StackOverflow in particular is intended as a source of information for beginners as well as experts. As such, we can expect there will be naive or "simple" questions. There are also a substantial number of people who are not native English speakers.

Recently, there have been a number of times I've noticed where a perfectly reasonable, but unsophisticated question gets closed as "not a real question." (Example: Performance Implications of using spaces instead of tabs). The question was reasonably clear, as evidenced by the fact that it accumulated three essentially identical answers. It's also actually a fairly common beginners question about interpreters -- and in fact back at the Dawn of Time with the original BASIC and similar interpreted languages, there actually was a performance cost of using spaces versus tabs that made some difference.

The point is, I think a lot of people are voting to close questions not because they aren't "real questions" or answerable, but because they are considered to be "not cool questions."

SO has real potential as a resource for beginners; if we insist on killing the newbs, we won't fulfill that potential.

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    For what it's worth I agree... that was a reasonable question - shouldn't have been closed. – RThomas Jun 10 '11 at 22:53
  • There are a number of blog posts and podcasts pondering the "when is a question too simple for SO?" debate. So I'm not sure it's worth approaching it from that angle. However, your example is clearly on topic, so I don't see a reason to close it. – Pollyanna Jun 10 '11 at 22:53
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    On the surface, the question you linked seems to be yet another "spaces vs tabs, where should I put my braces" question. A deeper read reveals that the question really is about performance. I reopened it. – user102937 Jun 10 '11 at 23:21
  • I had originally posted my answer as a comment, but that wouldn't have been fair to the downvoters. – user7116 Jun 10 '11 at 23:50
  • @Robert, thanks, and that's really one of my points: with new programmers, and people who don't write fluent English, it helps to read a question with the attitude "this is a person asking for help, what is their question" instead of "this question is far too unsophisticated for the wondrous likes of me", which is frankly how a lot of these complaints and close votes come off. – Charlie Martin Jun 11 '11 at 0:36
  • Damn! I can't vote to close on Meta – Dr. belisarius Jun 11 '11 at 0:53
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    @Charlie Neither I nor anyone else I know frequently comments on close votes. So how you can assign motives like "too uncool" is beyond me. – Neil Butterworth Jun 11 '11 at 1:47
  • @Neil, then you need to read more comments. – Charlie Martin Jun 11 '11 at 2:32
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    @Charlie Example or it didn't happen. – Neil Butterworth Jun 11 '11 at 2:55
  • @Charlie: It looks to me like this can be addressed by introducing a vote not-to-close option (rejected feature request): If you see a question on the path to being closed unjustly, the most sensible thing to do is cast a vote to keep it open. Do you think this is something worth trying to bring up again? – trutheality Jun 11 '11 at 3:33
  • @Truth, that would help, but the main point I'm trying to make is that a little bit kinder attitude and some empathy for what a newb finds difficult versus the rest of us would be good. – Charlie Martin Jun 11 '11 at 5:57
  • @Neil, in fact I commented on the question to which we're referring. QED. – Charlie Martin Jun 11 '11 at 6:08
  • @Neil, here's another where the question was close-sniped, repoened, then answered. stackoverflow.com/questions/6157566/… And commented. – Charlie Martin Jun 11 '11 at 6:15
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    @Charlie where from S.Lott's comments do you gather that the OP's question wasn't "cool" enough? He's just asking about whether they read the manual before posting the question, which I find fair enough. And that specific question was not closed: Revision history – Pekka Jun 11 '11 at 6:33
  • @Pekka, sorry, then I misremembered. Since ther's no obvious way to search for closed questions, it's a little hard to satisfy @Neil's contentious assertion. – Charlie Martin Jun 12 '11 at 11:01

I voted to close a similarly "basic" question yesterday. The original text of that question was:

Can Objective C Property contains Parameter?

For example, I've seen self.someProperty

I have never seen self.SomeProperty(SomeParameter)

I am just trying to make sure

There was an objection raised to its closing, and I gave reasons for my vote:

I really think that, for this question to be useful and more than idle wondering, it needs some expansion. What prompted the idea of arguments on property accesses? Did you see something similar in another language? Is there an expected/desired purpose or effect? What did you read while trying to figure this out yourself? Did you try it, and what happened? Given more than "I had this thought and posted it", I'd be willing to vote to re-open.

The question was subsequently revised by its poster, and even though I still wasn't quite satisfied, I voted to reopen based partly on good-faith effort.

This, to me, is the key. Naïve questions are absolutely fine, even welcome. Questions which show no effort, especially questions like the one you, Charlie, linked to, and this one I've quoted, are wastes of everyone's time, including the asker's.

Posters of questions need to do a modicum of research on their own, and then, when they still can't figure the thing out, post a question, presenting the things they tried. The person who asked about tabs in Ruby could have run a couple of test scripts, one with hard tabs and one with soft, and used a freaking stopwatch. At least that would've been something.*

There just needs to be something more than, "This thing occurred to me. Give me the answer." That kind of question doesn't help anyone.**

Addendum: I just ran across a question (which has one NARQ close vote at the time of posting) which I think is an example of "basic/simple/naïve but shows effort" and should not be closed: Delegate notation in Obj-C.

The asker found some sample code and had trouble understanding it. This person gives their interpretation of the code in the question, and asks for confirmation and further clarification. (It could be generalized a little more, maybe, but) I think it's a solid SO question, for that reason.

*Let me add that I think it's perfectly okay when a person can't even figure out the right place to start to research the problem. Answerers can give possible directions to look into, but even then there needs to be some effort shown: "I tried to see if the scripts took more or less time than boiling an egg, but they both took way less. What else can I try?"
**To the response, "Well the OP got some help", I say: the "give a fish"/"teach fishing" aphorism applies here. Also, questions on SO are supposed be useful for more than just the poster's immediate needs.

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    Agreed. To throw another type of question into the hat, here is one I answered today that really doesn't belong on SO. It has no utility outside the original poster. BUT, the poster put forth research and effort, and while naive about debugging they deserved similar effort from us. – user7116 Jun 11 '11 at 1:58
  • @six: Yes. I don't know the language, but that does look like an effort-full but "Too localized" question. No reason not to help with these, especially since they're usually quick. I often find myself answering in comments, and then voting to close. – jscs Jun 11 '11 at 2:01
  • @Josh "There just needs to be something more than, 'This thing occurred to me. Give me the answer.' That kind of question doesn't help anyone." -- I dunno, Josh. It appears to help the guy asking. Viz your point about closing, then reopening -- what you do by taking that approach is ensure that it takes intervention by 10 people (or a mod) to give the person feedback and then get them a useful answer. Do you really think this is a productive approach? – Charlie Martin Jun 11 '11 at 2:21
  • @Josh: I'd originally typed out an answer about something else, then revised it at the last second to the "Horses" answer (having heard hoofbeats). It probably would have been better as a comment. – user7116 Jun 11 '11 at 2:22
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    @Charlie: a) Helping only the person who's asking the question isn't what this site is for. If the question isn't useful to others too then it's "too localized" and doesn't belong. b) I absolutely do think that is a productive approach, in the case of a user who I think has repeatedly shown that he doesn't want to put effort into his questions, doesn't help other people by answering questions, and generally isn't interested in anything but getting his questions answered. For a genuine newbie to the site, then you're right, engaging with comments first is the correct route. – jscs Jun 11 '11 at 2:28
  • @six: Sorry, I didn't mean to imply I was passing judgement on you having posted that answer as an answer instead of a comment. I do that too, and I don't think there's anything wrong with it. – jscs Jun 11 '11 at 2:29
  • @Josh: I'm worried I do too much commenting and not enough answering sometimes (except for here). I've recently increased the amount of answers I provide a day, time permitting. Although sometimes somebody should probably flag them as "not an answer" :) – user7116 Jun 11 '11 at 2:43
  • @Josh, this particular question is one that puzzled me 40 years ago when I was first programming, and comes up when I talk to beginners now. (Interestingly, the answer today is the exact opposite of what it was in 1969.) In general, if you think a question is only of interest to one person, statistically, you're mistaken. – Charlie Martin Jun 11 '11 at 5:59
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    @Charlie: The question you linked is potentially interesting. Delnan's answer gets just under the surface of the subject. It would have been a million times more interesting and useful if the OP had looked into it himself and generated more in-depth answers. It also would have helped the OP more: see "Give a fish"/"teach fishing". – jscs Jun 11 '11 at 6:14

Whether any given question should be closed or not is of course a matter of opinion. That's why it takes five votes to close a question. But if we accept the premise that some questions that are appropriate material do get closed, we can speculate about why they were closed. What was the decision-making process of those who voted to close?

Questions asked by inexperienced programmers often sound shockingly naive to veteran programmers. In fact, it is very easy to mistake a sincere but naive question asked to the very best of the asker's ability, for a lame question, asked with little or no thought, by someone who ought to know better. And differentiating the two is only made more difficult if the asker has by a weak grasp of the English language.

Ironically, there is plenty of evidence to show that Stack Overflow is very tolerant of naive questions. Often experienced programmers bend over backward to explain basic concepts to those struggling with them for the first time. But it's also true that Stack Overflow is extremely intolerant of lame questions. And lame questions abound.

Sometimes naive questions are mistaken for lame questions, perhaps because we are too quick to judge or because we are jaded by so many lame questions. Sometimes only a few people will recognize the core of sincerity at the heart of a naive question while others see only red.

I've made mistakes both ways and I can understand why other people do the same. But your question reminds us that we should try hard to recognize the sincere naive questions when we see them and resist brushing them off as lame questions asked by someone who ought to know better.

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    A story. I was once ready to cast the final closing vote on a bad question. I pressed F5 once more to check for changes or comments and an answer from Jon Skeet appeared. The answer took the question as sincere and answered it in language the asker could understand without judgement. That made an impression on me. – Rick Sladkey Jun 11 '11 at 1:44
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    Jon Skeet is one of the worst offenders of not maintaining the site. I don't think I have EVER seen him vote to close a question. And only mad people can think that there are not many, many questions that must be closed if the site is to maintain its integrity. People who want to appear "nice" are basically a species of parasite on the rest of us who put effort in keeping the site's quality up. – Neil Butterworth Jun 11 '11 at 1:52
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    I'm not so sure we should judge a question based on its supposed sincerity (although I can't say that I haven't). Otherwise, +1. – user7116 Jun 11 '11 at 1:55
  • @Neil: I said lame questions abound. I vote to close them. – Rick Sladkey Jun 11 '11 at 1:56
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  • @Neil, and yet Jon has some prodigious score, which means not only many answers, but many many upvotes. My first year here I maxed score for weeks on end; it takes a fair bit of effort. Might there be a useful lesson here? – Charlie Martin Jun 11 '11 at 2:29
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    @Charlie Sure, lemmings follow other lemmings. Jon's a nice guy, but really nothing special technically. As for effort, I usually hit the 200 mark a bit after breakfast. – Neil Butterworth Jun 11 '11 at 2:31
  • @Rick, I think Jon is clearly optimizing his behavior to do what SO wants, as demonstrated by his high score. Complaints that he won't vote to close seem to be missing the point. – Charlie Martin Jun 11 '11 at 2:32
  • @Nick Hey, you found 1 close nearly a week ago! I'm impressed! – Neil Butterworth Jun 11 '11 at 2:35
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    @Neil, I'm glad to know that you have such prodigious mental acuity. – Charlie Martin Jun 11 '11 at 2:35
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    @Charlie A late breakfast helps. – Neil Butterworth Jun 11 '11 at 2:37
  • @Neil, rep points is thin air. Here's one to keep as a souvenir Shortest method to convert an array to a string in c#/LINQ – Nick Dandoulakis Jun 11 '11 at 2:43
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    @Nick wow. So that is 2 in 3 years? Yeah, Jon sure has been putting in the effort! – Neil Butterworth Jun 11 '11 at 2:50
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    @Charlie just to put things into context, Neil is a SO veteran and former top #20 user with a score of IIRC over 80,000 points. And it is a fact that there is loads of stuff that needs closing. SO is a great resource for newbies, but it's also a huge enabler of laziness and dumb questions because so much gets an answer without any effort on the OP's part. The job as I see it, is to be nice to the newbies but to teach them how to find stuff out themselves. [...] – Pekka Jun 11 '11 at 7:26
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    [...] While I see where you're coming from, and I don't share Neil's harsh views on Jon, the idea that accumulating reputation points is the only indicator of useful activity on these sites is very unfair to those who do all sorts of janitorial work that doesn't accumulate rep, but without a doubt keeps up the value of the site as a whole. – Pekka Jun 11 '11 at 7:37

You should also be advised that we may institute a new "too trivial" close reason for questions like this:

Introduce a "general reference" close reason

I fully support "thinking twice" -- or even just once -- when reading questions. That said, while every question should be considered on a case by case basis, this does not mean every trivial, banal, pointless question that pops into someone's head is worthy of our time to answer.

Bottom line: put some effort into your question, and that will be reciprocated to you tenfold. Put in no effort whatsoever, and it will be closed.

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  • Jeff, it's your site and you can do as you please. But my general argument still holds: a little compassion and an honest attempt to get what the questioner is driving at will serve everyone better than close-sniping. – Charlie Martin Jun 11 '11 at 6:02

I disagree. The vast proportion of questions on SO should be closed almost immediately. They are almost all dupes, incoherent or addressed to the wrong site. SO would become much more valuable if more users who can vote to close actually got off their arses and did so vote.

But we have been here many times before (your question should be closed as a dupe on meta) - it ain't going to happen, unfortunately.

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  • Could you imagine how few questions would be posted every day if we actually did close all duplicates as duplicates? We'd be left pruning old questions and answers all day long... – sarnold Jun 11 '11 at 1:51
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    @sarnold I agree. But if we didn't at least try, can you imagine what it would be like? – Neil Butterworth Jun 11 '11 at 1:54
  • Yeah, I cast my fair share of Close votes too... – sarnold Jun 11 '11 at 1:59
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    @Neil, until we have an effective algorithm for determining the exact meaning of English, that would end up depending on a lot of people's ideas of what is "too similar." By accepting a broader selection of questions and admitting similar but not identical questions, we enable sophisticated search engines to have more probability of finding matches. And honestly, I read SO four or five times a day and answer questions most times; it doesn't seem so onerous. This is a volunteer operation creating useful information; why inist on limiting that? – Charlie Martin Jun 11 '11 at 2:26
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    @Neil: Easy questions are usually dupes (or a result of insufficient research by the asker) and are an easy rep source for new users (both for those asking and those answering). Don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but actually closing them all will dramatically decrease the rate of rep gain for newer users, so you should take that side-effect into account. – trutheality Jun 11 '11 at 2:36
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    @trutheality Rep is not the point of SO, it's only a mechanism. – Neil Butterworth Jun 11 '11 at 2:52
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    @Neil: It's not so much about any value that rep points represent as much as it is about the psychology of it. You may not like it (or you may think "that doesn't work on me", and you might even be right), but if it were a lot harder to gain rep (and priviliges), there would be a lot less users and less content on SO. – trutheality Jun 11 '11 at 2:56
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    @trutheality Well, usenet has been going on for donkeys years without rep. But the problem there is the lack of moderation. which is precisely what we are discussing here. Without good moderation (I don't mean by diamond mods) SO becomes usenet. – Neil Butterworth Jun 11 '11 at 3:00
  • @Neil good point, though usenet has the advantage of being a "first of its kind". I feel that without a rep system SO would have gone the way of countless "yet another forum"s that spring up and get abandoned sooner or later. – trutheality Jun 11 '11 at 3:09

I voted to close as not a real question because it isn't a real question. The poster had no problem needing to be solved. Future Ruby programmers are not likely to have an "aha!" moment and solve a problem they are having after reading this question and the answers. I may be in the minority--as evidenced by community votes--but questions about pronunciation of syntactical elements or the relative performance improvement from spaces versus tabs are not SO material.

This question has value somewhere, but I fail to see its value on SO.

If the poster had made an attempt at researching their question or included some tests they ran, I likely would have walked right by the post without a vote to close. But I just don't feel that question meets the standards.

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    I do not agree with you. Not every question needs to be a problem to be solved. Also, it is a clear question about performance of a program, so it has value on SO on its own. In fact, it is very possible that some other person will have the same question (ruby or any other language). And in reality most of the questions can be answered with enough research or testing. In this case, even the OP acknowledges that the difference may be negligible, thus it may be quite difficult to actually test and a theoretical answer was needed. – Aleadam Jun 11 '11 at 0:09
  • @six, operationally I suspect that since it's been reopened by a mod and upvoted -- along with the answers -- we have an extensional test of your assertion that it's "not a question", and the assertion fails. But intentionally, I think you're sort of making my point. I have taught new programmers, undergrads, on many occasions, and these are the sort of questions they ask; they deserve answers too. Otherwise how ill they become more sophisticated? – Charlie Martin Jun 11 '11 at 0:32
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    @Charlie Basically, by reading, working, taking some courses, studying. SO can't replace all the traditional ways :) – Dr. belisarius Jun 11 '11 at 0:56
  • @Aleadam: no harm in disagreeing. The poster's question didn't sway me as being well thought out. I would have liked more research from the poster. Some other folks agreed with me and it was closed. Others disagreed and it was reopened. Such is the way of SO :) – user7116 Jun 11 '11 at 1:06
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    @Charlie: It was closed with more than just my vote. Besides, folks on SO disagree all the time as to the worth of a question, and I've cast my share of reopen votes. At my four jobs (read: glutton for punishment) I get/have to teach, and I'm no stranger to beginners. They're my people! A questioning attitude is key. However, at some point they've got to do their own research to become more sophisticated as you put it. In this case I didn't feel the bar was met and voted accordingly. – user7116 Jun 11 '11 at 1:12
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    @Aleadam: «even the OP acknowledges that the difference may be negligible, thus it may be quite difficult to actually test and a theoretical answer was needed.» I don't see any evidence in the question Charlie linked to that the OP even thought about testing or theoretical aspects. The first sentence is the question, and the second says "I assume..." Even if we grant the benefit of the doubt that the OP tested, whatever resulted should have been included in the question to aid the discussion. – jscs Jun 11 '11 at 2:14
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    @sixletter indeed, some disagreement is quite healthy for the site. It foster the best discussions :) – Aleadam Jun 11 '11 at 3:43
  • @Josh I just based that in the OP's last two words "(however negligible)". Nothing more. – Aleadam Jun 11 '11 at 3:44
  • @Wether, I hardly did my PhD on SO alone. None the less, at one point I was, in fact, a beginner. – Charlie Martin Jun 11 '11 at 6:03

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