As per Jeff's request (see comments), I will try to illustrate how I see things.

The high number of closed questions and frustrated users complaints is a pretty good indication that our rules and/or guidelines are too complicated to understand by the average developer (and I'm one of them).

If the goal is to create an elitistic community of programmers (and attact elites), we should keep them and continue to apply them blindly. It will probably work long term.

However if we really want to make the internet better for programmers, regardless their level, culture, beliefs, [put any difference here], we should either ...

  • simplify the rules
  • be more flexible about them

I agree that that kind of questions should be avoided in the future:


However, I see a lot of closed questions that should be kept open because of the value they (and will) provide to programmers in general:

But on the other hand, I see many questions that should be closed according the same rules, but are left open. I selected questions where at least one moderator answered:

IMHO, all the questions above deserve to stay opened. With their answers, they are all very valuable for the vast majority of programmers and contribute to a better internet.

I think we should measure how valuable a question would be before closing it, instead of applying rules blindly. That's the role of the moderators. To be effective, this task must be collective.

I agree that questions which main aim is having fun and/or social interactions should be closed, however, some highly interesting questions should be able to remain on the site. Because they are interesting and useful, and only for that.

When in doubt, moderator should request opinions like Mark Trapp did.

That flexibility, that is called practical wisdom, and I strongly believe it's the way to go.

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    pray tell, what can I learn from "punishment for breaking the build" that will make me a better programmer? Where to get a bee costume? Proper use of nerf weaponry? Which donuts are most delicious? Jul 8, 2011 at 11:24
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    @Jeff Atwood: oh yes, because humiliation that occurs when you punish someone in front of others like that, can have dramatic psychological consequences. So I think that programmers can learn something from that question for the good of their coleagues, but also themselves. You can learn that the hard way, or visit P.SE.
    – user2567
    Jul 8, 2011 at 11:27
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    the other problem with that question is that it is an infinite list of opinions. "what do YOU use to shame your build breakers?" A bat. A bear. A brick. A banjo. It's a bad question. "Should we punish programmers who break the build, and why?" however, might be an OK question. How you ask has a RADICAL effect on the quality of the answers and what can be learned. That's why we're strict about this. Jul 8, 2011 at 11:30
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    @Jeff Atwood: I agree completely with that. I think the concept of learning is something interesting to take in consideration. Does the question provide the programmers with useful thing(s) to learn? Cloud be a nice question to ask before we take the decision to close.
    – user2567
    Jul 8, 2011 at 11:34
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    @Pierre: this is why, if you care about a question, it's so very, very critical that you edit it. And I don't mean trivial little spelling corrections or formatting changes - be prepared to change every single word in the post if necessary to preserve what the asker wanted to learn while staying withing the rules and guidelines of the site. There may be gold in them thar hills, but you'll never find it if you don't dig...
    – Shog9
    Jul 8, 2011 at 14:53
  • @Mr. CRT: I wish I could. My english level is not good enough to edit other's posts.
    – user2567
    Jul 8, 2011 at 14:54
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    @Pierre Your English is more than good enough. Other users (and moderators) can help you the rest of the way if you do the bulk of the edit. If you want someone to proof-read your edits, feel free to ping me in chat.
    – Adam Lear StaffMod
    Jul 8, 2011 at 15:11
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    Much of this is a complaint about consistency but that's a fundamental issue with SE. Application of the rules is based on who is on here when the question is posted, their interpretation of the question and the rules, whether they even see it and so on. None of us go out of our way to close questions so it's inevitable that some will be "missed" but if you need consistency I'd suggest that this place is absolutely the wrong place as it's all but built into the format. Jul 9, 2011 at 21:19
  • @Pierre 303: IMO - You're one of the better posters on stackexchange, and your English is plenty good. Also, I think you've raised a number of good points inside of this thread too.
    – Jim G.
    Jul 11, 2011 at 3:01
  • @Mr. CRT, is it seriously OK to massively edit a question while assuming you're retaining the OP's intent? I got chewed out by a former mod, Bigown for doing just that. Pierre and I know the rules (well enough to know when we're breaking them at least). I wouldn't mind fixing well intentioned bad questions once and a while if they had any reasonable hope of getting reopened. Jul 11, 2011 at 16:45
  • @Peter: yes, yes it is. The only time I've ever been chewed out for this has been when my edits made the author look [more] foolish - so treat it like your baby, and do the best you can to make it good. If the original author doesn't like your edit, they can roll back the changes with a single click - at which point, you should respect their wishes and leave it to its eventual fate. (yes, there are a handful of users who disagree with me on this... They're wrong. Editing is the backbone of Stack Exchange)
    – Shog9
    Jul 11, 2011 at 16:55
  • @Peter @Mr. CRT I've seen members editing the question to match their (future) answer ;)
    – user2567
    Jul 11, 2011 at 17:28

3 Answers 3


I think what you really mean when you say that those questions are valuable is that the answers are valuable, or have the potential to be.

Bad questions can receive great answers; hell, there's even a badge for it. The yardstick of a great question is the ratio of great answers. Note that I say yardstick and not criteria; it's an heuristic, something that often provides great insight but isn't infallible.

A truly amazing question helps the craft not only by mentioning a popular or thought-provoking topic that other developers can relate to, but also by challenging and persuading readers to make their answers count, to think before posting and really make sure that the message matters and will have a real impact.

Some people are gifted teachers, or just very meticulous in their reading and writing; they have an uncanny ability to distill the pure essence out of impure questions and reflect it back in a genuinely enlightening and often entertaining answer. However, as Shog points out in a comment, that talent is at least partially wasted because the original question remains in its raw, unedited, unclear, unfocused form.

I've noticed that many people have a lot of sincere difficulty maintaining separate mental scorecards for questions vs. answers. This even permeated the Stack Exchange dev team and we ended up with answers protecting questions from community deletion. What's interesting is that most people have no trouble identifying the reverse situation - it's somewhat common to see highly-upvoted questions with only low-voted answers - but most of the time, question scores seem to get lifted up by answer scores, and even if they don't, the questions still get labeled as "valuable" in meta discussions such as this one.

This has the potential to over-credit the question authors. Certainly, if a question has but one answer and that answer blows your mind, then probably the question itself was at least a little bit special. But if a question has 1 or 2 great answers amidst a sea of 50-100 crappy ones, then that doesn't really tell you anything at all about the quality of the question, other than the fact that it happened to be posted in the right place at the right time.

The former indicates a question that is difficult to answer, or has an authoritative answer (or maybe a couple of them). The latter indicates a question that anybody can answer which happened to catch the fleeting attention of a few of the more prolific contributors.

These answers are worth keeping, in both cases - but not at the expense of polluting the site tenfold with frivolity. The lower-quality questions have to be edited and, in many cases, have their answers cleaned up by moderators, before they become valuable questions worthy of continued attention. Otherwise, those great answers might as well just be archived as blog posts somewhere.

I don't think that the rules need to be simplified, and I think that they already are quite flexible. All of the history and context and discussion around question-asking here - the Six Guidelines, Real Questions Have Answers, the concentric circles now in the FAQ - they all boil down to the same essential concept, which is: Is this important to our community? That means more than just tickling our collective fancy - it implies that there is some gravity to the situation, a real problem that needs solving.

That is, to me, the First Principle of asking questions, here or anywhere else. All of the current guidelines around it are just the mathematical formulas, intended to save the less-thoughtful or time-starved students from having to work it all out themselves.

At the core, it really is simple; simple things get complicated because everybody tries to interpret them in the way that best serves their own interests. That's why our real-life codes of laws and regulations are so mind-numbingly detailed and specific; we're trying to minimize, if not eliminate, any room for (mis)interpretation. At least the FAQ isn't a bunch of dense legalese; it's just six guidelines and five counterexamples. If that's really too hard to understand, then all hope is lost.

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    if nothing else, we're getting pretty good at explaining it... meta.ux.stackexchange.com/questions/417/… Jul 11, 2011 at 3:55
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    This is solid gold, but coaxing every borderline question back from the brink with a lot of moderator hand-waving is not sustainable. Right now, the choice being presented is "Don't do anything and let the site degrade if that's what the community wants" or "Spend a lot of time polishing turds so they might be of some use in the future." Moderation is a bit more...moderate than that. We can't sit by and not act when necessary, and we can't be babysitters. The community needs to shoulder much of the basic moderation of the site: voting responsibly, not leaving junky answers, closing, etc.
    – user8
    Jul 11, 2011 at 4:54
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    Thanks for your contribution. Just a clarification: I don't want the rules to be flexible. I suggest that the moderator should be flexible in their application, in some case, not always. Just when it's appropriate. Not sure if "they already are quite flexible" means that in English.
    – user2567
    Jul 11, 2011 at 6:38
  • On the disconnect between the role of questions and answers: I often wonder if Quora got this particular aspect more right than us, since questions there can't be voted on, are little more than a sentence in many cases, and it's hard to tell who even asked them in the first place. It's very nearly an "answers only" environment.. which solves at least one of the issues listed above. Jul 12, 2011 at 5:36
  • @Jeff: Some incentive is probably needed for asking sufficiently-detailed questions in a technical environment (i.e. avoid the "it done broke" tar-pit), and on subjective sites it is at least an interesting way of highlighting the most important questions, but it is far from infallible. I don't think any existing engine gets this 100% right; I wonder if it's even possible given human nature.
    – Aaronaught
    Jul 12, 2011 at 18:28
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    this comic is a bit creepy and emo, but makes some interesting points nonetheless kiriakakis.net/aday.html Jul 12, 2011 at 18:51

Jeff responded to the bulk of this, so I'm just going to touch on a couple points that stood out to me.

I think we should measure how valuable a question would be before closing it, instead of applying rules blindly. That's the role of the moderators.

I believe it's better to close a good question too soon (and subsequently reopen it after review, of course) than to let a bad question stay open too long.

We don't apply rules blindly. We go by prior history of similar questions, existing flags and close votes, the site-specific rules established here (e.g. "'what language should I learn next' questions are off-topic"), and the network-wide guidelines.

When in doubt, moderator should request opinions like Mark Trapp did.

We do request opinions. Making a meta post for every case is not feasible, but we look for flags, close/reopen votes, and comments on the post. For most cases, there is no dissenting community opinion -- we see flags telling us a post doesn't belong, we review it, and then leave it open if the flags are wrong, let the community handle it from there, or close it. It is now possible for 10k+ users to disagree with a flag by marking it "invalid". We definitely take that kind of feedback into account.

We're always thinking about questions and evaluating their potential. We want to keep good content on this site and draw in more content like it.

The fact that you see some questions stay open even if blind adherence to the rules would see them closed proves that. There is an obvious correlation open questions and moderator answers on them -- we don't answer questions we know will get closed because it's poor etiquette.

We try to let through a reasonable mix of good quality topics that are useful and can teach a developer something. Jeff covered the emphasis on learning in his answer, so I'm not going to repeat that.

In closing, please flag, please vote, please comment. Please make meta posts if you feel a question stayed open or got closed by mistake, regardless of whether a moderator acted on it or not. Guidance from the community is invaluable and we all really appreciate having it.

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    Also of interest, is the new sliding window for close and reopen votes. Rather than all close/reopen votes expiring 4 days from their time of creation, they will only be 'popped off the stack' one at a time. So as long a question keeps getting 1 reopen vote every 4 days, it will eventually be reopened after 4 * 5 = 20 days. However, once the topmost close/reopen vote expires, the others will expire at the rate of 1 per day, since they're probably quite old by now and have no new vote to shield them from removal. Jul 9, 2011 at 3:29
  • @Jeff Atwood: I like this feature. I think it's smart.
    – Jim G.
    Jul 11, 2011 at 3:04

IMHO, all the questions above deserve to stay opened. With their answers, they are all very valuable for the vast majority of programmers and contribute to a better internet.

Define "valuable".

As I said in an earlier response, here is how we define the value of a question and answer at Stack Exchange:

Am I learning anything here?

More specifically,

  1. Can your peers learn anything from this question that will advance their professional career?
  2. Does this question address a real, actual problem your peers are facing?

The reason we suppress discussion and chatty stuff is quite simple: it negates learning.

At first [more conversations] looks like a positive thing, right? Over on FriendFeed people are telling me “we have more conversations.” That’s true, but the more conversations I got involved in the less I found I was learning.

I find I’m craving experts lately. People who build things. People who do things. People who make things happen. Tony Robbins, when he spoke at the Twitter Conference last month said that Twitter is his knowledge machine. He uses it to import great minds.

The thing is in the early days of a community having serendipity, which is what Facebook and FriendFeed’s forum features bring, make things a lot of fun. After all, it makes finding people who are like minded with you easier.

But eventually the experts (ie, people who are teaching you stuff) get drowned out and you are left with an experience that looks more like the magazine rack at a grocery store than a book shelf at Harvard.

Now, it's not that we hate fun, because we don't. Some fun is fine, so long as the focus is squarely on the learning. Fun is a great condiment like ketchup -- but there's a difference between french fries with ketchup, which are delicious, and chugging ketchup straight from the bottle, which is disgusting.

fries and ketchup quantity

Fun must always be subservient to learning.

If you are more interested in conversation than learning, you might be in the wrong place.

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    Valuable in the context of my post is, useful (now or in the future) to the majority of programmers. I agree with you. Q&A is not a place where you should have conversation.
    – user2567
    Jul 8, 2011 at 11:22
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    About learning: Example with job hopping. In my career, moving from project to project (2 per year on average) made me learn hugely faster than stagnating coleagues. All the other question provide programmers with important stuff to learn. In fact, I learn something new every day here, and also in closed questions.
    – user2567
    Jul 8, 2011 at 11:25
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    @pierre if you look at the 6 guidelines, those are all guiding people towards questions that provide answers others can learn something from. For example, long answers with examples, rationales, explanations, and shared experiences are useful. An answer of "we use a bee costume, it's hilarious!" is not. Jul 8, 2011 at 11:34
  • I can't argue with that either. I agree we should avoid questions/answers. My concern is about collateral damage: useful questions. Flexibility will avoid useful/valuable questions to be closed just because they don't match a set of rules/guidelines. That's my only point.
    – user2567
    Jul 8, 2011 at 11:39

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