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Unlike Stack Overflow, the answers here are not going to be as cut and dry, neither are the questions.

There seems to me to be no rhyme or reason as to why some posts are left on-topic and others are just shut down and put on hold as duplicate or off topic.

Duplicate IMO seems to be abused the most as the definition of "duplicate" is being interpreted very broadly to include everything from an actual duplicate to "vaguely similar".

Good questions, and good advice are getting kicked to the curb for what seems to me, at least, to be very arbitrary and in some case, petty reasons.

I think the cause of this is a lack of guidelines for what is, and what is not on-topic, and how similar something should be to be judged a duplicate.

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    I'm not sure the problem is as much a lack of guidelines, as it is the squishiness of the kinds of questions that are asked in this community. I suspect hundreds of guidelines could be written and we'd always feel that some posts are kept open when they shouldn't be, while others are closed when they should be kept open. I agree there isn't a lot of consistency. Assuming we want to close any questions at all (and we could discuss the merits of that), I think we just have to live with it and do the best we can. I know the Moderators try their best in a difficult job. – Joe Strazzere Mar 17 '16 at 17:02
  • @JoeStrazzere I'm sure you're correct. That said, if approximately 60-75% of the questions being asked are getting dumped, there is either a problem in moderation, or in the users. If that many users are asking that many poor questions then they should be kicked out. It that's not the problem, then the guidelines should be loosened. I agree, the questions ARE squishy to begin with, so IMO, moderation should take that into account. $.02 – Old_Lamplighter Mar 17 '16 at 18:48
  • @JoeStrazzere: ...Or the squishiness of the guidelines. ;) – Jim G. Mar 17 '16 at 23:02
  • Meta (and The Workplace Chat sometimes, though it goes in spurts of activity) is a great place to bring questions that seem unfairly closed/opened. – enderland Mar 18 '16 at 14:13
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    Three cheers for the moderators. I'm not one, but I've played that role, and I know how hard it is to draw a sharp line when reality is fractal. You know you're doing the job right when both sides of your face are equally splattered by the thrown tomatoes. – keshlam Mar 18 '16 at 15:52
  • @Keshllam, as have I. While being a moderator is not a popularity test, your effectiveness is not judged by how many people you irk either. – Old_Lamplighter Mar 21 '16 at 12:26
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There seems to me to be no rhyme or reason as to why some posts are left on-topic and others are just shut down and put on hold as duplicate or off topic.

Here are some of my thoughts.

In my experience, questions here that look on topic but are really not primarily fall into a few categories:

  • Rants. Asking for validation is not something a Q/A site can do. Those questions are not really constructive at all. The key is finding something to do that is constructive. This generally requires an attitude that is different, though, and one of the reasons those types of questions are hard to really keep on topic. Some examples of this sort of question that are the root question:
    • Is my coworker really as horrible as I think they are?
    • How do I tell my coworker they are an idiot
    • Why is everyone I work with horrible
  • Company specific. A fair number of questions are only answerable within the context of a current company.
  • Personal advice. This is probably the most controversial of the "why is this off topic?" types of questions. A lot of them look like "which job should I take?" or variants on "make a decision for me please." This seems on topic initially, but the fundamental problem is that no one can know all the priorities of the asker. We can only answer, "well this is what I would do" which is by definition an opinion.

Stack Exchange by design does not handle opinions well. The model supports answerable questions - not discussion or "here are my thoughts!" types of questions. If you look, one of the standard reasons is "primarily opinion based." This reason is universal across all of Stack Exchange.

Regarding duplicates, there will always be somewhat imprecise. Looking through the recent duplicates:

So of the last 9 duplicates (all that fit on the first page of results from this search only one of them seems to be too poor a duplicate close and that is primarily because the linked question isn't that great. That seems pretty good to me overall?

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I haven't run through the statistics, but the three most commonly closed questions are:

Duplicates

There are a lot of questions are almost identical to previously asked questions, or at least the context similar enough such that the previous answers would apply. I'd hazard a guess that questions about relieving letters would be the most common.

Legal questions

These questions clearly are asking for legal advice, which is obviously beyond the scope of this site for risk mitigation reasons (and is enshrined by Stack Exchange). While some ask for help on a particular regulation (which can be found easily enough with a quick Google search and are not off topic), most should be talking to a legal professional.

Advice on what to do

Many people have a choice of two paths. They can't decide, so they ask the Internet. How can we possibly know their situation, their aspirations, their goals in a few lines? They would be far better off talking to friends or family who know them.

The others

The other two close reasons are not so commonly used. Compared to the top three, they comprise only a minimal amount of closed questions.

What this all means!

Duplicates are almost always immediately obvious so. When the questioner is formulating their question, the suggested list of questions almost always would clearly indicate that the question has been asked before. Obviously, they are not paying attention to it.

For legal advice and advice on what to do, it's already clearly stated in the Help Centre that these are off topic. Without adding flashing red lights, I can't see how it can be any more obvious.

Summary

I believe that the guidelines are clear enough, however people simply don't read them. The reason so many questions are closed is because people are either not reading or ignoring the clear guidelines that are already there.

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  • If you crafted your response to be irksome and condescending, you succeeded. You completely ignored the points I raised and dropped in a canned response. – Old_Lamplighter Mar 18 '16 at 12:28
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    @RichardU it would be helpful for you to include questions you think were improperly closed and explain why you feel the closes were invalid. It is hard to really get what you are suggesting here because you are not really giving any context for your complaint - a list of closed questions with "here's why I think this should be reopened" would be a much better talking point. – enderland Mar 18 '16 at 13:57
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    Or talking points, plural; each example may actually be a different issue. – keshlam Mar 18 '16 at 15:48
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    "Duplicates are almost always immediately obvious so. When the questioner is formulating their question, the suggested list of questions almost always would clearly indicate that the question has been asked before. Obviously, they are not paying attention to it." - I disagree. I don't think it's a matter of naughty questioners. Human nature leads almost everyone to believe their question is just a bit different from the others, and deserving of individual attention. – Joe Strazzere Mar 19 '16 at 17:05
  • -1: @keshlam: Why would friends and family necessarily dispense better advice than "strangers on the Internet"? Do husbands give good advice to their wives when they ask, "Does this dress make me look fat?" Do parents give good advice after they've paid college tuition and their children ask, "What should I do with my philosophy degree?" – Jim G. Mar 20 '16 at 18:09
  • @Enderland I was as specific as the guidelines and that should have been immediately obvious </sarcasm> Or in less sarcastic terms. Why is it that only some of us are required to be mind-readers – Old_Lamplighter Mar 21 '16 at 12:30
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    @RichardU I don't understand why you think being condescending and intentionally hostile is helpful. None of us are mind readers, which is why I posted my first comment. "this place sucks, why are you closing everything?!" --> not useful. "I don't understand why these specific questions were closed?" --> useful. If you post a vague question with a vague complaint it should not be too surprising that you get vague, generic answers. – enderland Mar 21 '16 at 14:53
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    @enderland forgive me if I'm coming across as condescending. What I am is frustrated. I've asked about specific questions, which prompted me to write this one. What I've noticed is a trend. that trend being a majority of questions being closed. I asked if the guidelines could be more specific, and the response above was essentially that people are either too stupid to read them, or are deliberately ignoring them. This place does not suck. In fact I find it quite useful, as do the many people who come here. What I am trying to address is the fact that the closure rate is over 50% – Old_Lamplighter Mar 21 '16 at 15:41
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    @RichardU - "What I am trying to address is the fact that the closure rate is over 50% " This might be of interest: meta.workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/2038/… – Joe Strazzere Mar 22 '16 at 0:16
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To comment on duplicate questions specifically, I have often voted to close a question when the author has disagreed that their question is a duplicate. Often they are similar, but have some non-minor differences. You'll hear complaints that one is in India, the other in the US. One is a salaried job, the other part-time hourly. One has been at the company for 10 years, the other for 6 months.

While differences like these may change the questions somewhat, what matters is whether the answers change. If you can take the majority of the answers for one question and move them over to the other with only minor changes, then that question is a duplicate. So while two questions may seem vastly different to you, often the core issues at play are really the same.

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  • If you think questions can't have very different answers based on cultural context, you may be in for a future meeting with your company's diversity officer. – Old_Lamplighter Mar 21 '16 at 12:29
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    @RichardU It's not that questions can't have different answers based on cultural context, it's that cultural differences don't always mean the answers will be different. – David K Mar 21 '16 at 12:34
  • Perhaps, but would it really kill us to allow a little bit of latitude? – Old_Lamplighter Mar 21 '16 at 12:37
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I feel like we've only just had this discussion but I can't seem to find a meta thread. In short, guidelines are just that and especially on this site there is a lot of leeway. In the end it comes down to this:

  • is the question of interest to this community?
  • is it not obviously and clearly off-topic?
  • is it answerable?
  • is it well-written?

If at least the first 3 of these are true, then the question is highly likely to remain open or be reopened, even if arguments can be made for it being off-topic. If the last point is not true, indicating a lack of effort from the original poster or the need for copy-editing, then it's highly likely to be closed quickly, even if arguments can be made for it being on-topic.

Aside from that, I agree with Jane that the issue with new posters being unclear about the guidelines is that they either don't read them or don't care. Making them clearer is not going to have a net effect on off-topic posting stats.

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Advice on what to do

Many people have a choice of two paths. They can't decide, so they ask the Internet. How can we possibly know their situation, their aspirations, their goals in a few lines? They would be far better off talking to friends or family who know them.

I vehemently disagree in principle with this close reason for the reasons @Jane S. describes. I'd certainly back a proposal to remove this close reason.

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    Remember Stack Exchange's stated goal is to become a library of answers that will be of use to future readers. Even if we could tell one person what to do in these cases, the answer would be so specialized to them and their situation that its value in the longer term would be questionable. The usual recommendation, here as on many other SE boards, is to ask for techniques to help evaluate the options -- ask how to fish, not for a fish -- which has much higher value to the community, and arguably better value to the querant. – keshlam Mar 18 '16 at 5:18
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    @keshlam Recent questions closed as "off topic" were asking for how to fish and closed regardless. If you want to build a library, one of the criterion should be that if a book exists on the subject, there is already value. Unlike SO, any input we give here will be of the "softer" variety and not nearly as cut and dry – Old_Lamplighter Mar 18 '16 at 13:21
  • Specifics, please. There are other things that will make a question inappropriate, such as asking how to catch too specific a fish, or how to fish for moose, or how to chop down a tree with a haddock. ("Ni!" "Shhh!") – keshlam Mar 18 '16 at 15:47
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    And sometimes the right question is really whether one should be fishing at all. – keshlam Mar 18 '16 at 15:54
  • @keshlam: Why would friends and family necessarily dispense better advice than "strangers on the Internet"? Do husbands give good advice to their wives when they ask, "Does this dress make me look fat?" Do parents give good advice after they've paid college tuition and their children ask, "What should I do with my philosophy degree?" – Jim G. Mar 20 '16 at 18:08
  • Locals at least have all the facts, and are not constrained by the goal of trying to draw general advice from an overly specific case. If you want to ask strangers this kind of question, fine, but that isn't in SE's mission, and it can and should be politely directed elsewhere to a board which would welcome it and handle it better. – keshlam Mar 21 '16 at 6:02
  • @keshlam: Locals at least have all the facts: Definitely not. Does a teenage girl have all of the facts when her BFF tells her that her boyfriend is a jerk? – Jim G. Mar 21 '16 at 18:28
  • This is not a relationship forum. And the fact remains that some questions are simply better addressed either in the chat area, or on another part of the Internet. No system can be all things to all people, and SE has decided what it wants to be. – keshlam Mar 21 '16 at 18:32
  • @keshlam: OK. Does a husband have "all the facts" when his wife comes home from work and says, "My boss is a jerk."? – Jim G. Mar 21 '16 at 18:33
  • He has more. And the fact remains. – keshlam Mar 21 '16 at 18:35
  • I think it's less about knowing all the facts and more about knowing the person. If you are trying to decide between two different jobs, the answer will vary greatly depending on the person's personality, life experience, and job goals. There's no way that we can say which is a better choice, because we do not know the poster personally. That is the type of advice that only a friend or family member can give. And even if we could give that advice, it would be applicable to only that one person, and therefore not a good fit for the SE format. – David K Mar 25 '16 at 13:44
  • @DavidK: I disagree. Often, the nature of a relationship limits someone from being "Simon Cowell-honest" with another. Husbands usually know their wives very well. But the nature of a husband's relationship with his wife limits his ability to be honest with her when she asks "Does this dress make me look fat?" or "Do you think I'll be able to find a job with my philosophy degree?" – Jim G. Mar 25 '16 at 20:00

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