rollback the question edit that broke this. It sometimes happens that answer is adapted or deleted following question edit but really really infrequently - and only if there was something wrong with question / answer prior to edit
    – gnat
    Commented Mar 3, 2016 at 7:14

With the discomfort in my heart... I am Mort (the line-of-business developer). And here is why I ask Mort looking questions:

  • Massive language barrier - not-in-the-same-language-group language barrier. So as an independent not formally educated coder, my knowledge base is mixed from Internet English resources, the resources that are from my native language, resources that are from extremely third-party languages (like it is ironic that a Slavic guy learns to code in English while looking at Indian resources) to resources generated by me through time and experience. This language barrier can go so far that no one can understand me - unless I show my code. Such as I use too foreign terminology (and standards) for native speakers, to uneducated to English speakers and totally at odds with Indian or Chinese speakers.
  • Gathered experience via public experience - To explain this further, I am going to list my own example: I've entered serialisation once I discovered bitwise operators (3+ years ago), but I've found out a name for it in past several months. So most of the time, my Mort-like questions are well asking for implementation that isn't widely used or asking for an answer that exists in the right formulated question. This also shows itself in jobs I took on by coincidence (fixing code errors/functionality for others) without actually needing to understand what they need. Code is my native language in this case, and once I look at it I can understand it... but to explain it - that is too far!
  • Massive use of too broad flags - I've long passed the level where I need to ask what a specific error code means and am able to understand the compiler when it speaks to me. But projects I am working on have naturally evolved from one-file projects to multiple projects and now to the point where I am writing my own libraries. And in this point the issues I might ask questions for aren't too specific as they can be (especially with right naming), so often my questions are flagged as too broad - with reason. So the only way I can approach the question, without being flagged as too broad, is to shorten it to minimal reproductive code that should encompass multiple libraries and files. And then people answer the simplified version of the question that requires expanding.

To answer your question, I would do all three points you mentioned (to answerers' desire) with an added caveat. Ask an follow up question before doing anything, if the question still isn't clear: try and deduce what is the main focus of the question and ask if that is what they are searching for.

I have been directed to explore further "serialisation" by a user on the SO platform. And from then I can distinguish what is and what isn't serialisation, and all that from "did you mean serialisation?" with a Wikipedia link. Knowing the true name of something gives you power over it.

So before doing anything else:

  • When in doubt, ask a question.

If a Mort like me isn't knowledgeable enough to try to explain what it needs in a way for you to understand it - abandon the question. The Mort will come back once it has enough knowledge to ask or edit the question... as I did a bunch of times. Abandoning the question is ok here. It might be cold, but you can't help a person who doesn't want (or can't) help themselves.

If Mort has some specific implementation of some functionality/practice that goes a tad bit (or all) over the naming functionality, edit your question for the 3rd, 4th, 5th time, etc. and then abandon the question. *The main reason for this is that to answer the question you need to talk about the same topic. If the main question is fruits, you answer in apples and the user asking the question talks about oranges, both of you will get nowhere. So after knowing that you are talking about the same topic, re edit your question, research if need be.* If still no successful answer is made - just cut your losses. There is no shame not knowing something, or not understanding someone.

If a Mort is frustrated by their lack of language skills, suggest related topics and if a Mort is an asshole, downvote and abandon the question. There is no clear functionality for downvotes; people use them however they want. So I see no issue punishing assholes and awarding politeness. No one here has a job to educate the uneducated. So sure, the uneducated are left alone, but the uneducated can gather knowledge through other means - and no path here gets that knowledge through aggression.

I've had moderators and users tell me that they don't understand the question or that am using the wrong terminology ... but when I asked them to correct me in comments... very few did. I get frustration and best intentions thrown in the bin. Just use Wikipedia or some other resource and when you have an issue with the question, link it or say it. A Mort like me can easily copy paste and do research for themselves.


Also, I think it is important to mention that as a Mort (the line-of-business developer) I know what I can do, but I really don't know what I know and in which quantity I know it. How much I feel ready or "knowledgable" my knowledge is filled with small holes that are in outside of my consciousness. I know this might be (or is) frustrating to establish communication between a formally educated developer and me, without a wall of text describing the step-by-step idea I have. And understandably I know that no one is entitled to demand knowledge or to give it. In the end it is up to anyone who is reading my questions or answers to judge for themselves if they have necessary patience. Either way, no harm no foul... unless one of us is an asshole.


I am one of the askers you describe. I know this is late, but someone just now told me about this post. I have read your entire question and understand it completely.

I disagree with a word you used: "worthless." Your efforts might cause people to stop contributing to this site, and by extension, to a better world.

We don't answer questions for payment or peacockery. We do it to build a more active community. And we still get credit for our actions. Just look at missionaries and open source community contributors.

But the problem still bores answerers like you, and of course askers like me.

Luckily, we are all developers, and as such we are all familiar with using computers to do repetitive, boring, reusable tasks.

[Everything from here down, except for the last bit about your English, is what you should copy to one or more new post(s). -Ed.]

I suggest that Stack Overflow add the following features to solve the problem:

  1. Implement a more intelligent pre-/post-processor

    • Provide an AI that could tell prospective authors about similar/possible duplicate questions before they submit new posts. It could act like Wolfram Alpha.

    • Provide an AI that could send notifications about new questions to users who might be able to answer them. Allow this AI to mark answers "accepted" when it thinks they're good enough.

  2. Add more automatic rules

    • Don't just notify askers of activity. Automatically bump questions with low activity, like my poor unanswered questions.

    • Send notifications through IM clients (IRC/XMPP/&c).

  3. Add more actions for users

    • Add a fork action to existing answered questions. This would let users ask related/follow-up questions based on the solved problems, and keep related information together. Visitors would be able to learn from the initial question — and its answers — and then move on to related topics; this would help them more than a single question would.

    • Add a quote and link or split action for sections. Most of the boring questions you mention could be split into many smaller questions. Some or all of the sections might have been solved before, and we could link the sections to the existing solutions. This would help askers and answerers focus their efforts on unsolved sections.

    • Add a merge or join or union action for questions. Askers often post questions that are just parts of their real problems. For example, one person configuring nginx might ask about configuring the nginx proxy module while another might ask about configuring the nginx cache module. If we could put those and other related questions in some kind of "nginx configuration group," it could be a treasure house for all people trying to set nginx up.

Sorry for the poor English in the initial revision, I am Chinese. I welcome comments about solecisms and weird usage that can help me improve my English.

  • 10
    Welcome to Meta, thanks for taking the time to respond! You should post the second half of this answer as a separate question and add the [feature-request] tag, and then edit this post to add a link to the new question.
    – Pops
    Commented Feb 23, 2012 at 16:48
  • 20
    I do not agree that using a Q&A forum for long and drawn-out troubleshooting sessions helps to build a better community; on the contrary, it erodes the community by fatiguing and jading the best contributors. The rest of your answer, as @PopularDemand says, belongs in separate [feature-request] questions, not here, and most of them are either already rejected or hopelessly misguided from a usability perspective (a fork action? seriously?)
    – Aarobot
    Commented Aug 18, 2012 at 15:23
  • 3
    This is the first time I have wished that I had participated more on meta.se so I could downvote this. I disagree with every single part of this answer. Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 0:17
  • Was this ever posted as a feature request? Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 20:11
  • 2
    "I disagree with a word you used: 'worthless.' (...) We don't answer questions for payment or peacockery. We do it to build a more active community." - personally, while motivating others to actively participate is a nice side-effect, my primary hope when answering questions is to help the asker and others. To help as many people as possible with as little effort as possible. Chances for this are lower if my helpful answer is hidden as the third subquestion in a multiply-revised question that will seem too specific to other visitors, compared to one abstract, "atomic" question. Commented Nov 29, 2016 at 12:41

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