After listening to the discussion on the podcast this week, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what sort of questions could be considered too simple for SO. For example, I would have thought that the question

What is a Subclass

would be the perfect contender. However, with a bunch of answers (many of them from high-rep users) and an upvote, it certainly seems like it's more than welcome in our community. Personally, I don't see how the question (and the answers for that matter), is adding any new knowledge (or value) to the Internet. I've flagged it for moderator attention, but I'm still not sure that was the right thing to do. With all those answers, maybe I should have kept my flags to myself..?

Have I misunderstood the whole "too simple"-guideline, or is it that these questions are actually welcome because they generate a lot of easy rep for the answerers?


I've asked this question on English. Let's see how it fares over there, shall we?



The good people over at English closed my question within 10 minutes. Meanwhile, around 30 minutes later, Jeff closed the original SO version of it. I'm a happy camper.

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    I thought you had a good question until your ridiculous experiment at English. It proves nothing, since you asked it with zero sincerity. – Nicole May 3 '11 at 17:10
  • @Renesis I don't see how being sincere affects anything. I asked the question to show that questions on English that are so basic it hurts get closed within 10 minutes, without any answers, and without any votes (I did get one upvote, which baffles me, but got appropriatly downvoted afterwards). I see no reason why SO shouldn't work like this as well. – Mia Clarke May 3 '11 at 19:12

I don't think the question is bad. I could envision high quality answers being provided to it that would be useful to the community. As simple as it is, references like this are desperately needed by beginning programmers. Too often, they either don't know the basics or have some severe misconceptions thereof.

But if you ask me, the problem is that the answers are terrible. No, they're not inaccurate. But they're also not of very high quality, nor are they very complete.

A subclass is a class that extends another class.

That doesn't tell me anything more than a dictionary would. And not a very good dictionary, either, as it uses the word in the definition. All you've done is defined the prefix "sub". It's a "straightforward" explanation indeed (as noted in a comment), but it's also pretty minimalistic.

Indeed, I think that's the primary problem with questions like this one. Users see the question and think "Woohoo! Finally one I know the answer to!" Then they fire off a quick answer, hoping to gain a bunch of reputation points. It does, in a strictly literal sense, answer the question, so others are reluctant to vote it down. But it's pathetically incomplete, and the question fails in what I think is its more important purpose as a canonical reference. There are plenty of times that I'd like to point users to a question like this as an inline link in one of my answers, but I'd never point them to this one.

I don't know how we fix this, though. We can't discourage questions that are "too simple", as that's an arbitrary threshold and it goes against our mission as becoming the best resource for programming problems, no matter what size or level. And we can't really discourage people from posting answers, as those are the foundation of this site. I've long been an advocate of the policy that "no question is too simple", but recently, I've began to doubt my long-held opinion. Simple questions tend to attract such simple, useless answers that perhaps they aren't adding anything to the community at all...

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    Very good observations, especially about the answering process. – Pekka May 3 '11 at 8:15
  • +1 for that last sentence. Very astute! – Mia Clarke May 3 '11 at 8:24

First off, answers from high-rep users and upvotes don't necessarily indicate a valid question. The impulse to answer often overrides the idea of pausing to think whether something is a good question in the first place.

Anyway, the question you show is a bit of an edge case - it might create really good answers on the site.

There is a different category of "manual reference" questions where the definition is much clearer. Here are some example taken from my related feature request:

  • Isn't "too basic" just another form of "too simple"? A question of the same calibre asked on english.stackexchange, say "What is a sentence?" would be closed so quick it would make heads spin. Why not on SO? – Mia Clarke May 3 '11 at 8:33
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    Hmm, that last example might be the key. The questions Pekka's cited are those that are completely factual, that can be easily referenced by consulting the documentation. There is one obviously right way of doing it, and it's coincidentally the only way that will work. Questions like "What is a sentence?" and "What is a subclass?", while still technical, are slightly more subjective in nature. There are multiple things that can be considered a sentence. There's no documentation for the English language you can refer to that sets out requirements. Both require a human touch. – Cody Gray May 3 '11 at 8:42
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    @Banang what @Cody says. What I meant to say in my answer is that the example you quote may be a terribly basic question, but I don't think it is the kind of question Jeff and Joel are talking about. Closing "what is a sentence" is a far more subjective thing than closing "how do I make a string in all caps", to which there is a correct manual link. – Pekka May 3 '11 at 8:44
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    @Banang I'm just listening to that part in the podcast again. It seems like Jeff and Joel don't talk about these "manual reference" questions at all, but truly "too simple" questions like "what is a sentence". My mistake, sorry - I remembered wrongly. I'm going to delete this answer soon – Pekka May 3 '11 at 8:49
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    Don't delete the answer, just update it with what you said in this last comment. I think it makes a valuable contribution to the discussion. – Mia Clarke May 3 '11 at 9:07

I'm not going to go so far as to say that that looks to me like a model question, but I don't see anything really wrong with it. It's true that it's a basic topic, but it's reasonably well-formed, isn't "show me the code", and generated a diverse bunch of potentially-useful-to-future-readers responses.

I think I've heard a rule of thumb that if you think its "Not a Real Question" and someone answers it, then it was a real question after all (as long as it's a real answer, of course!). (This frustrates me sometimes, but I try to remind myself that walking away from the computer is always an option. :) )

I'm especially impressed by the questioner's involvement with the answerers -- asking for details from almost all of them, and in some cases prompting a revision to a better answer. The OP also seems to have gotten the requested information, may have upvoted a few responses, and selected an answer as accepted. Would that more questioners acted this way.

On balance, I'd say this question is a "success", but I do empathize (and frequently sympathize) with your frustration over simple questions.

That is, as they say, "just one man's opinion" however. Also, I haven't heard the podcast.

  • 2
    +1 except that NARQ rule. On most questions, someone will inevitably answer, even to vaguely guess or even (sadly) to tell them why it's not a real question. – Nicole May 3 '11 at 6:44
  • @Renesis: indeed, therefore I hedge with NARA! :) I agree with you; I've seen too many of these today alone. – jscs May 3 '11 at 6:45
  • Good point, though, sometimes those answers are actually smart or "right" - but they just encourage bad questions by answering them. – Nicole May 3 '11 at 6:46
  • @Renesis: I've also recently read that it's still good to close such questions. Sort of a "heads on stakes as warning to future questioners". Two examples (which I have voted to close as NARQ): 1 2 – jscs May 3 '11 at 6:51
  • @Josh Caswell I don't agree that this question is a success, even on balance, a.) the reasons mentioned by Cody Gray in his answers, and b.) because this question is basically just fluff with no real content. The answers aren't very good, and the question is asking about something that is so basic to programming I can't imagine a single expert being interested in reading the answer. I think questions like this water out the use of the community simply by being too basic. The same goes for the NARQs, I think. The presence of answers don't make a question valid. – Mia Clarke May 3 '11 at 8:30
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    @Banang: ? The answers aren't for experts to read, they're for whoever has a problem. – jscs May 3 '11 at 8:35
  • @Josh But even for those people these answers are not really that useful. Also, if we want t keep talented people interested in answering questions on SO, we need to keep some basic level of content up, otherwise people will just get bored and leave. – Mia Clarke May 3 '11 at 8:39

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