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While this site has many people chanting the 'This is a Q+A site, not a forum' mantra, many of those users(and others) like to be 'User Detectives.' They search for relevancy between the current question being asked and previous questions or participation on other exchange sites.

For instance, I asked a general question about Capitalizing on a desperate employer during turnover. One of the answers was focused on the software industry based on the fact that I was a member of SO and Programmers even though I didn't mention an industry in the question.

Should this type of behavior be frowned upon? It can quickly derail a question when someone starts referencing outside information, especially since any connections are strictly speculative.

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  • 1
    Hi jmorc, can you show an example of what you see as the problem, for context? Thank you! :)
    – jmort253
    Nov 12 '13 at 20:41
  • 1
    Every SE site is a Q&A site, not a forum.
    – jcmeloni
    Nov 12 '13 at 21:42
  • Jmort253 and NickC are correct. Without a single example, I really can't comprehend the "abuse" that you're referring to.
    – Jim G.
    Nov 13 '13 at 0:50
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    I added an example to the post I assume is the source of the question.
    – jmac
    Nov 13 '13 at 4:07
  • Are you referring to this comment? > "@jmorc - so you're in Stack Overflow and Programmers. I take it from that you're an RN.". If so, I have two thoughts: 1. If you're offended by this, you can flag it and specify why you're offended by this. 2. Why are you offended by this?
    – Jim G.
    Nov 13 '13 at 13:06
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    There's a reason why many of that user's posts are heavily downvoted.
    – enderland
    Nov 13 '13 at 15:32
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    I don't think the asker is offended so much as just pointing out that the user isn't answering the question that was asked. It seems the answer was based on material in the users profile instead of material in the actual question.
    – jmort253
    Nov 14 '13 at 3:21
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    @JimG. I am most definitely not offended, and yes that instance is one of the things I'm talking about. However, when I asked my other two questions,one of our prominent users tried to make a connection between the two questions and HEAVILY edited my question to include their 'discovered' connection. In reality, the situations had happened at separate jobs and I was just trying to think of some general questions to ask so I could get rep. I've seen this type of cross-referencing happening a few other posts and jmacs answer actually gives a lot of insight to the situation.
    – jmorc
    Nov 14 '13 at 21:47
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    @jmorc: Ahhhh. I see. Please pardon my original misunderstanding.
    – Jim G.
    Nov 14 '13 at 22:07
  • I'm running into another issue on this axis. Someone has asked about managing a team, it doesn't mention software in particular but there are certain hints that it is. The OP lists SO and Programmers as other groups he frequents. My response is non-generic for a couple of reasons - one has to do with the metrics available from source control systems, the other having to do with the particular resistance of some people to actually writing code. I have no idea when or if edits will be made to the question that remove some industry specific information. Nov 25 '13 at 5:15
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Executive Summary

Information should be self-contained in the post. If someone wants to play detective and believes something they find is relevant to clarifying the scope of the question, they should do so via comment on the question and the question should be edited if that information is confirmed and useful.

Confession

I've been pretty bad at this in the past. I've used a user's profile to determine their age and refine an answer, and used a user's past post to make assumptions about their current question. These were bad things, and I really shouldn't have done them. So take this from a reformed contributor who now recognizes his own folly.

I'm not all bad though, I also use the same power of investigation to warn users that they may not be as anonymous as they think when asking.

The Appeal of the Forbidden Fruit

Following someone's profile in to the rabbit hole is easy, and digs up all sorts of stuff. With the growing size of the SE network, I can determine whether you like games, what your religion is, what programming languages you use (or don't use), and probably even get a good guess at your age and geographic location even if not in your profile.

Sometimes it is really tempting to focus on the specific situation rather than the general question (guilty) because it's just a lot easier to focus on your strengths than to take the time to generalize your experience. So if you can grab someone's age or location from their profile and start talking about that time you were 22 years old and working in Monrovia, Liberia, it feels like you're offering super specific advice and doing good. And that is awesome.

But it Causes Problems Long-Term

There are several issues with assuming information based on detective work.

The information may disappear

Users detach accounts or delete them, so whatever trail of breadcrumbs you followed may not exist in a year.

The question may not refer to a current personal situation

There are plenty of people who ask questions for friends, or who ask questions based on past events or events they have seen elsewhere. By using the user's information, you may be misreading the situation entirely.

The question is no longer self-contained

People come to this site through search engines which look at the title, body, and tags of a question. Our Google Overlords have not yet found out how to spider through all interconnected information on a user and make those inferences. So when someone stumbles on to a question about taking advantage of a crisis to get better salary, and see a summary of the tech market and why you can do better, they will likely be a wee bit confused.

And confusion is bad.

Proposed Solution

Doing detective work is fine. It may help you understand the person asking better, and give you a better idea of how you want to answer. However, before hitting that Post Your Answer button including that information, post a comment on the question asking if the information is appropriate for that question. If it is, then it can be incorporated in to the question as an edit, and everything becomes self-contained and relevant again.

If someone is posting based on details they dug up about you, and you don't think it is relevant in that case, just leave them a brief comment like:

It looks like your answer is focusing on the software industry, but I think this is a situation that can be found in almost any industry, so I'm looking for a more general answer. I appreciate the information, but could you please [edit] your question to make it industry agnostic?

Feel free to downvote it if it's not helpful because of the detail included.

Just remember that at the end of the day, your information is publicly available, and while it may hurt the quality of the site if questions and answers aren't self-contained, that doesn't mean these answers should be flagged unless they are abusive in some way. Feel free to downvote, but don't expect a lightning bolt to smite any user who uses the tools at their disposal to collect publicly available information on you.

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  • Thanks, this is great. It is all about keeping questions self-contained. I really should have expressed that in my original question.
    – jmorc
    Nov 15 '13 at 13:18
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Stack Overflow has a heavy influence on most of the sites in the Stack Exchange network. So it's only natural for some material to have a slight software bias.

Keep in mind though that -- even if someone doesn't answer the question as you like -- most people are genuinely trying to be helpful. However, if your question doesn't have anything to do with software, and you get an answer that doesn't answer your question, you could:

  • Leave a helpful comment, politely asking the answerer to re-read your question again and address the problem.

  • Downvote the post if it's not useful.

  • Upvote other posts that provide helpful information to move those posts to the top and push the unhelpful posts to the bottom.

Aside from that, as NickC mentions, we really can't ban people from looking at others' profiles. But in general, answers should take into account the material in the question, not what's in a user's profile.

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I don't think "should this be allowed?" is the right question. We aren't in the habit of categorically banning comment topics.

The right question is "is the behavior abusive?" If so, then it is never ok. Please flag or report abusive comments and we as moderators (or the Stack Exchange team) will take a look.

If you aren't talking about abusive comments, then I wouldn't really know what to address. Personally, I don't think there's a good reason to enforce artificial blinders on users of the community involved in answering a question.

Of course, if you have any examples of this and you aren't sure what bucket it fits in to, you are welcome to link to it here or flag it so we can take a look.

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Often the thrust of a question implies quite a bit of context. Aside from IT, there are talent shortages in the medical profession and in the oil and gas business in general and in petroleum engineering in particular. While the medical profession is 20% of the economy, it is relatively rare to have 'massive turnover' - the constraints on wage growth are severe. The skills collection isn't nearly as volatile as in IT. Similarly, the oil and gas business is tiny in comparison - a situation where 'everybody knows everybody' in the oil patch.

Someone trying to make a generic question may not realize how much baggage they're dragging into the conversation. For a 'stable company' to be losing employees at a serious clip means wage growth in the respective job market is substantial, this is most likely when demand is growing exponentially and supply is constant. I invite anyone to name the other professional specializations where this is occurring in the US.

Thus the question was raised: 'how did you know this was IT?'. Only at that point did I start poking around.

If someone spends a lot of time reverse engineering huge data files and obscure languages, their brains get used to spotting patterns. This gets reinforced by other events - I recall seeing the proposed development timeframes for the Airbus 380, Boeing Dreamliner, and 'healthcare.gov' and laughed out loud. These dates were driven by concerns that had nothing to do with bottom up engineering estimates, and everything to do with being able to close deals with customers or politicians. So I 'see' a lot of things in these questions that others don't, or that they do but choose to tune out. Anyone that thinks I'm making assumptions should challenge them. If I've made a bad one I'll back off.

In general, however, one can see clues scattered all over the place - language that suggests a poster is from Asia, spelling or syntax that looks European, corporate policy issues that one would only find in America. These impressions can be way off. If so, I can either discard the answer or edit it. However, in general I'll bring whatever I can find in context to the response.

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