2

It's drummed into anyone on Stack Exchange if you've been here long enough. Something along the lines of:

If you've never used a site before, check the site's scope on the help page and ask on meta if you're unsure before posting a question.

Right now we don't really have content that's useful on our help pages (something we should work on) and we're still really determining our scope - that's what the beta period is for (among other things). One of the best ways of determining scope is to post questions and see what the community thinks of them - do they get closed or do they stay open.

As such, at our current state of being only two months into existence, how should we address questions that ask about whether a subject or area of questioning is on topic or not?

Some examples:

These questions so far haven't been asked with great regularity but they do get asked and, often, not really answered. What should we do when these questions are asked here?

For the purpose of this discussion, we're talking only about questions that have not yet been asked on the main site. Someone asking "why was my question closed" is not what I'm asking about here. (yes, I know that the last example was asked on the site but it was asked after the meta post was made).

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    Dont really know why people bother with the help center. The only people who use it are those who already have experience with SE. – user288 Aug 30 '17 at 0:03
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    I'm not really sure what the point of that comment is... if people who use SE actually use the page... well, that makes it useful and worth keeping updated ... but that isn't what this question is about, so... – Catija Aug 30 '17 at 0:06
8

I'm a mod at Literature, and one of the things we struggled with is that early on in the site's history, people had a very narrow conception of what types of questions could successfully be asked and answered. People were writing all sorts of posts on meta, and writing all sorts of messages in chat, arguing about what sorts of questions should be on-topic or off-topic. And people, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, came to the conclusion that various sorts of questions should be off-topic.

Then of course, people asked those "off-topic" questions (remember: no one reads meta), and it turned out that they could be answered successfully and that they had a place on the site.

Questions are closed because they can not or should not be answered. The interface for closing questions gives five reasons for closing questions: a question is a duplicate, a question is opinion based, a question is off-topic, a question is unclear, and a question is too broad.

These close reasons were not chosen arbitrarily. Rather, the history of Stack Exchange is in part a history of learning what questions work, what questions do not, and modifying the close reasons accordingly. These close reasons were chosen because the Stack Exchange community learned, through experience, that these questions would not work.

You could have some conversations on meta and arbitrarily, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, determine that entire classes of questions should be off-topic. Of course, only a small percentage of people who use the main site read meta, so you'll be excluding a huge portion of the membership from the decision process. And you'll run the risk that maybe some of the questions you exclude are actually great questions.

The other option is to actually ask the questions and see how they work in practice. If they don't work, well, you have close votes and should know how to use them. And when you do make a policy about closing questions, you'll have the advantage of knowing that it's the right policy, because you have data to back it up. And if they do work, then congratulations, you added another great question to the site. And because closing questions is a main site feature, you won't be excluding everyone who doesn't visit meta from the decision process.

I personally prefer the second process. But eh, it doesn't really matter in the end. If you go with the first process and write a bunch of meta posts, those questions will still be asked again, because no one reads meta. But then you'll have to go through the process of closing the question, and maybe some people, on seeing an example, will change their mind, and other people who haven't read the meta post might disagree with said meta post. So then it will turn out that the meta post is useless and doesn't actually reflect what happens on the site, and you'll have to write a new meta post to reflect the new consensus, and you'll find yourself wondering why you went through all the trouble of writing the old meta post that wasn't even based on any sort of evidence.

The moral here is: don't waste your time writing meta posts about hypotheticals. Have actual data first.

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Yes.

And then discuss them and edit them.

Gentle reminder that the most-used reference for what is on-topic here are the questions that folks encounter on the site: what they find in Google, in the Hot Network Questions list, in scanning the homepage.

If folks mostly see questions that represent topics they want to ask about, they'll ask more of them. So if those aren't topics (or styles of asking) that y'all want, get rid of them. If you're not sure, the only way to know is to try it & see...

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This site is young and has only a few hundred questions. Conversations about scope do better when there's some actual data or at least experience to work with, so being able to see how actual questions in that area actually progressed is useful. Therefore, usually we should encourage people to just ask.

That said, there are a few cases where I've found meta discussions about scope to be helpful:

  • After a few questions in that area have been asked, as a way of refining (or ruling out) a particular area. Questions in this category might be "is X on-topic" but usually end up being about boundaries -- X is ok if the question does A and B but not if it does C, etc. On The Workplace, law-related questions have gotten this treatment -- we don't do legal advice and we can't interpret your company's policies, but questions about the law, if they are things that we would reasonably expect an HR person to know, are ok, as are questions that involve applying the law.

  • As an analysis of a single question. These might take the form "how can we make this question fit" or "why is this question closed" or, sometimes, "why was question X closed when question Y is open". While the meta question is about a particular (main) question, sometimes it also ends up being about scope definition.

  • Before asking a question that would require a lot of effort to ask. For example, a properly-asked question on topic X might require a lot of explanation, or bringing relevant sources, or investigating the situation further to verify key facts. I once asked an "is X on-topic here?" question because I knew somebody else who would be interested in participating if so; I myself did not have that type of question.

We should encourage people to just ask. We should help askers if they ask for help, including on meta.

Both meta and chat are good ways to get help formulating a question before posting on main and attracting answers (that would then make editing harder). I've seen successful meta posts asking for help refining a question, and I've also seen chat be used for this. I think it's way premature to create a sandbox here, but that doesn't mean meta and chat can't be used for sandboxing.

Bottom line: if you're ready to ask the question (but just don't know how it fits site scope), ask it on main so we can use it to help answer that scope question. If you want help formulating a question, ask for help on meta (or in chat). If scope discussions do happen on meta, that's ok too.

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A question sandbox will mostly solve this problem.

Regardless of how well defined our scope is, or what our help pages say, users are still going to come to meta with a "how do I ask this question?" Or "can I ask this question?"

Now we can tell them they're not allowed to do that and they'll do it anyway...

Or we can make a space for it, where users can get a little feedback before dumping it on the main site. A sandbox seems like a win win situation. New users get some guidance, and we divert some of the noise and closures.

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    We need these discussions of topicality to happen somewhere obvious and visible and we need them to stick around for years to come. Sandboxes are designed to make short term, specific question content decisions about questions that are already known to be on topic and are generally deleted afterwards. Throwing away discussion about what is and is not on topic is wasteful. – Catija Aug 30 '17 at 1:07
  • @Catija True, but when the post is about getting feedback on a specific question a sandbox is a little more practical. When more interesting discussions turn up there it's easy enough to escalate to a new meta post. – apaul Aug 30 '17 at 1:10
  • @Catija Wouldn't it make as much sense as posting on main, having the question disputed in comments and then moving it to a meta post? – apaul Aug 30 '17 at 1:12
  • None of the three examples I listed are asking for help writing the question. We have one of those here and I intentionally excluded it because it is the sort of question I think belongs on a sandbox. It's better for the site that we get questions asked first on meta and point them towards a sandbox than to risk discussions about scope in the sandbox, which is part of why I think it's a bit premature to set one up. So many important discussions haven't been had yet. – Catija Aug 30 '17 at 1:15
  • If the questions are accepted by the community without a meta post, there's no reason to discuss it. Right now it's difficult to judge what will and won't work here. – Catija Aug 30 '17 at 1:16
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    @Catija If, as you said, So many important discussions haven't been had yet, why would we want to discourage those same discussions by encouraging users to simply post on the main site when the topicality of their question is in doubt? – Chindraba Aug 30 '17 at 1:32
  • @WitanapDanu Because open acceptance of them on Main is the discussion. If everyone thinks they're a good fit, they will stay open and there's no reason to whitelist them. We need to focus on blacklists, not whitelisting. If a question is closed on main and we have a discussion about why it was closed, that is valuable. Further, if we start to see a pattern of questionable questions, then we should bring it to meta. – Catija Aug 30 '17 at 1:33
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    @Catija As I understand your question, we would be dealing with existing users of SE (or they wouldn't have had it drummed into their heads yet), not a new user to SE. We are also dealing with someone who understands on-topic/off-topic concepts, who has read the help center (for whatever value it may have), and who had reviewed the site and still is unsure if their question is on topic. Said user, going by what has been drummed in by other sites, goes to Meta and asks about the topicality of their question. These are the users you would tell to "just post it and we'll see if it flys".? – Chindraba Aug 30 '17 at 1:40
-3

No, I do not think we should encourage users to "just ask" on the main site when they are unsure if it is on topic. I think asking in meta before hand is a good habit to instill in users.

At this time we are still refining what actually is in topic. Asking the question on the main site first usually won't cause any issues. The same is true on an established site as well. Where it can differ for a new site is when the active users have not considered the subject area well yet. Then it is possible for a question to get rapid up votes and rapid close votes. This leaves the OP in confusion and does not help define the site scope.

If the questions are proposed in Meta first, the active users can be addressing the topicallity of the question rather than the question itself. Up and down votes are now obviously connected to the yes and no of the topic without the vote-worthiness of the question getting into the mix. On Meta the topic can be discussed relative to the site scope without confusing the OP on whether or not the question, as asked, is too broad, too opinion-based, or just poorly worded, etc.

On Meta the active users, and the OP if so inclined, can debate the subject area, and maybe help the OP refine, or refocus, the question to better determine its 'subject' and find a way to make it for the scope when, as written, it wouldn't.

In addition, urging users to skip that step now will set a precedent, and a habit, which will be hard to reverse when the site does have a well defined scope. Stick to the guidelines now, when they may not be needed, and they will be easier to follow, and enforce, once they are needed.

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    How can we decide whether something is on topic or not if we don't know the actual question? Two of the examples I listed asked about general topicality without stating a specific question. Dozens of new question types and subjects are already asked on main without ever asking if it's on topic on meta first. Why punish someone who bothers to check first? – Catija Aug 30 '17 at 1:11
  • @Catija In response to your question I gave an answer. In re the samples sited: they seem to have been well received in Meta, and answered appropriately. Hence, it would seem that the system does work. In re your comment Why punish someone who bothers to check first?, I don't see any punishment of anyone for using either system, so I'm lost on what you mean there. The question said nothing about discouraging or preventing new topics on the main site without being vetted in Meta first, only if the site should encourage users to not ask on Meta first. – Chindraba Aug 30 '17 at 1:25
  • Not really sure what you mean by building a habit. The people who are going to ask offtopic questions will mostly be new to the site. Any habit you build among people who are already here will not apply to the people who are going to ask the bulk of the offtopic questions. – user288 Aug 30 '17 at 1:29
  • The third question was never answered and the main question was asked within 10-20 minutes of asking the meta one. The first question was asked today and answered around the same time as it was asked on main... likely not in response to the answer... Monica's answer does a great job of explaining why I've asked this question. – Catija Aug 30 '17 at 1:30
  • @Catija The 3rd Q was answered, in comments. Then the OP posted. The 1st Q was answered, and the OP posted a comment linking to the main question after asking it. The 2nd Q was answered, but never advanced to main (yet anyway). Where's the broken system to fix? – Chindraba Aug 30 '17 at 1:50

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