At last year's Summit Joel Spolsky gave a talk entitled "How to Have Nice Things" in which he described why there must be rules on content based factual sites and why the rules that exist on SE are the way they are. Although it is a bit long it might be nice to link to it somewhere on programmers.SE as we seem to get a lot of questions that violate these rules. Do you agree this should be linked to somewhere here and where would be best for this?

I think this closed questions page covers everything quite nicely, it lists the reasons a question can be closed and explains why, although I think Joel's explanation is helpful because it is an explanation of his reasoning and so is nicer to new users. The tour page does list some examples of bad questions but does not give an nice list of banned question types, the on topic page is good at explaining what this community considers on topic in detail but doesn't address the other types of question sthat will get closed, and the don't ask page is good but again is mainly examples rather than a list of types of questions and an explanation for the reasons behind the rules and why the rules exist.

I tagged this question as a discussion, do people think that putting the content in the list in the help/closed-questions post more prominently on the site might help with the number of questions that need to be closed? As a new user to the site I found it hard to understand the rules, there are indeed pages to help on the help/asking page but you can't get directly to that from the main page. Maybe nothing needs changing but I found it difficult so I thought others might too.

  • 1
    How do the Help Center pages like Tour, On Topic, Don't Ask, Behavior, Interesting Topics, How to Answer, and How to Ask not accomplish this? They don't link to the talk specifically, but what value would be added?
    – Thomas Owens Mod
    Jun 2, 2014 at 14:41
  • Also, note that some of the pages I linked to are editable on a per-site level. Others exist across all sites. Should specific things from this talk be mentioned on these pages? Are they lacking in clarity?
    – Thomas Owens Mod
    Jun 2, 2014 at 14:42
  • as far as I can tell, a much more detailed and thorough coverage of this topic than in that talk can be found at MSE: Closing changes: on hold, unclear, too broad, opinion-based, off-topic reasons, bye-bye to Too Localized. It was a very very large effort and referring 5-minutes brief intro to explain it just doesn't feel fair
    – gnat
    Jun 2, 2014 at 21:28
  • @gnat, fair enough but I was noting that on this particular SE there seems to be a lot of people who don't get it. Maybe it is because of the name and all the baggage that brings with it, or maybe we need a better way of conveying the information. Do more experienced members of the site think this isn't a problem? I understand a lot of work went into defining these rules for SE and linking to a 30 minute talk may not be the best way to solve this issue, but summarising long works that you want new people to understand is not necessarily bad.
    – Encaitar
    Jun 3, 2014 at 10:12

2 Answers 2


tl;dr People Don't Read.

The phrase "How to Have Nice Things" is a reference to the phrase "This is why we can't have nice things here." The phrase is supposed to describe what happens when new people come to your community who don't understand the social norms and become disruptive.

It goes something like this (example, for illustrative purposes. No farm animals were harmed):

  1. User posts subjective question on Stack Overflow.
  2. Community answers. Question is popular. Life is good.
  3. Another user posts a more subjective question.
  4. Dissent begins to emerge. Community says "Y'know, we really would prefer more substantial questions." Arguments ensue about what is considered "subjective."
  5. User posts "What should I name my cat?" Another user posts "Do you fart in the cubicle?"
  6. Subjective questions get banned outright.
  7. We're all sad.

This is what is meant by the phrase "This is why we can't have nice things here." People who have no regard for the community and its health come in and spoil it for everyone. It's equivalent to banning skates in the museum because ming vases get broken, even though some of us are really, really good at skating through the museum without breaking anything or hurting anyone.

Epilogue: The community regulars are accused of being mean, insular despots. The unwashed masses accuse the community of not being sensitive to their wishes. Riots ensue. Game over.

  • I agree with everything you have said here but you / long time members of programmers.SE think there is a problem with so many questions being closed as new members seem not to understand the rules. It is a complex area and maybe my ideas for solving it aren't good enough. I've also not been around long enough to know if the number of questions that break the rules I see here are actually a lot or if I just think they are.
    – Encaitar
    Jun 3, 2014 at 10:15
  • 2
    Off topic questions have to be cleared out of the way, but NOT via closure: 'The current closure system doesn't work. And it is not the limited number of votes. It is the reputation system that encourages people to answer instead of vote. ...every time you mention silly questions, you get the usual meta-nursing: "these poor babies in the woods deserve an answer too! Don't you have a heart?", which makes every proposal just sink in a quicksand of coddling...'
    – gnat
    Jun 3, 2014 at 16:12
  • @gnat: And therefore, I propose in meta that questions with vote -2 or below, and with 2+ closing votes, will result in no reps for the answer-writer, regardless of vote counts on the answer (i.e. reps are being withheld/suspended). Also, a popup dialog can give forewarning about this feature, so that anyone still wanting to write an answer will know what they're doing.
    – rwong
    Jan 23, 2015 at 20:59
  • @rwong if SE team ever dares to implement their own proposal for enhancing auto-deletion, most of this will likely be achieved auto-magically: "we dispense with the logic that preserves answers with 1 vote or an accept mark that will stay deletion at 9 days. Downvoted duplicates are also added to the mix..."
    – gnat
    Jan 23, 2015 at 21:05

There's nothing wrong with distilling great wisdom down into increasingly thicker, condensed concentrate. At some point, you finally lose all of the words that aren't absolutely essential to convey your point effectively and you're left with several powerful sentences that when concatenated, give users precisely what they need to 'get it' and avoid future mistakes.

A few years ago, Robert Cartaino wrote a bunch of stock replies to things that users frequently contact us to ask help for, and stock messages that moderators send to users for the typical reasons that users need to be contacted privately. Over the years, he's tweaked, twiddled, fiddled, folded and polished these relatively tiny bits of text to the point that they've become extremely effective. Adding bold to one or two words can sometimes make a world of difference, breaking down a sentence or moving a comma around can also dramatically change how well the message is understood. This isn't just casual observation, it's easy to see the number of times we need to actually reply to something go down as he's made changes.

As Robert Harvey indicates (and I can strongly attest to this after serving with him for over two years as a Stack Overflow moderator) - people simply don't read any more than they must. That's why it's important to make the first eight or nine words in copy that you show them count as much as possible.

There's a great deal of inspiration in what you're talking about, the thing to do in my opinion is to take it, then work on refining extremely sharp paragraphs into tools to help new users learn the ropes. The custom close reasons are a start at that, as is everything in the help center, however there's still plenty of room for tweaking, twiddling, fiddling and folding in order to get that healthy vitamin "P" concentrate that we want.

In fact, a community should occasionally declare open season on its custom help center / close reason / meta FAQ copy - I've never ever seen it get worse due to more (and fresher) eyeballs landing on it and editing. You can lead that charge here on meta if you're so inclined.

tl;dr; - We need to reduce what we show them, and make it count even more. I know that's a lofty goal and what we have is good copy, it could just be more effective.

  • in the talk, Joel mentions "constant learning" (can't guarantee exact wording from memory, and can't re-check, as talk loads veeery slowly to me today)
    – gnat
    Jun 3, 2014 at 13:54

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