18

The line between on-topic and off-topic questions has always been on the soft side here. As time goes on, we seem to get further and further away from a concrete line or simple definition of what is on-topic. As a result, I feel like the quality of questions might be slipping. I think that by being more firm about what is on-topic, we can clean things up a bit and improve the quality of questions.

I'd like to propose a simple one-question test for any question, new and old on the site:
Is your question about using a specific web application?

Note that our FAQ says:

What kind of questions can I ask here?

Web Apps - Stack Exchange is for expert and advanced users of web applications. If your question generally covers …

  • Using Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Google, or any other website which behaves like an application

  • Bookmarklets

  • Browsers and their features relating to the use of a web application (Greasemonkey scripts for a web application, etc)

So, our FAQ already mentions that an on-topic definition of using web applications. It then goes on to mention an on-topic definition of using [specific popular web application]

Thinking about this issue made me think of something I used to say at my old job. I was a web developer and as such, supported the internal, intranet applications I developed. However, I would get general internet questions, browser questions, anything. If it related to the web, people thought it was a question for the Web Dev department. We had to tell people that we don't support the entire internet. I think this relates here. Make your question specific to a specific web application. If your question is general in such a way that it is asking about the entire internet, it is probably not a good question for our site.

Note that this also includes recommendation questions. "Is there a web application that lets me view when the stars align in the right formation such that I'll win the lottery?" is not a question about using a specific web application. It is asking about something that may exist in the entire internet. We don't support the entire internet.

Obviously I'd like to get some feedback on this. I think it could be a very clear guideline for creating new questions, as well as closing questions.


Examples of existing questions that I'd propose closing because they ask about the entire internet:

There are also questions about alternatives. These tend to be either incredibly subjective and vague, or incredibly specific to a user's needs (if they bother to specify).

Now, a case can be made that recommendation questions can be specific and thusly the category should be allowed. Jeff's question, Web video sharing service with "fair use" protection? is used as an example for this. Look at some of the answers it got though (out of 11):

  • Put it on your own server.
  • Vimeo is a good choice.
  • I would try MetaCafe or Dailymotion.
  • Why not use blip.tv?

So even though the {since deleted} question has details in it, the underlying question is still:

Where can I host a video of what I believe to be a fair use 1 minute excerpt of a movie without it constantly being at risk of being pulled?

...which is still attracting a high percentage of bad answers.

Yes, it is a good chunk of the questions we get. Are these the kind of questions we want though? The examples I pulled are from the first page (50) of /questions sorted by activity. When someone first comes to the site, are these the questions that give a good impression of the site and draw users in?

Is there a way we can keep these questions but still improve the quality? I am all ears.

  • I don't know enough about web apps to make an educated answer here. As a kind of policy and for what it helps defend against (especially against theoretical app requests), it sounds good to me. But are web apps vastly different enough from each other that "general" web app questions (perhaps by category or by function) end up too low quality or devolving to a basic "it depends"? That's what I'd put in front for thinking. – Grace Note Dec 28 '10 at 15:09
  • @GraceNote, do you have an example of the type of question you're referring to? – Rebecca Chernoff Dec 28 '10 at 15:23
  • No, I do not have an example, and I'm not sure any good example exists, which is my thought pattern. Every question I can conceive is either a rec, is very poor/vague/broad, or would probably have the best answer being so "It depends" that it would've been better to ask it about a specific app in the first place. Largely reinforcing your policy, as it were. – Grace Note Dec 28 '10 at 15:26
  • How does this jive with the apparent current definition (here) that a web app is anything you can reach with a browser? Suddenly "how do I find a page on Penny's Pony Page that has nothing but pink ponies" is much more on-topic than "I need a substitute for drop.io". – ale Dec 28 '10 at 18:18
  • @AlEverett, Current policy kind of seems to be anything goes. I'm looking to change that, clarify things, improve the quality of questions. "I need a substitute for drop.io" questions are generally vague and subjective. Not good questions in the first place. – Rebecca Chernoff Dec 28 '10 at 19:08
  • Could you provide exemplary questions that you would like to ban? – Ivo Flipse Dec 29 '10 at 17:37
  • We're having the same sort of problem at Android. One thing I've suggested is that if the question can't be phrased as "How do I..." it's probably off-topic. – ale Dec 30 '10 at 1:22
  • I think I need some specific, existing examples of the questions that would be disallowed under this new regime. – Jeff Atwood Dec 30 '10 at 4:39
  • @JeffAtwood, examples added. If we can figure out a way to keep the questions but still keep the site high-quality, that's great. Is that working though? – Rebecca Chernoff Dec 30 '10 at 6:09
  • Note: Most/all of the examples have been closed or removed. – Michelfrancis Bustillos Mar 15 '16 at 15:37
5

One of the problems Web Apps has, in contrast to Super User, is that there's often little room for tweaking a Web App.

  • Want a different theme for Firefox? Download it.
  • Want to support some weird language in Notepad++? Install a plugin.
  • Can't play a certain video format? Install the codec.

Now explain me how to play your unsupported file format on Youtube. Or how to change the way Facebook looks.

What does this have to do with the problem at hand? Well if the site were limited to only the popular Web Apps, there would only be so many questions you can ask about how to perform a certain task in Gmail, Twitter or Facebook. On top of that, these sites tend to be fairly usable, rendering most questions regarding on-site navigation superfluous.

However, our computer-savvy audience is used to tweaking their computer to suit their needs and expect this also to be true in the world of Web Apps. But here's a newsflash: unless you know how to work with a Web Apps-API (if available) more often than not, this is not possible! Asking for features to be added to a product is a feature-request, not a question.

But what does this have to do with the problem at hand? Well all those recommendation questions are essentially users asking for their browser to do things for them they currently can't do. And they need to stop doing that!

So how does this help @Rchern with her problem? Well let's take Jeff's question as an example:

Where can I host a video of what I believe to be a fair use 1 minute excerpt of a movie without it constantly being at risk of being pulled?

Obviously Youtube doesn't let him do it, so he starts asking where can I host it then? Well the 'where' makes it very open ended, he doesn't supply us with any guidelines other than that it should not be pulled. That opens up a can of worms when it comes to answering, as nearly any web app that hosts video's might suffice, but that's obviously not what he's after. The question should have been:

Which video hosting service does not pull Fair Use content?

Then only answers that show some proof of the fact that they allow Fair Use content could be given as an answer, all others should be deleted as noise.

Ok, so what's your point? The problem is not the scope, but the goal of the question. 'In the early days' of Super User, if I wanted to answer a question I would Google for a solution, try out the program if necessary and answer the question. I can browse to any site and have an expert-look around the UI to see if I can figure out how something is working. What I can't do is make sites do things they can't do and that shouldn't be the purpose of Web Apps either.

These feature-requests should be closed as 'Not a real question' or any other close reason that will be created for it and explicitly discouraged in the FAQ.

  • 1
    Interesting points, however, there are two things you need to consider: workarounds available in webapps to perform the same feature (especially in complex webapps), and user scripts. – Senseful Dec 30 '10 at 14:37
  • Sure @Senseful, there are always exceptions. But currently they are the rule rather than the exception – Ivo Flipse Dec 30 '10 at 15:01
4

Thinking about this a bit more, perhaps these questions are really shopping recommendations ala Super User, or "what game should I play?" recommendations ala gaming.stackexchange.com? In that sense, they inherit the known problems of these types of "recommend me a .." questions in that they are speculative, and we have to guess what your intentions and expectations are unless they are spelled out in some detail.

To me, part of the problem with the internet (and thus, this particular site) is that its surface is so impossibly large. I proposed a Facebook site, for example, instead of this site in its current form. Not because I love Facebook, quite the opposite, but because I was afraid of a site scoped to "the entire internet" for the exact reasons you list.

The set of "computers you could buy" from Super User or "[current] videogames you could play" from Gaming is incredibly tiny relative to every website that exists on the internet.

Thus, these questions seem navigational in form and not necessarily of the known problematic "recommend me a ..." form -- so they are, I think, relevant to this site in its current incarnation. The original popular web browser was Netscape Navigator for a reason; how do you navigate something so large without a guide?

  • 1
    I admit, I'm a bit confused about whether you agree or disagree with my proposal / a change in general. I was afraid of a site scoped to the entire internet for the exact reasons you list. seems to be in support of it. So they are, I think, relevant to this site in its current incarnation. seems to favor leaving things as is? – Rebecca Chernoff Dec 30 '10 at 6:51
  • 1
    @rchern I view these questions as inevitable. What's your most common tag? – Jeff Atwood Dec 30 '10 at 6:57
  • Until recently, [webapp-rec]. Probably still would be if it was on all the questions it should be on. So where's the happy medium? – Rebecca Chernoff Dec 30 '10 at 7:15
  • The more I look at it, facebook has its own self-sustaining Q&A section facebook.com/help even a leaderboard facebook.com/help/?section=leaderboard – phwd Jan 3 '11 at 19:12
4

Drop the questions that are asking you to compare, recommended and otherwise shop for a service or website since they're just pile-ons.

Just because they're not fronting up some cash dollars doesn't mean they're not shopping for something. These sites work best when you have a problem and need it fixed.

They get a whole lot hairy and a waste of time when they devolve into:

Play to the strength of the Stack Exchange platform and don't pander to the weakness just because people can't be bothered asking some other more appropriate forum where they get it everyday because nobody bothers to search and the information is dated as soon as last week.

Or get a moderator that will be the public face of backlash to go through smashing these on sight. It worked so well for Super User.

2

Increase the frequency of questions we want on the site (four mods (2-3 questions posted each) ~10 med to HQ questions per day).

Edit where possible , down vote without looking back.

Upvote users on the right track as we need more users with privileges.

The only thing needed now is some sort of incentive for wiki (recommend me) questions.

Maybe half the rep of a normal post.

Or proportional sharing of points.

i.e. 4 users 68%, That way users who contribute actively get the points awarded and it becomes some sort of edit competition in the sense.

  • I'm not sure I can successfully parse your first sentence, can you explain it? – Rebecca Chernoff Jan 2 '11 at 18:24
  • 1
    @rchern The more great questions there are the more users will realize the questions you mentioned above don't belong. If the more proactive users post one or more questions per day we can at least weed out these questions from the active page. (big if because it is hard to come up with questions when we are not looking for an answers) – phwd Jan 3 '11 at 0:25
1

I think there is some value in webapp recommendation questions for the following reasons:

  • There's no other place in the stackexchange network where you can use the experience of other users to find webapps.
  • Webapps are much more common than software and finding them on a search engine can be really difficult.
  • Some recommendation questions are very detailed and have real value, but under your proposed definition would be off topic.
  • I'm afraid we might lose some of our audience if we ban these questions.

I would recommend that these questions should be on-topic on a site like meta or a third site for the following reasons:

  • They aren't about a specific webapp, but are related to webapps in general (thus fitting the meta aspect).
  • You don't get rep on the main site from these questions.

Things to consider:

  • We want to encourage questions of this nature to be detailed rather than "is there a webapp that does x".
  • We probably don't want to pollute the meta site with these questions. Any suggestions as to where they should go?
  • 6
    We shouldn't allow questions here simply because there's nowhere else to ask them. Sites have on-topic definitions for a reason. That question might be detailed, but the other 99% are not. The meta site is for questions about the Web Applications site. Recommendation questions absolutely do not belong on the meta sister site. – Rebecca Chernoff Dec 28 '10 at 19:23
  • 1
    I must agree with @rchern. Just because there's nowhere else doesn't mean we have to accept them here. Start an Area 51 proposal - someone from gaming did for gaming recommendations – ChrisF Dec 28 '10 at 19:38
  • Now we have Software Recommendations :) – Rubén Dec 2 '17 at 17:05

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