Help me give more helpful answers on AskMefi February 3, 2009 3:54 PM   Subscribe

How can I answer Mefi questions more helpfully?

It seems to me that there tend to be a lot of unhelpful answers on Mefi. Not to complain, because there are loads of wonderful, helpful people here, and because I know I'm guilty myself. I would simply like to think about how I could be more helpful and not clutter up threads with unnecessary or annoying answers. The guidelines mostly cover how to ask questions, not how to answer them. I'm trying to look at all the things that make an answer annoying and unhelpful, so I can avoid it myself (and I know I've been guilty in the past and probably will again once in a while in the future despite my efforts).


For instance, if someone asks:

I'm on the Snoogily Donglewonk Diet and I heard it's good to do low intensity exercise when you're on this kind of diet. Is there any data on how much I should exercise? I don't have time to do more than an hour a day.

I imagine some of the answers will be as follows:

1) Unsolicited advice (by far the most annoying and also the most common annoyance).
My brother's cousin's aunt's friend's chiropracter's goldfish didn't have success on this diet. Don't do that diet!

I know there are some instances where this might be appropriate, for instance if someone is going to unknowingly do something dangerous or illegal, but most of the time it is just annoying and derailing. I understand the urge, though!

2) Haven't read the whole question.
Try doing two hours a day.

3) Not even trying to help.
If you didn't want to get fat, you shouldn't have eaten so many cupcakes LOL!

4) Guesses from those who have no more information than the asker (when the asker was seeking information rather than ideas or opinions).
I never heard of the Snoogily Donglewonk Diet, but half an hour a day, I guess?

5) Claims that the question is not valid.
Why are you worrying about your weight? Just accept it.

So those are the kind of responses I am going to make every effort not to make myself, which I can also use in situations outside Mefi. What other kinds of responses should I avoid making? Please don't link to examples or mention usernames. No naming and shaming, please! Please!
posted by giggleknickers to Etiquette/Policy at 3:54 PM (150 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

ProTip: Not every question needs to be answered by you. So if you don't know the answer, or you're not reasonably certain that if you received that answer, it would be helpful to *you*, move on.

It's really that simple, in my opinion. I know it is. Because if I didn't have the answer, I wouldn't have said anything.
posted by mudpuppie at 3:58 PM on February 3, 2009 [28 favorites]


Yeah, you don't need to answer every, or even any, question. Open-ended stuff like "what's a good book about bottles?" you can pretty much say anything, but specific questions like "what was the name of that book about bottles?", if you haven't a clue, it's easiest to keep schtum.
posted by turgid dahlia at 4:01 PM on February 3, 2009


6. Any jokey reply that ends with "sorry, couldn't help myself ;)"
7. Snark, esp snark masquerading as helpfulness
8. "Can I hijack this thread and ask....?" (rarely okay, usually not okay)
9. Calling the person who asked the question or their friends/family idiots
10. Arguing with other posters in the thread about something not on the topic of the original question.
11. giving anecdotes when data is asked for and vice versa

It's tough though because, when done right some sorts of replies are okay.

- "I read an article that says that you shouldn't do exercise at all when you're on that diet so maybe you got bad information."
- "That diet has been shown to cause extreme irritability in mice, how did you decide it was right for you?"
- "Soandso suggested above to do high intensity workouts three times a week but I tried that and I had a bad reaction, so you may want to change your workout routine"
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:02 PM on February 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


Answer less questions? Works for me.
posted by dead cousin ted at 4:07 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Remember:

It's not about you.

Although many of us read AskMe as an odd form of entertainment, for the asker of the question it is usually a much more pragmatic pursuit. They have a question, they want a correct or useful answer. If you don't have that, or somebody has already said what you have, move on.

If the question states that something is off limits, consider it so (i.e no "I know you said you couldn't do _____, but I really think you should reconsider)
posted by davey_darling at 4:08 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


There are a lot of people who seem to feel the need to answer everything.
Read it all, go ahead, knock yourself, but Jesus, please consider whether you have something genuinely helpful to add before posting.
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:11 PM on February 3, 2009


If you don't know what you are talking about due to direct experience or training with the issue at hand....please. don't. answer. The medical answers in AskMe are generally so horrifically off base that I won't even get involved if there are already more than two or three replies that completely miss the point. That segment seems to invite far more speculation and skylarking than any other part of Ask, though we have debated ad nauseum why that is.
posted by docpops at 4:14 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


12. Suggesting shovelglove / The Arcade Fire / quinoa / etc because any time there's a remotely-related Ask, you go and make your favorite hobby horse suggestion.

Example:
Question: I'm looking for movies that speak interestingly about either film-as-art or film-as-moviemaking.
Answer: Spinal Tap, they're in character LOL
posted by 0xFCAF at 4:15 PM on February 3, 2009


If the question states that something is off limits, consider it so

This is usually right, but sometimes I think honesty is the best policy.

For example, consider a question like this:

Dear AskMe,

Every time I wash the dishes, my sister will find one that she claims is still dirty and smash it over my head. How can I get better at washing dishes? Please limit your answers to that issue.

xo,

Person who may benefit from being told that they do not deserve to be abused, even though this doesn't answer their question.

posted by prefpara at 4:16 PM on February 3, 2009 [5 favorites]


With no offense intended:

MeFi: 0 posts, 1 comment
MetaTalk: 1 post, 0 comments
Ask MeFi: 26 questions , 75 answers
Music: 0 posts, 0 comments, 0 playlists
Projects: 0 posts, 0 comments
Jobs: 0 posts


You can vary your interests a bit, you know.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:27 PM on February 3, 2009


You can vary your interests a bit, you know.

There's seriously no value whatsoever in suggesting people comment on the blue unless they actually want to. We already have enough people there telling us how little they care about any given FPP topic.
posted by 0xFCAF at 4:40 PM on February 3, 2009 [15 favorites]


Help me give more helpful answers on AskMefi make better MetaTalk posts.
posted by fixedgear at 4:41 PM on February 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Personally, I think "out of band" answers are perfectly appropriate or at least can be. The asker may have made incorrect assumptions, have a poor mental model or be looking at the issue from the wrong angle. Prefpara's example is a good one. Another one is this very thread right here. You asked how to give better AskMe answers, some people are telling you not to sweat it. Presumably this advice will not be deleted by a mod (although given the experience I've had in AskMe, I wouldn't guarantee that).

The way to limit this kind of answer is not to ban them, it's to give more information in the question. For instance, in your sample question, why IS the person worrying about their weight? Is it a health issue or a looks one? Do they just feel like they should exercise because of peer pressure or are they excited about getting into it? Depending on the answers to these issues (which aren't in the original statement) "just accept it" could well be a good answer.
posted by DU at 4:49 PM on February 3, 2009


All answers should end with the word "shitfaced."
posted by Dumsnill at 4:57 PM on February 3, 2009


From my experience I would say the single most aggravating mistake is not reading the question. For example, I ask, "I'm lloking for new cookie recipes. I love nuts, but I don't like chocolate." Invariably someone will write, "Since you love chocolate, here is my favorite brownie recipe." I can only attribute this to people skimming the question, selecting a key word or phrase and responding.

Then there are those who read the question but want to work around the boundaries. "I know that you say you don't like chocolate in your cookies, but I've made this chocolate cookie for chocolate haters before and they have eaten every crumb."
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 5:00 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've found that the more questions I ask, the more respectful I've gotten about answering. When I asked people what I should do with all this yarn, I got sort of peeved at how few commentors actually answered the question on the terms I laid out. That's the experience I try to recall when I catch myself trying to slip the Asker's bridle.
posted by hermitosis at 5:17 PM on February 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


I think people have got a lot of the basics.

Read the whole question, and consider your response. There have been times where something in the question grabs me, and I've rushed to post an answer. Upon reflection, it doesn't even really apply to the question. Those have been some facepalm moments.

Only answer if you have something to say that hasn't been contributed already. Unless it's a divisive topic, or something that has been mentioned once but you really feel deserves underlining, you don't really need tons of people piling on with their "me toos."

Snark is rarely ok, and definitely don't snark on the OP. If I really feel the need to snark, and after careful consideration I still want to snark, I'm sure to at least provide a useful answer as well.

Generally be thoughtful, be considered, and be helpful. Don't post anything that would piss you off if you asked the question, unless you feel the person asking really needs a reality check. General Golden Rule type stuff.
posted by yellowbinder at 5:40 PM on February 3, 2009


What I have learned from experience, both as an answerer and an asker:

1) read the question carefully.

2) know that you understand what is being asked. If there are unfamiliar terms it's best just not to answer.

3) Generally, not answering every question and being selective with the ones you answer is key.
posted by ob at 5:41 PM on February 3, 2009


First and foremost, don't be in a hurry. Take the time to read the whole question, front page teaser and [more inside]. Be willing to abandon the idea of answering once the [more inside] reveals details that douse the spark that the teaser lit that made you click through.

Read the thread. See what answers have come before. Be prepared to see your answer stated sufficiently well by someone previously; be prepared to walk away if there's no real utility in covering that same ground yourself.

Don't skip ahead. Don't skim. Don't put yourself in the position of saying "I haven't read the whole thread, but..." or "I don't know if anyone has suggested this yet, but..."

If you type a comment, stop before posting and re-read it:

Ask yourself what you would think of your answer if you were the asker and the asker was you. Is it information they will find useful, or is it just something you feel like talking about? Are you trying to help solve their problem or are you just happy to have a chance to comment on a topic that their question broaches?

If it's the latter in either case, consider carefully your motivation for hitting "Post Comment" instead of just shrugging and closing the browser window and moving on.

Also ask yourself how much of of your comment is guesswork. Are you comfortable disclaiming clearly which parts and to what degree this is uncertain info? Have you in fact made that clear in your answer? If not, do so; if you feel like the result is too much of a long-form "I don't really know", then reconsider the comment.

Consider the source of your info as well. If this is not something you know but rather something you heard, relay that info. If, again, being clear about that makes your comment look like a version of "I have no idea if this is helpful, actually", reconsider it.

No one has ever been given trouble for choosing to err on the side of caution and nix a not-yet-posted answer that's not so great on second reading.

There's a whole lot of askme, and opportunities abound for anyone and everyone to provide a valuable answer to one question or another, but there's no reason to force the issue. When you have a solid, helpful answer, you'll know it and the asker will appreciate it. When you don't, there's nothing lost by the site if you just let that question go by and move on to other questions.
posted by cortex (staff) at 5:42 PM on February 3, 2009 [6 favorites]


Shouldn't this be in AskMe?
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 5:51 PM on February 3, 2009


6. Imposing your own pissy little agenda.

What? You're on a diet? You mean to tell me that you've capitulated to society's male-dominated standards of beauty?


posted by jason's_planet at 5:59 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


@FuzzySkinner, I originally posted it in AskMefi, but a mod asked me to move it here since it's a Mefi-specific question.
posted by giggleknickers at 6:08 PM on February 3, 2009


Any answer on any subject tends to create more heat than light if you've ever shown a trace of conservative leanings.
posted by Rafaelloello at 6:36 PM on February 3, 2009


Any answer on any subject tends to create more heat than light if you've ever shown a trace of liberal leanings.
posted by Sailormom at 6:54 PM on February 3, 2009


People just love listening to other people complain about being oppressed, so try to work that in there.
posted by inigo2 at 6:57 PM on February 3, 2009 [6 favorites]


There was a question today with some seriously annoying derails about having sex with someone recovering from surgery because a few posters assumed the asker was actually a girlfriend of the person recovering when she in fact only used the word friend.

So, don't assume things and make jackass suggestions based on the assumption. That makes a good answer.
posted by piratebowling at 7:16 PM on February 3, 2009


I think being self aware if a question is triggering some intense response from you...in a bad way...that you should refrain from directing at the poster. I can't tell you how many times I've started typing my 'helpful' answer only to realize that I'm doing nothing more than yelling at my mom, or and ex-friend in my head. I don't even *see* the poster.

In sum: Sometimes you have something to say, but the OP isn't the person you should be saying it to. At. All.
posted by anitanita at 7:25 PM on February 3, 2009 [4 favorites]


Remember you're supposed to be helping people.

Remember that they are people.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:50 PM on February 3, 2009 [9 favorites]


In sum: Sometimes you have something to say, but the OP isn't the person you should be saying it to. At. All.

Seconding this. Once there was an AskMe about cooking methods for brown rice and I responded by saying "You bitch you've ruined my life!"
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:52 PM on February 3, 2009 [4 favorites]


"3) Not even trying to help.
"
If you didn't want to get fat, you shouldn't have eaten so many cupcakes LOL!"

Luckily that kind of asshattery gets deleted right away.
posted by Mitheral at 8:07 PM on February 3, 2009


@Mitheral, the ones that are all snark tend to be, but there are also serious commenters who are not even trying to help. For instance, somebody giving a lecture to the OP about how they shouldn't have let themselves get fat in the first place and making insulting assumptions about how they must eat cupcakes all day. Sometimes that is coupled with an answer, but sometimes it's just a scolding on its own and that's the whole comment.
posted by giggleknickers at 8:14 PM on February 3, 2009


Q: What should I serve/eat...?
A: Delicious Bacon, of course!

Q: Should I eat it?
A: Best not to risk it

Q: My boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/fiance/fiancee...
A: DTMFA

Q: My cat...
A: Yes on spaying/neutering; no on declawing

Q: I read in Dianetics...
A: FUCK! ARRGHH!

That should about cover it, I think.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:28 PM on February 3, 2009


I have Ctrl-W programmed in my brain... many a posts end up Ctrl-W. Somebody has said it better, or more complete. I just recently learned i've been lurking since 2002 or so (know co-worker who pointed me here). Many long drawn out explanations get "meh, Ctrl-W", not my business.
posted by zengargoyle at 8:46 PM on February 3, 2009


Hey giggleknickers, since you have a healthy concern with MeFi etiquette, you might want to note that no one else here is using the @ notation to talk at other people. There are some old threads on that in MetaTalk.
posted by grouse at 8:47 PM on February 3, 2009


In response top this question:

1. Off topic. Consider getting married. If it seems right, get married first. If you feel it, just tell her you want to get married, no need to ask (in my opinion).

There. If you need any more clear example of a complete thread-shit, I can not help you.
posted by docpops at 9:40 PM on February 3, 2009


A lot of inappropriate, "snarky," AskMe answers are reflections of annoyance with the question.

There seems to be a trend toward asking questions that are more and more fine-grained, which irritates me and (I suspect) others. For example, the recent question by the guy who popped his girlfriend's cherry, and he asks "What could I have said other than 'oops'?"

Good use of AskMe? I don't think so. It seemed like the guy was just looking for a forum to tell his cute story. Classic "chatfilter."
posted by jayder at 11:29 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


There's some difference in taste here, but some of the comments I think are most helpful, particularly on sensitive topics, have a few common attributes:
- showing understanding for the poster's dilemna
- a genuine desire to help
- humility ("I don't know the full story here, but it sounds like...")
- speaking from their own experience

So, a typical comment might sound like: "yeah, this is a tough situation. when i had to XYZ once, what worked for me was to ABCDE. your situation is a bit more complicated, so you might try FGH as well. if i'm reading this right, it sounds like you might be JKL, so if I were in your shoes, I'd probably also consider saying MNOP." If you want to see examples, check out answers from jessamyn (and many other good answerers that I can't start trying to list).

On another topic, I'm seeing myself in these comments about people who answer too many of the questions. I will try to be a bit more discriminating in the future.
posted by salvia at 11:31 PM on February 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Something I've noticed and cringed about is how many people are ready to assume that the poster is a horrible, awful, disgusting, loathsome parent/pet owner/other. Nobody can give every scrap of background information in their questions, for obvious reasons, and not everybody posting in Ask realizes that there's about an 85% totally out-of-ass number chance that they are going to be ruthlessly attacked, so they might commit an unpardonable sin like being slightly flippant or self deprecating or ironic. They might fail to cover all the vulnerabilities in their question that someone could use to accuse them of being horrifically selfish and cruel, without really knowing enough information to come to that conclusion. Woe be unto them.

tl/dr: Try not to be a sanctimonious twit. Wait until you get more evidence, and then be a sanctimonious twit.

(Obviously, not directed toward you, giggleknickers)
posted by taz at 11:32 PM on February 3, 2009 [6 favorites]


I think it would be nice if nobody would ever use the phrase "[username] has it" in AskMe, ever again.

Firstly, if ThePinkSuperhero "has it", what have YOU got to add? Second, who died and made you the judge of whether or not ThePinkSuperhero has it? Thirdly, it annoys me, and things that annoy me should be banished from the world.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 12:57 AM on February 4, 2009 [4 favorites]


No, no, no. Snoogily Donglewonk Diet calls for isometrics paired with the Valsalva Maneuver. Crobopity Wiggelysmack Diet calls for low-intensity exercise.
posted by P.o.B. at 1:29 AM on February 4, 2009


Language questions such as "Translate this into Greek/French/Russian" where people who know very little try to do the translation and inevitably mess up. Later, actual native speakers show up and waste time correcting the earlier translations.

I've not understood why the former people don't think "Yeah, I could give a half-assed answer but if I wait, most likely someone who knows more than me will answer this." But its as if Ask Mefi, to them is their own personal quiz show where they have to buzz in their answer early.
posted by vacapinta at 1:44 AM on February 4, 2009 [6 favorites]


@FuzzySkinner, I originally posted it in AskMefi, but a mod asked me to move it here since it's a Mefi-specific question.

'Twas just a good-natured meta joke. Yes, questions about MeFi belong here.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 1:48 AM on February 4, 2009


13. Comment fables are not welcome on the green.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:40 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


With all due respect to vacapinta's suggestion above, I think that when it comes to questions about quantum physics or Bauhaus design or Greek translations, there is no guarantee an expert on that subject (or a native speaker) is going to read and have time to answer requests for help on AskMe. Answers based on non-native/non-expert experience with the subject at hand may be the best the asker is going to get. If someone comes along to correct or further elucidate the answer(s) that is a good thing, but far from guaranteed. Personally, I've appreciated translation suggestions from non-native speakers and believe that my answers to non-native language questions have generally been likewise appreciated. There is a balance to be struck between "buzzing in early" and sharing information you believe may be helpful in answering a question.

A rule of thumb is not be in a rush to answer Spanish/Latin/calculus questions based on passing familiarity with Spanish/Latin/calculus and take everything said on this site with a generous dose of salt.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 3:29 AM on February 4, 2009


Just to follow-up, taking things with a hearty dose of salt is my professional medical opinion. Translated into Latin, that would be "Agricola equus est".
posted by McGuillicuddy at 3:57 AM on February 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


I've found that my ability to answer questions (and provide something even somewhat useful) is directly related to how much time I put in. If it's a quick-n-dirty "Recommend a toothbrush!" kind of question, I don't really need to spend more than a minute skimming the answers and it never hurts to nth a suggestion so that the OP gets a sense of the popularity of what's being recommended. (I know I'm more likely to try something if five people recommend it rather than just one.)

For trickier questions, especially interpersonal ones, I do my best to read the whole thing. That is to say, the whole question, the MI, and every answer. If I see that what I had to say has already been said, I often don't bother putting in my 2c. If I do want to add something, I generally mention that someone else already covered what I was going to say (again, making it useful to the OP to know that there's some kind of "consensus" or whathaveyou) and probably add a personal anecdote because hey, we all like talking about ourselves and maybe someone else can benefit from our ridiculous experiences.

I spend the majority of my time on MeFi in the green and I would say that I end up posting in perhaps two questions per day, five tops if people have posted a lot on things that I know about. There are also days when I don't post anything at all if the questions have been covered better by others or if I honestly just have no idea.

I also find Ask to be endlessly useful from a reader's standpoint. Often, someone will ask something that I'm interested in and I'll read the thread and gain "valuable" knowledge.

Also: just an aside to Askers, I end up spending a lot of time defending the answers in threads when the OP comes back and berates the Answerers for either giving advice that they don't want to hear or deciding that the details that are being focused on are "unimportant." Read your questions carefully before posting them. Often, especially in personal questions, the poster lays out the "whole story" which is certainly a cathartic exercise, but often ends up including more details than are necessary. If you realize that you don't want advice related to a certain aspect of the situation DON'T write about that situation in your question. Also, please don't post a question with the caveat "I don't want to hear x answer." It may just so happen that x might just BE the best answer, and if you don't want to hear that, you don't need AskMe, you need to deal with it.

Yes, a lot of times people give total b/s answers, but if someone is putting a lot of time into trying to help you and you just don't like what they have to say, take a deep breath and move on. Sure, if it's truly awful or offensive it's totally right to get cheesed off, but please don't start flogging people who have come in to try and help. I have seen this happen again and again. Edit your question. It's far better to come in and answer follow-up questions than to include details that you find irrelevant to the answers and then get frustrated that no one's paying attention to what you feel is important. If you yourself post at the beginning "Ths is long, sorry" you're going to get a metric ton of "TL;DR" answers.

Re-read your questions and your answers before posting them. I'm now reading this for the umpteenth time and feel like a good ten minutes and four edits later, it's worth posting. Sure, it might not always take THAT long, but it's better to spend some time on it than to rush it and give a crap answer. The answer might be crap anyway, but hey, you won't have to say "Shit, I should have reworded that."

Finally: "x user has it" is truly THE MOST ANNOYING answer on AskMe. AskMe is not about "winning" the best answer and coming in to vote for what you think is the best and pat another user on the back is really, really irritating from a reader's standpoint. It's totally cool to second another person's opinion, but there are way better ways to phrase it. "I'd like to second so and so's answer" just sounds more *useful* than the kind of "answer voting" that happens. It's not a contest!
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:49 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Often, especially in personal questions, the poster lays out the "whole story" which is certainly a cathartic exercise, but often ends up including more details than are necessary.

Strongly disagree. The major problem I see and have been contemplating doing a MetaTalk post about, is when people, especially Anonymous, don't include enough details, so it becomes harder to give a useful answer. With these questions, you then get a pile on from people interpreting the situation through their own filter and needlessly injecting partisian BS from their own life rather than just answering the darn question.

It's far, far better to include as much detail as you can at the beginning so that readers have a better grasp of the situation.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:25 AM on February 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


With all due respect to vacapinta's suggestion above, I think that when it comes to questions about quantum physics or Bauhaus design or Greek translations, there is no guarantee an expert on that subject (or a native speaker) is going to read and have time to answer requests for help on AskMe.

What I'd like to see (although I recognize it's unlikely to happen) is that people would voluntarily hold off on speculative-maybe-helpful-maybe-not partial answers for a given period of time (6 hours? 12?). If someone's asking for a Greek translation, and you know a bit of Greek, maybe hold off from answering right away. If no fluent Greek speaker has shown up after that time, then you can make your half-assed suggestion. Another example: "I'm looking for software that does A, B, C, D, and E." "Well, here's some that does A, B, and E." Which might ultimately be helpful if there isn't any software that accomplishes all five things, but if there is, it's not. So hold off a bit before posting that.

----

Also, please don't post a question with the caveat "I don't want to hear x answer." It may just so happen that x might just BE the best answer,

In my ideal world (again, unlikely to happen) such questions would simply get no responses at all. The silence would be deafening, as it were.

----

I agree with all the "if you don't know, don't answer" comments above, but I'd like to suggest a corollary to that, although this applies more to MeTa than to AskMe: don't imply that an asker is unworthy of help simply because they haven't answered any questions themselves. "20 questions, 0 answers" is not a bad thing, and implying that it is only encourages the non-answers we're trying to avoid.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 5:28 AM on February 4, 2009


There seems to be a trend toward asking questions that are more and more fine-grained, which irritates me and (I suspect) others.

Fine grained? They are dust. Soup recipe for tiny apartment, access to fresh foods but no storage space, very few pots and pans, afraid of cross-contamination, several food allergies, many food dislikes and preferences. Please hope me, hive mind.
posted by fixedgear at 5:29 AM on February 4, 2009


From my experience I would say the single most aggravating mistake is not reading the question. For example, I ask, "I'm lloking for new cookie recipes. I love nuts, but I don't like chocolate." Invariably someone will write, "Since you love chocolate, here is my favorite brownie recipe." I can only attribute this to people skimming the question, selecting a key word or phrase and responding.

ProTip: If you realize that you've done this after you posted the comment, you can get a mod to delete it.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 5:36 AM on February 4, 2009


GFM, you say:
Finally: "x user has it" is truly THE MOST ANNOYING answer on AskMe. AskMe is not about "winning" the best answer and coming in to vote for what you think is the best and pat another user on the back is really, really irritating from a reader's standpoint. It's totally cool to second another person's opinion, but there are way better ways to phrase it. "I'd like to second so and so's answer" just sounds more *useful* than the kind of "answer voting" that happens. It's not a contest!

But you also say:

it never hurts to nth a suggestion so that the OP gets a sense of the popularity of what's being recommended.

I'm not trying to play gotcha, I just think "nthing" other people's answers in a thread with several competing viewpoints on the best course of action is a very good thing sometimes and not annoying at all ever. The alternative is to tear down the less helpful contrary responses which can derail things or writing the exact same thing over again. I really don't get the objection to seconding someone else's post rather than making a long-winded reiteration--are we running out of internet?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:45 AM on February 4, 2009


I just think "nthing" other people's answers in a thread with several competing viewpoints on the best course of action is a very good thing sometimes and not annoying at all ever.

I agree with "a very good thing sometimes" but disagree with "not annoying at all ever." I think it depends on the type of question. In a RelationshipFilter question, twenty DTMFAs can send a more powerful message than one. However, for "what was that short story with the robot house after a nuclear war," once one person has identified Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains," nothing more needs to be said.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 5:55 AM on February 4, 2009


Aha, perhaps I misunderstood. I haven't been around enough to see people seconding responses to questions with definitive answers. That is pretty goofy.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:06 AM on February 4, 2009


Any answer that begins with "My guess is..." should be automatically deleted.

A lot of "recommend a certain type of movie/book/music" questions just get filled with people's favorite movies/books/bands even if they don't actually fit the criteria.
posted by bondcliff at 6:47 AM on February 4, 2009


Try to work in the phrases "white privilege" or "invisible backpack" whenever possible.
posted by electroboy at 6:54 AM on February 4, 2009


I view answers, particularly for technical or information-transactional questions, as jumping off points for someone who's wants to know more about a topic, but doesn't know where to begin (or even know what to ask about it). The balance is between answering their question while being brief and concise.

If you're writing a stepping stone, you need to provide a few things: good search terms and/or a few links to key resources that someone could trust as first points in their research on a topic. If it's a contentious or disputed topic, try to cover most of the credible points of view.

Advice about repetition, is well put. I've frequently written an answer, then previewed only to realize that someone else has covered everything I have to say. At that point, the correct thing to do is close the tab, not hit the post button. We all suffer from MAS (yes, women too), but the first step is admitting that we have a problem, amirite?
posted by bonehead at 7:11 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Game warden to the events rhino has it. But before you pull that pineapple out of your ass, which, as he suggested, should be done ASAP and will release the toxic stew that has built up behind it, causing you such discomfort, do make sure you're standing in the bathtub, not on your mother's fine Persian rug.
posted by Balonious Assault at 7:33 AM on February 4, 2009


PROTIP: If you have an answer to the thread, but think someone else might have a better answer, yet you are concerned that no one else will post this better answer, then favorite it and come back tomorrow. You can post your answer then if no one else has yet.
posted by grouse at 7:38 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Another problem I've seen is when people treat a question as a conversation. Someone gives an answer, the asker says that is wrong/incomplete, and the answerer feels the need to answer again, often badly. This is how real one-on-one conversations work, but in Ask you can just walk away.
posted by smackfu at 8:04 AM on February 4, 2009


giggleknickers, this is not an answer to your question, but I must request that you please not do the "@___" thing. Name then comma or colon works great.
posted by dios at 8:10 AM on February 4, 2009


A related question, what is up with some members who want people to answer significantly more questions than they ask? I, and I assume many others, do not answer many questions because we don't have a lot to contribute on certain subjects. To pressure members to answer questions that they have little experience dealing with, will just add to the drivel we sometimes find in posts.
posted by sixcolors at 8:14 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


My number 1 pet peeve with AskMe answers, is part of the whole not reading the question spectrum but I feel it needs to be pointed out on its own.

If someone clearly states in their question that they are located in Country X, don't give advice specific to Country Y (and I guess to a less extent State X and State Y)
posted by missmagenta at 8:18 AM on February 4, 2009


Because some people feel there is a social contract involved here, that there should always be give and take, and that asking and not answering implies you are not even reading the site except when you ask a question.
posted by smackfu at 8:18 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


If someone clearly states in their question that they are located in Country X, don't give advice specific to Country Y (and I guess to a less extent State X and State Y)

This isn't even just not reading the question. Often, I'm fairly sure they did read the question, which is why they say "In Canada, it works like this...". I think it's the idea of "committing" to answer a question based on reading the post on the front page and clicking through, and then being unwilling to walk away once you realize your answer doesn't apply.
posted by smackfu at 8:21 AM on February 4, 2009


With all due respect to vacapinta's suggestion above, I think that when it comes to questions about quantum physics ...

Quantum physics is one of the worst subjects for answerers who think they might know a little bit about a subject just diving right in. If the question is technical, but your answer is speculative quasi-philosophical mumbo-jumbo gleaned from a website that uses a lot of all caps, you might be on the wrong track. I'd wager that most of the "non-expert" answers on this particular subject are worse than no answer at all.
posted by ssg at 9:13 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


WHAT IS WRONG WITH ALL-CAPS ON WEBSITES? ARE YOU EDUCATED-STUPID? YOUR IGNORANCE OF THE 4-SIDED TRUTH THAT IS TIME-CUBE IS APPALLING.
posted by explosion at 10:05 AM on February 4, 2009


Quantum physics is one of the worst subjects for answerers who think they might know a little bit about a subject

Again, I respectfully disagree. If your answer is based on a website in all caps, obviously you shouldn't answer the question. But the truth is that if you really need the correct answer to a question, a bunch of anonymous idiots on the internet is not the place to turn. AskMe is not a textbook, it is more like Wikipedia with an entrance fee and no ability to correct misspellings.

As an asker, I don't assume there are not a whole lot of physicists (quantum or otherwise) wasting time trolling AskMe waiting to drop their obscure knowledge. So if you recently read "The Fabric of the Cosmos" and you think you've got a clue, go ahead an share your thoughts. Wait for 6 or 12 hours if want, but it's not like the page is going to run out of space.

The two most applicable phrases for AskMe are:

1. Advice is worth what you pay for it.
2. Caveat emptor.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 10:21 AM on February 4, 2009


Ooh, look, live example here. Could we at least agree that if the OP says "I don't want to do X" and your response is "do X" you should give a bit of explanation???

Apparently not, as the OP here says "The most drastic measure we can think of is for him to report it stolen.... but he doesn't want to get her arrested or anything either."

I would actually be OK with answers like "He can report it stolen without her getting arrested by doing X" or "He should report it stolen, and even though she will get arrested, that's better than [potential negative consequence the OP hasn't considered]." But no, the first three answers are "Report it stolen" without any meaningful explanation.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:21 AM on February 4, 2009


i thought cubes had six sides. i guess i am stupid.
posted by stubby phillips at 10:24 AM on February 4, 2009


Balonious Assault said: "But before you pull that pineapple out of your ass, which, as he suggested, should be done ASAP and will release the toxic stew that has built up behind it, causing you such discomfort, do make sure you're standing in the bathtub, not on your mother's fine Persian rug."

You know, I can't tell if this is an attack on me, so I should be personally offended, or is it an attack on my AskMe answers, or is it implying that I am a brownnosing asskisser, or super into anal play, or what.

What?
posted by pineapple at 10:33 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ooh, look, live example here.
I was just coming here to whine about those answers. When she gets arrested for Grand Theft Auto, guess who's going to pay to bail her out?
posted by Floydd at 10:34 AM on February 4, 2009


As an asker, I don't assume there are not a whole lot of physicists (quantum or otherwise) wasting time trolling AskMe waiting to drop their obscure knowledge.

You are wrong. In fact, I think you are wrong in all three of the examples you gave. I can think of MeFites who have advanced degrees in physics, some who have high levels of fluency in Greek (ancient and modern), and there is such a wealth of design professionals and enthusiasts here that there is probably someone who knows quite a bit about the Bauhaus.

It's possible that these folks might not respond to a particular thread. In most cases, I think it's better just to wait and see if they do. The thread will still be there tomorrow if no one else has helped, and someone will be grateful for your response to an otherwise quiet thread.

Or you can fill up the thread with noise. This makes it less likely that the correct answer will be seen, because it will be drowned out by a bunch of nonsense. A subject-matter expert might see the thread at that point but choose not to respond, because it is frustrating to have to correct a bunch of people who don't know what they are talking about. (This is why I do not spend my time on Yahoo Answers.)

Advice is worth what you pay for it... Caveat emptor.

Those are targeted at the asker, but this thread is asking for suggestions on how to answer questions better. An asker may be well-served by remembering those aphorisms, but that does not excuse bad behavior by people answering.
posted by grouse at 10:50 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Again, I respectfully disagree.

I think you will find yourself in the minority on this McGuillicuddy. You may have a low opinion of the answers here, but I think there's a general consensus that people should to exercise a little self control and avoid half-assed guesses.
posted by CunningLinguist at 11:05 AM on February 4, 2009


If the idea is that you need an advanced degree to answer a question, AskMe would be a much less useful place. As you say yourself, Greek fluency is sufficient to answer many Greek translation questions, you need not have passed a Greek-fluency test. A fry cook with an interest in architecture can be as insightful as a design professional.

An expert may not answer a question for a hundred different reasons, none of which matter much to the asker. Receiving no decent answers, not even a suggestion for where to turn for more information, does matter to the asker. I'm simply suggesting, contrary to others, that if you've got a decent answer - let 'er rip. If a resident expert wants to add on to that answer, so much the better.

None of that is to say one should answer questions you know little or nothing about. But just because a signal is not perfect does not mean it is noise.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 11:13 AM on February 4, 2009


people should to exercise a little self control and avoid half-assed guesses

Indeed. Between half-assed guesses and expert answers lay the vast majority of useful AskMe answers.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 11:18 AM on February 4, 2009


As an asker, I don't assume there are not a whole lot of physicists (quantum or otherwise) wasting time trolling AskMe waiting to drop their obscure knowledge.

I wrote about quantum physics specifically because there are people here who know what they are talking about in that field and they do share their knowledge when there is call for it. Unfortunately, by the time they get to the thread, there has often been a lot of crap dropped. Thus the many suggestions in this thread to err on the side of not answering a question if one isn't quite sure what one is talking about.
posted by ssg at 11:35 AM on February 4, 2009


I'm simply suggesting, contrary to others, that if you've got a decent answer - let 'er rip.

I don't think anyone is suggesting that we shouldn't post decent answers. What people are suggesting is that we might be overestimating the decency of our answers and so could benefit from a little more restraint.
posted by ssg at 11:37 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


If I had a tiny AskMe pony, it would be that there be some kind of abstract, and hopefully non-confrontational slider/meter be present, as dictated by the Asker, to indicate how far "out of the box" people should go.

The meter would go from "BEEP BEEP DOES NOT COMPUTE" through "highly literal" to "out of the box," "there is no spoon," and "if you can answer and do so in limerick form, go for it!"

I mean, yay for non-linear thinking, but sometimes people have framed highly specific questions precisely because circumstances dictate an "in-the-box" answer. However, saying so in the question makes me feel more churlish than is usual.
posted by adipocere at 11:59 AM on February 4, 2009


As you say yourself, Greek fluency is sufficient to answer many Greek translation questions, you need not have passed a Greek-fluency test.

And yet someone good at Google or using Babelfish should fuck off in this case, and they tend not to.
posted by smackfu at 12:01 PM on February 4, 2009


Navelgazer wrote "That should about cover it, I think."

No, you forgot:

Q: My computer is running strangely.
A: Nuke it from orbit.

(Substitute "Get a Mac" as necessary)
posted by caution live frogs at 12:37 PM on February 4, 2009


I think that when it comes to questions about quantum physics or Bauhaus design or Greek translations, there is no guarantee an expert on that subject (or a native speaker) is going to read and have time to answer requests for help on AskMe. Answers based on non-native/non-expert experience with the subject at hand may be the best the asker is going to get. If someone comes along to correct or further elucidate the answer(s) that is a good thing, but far from guaranteed. Personally, I've appreciated translation suggestions from non-native speakers and believe that my answers to non-native language questions have generally been likewise appreciated.

You are wrong and everybody who's been disagreeing with you is right. There are plenty of experts on MeFi, and it is loony to think that some half-assed guess or half-remembered wisp of information is worth spewing just so the poster won't feel lonely. Whether you've "appreciated" such answers is irrelevant, since they were almost certainly wrong. I can't tell you how many times I've seen terrible answers to language questions "appreciated" by the poster, sometimes marked as "best"; the poster may be too dumb to understand the answers are bad, but that's no excuse for aiding and abetting the dumbness by posting dumb answers. If you don't know, stfu. At the very least, have the decency to wait a day or two to see if someone who actually knows will drop by. Surprise: they often do!
posted by languagehat at 1:27 PM on February 4, 2009


If anyone thinks I'm being obtuse, I'd like to clarify that half-assed guesses are not good generally good answers (but may be in reference to "name the purple book with a horse on the cover I read in 1972). What I'm talking about cases like:

Language questions such as "Translate this into Greek/French/Russian" where people who know very little try to do the translation and inevitably mess up.

The rules make no mention of being an expert in the subject area and it is not reasonable to expect an expert to answer. So when it comes to dealing with that user, we can pretty much:

1. Damn them to Yahoo! Answers, that great unwashed whore of internet question sites that some Mefites seem to believe should not be mentioned in the same breath as the hallowed ether called AskMe.

2. Be thankful someone took a shot and leave the thread open in case somebody else comes along with a better translation.

Unless someone is truly just guessing, I suggest gratefulness for the effort of strangers on the behalf of strangers is a better approach. And the more obscure the language (or question topic) the more appreciative I am that anyone took the time to try to answer. Likewise, as an asker I'd rather know about software that does 3 of the 5 things I'm looking for and I'm suggesting that answering that question is one way of giving more helpful answers. Maybe some folks disagree, but the main site rule has been about trying to be helpful not being 100% correct. Askers should expect to have to sift the answers and be grateful for the effort of those that bother to share their (limited) knowledge.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 1:29 PM on February 4, 2009


have the decency to wait a day or two to see if someone who actually knows will drop by

There is that hallowed AskMe again. Maybe you'd like to follow a thread for 2 days, but if you want to make that policy, you should convince the admins.

I've seen terrible answers to language questions "appreciated" by the poster, sometimes marked as "best"; the poster may be too dumb to understand the answers are bad

Obviously anyone that disagrees with your assessment is "too dumb to understand". But if the asker is satisfied, what exactly is your complaint? Besides their ignorance and general unworthiness.

And my appreciation is relevant, I'm expressing how I believe one may be more helpful on AskMe. You may disagree, but it is a matter of opinion not fact.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 1:41 PM on February 4, 2009


The rules make no mention of being an expert in the subject area and it is not reasonable to expect an expert to answer.

For Greek/French/Russian? Are you joking? Of course it is.

There is that hallowed AskMe again. Maybe you'd like to follow a thread for 2 days, but if you want to make that policy, you should convince the admins.

There is that "must... answer... question..." obsessiveness again. In the first place, there are various ways to follow threads; it's not that difficult. In the second place, the only thing that's making you answer when you don't know the answer is your own obsessiveness, and it's a reprehensible obsessiveness. Just don't do it.

if the asker is satisfied, what exactly is your complaint?


Do you not understand that there is such a thing as truth? If someone asks how you say "dog" in Spanish and marks "gato" as best answer, my complaint is that they got the wrong answer. Is that too recondite a complaint for you?
posted by languagehat at 1:54 PM on February 4, 2009 [3 favorites]


If I had a tiny AskMe pony, it would be that there be some kind of abstract, and hopefully non-confrontational slider/meter be present, as dictated by the Asker, to indicate how far "out of the box" people should go.

I like this idea. In some of my questions, I've needed The Single Answer. In some of my questions, the slightest thread of a hint of a clue toward an answer would've been appreciated [ahem, the thread is closed but feel free to mefi mail me].

Also, I'd love to have a slide scale for how certain I feel. Sometimes I have returned to a question and noticed that nobody has responded, so I'll take a stab at it, but I know my answer is a guess.

I guess instead of sliding scales, we can just say these things in words. That's good because here in Oakland I don't have pasture for ponies anyway.
posted by salvia at 2:12 PM on February 4, 2009


Is google "dog in spanish" a snark?
posted by zengargoyle at 2:26 PM on February 4, 2009


Maybe you'd like to follow a thread for 2 days, but if you want to make that policy, you should convince the admins.

Why is it that whenever someone suggests that MeFites voluntarily change their behavior in some way, there's always someone eager to misinterpret it as a request to change MetaFilter guidelines?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:31 PM on February 4, 2009


i'm going to be immolated for this:

often, the "expert" answers are wrong. this is especially true for quasi-legal or quasi-medical questions.
posted by stubby phillips at 2:34 PM on February 4, 2009


languagehat - I don't answer many all that many questions, and those I do answer are usually seeking an opinion, about technology I work with professionally, or about a rather small language I'm fluent in. So I'm pretty sure, despite our past hostile exchanges, that you're not referring to me specifically. But if you are, if you have some shit answer(s) of mine in mind feel free to send them along, so I can consider whether I should have avoided or improved them.

Greek/French/Russian
When it comes to Greek and Russian, I'm suggesting that given the rate of turn-over of AskMe questions and the Anglo-centric nature of the site, that the number of fluent speakers that may see and have time to answer your question are probably in the double digits. How many of those have an inclination to answer will depend on the question. Or more generally, expecting experts to answer questions for free may be reasonable but is not advisable. And I think I'm pretty clear about the rules of AskMe, to paraphrase they are "Try to be helpful".

The point about following threads assumes a level of dedication and sophistication, that if required or universal, would make AskMe less useful on the whole. Have a decent answer, maybe an not an expert answer, but not a half-assed guess? Let's hear it and make up our own mind about whether it is helpful.

If you don't know the Spanish word for "dog" and you answer the question, we agree that is a bad thing. But if one takes a shot at giving the equivalent phrase for "take it with a grain of salt" in Russian based on Russian ancestry and an imperfect grasp of the language, is that such a bad thing? Obviously, mentioning you're limitations may be helpful to the asker, but it is not like we're about to run out of internet.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 2:37 PM on February 4, 2009


I keep seeing this "we're not going to run out of internet" statement offered as justification for weak answers in AskMe.

Since when did "quantity over quality" become AskMetaFilter's raison d'être?

Similarly, when did "AskMe: Not as Bad as Yahoo Answers" become the site's unwritten motto?
posted by pineapple at 2:41 PM on February 4, 2009


But if one takes a shot at giving the equivalent phrase for "take it with a grain of salt" in Russian based on Russian ancestry and an imperfect grasp of the language, is that such a bad thing?

Personally, I think yes.
posted by CunningLinguist at 2:43 PM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Since when did "quantity over quality" become AskMetaFilter's raison d'être?

It isn't.

Similarly, when did "AskMe: Not as Bad as Yahoo Answers" become the site's unwritten motto?


It's not.

Any other questions? I assure you there are no dumb ones.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:52 PM on February 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'm pretty sure, despite our past hostile exchanges, that you're not referring to me specifically.

Right (and I'm afraid I don't remember our past exchanges). I'm objecting to your attitude, not your answers, whatever they may have been. When I say "stfu," I'm not talking to you in particular but to anyone who might feel tempted to follow your terrible advice.

But if one takes a shot at giving the equivalent phrase for "take it with a grain of salt" in Russian based on Russian ancestry and an imperfect grasp of the language, is that such a bad thing?

Yes, it is. And if you have an actual example of an AskMe question about Russian that didn't get answered properly, please post it, because I usually see them pretty quickly and I usually find that nasreddin has already given an excellent answer.
posted by languagehat at 2:54 PM on February 4, 2009


Any other questions? I assure you there are no dumb ones.

Where are my pants? Checking my lower body is not an option, so please don't suggest that.
posted by cortex (staff) at 3:04 PM on February 4, 2009


Any other questions? I assure you there are no dumb ones.

How is babby formed?
posted by grouse at 3:07 PM on February 4, 2009


But if one takes a shot at giving the equivalent phrase for "take it with a grain of salt" in Russian based on Russian ancestry and an imperfect grasp of the language, is that such a bad thing?

Yeah, it's a bad thing if your imperfect grasp of the language and the asker's complete ignorance thereof leads them to use your incorrect phrase, which turns out to be insulting, rude, or totally incomprehensible.

For someone posting an askme, following the question requires no sophistication whatsoever: it's called Recent Activity. And if you don't care enough about getting your question answered to check back over a period of some days (especially if it's a question about something sort of obscure), then why the hell did you ask it?
posted by rtha at 3:12 PM on February 4, 2009


I keep seeing this "we're not going to run out of internet" statement offered as justification for weak answers in AskMe.

The bar is on the verge of getting set too high, if you ask me. Take my unanswered question above (a funk band in Asheville or Boone, NC in 1998-99 with the line "you must make your own life easy and then your days will be bright and free"). Resounding silence. I would have really appreciated "i don't know the song, but Your Mom Dances With Her Pants On Fire was a funky dance band that was super-popular in North Carolina college towns when I was there in 1997." And if that person got dissuaded from answering because they were trying to track the thread for a three-day waiting period when only those who can say "that's track 6 on the Fancy Pants album" can comment, that's a problem to me. The "best answer" thing is there so that some future person can go straight to the perfect answer, and I as the asker am perfectly content to wait while better and better clues show up as people jog one another's memory ("hmm, it could be Your Mom, but it's probably not among her earlier stuff").

Put another way, Pineapple, how does a person know their answer is perfect enough? If I moved away from Russia at age 14 and my grammar has slipped just slightly, if I got my Ph.D. in quantum physics in 1998 and haven't really kept up with the recent literature, am I qualified to answer?
posted by salvia at 3:21 PM on February 4, 2009


DevilsAdvocate writes "'20 questions, 0 answers' is not a bad thing, and implying that it is only encourages the non-answers we're trying to avoid."

I think a 20:0 ratio (and usually it's a 0:0, 0:0, 20:0, 0:0, 0:0, 0 ratio) is bad antisocial. First, and this is kind of irrational, it makes me feel like the poster is using AskMe like it's an advanced directory assistance. Second it means they haven't ever posted a follow up or a clarification. While not all questions need either of these 20 in a row?
posted by Mitheral at 3:36 PM on February 4, 2009


I would have really appreciated "i don't know the song, but Your Mom Dances With Her Pants On Fire was a funky dance band that was super-popular in North Carolina college towns when I was there in 1997." And if that person got dissuaded from answering because they were trying to track the thread for a three-day waiting period when only those who can say "that's track 6 on the Fancy Pants album" can comment, that's a problem to me.

I'd say there's a big gap between plausible userbase expertise in, say, a given foreign language (pretty darned plausible, between native speakers, acquired speakers, and language scholars) vs. Knowledge of NC College Funk Bands Circa 1999 Who Sang A Song With Lyric X In It, though.

I'd be surprised if someone with the answer you suggest here who saw that question would refrain from throwing their take in.

There are some questions that are hard to answer. When those answers get few or no answers, I very strongly believe that's a reflection of a lack of decent answers on the fingertips of potential answerers, not evidence of some overwhelming chilling effect.

To frame it another way: being able to discriminate between a question for which your semi-guesswork answer is likely to be as useful as anything the asker will hear and a question for which your semi-guesswork answer will probably be noise among more definitive answers is a valuable skill for askme commentors to foster. Not everybody is great at it, but most people are at least okay at it. Lowering the bar across the board to go fishing for the occasional casualty (at the cost of greatly increased noise) is not a great plan.

I've had questions go unanswered as well. It can happen, and has generally more to do with the degree of difficulty of what you're asking than any other factor. There are a lot of eyes on askme every single day, and while the system will never be perfect it's pretty responsive in aggregate as it is.
posted by cortex (staff) at 3:43 PM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


> The point about following threads assumes a level of dedication and sophistication, that if required or universal, would make AskMe less useful on the whole.

Opening the thread on a regular basis to check for updates isn't half as convenient as using your handy-dandy Recent Activity page.

Similarly, there is an AskMe filter for unanswered questions which allows you to easily see if any questions are languishing in need of any help, no matter how threadbare.
posted by ardgedee at 3:56 PM on February 4, 2009


salvia said: "Put another way, Pineapple, how does a person know their answer is perfect enough? If I moved away from Russia at age 14 and my grammar has slipped just slightly, if I got my Ph.D. in quantum physics in 1998 and haven't really kept up with the recent literature, am I qualified to answer?"

Yeah, I really couldn't tell you. Since "I know it when I see it" isn't really a suitable answer, I didn't offer it up thread. It's a wide spectrum, to me. On one hand are those ultra-compulsive answerers who feel the need to jump into every AskMe and say things like "I don't know much about [Specific Asked Topic], but Wikipedia says blah" -- and since they are technically following the rules, they're A-OK. There's no "talking out of his ass" flag.

On the other side of the spectrum, you've got this completely arcane music question (a funk band in Asheville or Boone, NC in 1998-99 with the line "you must make your own life easy and then your days will be bright and free") where a very specific piece of information equals a correct answer ("Yes, I do know those songs, and the titles are X, Y and Z.").

And now, salvia, it seems as though you're saying "Despite my having asked a totally arcane question with a clearly, objectively, verifiably correct answer, whatever that may be, I'm now disappointed that no one offered the 'a hint of a clue toward an answer' like 'i don't know the song, but Your Mom Dances With Her Pants On Fire was a funky dance band that was super-popular in North Carolina college towns when I was there in 1997.'"

Only, you didn't actually put any of those qualifiers in your question.

as the asker am perfectly content to wait while better and better clues show up as people jog one another's memory

But you didn't ask, "What are these songs, or also I'll take any brainstorming, half-assed ideas that are even in the same ballpark if it will serve as a clue or help jog my memory." You said, "What are these very specific songs?" How were the people who viewed that AskMe supposed to know that what you said was X but what you really meant was Y?

I don't think I can agree with the idea that, since nobody was able to answer that particular AskMe, it is a data point for the case that the bar is set too high overall in AskMe.

Sorry about the raison d'être question -- I intended it for the poster who keeps repeating "we're not going to run out of internet", but apparently many of you felt a connection.
posted by pineapple at 4:01 PM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


> I've had questions go unanswered as well. It can happen, and has generally more to do with the degree of difficulty of what you're asking than any other factor.

My take, on reading the Unanswered Questions list, is that many questions do not require rocket-science expertise; some of them even exist in terrain I'm familiar with. But most of them require a high degree of specificity that's impossible to helpfully answer in any way except substantively. As examples, Adobe After Effects and WordPress are things that thousands of MeFites understand well, competently, and professionally. But when dealing with possibly obscure third party extensions, the asker is at the mercy of luck; It's probable that somebody has solved the problem, but it's likely that nobody here has ever dealt with it.
posted by ardgedee at 4:11 PM on February 4, 2009


Checking my lower body is not an option, so please don't suggest that.

If I had a nickle for every time I've heard that...
posted by stubby phillips at 4:47 PM on February 4, 2009


Invariably, the unanswered questions is split between:

1) Specific questions about a specific location.
2) Low-level computer problems.
3) Identification questions that have only one right answer.
4) "Find me this thing that may not exist."

Notice how these really can't be guessed at?
posted by smackfu at 5:00 PM on February 4, 2009


I have two key pieces of advice to offer from years of considering this:

1. Remember that it's not JudgeMe, it's AskMe. Really, say those words to yourself a couple of times before you post that answer.

2. If you must post a comment to try to stretch the asker's viewpoint, use some humor. Not only is humor the best way to jostle people out of a mental rut, it's also a good self-check. If you can't frame your didactic course-correction in an amiable way, don't post it.

In absence of further information, it's natural to think that the poster hasn't considered the obvious. But get on top of this, for fuck's sake. Don't assume that every poster has put the sum-total wisdom of their years into their post. People want help with the issue at hand. Just because they didn't mention the circumstances of their lives as a whole doesn't mean they're ignoring them. Nor is it your business to insist they be elucidated. So don't.

We know you have common sense. We know you have an internet connection. No need to go around proving it.
posted by scarabic at 7:15 PM on February 4, 2009


- cortex: Lowering the bar across the board
- pineapple: I don't think I can agree with the idea that, since nobody was able to answer that particular AskMe, it is a data point for the case that the bar is set too high overall in AskMe.

Sorry, I obviously wasn't clear. I didn't meant to suggest we lower the bar or that AskMe is broken now. What I meant to say was that the conclusion I was hearing emerge from the vacapinta-DevilsAdvocate-grouse-pineapple set of comments sounds like it could, in the future, set the bar too high.

The proposed standard, as I understand it, would be that, unless one is an expert in the field with the specific answer requested, one should follow the post in recent activity for a couple days (how do you do that without posting a comment in it?) and only then if it's not answered can you say something more amateur like "From reading Carl Sagan's book, my understanding is..."

I brought up my unanswered question to plug the question until it gets answered to show the willingness of me and probably some other posters to accept clues or less-than-perfect answers. I'd prefer clues over silence, even in those first two or three days. And since some portion of the half-interested Carl Sagan readers will likely forget to return days later, the waiting period standard would likely result in fewer clues. And I think clues help people find answers.

I don't think AskMe is broken, and I actually think the half-answers are part of why it works. I've been trying to remember an example where a drive-by answer ("...kinda reminds me of...") triggered someone else's memory or thought, and commenters piggybacked off one another's ideas to ultimately find an answer.

I'm not sure, in retrospect, why I picked pineapple out of the bunch as the defender of those comments (sorry, pineapple). But the fact that "we're not running out of internet" is part of why I don't think we need to engage in some triage waiting game to successfully ration comment space for the single most precise answer.

being able to discriminate between a question for which your semi-guesswork answer is likely to be as useful as anything the asker will hear and a question for which your semi-guesswork answer will probably be noise among more definitive answers is a valuable skill for askme commentors to foster

I completely agree with this.

- pineapple: You said, "What are these very specific songs?" How were the people who viewed that AskMe supposed to know that what you said was X but what you really meant was Y?

Hopefully with my clarification, this question is now beside the point, but since you asked, I'll explain. My specific questions were "Do you recognize any of these?... Yo Mama's Big Fat Booty Band? Possible... Anything ring a bell?" I see those as different than "tell me the song title and artist (and only the title and artist) for these three songs." I certainly meant to show openness to clues, and then I jumped in to work with someone who supplied a clue. So I'm not understanding how I gave the impression I would only accept perfect answers. In fact klangklangston's answer ("sounds like a Neneh Cherry riff...") was exactly the kind of clue I meant to invite by setting the bar down at "anything ring a bell?" instead of up at "name the artist and title."

posted by salvia at 7:26 PM on February 4, 2009


Not all questions are the same. Some (like "what are slang words for 'dog' in Argentina?" or "what are the rules in North Carolina for becoming a licensed barber?") have very clear right and wrong answers, and people's good-spirited guessing, or anecdotal stories about a semi-comparable situation, aren't appropriate or helpful. You don't need to be a certified expert to answer, but you shouldn't be simply guessing or pulling it out of your ass.

But then lots of questions aren't so clear in terms of right/wrong, or there is a dissonance between the question asked and the information provided, or the question is explicitly asking for anecdotal accounts of solutions to somewhat comparable situations. In those cases, it still isn't helpful to wander far afield, but there's a lot more latitude for giving an anecdotal answer.
posted by Forktine at 8:46 PM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Questioning the Premise is my #1 pet-peeve in AskMe threads, and the one most worthy of deletion, but I'm biased. My last adventure into AskMe was also my first and only attempt at an "anonymous" posting, which I did because it was relationship based. Instead of helpful answers, all I got were around a hundred or so comments about how I was probably completely wrong about the assumptions built into my question (several months later, I can tell you with absolute certainty that I was 100% correct.)

This might be more of a problem with the inability to anonymously comment in one's own anonymous threads. Once the hive-mind starts acting like assholes there's really not much you can do about it.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:56 PM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


"take it with a grain of salt" in Russian based on Russian ancestry and an imperfect grasp of the language

This isn't the perfect example. Opinions differ, but if I'm the asker, I'd prefer hearing what you remember your grandmother saying that seemed close. While someone may come through with a "best answer", if instead of Russian we say Tlingit, the example makes perfect sense. We may have a resident Tlingit expert, but as with our resident Russian experts, I don't follow those threads close enough to know that. The fact that we're writing in MeTa speaks to our level of interaction with the site, but the user base for AskMe is much bigger and mostly more casual in their use.

Recent Activity
As salvia suggests, you have to comment for threads to be in Recent Activity. And MeTa users know all the tricks. That shouldn't be a requirement. Trying to be helpful is the perfect requirement for AskMe.

Like the early 90s NC funk band question, these examples illustrate why I suggest potentially helpful answers, and not "correct answers" or expert answers, are sufficient:

Why aren't Brooklyn livery cars more clearly marked?
: Is there a single best answer? For individual companies, probably. How many NYC car service employees or others that know the answer read AskMe? It's a big city with lots of livery cars, so maybe hundreds, but my guess is 1 or 2. Should only people that know the answer give an answer? I drove for a car service in Boston, know NYC pretty well, and can speculate (i.e. take an educated guess). I'm not interested enough to follow the thread, but I'll tell 'em what I know before getting back to work. Of course, I could have spent more time considering or researching the question but I'm only willing to invest a moment and I accept my answer may just be helpful and not "correct".

Does Kaiser test for drugs in the emergency room?: How many Kaiser emergency room employees or patients are reading and may answer? Big system, potentially hundreds. I can't answer the question, but I have some potentially relevant factual information. Again, not going to follow that thread, so I state what I know and move on.

Some questions are better for speculating than others. But the overall tone of this thread was "Don't answer unless you know you're right" and "Answer fewer questions". Good advice for anyone who compulsively just links to Wikipedia, but not good general advice. I see far more stupid questions than stupid answers. And I see more of both than answers from known experts (which excludes unverified folks that claim to be expert). And yet, AskMe remains remarkably useful so the status quo of trying to be helpful seems to be working.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 2:51 AM on February 5, 2009


Notice how you started your responses with clear indications that they are not facts but opinions. "I've always thought..." and "I see it as..." If you're going to guess at an answers, at least you're saying it's a guess, which is something.
posted by smackfu at 5:52 AM on February 5, 2009


My last adventure into AskMe was also my first and only attempt at an "anonymous" posting, which I did because it was relationship based.

Yup. I've done two anon AskMe's that were more in a gray area and the quality of answers was largely revolting. Part of it was me leaving out a few details and then having to email a mod to add them, but sometimes, after a certain point, AskMe seems to have made up its mind about the original poster, their life, choices they've made, mental health and that of anyone else mentioned in the post. Fun times.

A large part of the problem seemed to be people reliving their past drama through the question and releasing left over bitterness and venom. The quality of those answers doesn't inspire me to use AskMe much for gray area questions.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:54 AM on February 5, 2009


the conclusion I was hearing emerge from the vacapinta-DevilsAdvocate-grouse-pineapple set of comments sounds like it could, in the future, set the bar too high.

The proposed standard, as I understand it, would be that, unless one is an expert in the field with the specific answer requested, one should follow the post in recent activity for a couple days


Out of the four comments you linked to one (mine) suggested waiting for hours, not days; one suggested coming back "tomorrow" (that's one day, not "a couple days"); and two did not specify any time frame.

If you're going to strawman, you might as well go big and claim that we said that people who don't have a definitive answer should wait 11 months before chiming in.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:42 AM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


As salvia suggests, you have to comment for threads to be in Recent Activity.

Not so, actually; if you favorite a post, it'll show up in the Recent Favorites tab of your RA page regardless of whether you commented or not.
posted by cortex (staff) at 6:54 AM on February 5, 2009


Actually, Recent Favorites isn't as useful as the My Favorites tab on the Recent Activity page. This actually allows you to "subscribe" to a post without commenting in it.

Changed my life it did.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:00 AM on February 5, 2009


Wow that town car question is a hilarious example of fail. Answers range from a random guess to a non sequitur about tips to a mistaken detour into gypsy cabs (not what the poster was asking about at all) and finally some knee jerk whinging about the term gypsy cab.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:01 AM on February 5, 2009


(What WAS the deal with that tips answer? I reread that question and the answers a few times to figure out why that was posted. Did someone just misread the question? Or was there a deleted response that that they were responding too?)
posted by smackfu at 7:11 AM on February 5, 2009


Er, yeah, that was me just being totally retarded about which tab to mention. LISTEN TO BRANDON.
posted by cortex (staff) at 7:42 AM on February 5, 2009


Everyone, eat more pie.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:47 AM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wow that town car question is a hilarious example of fail

That's one way of looking at. Another is that the question sucked - ask your next driver. But even if no single best answer was given and none of the respondent's knew themselves to be correct, they all suggested reasonable possibilities, and if you put together their answers you have the most likely scenario(s): Customers expect discreetly marked vehicles, lots of drivers own their cars and are independent contractors, and "Executive Limousine Services" doesn't want to be known to customers or regulators as a gypsy cab company but its drivers want to act like gypsy cabs if not carrying a scheduled fare. It displays the wisdom of crowds rather than the old-school wisdom of individuals in crowds.

The off-topic comments were not benefiting the asker. The decent, if not 100% correct, answers helped more than saying nothing at all. And anyone following and waiting to comment on such a trivial thread has performance anxiety and/or too much time on their hands.

cortex and Brandon - thanks for the tip. Obviously even the Metatalk veterans don't know all the tricks.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 7:54 AM on February 5, 2009


anyone following and waiting to comment on such a trivial thread has performance anxiety

If that is "performance anxiety," I wonder what it is when people prematurely comment all over threads.
posted by grouse at 7:58 AM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


Out of the four comments you linked to one (mine) suggested waiting for hours, not days; one suggested coming back "tomorrow" (that's one day, not "a couple days"); and two did not specify any time frame.

Yeah, you're right. hours (6?12?), later, and tomorrow were the specifics from those quotes, and I got the "two days" idea from the sentence from McGuillicuddy that appears three times in the thread (once the original, twice quoted: "Maybe you'd like to follow a thread for 2 days, but if you want to make that policy, you should convince the admins."

Nevertheless, I think my point stands, that fewer casual readers will comment if they have to come back later.
posted by salvia at 8:12 AM on February 5, 2009


Also, the bad experiences that Navelgazer and Brandon Blatcher had with anonymous questions seem worth thinking about more. Is there a way to improve how useful those questions and answers are?

For another data point, the anonymous questions I've asked were answered fairly helpfully, but by a smaller number of people, so maybe they didn't ignite people's passions quite as much as other questions.
posted by salvia at 8:29 AM on February 5, 2009


> fewer casual readers will comment if they have to come back later.

This leads to fewer crap answers. This is beneficial to the asker, to people who know what they're talking about when they respond, and to everybody who finds the question in a search later.

I have no idea why you think this is not better than padding out the thread with wrong responses, unhelpful speculation, and raw bullshit.
posted by ardgedee at 8:46 AM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


salvia (I tried to memail you but, well, load and load and never actually load, you know) try tossing your question here. You might have better luck. FWIW I don't think Yo Mama's Big Fat Booty Band existed much before 2003 but I could be wrong.
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:37 AM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


salvia said: "My specific questions were "Do you recognize any of these?... Yo Mama's Big Fat Booty Band? Possible... Anything ring a bell?" I see those as different than "tell me the song title and artist (and only the title and artist) for these three songs." I certainly meant to show openness to clues, and then I jumped in to work with someone who supplied a clue. So I'm not understanding how I gave the impression I would only accept perfect answers. In fact klangklangston's answer ("sounds like a Neneh Cherry riff...") was exactly the kind of clue I meant to invite by setting the bar down at "anything ring a bell?" instead of up at "name the artist and title."

I think it's just a potato/potahto thing. What you read as open, inviting brainstorming, I read as "Question X demands Specific Answer Y." I can see where we diverged, and I think we're probably both somewhere in the middle on the spectrum of "Any answer goes" <> "Only the exact right answer is allowed." That I'm closer to one side and you're closer to the other doesn't mean we aren't both in the gray.

McGuillicuddy said: "Some questions are better for speculating than others. But the overall tone of this thread was "Don't answer unless you know you're right" and "Answer fewer questions". Good advice for anyone who compulsively just links to Wikipedia, but not good general advice. I see far more stupid questions than stupid answers. "

Then you don't read enough AskMe.
posted by pineapple at 12:19 PM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have no idea why you think this is not better than padding out the thread with wrong responses, unhelpful speculation, and raw bullshit.

ardgedee, because I don't agree that all casual readers only offer "raw bullshit," nor that all speculation is unhelpful. There's a gray area between the perfect answer and snarky insult. In between, there's a lot that may or may not be useful depending on the poster.

Some speculation or half-answers will certainly be useful. For example, the best answer I got about kayaking was from "call[ing] City Kayak," as I transcribed here. So, the value of not dissuading casual answers is that, say, one out of ten such suggestions will turn out to be the most useful comment. The downside is that the OP has to scroll through the other [nine] non-expert answers that don't prove useful. But since the goal is to find an answer (not to minimize scrolling), I think it is worth it on balance. If one half-answer is worth (let's say) +100 (the most helpful thing that was said!) and the other nine are worth -5 each (the annoyance of having to scroll), that set of ten half-answers still has a positive value (+55). Dissuading all ten of those casual spectators would then have a negative impact on AskMe. (You may disagree with my numbers. I'm just including them to show how I see the balance.)

If I had just read this Metatalk thread, I wouldn't post a comment suggesting someone call a kayak store. I'd sit back and wait for some expert kayaker to answer, and then I'd forget about the whole thing.

Big picture, I don't understand the hostility I hear in a few comments. Maybe I just have an easier time ignoring dumb answers or something. I have come into threads about my professional specialty and found some imperfect ideas floating around. It's not that hard to state one's qualifications and then give better information. And if I hadn't shown up, those lesser answers ("call Random Organization that kinda knows about this," "here's a best-seller that touches on this topic") wouldn't have been un-helpful. They would have brought the OP closer than they were. That said, I know this is a sore spot particularly for legal and medical issues, and there aren't that many city planning questions, so maybe the exhaustion hasn't kicked in for me the way it might if I were a computer technician or tenant rights attorney.

pineapple: agreed that we're both in the middle, and maybe I'll be more clear in the future that any clues are welcome. (In person, people read me as very laid back, so maybe I take that for granted.)

mygothlaundry: thanks!
posted by salvia at 12:46 PM on February 5, 2009


So, the value of not dissuading casual answers is that, say, one out of ten such suggestions will turn out to be the most useful comment.

I can understand your argument when it is easy for the OP to distinguish between useful and non-useful answers, but what about cases where the OP can't distinguish between useful (or correct) answers and non-useful (wrong) answers?

I think that's a big part of the disagreement in this thread: Those who are arguing for more restraint are thinking of questions where it is hard for the OP to separate the wheat from the chaff (e.g. quantum physics), while those who are arguing against restraint are thinking of questions where it is pretty easy to figure out which answers are useful or not (e.g. your question linked above, salvia). Cortex touched on this issue above.

Can we all happily agree that a bit more restraint would be useful for the questions where it is tough for the OP to determine the usefulness or truthfulness of answers while the level of restraint is generally fine for questions where it is easy for the OP to determine the usefulness of answers?
posted by ssg at 1:47 PM on February 5, 2009


Exactly. ssg.
posted by languagehat at 1:49 PM on February 5, 2009


ssg - I'll agree to that. But the asker only has themselves to blame if they are expecting all wheat on an anonymous public internet forum. If you ask quantum physics questions on AskMe, don't climb in the time-machine we tell you how to build.

salvia - perfectly stated.

pineapple - I've already acknowledged I don't have hours to kill reading AskMe. I've got one-liners to drop elsewhere.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 2:15 PM on February 5, 2009


And one more thing, I was responding to languagehat's suggestion to wait 2 days before giving a semi-helpful answer. Because the thought has never crossed my mind before.

In reference to helpful answers found via search engines, I've found Yahoo! Answers and WikiAnswers have the clue I'm searching for far more often than AskMe. Sure, there are a load of shit answers too, but their mechanisms for community voted "best answer" eliminates most of the need to read the shit. That makes me think tangential or partial answers make even more sense, especially once the question has been sufficiently answered, because it is seems at least as likely that someone will have a related question instead of the same question.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 2:21 PM on February 5, 2009


If that is "performance anxiety," I wonder what it is when people prematurely comment all over threads.

It's called "FRIST PSOT!". It's a well known syndrome, some people suggest abstinence in the answer, but the experts know there is no cure.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 2:41 PM on February 5, 2009


Just because an answer isn't useful to the OP, doesn't mean it isn't useful to another reader. I dislike how "self policing" frequently turns into "being a zealous martinet" on MeFi. If you want expert answers tailored to your question, you're probably going to have to pay a professional. Or maybe you'll get lucky on askMe, but don't get all snippy if the (almost) free advice is not to your liking.
posted by telstar at 4:04 PM on February 5, 2009


That taxi/livery question is exactly the kind where uninformed speculating chaps my ass. That's the sort of question that has an actual correct answer, and all it would take to get it, if no MeFi member jumps in with the details from when their dad drove a livery car, is a few phone calls. You'd call a couple of livery companies until you got someone who was friendly and chatty, and then maybe call the department that oversees them to get a different perspective. We can guess all day long, but good intentions not withstanding, the guessing isn't very helpful.

This comes up again and again on AskMe, actually, where people's desire to be helpful outpaces their ability to actually provide useful assistance. I can remember one time where the "advice" was so disconnected from reality that I took five minutes and phoned up the DMV and asked the question, then transcribed the answer.

There are lots of questions were guessing is fine, like some of the goofier relationship issues. And there are also lots of questions, like the Senegalese worm question yesterday, that are not directly answerable from the information given (what, we are supposed to reach through our screens, take a stool sample, and analyze it with our desk lamps?), but where providing possibilities and informational resources is helpful. Another example was the "OMG I left a tampon in too long" question the other day, and the first few answers at least (I haven't followed its progression) struck me as providing a perfect balance of anecdote and information -- this is normal, I did this and survived, the correct term is X, go see a doctor if Y happens, etc.

Step one: get on high horse and pontificate knowingly;

Step two: look uncomfortable and resolve to apply one's own advice to one's own participation in AskMe.

posted by Forktine at 4:59 PM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


taxi/livery question....has an actual correct answer

Actually, there are as many correct answers as there are livery car companies. Or as the answer that discussed the relevant regulations might suggest, perhaps the better question is why would a livery car company pay for auto detailing that is not required by regulation? But there are many answers to that question too.

I don't get how that is not AskMe-as-intended, when most, if not all, of the possibilities were thrown out there in the thread and at least two former livery drivers commented (one off-topic and me, though I didn't drive in Brooklyn). Early feedback couldn't hurt anybody in that case. Do you really think those speculative answers are going to stop a livery company owner from giving the definitive answer for his company or an enterprising whippersnapper from making the calls as you suggest? If the question goes unanswered for 2 days, is the asker better served? Generally speaking, I can't imagine someone that wanted to answer saying "fuck that, 9 people have already speculated about the answer", but I do think that's a lot of companies to call to figure out which have marked cars and which don't and why.

Speculating on what type of worm somebody has though or whether they have TSS - I can't imagine saying anything but see a doctor as soon as possible and leaving it at that. You could literally scare somebody to death or convince them they're fine when they need medical care. (Nothing personal Fortkine - your worm answer was good - but that boy needs to see a doctor in a decent size hospital and worry about the bill later).
posted by McGuillicuddy at 6:24 PM on February 5, 2009


"People bring their life experience here. One of the things I know from my life experience is that I am better equipped than some to search for something obvious on google." - actual statement made on AskMe yesterday

Am I a zealous martinet for thinking that this ("even if I don't know anything about the topic, I'm just as qualified to participate because I can use Google") is a metric better suited for Yahoo Answers than AskMetaFilter?
posted by pineapple at 10:18 AM on February 7, 2009


Maybe so, but there have been cases where I found the correct answer for a question using Google. For instance, this one about ID'ing a photo. I would hazard that means in that particular that I was better at using Google than the answerer. That's not a judgment or anything.
posted by smackfu at 12:27 PM on February 7, 2009


Am I a zealous martinet for thinking that this ("even if I don't know anything about the topic, I'm just as qualified to participate because I can use Google") is a metric better suited for Yahoo Answers than AskMetaFilter?

No. However, belaboring this point -- correct me if I'm wrong, the comment was directed at you -- isn't helpful either. I know it's annoying as hell to some people but I really feel like I Google a lot better than many people generally, and some people here specifically. I really feel like it's all in the presentation. AskMe is more useful than Yahoo Answers, in my opinion, because people take context into account and try to both ask and answer questions with that in mind.

I've already forgotten what that specific question was about that had that quote in it (short memory for some things is one of the things that makes me decent at my job) but I think there are polite and decent ways to say "Hey did you know you could find this, this and this through a quick Google. Do any of these help answer your question? If not, what else are you looking for?" Someone can ask for "personal experiences" and a forum devoted to talking about personal experiences might fit the bill for their question.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:25 PM on February 7, 2009


Am I a zealous martinet for thinking that this ("even if I don't know anything about the topic, I'm just as qualified to participate because I can use Google") is a metric better suited for Yahoo Answers than AskMetaFilter?

Yeah, I guess I don't really see the problem with googling an answer. In fact, I tend to think that if it is a problem that people can do this, it lies with the question. (I'm not speaking specifically here and actually couldn't find that quote; was the comment deleted?). If the question can be easily googled, maybe the person should either do that or explain why the googled answers aren't good enough. Then again, if someone else is willing to do someone's research for them, why should we complain?

The worst question in my memory was: "what will my cancellation fee be if I quit my cell phone plan?" I won't go into why this is the worst question ever. I don't know anything about cell phone cancellation fee calculation methodologies, but say I called that person's cell phone company for them and then shared the answer with them, that would be great. (And hopefully I wouldn't include snark like "I guess some people are better at using the phone than others.") If there is an answer to be found using google, what's wrong with finding it that way?

More often, I think it's kind of a grey area. Eg:
Q: "omg, i don't have the slightest idea what to do in this one conversation and i always let people walk all over me!!"
A: "don't worry, you can learn to handle this, here, check out these handouts on assertive communication skills."
I think it's grey because in addition to googling ability, the answerer is bringing: (a) an opinion about what solution might work (learn communication skills vs., say, get better friends), (b) an opinion about how to learn those skills (a handout), (c) an awareness that such handouts exist, (d) a search term to find those handouts.

But here's an example that's not gray. I saw part #2 of the question, googled something like "someone dies checklist," and linked to pages on the first page of search results. I didn't think it was the best answer ever, but I'd just helped another friend with that and knew which checklists I'd liked, so it took three minutes. In fact, other answers in that thread marked best answer were probably googled. If these things help the questioner, I don't see the problem.
posted by salvia at 4:41 PM on February 7, 2009


(Don't mean to imply there was anything wrong with this question.)
posted by salvia at 5:11 PM on February 7, 2009


jessamyn said: "I've already forgotten what that specific question was about that had that quote in it (short memory for some things is one of the things that makes me decent at my job) but I think there are polite and decent ways to say "Hey did you know you could find this, this and this through a quick Google. Do any of these help answer your question? If not, what else are you looking for?" Someone can ask for "personal experiences" and a forum devoted to talking about personal experiences might fit the bill for their question."

This is the AskMe from which I pulled the quote. To me, in that thread, there was a noticeably high ratio of "I don't know anything about this topic AT ALL but I used Google so blah" -- when "blah" was not even actually the conventional wisdom about the topic.

I realize there is a lot of gray area in all this, and I'm sure that my own AskMe peccadilloes are the primary driver/baggage. But that gold party thread basically represents to me the worst of AskMe Answer Syndrome. I mean, there are legitimate articles about the gold party trend in major news outlets out there -- yet the first two commenters post the first Google hit as their answer. To me it's low-hanging fruit and First! syndrome wrapped up in one.

"I don't know anything about this but I went to Google and the first hit I found was" is just as egregious to me as "I didn't bother to read this whole thread, but here, please read my pearls of wisdom now". And, it feels like it's insulting to the Asker, too.

But, like I said, I'm clearly farther toward the "if you don't know, don't answer" side of the spectrum than most.

For what it's worth, I also dislike it when people do what I did in that thread: load it with actual answer, and think that it outweighs slipping in some meta (which is bad faith, even if the answer is helpful).
posted by pineapple at 6:41 PM on February 7, 2009 [1 favorite]


salvia said: "Yeah, I guess I don't really see the problem with googling an answer."

I don't think there's anything wrong with googling an answer. But I think there's something wrong with putting the idea that "I'm better at Google than most people therefore I am just as equipped as anyone else to weigh in right now" up on a pedestal*. It gives every crappy googler the permission they need to full steam ahead with some of the very worst answering on the board.

If an answer is good, then it's good because the answerer was good at finding the right info at the right time -- whether because she already knew it, or because he actually is a rocket scientist, or because she was better at internet searching, or whatever. But that's about the skill of the person, not about the superiority of an answer from Google.

salvia said: "In fact, I tend to think that if it is a problem that people can do this, it lies with the question. (I'm not speaking specifically here and actually couldn't find that quote; was the comment deleted?). If the question can be easily googled, maybe the person should either do that or explain why the googled answers aren't good enough."

I agree -- I wish that in a "Question X seeks specific Answer Y" (as opposed to relationship or "soft" questions), the poster would indicate what she or he has already done to seek the info, to thwart those who love "firsthitongooglesaysblah! FIRST!"

*I think that Jessamyn is an obvious exception here. As MeFi staff, and plus someone who is superior at research by trade, I think that it is reasonable for her to say, "I'm better at Google than most, and I found blah" -- especially since she takes care with presentation, as she said upthread, which lots of people do not.
posted by pineapple at 7:02 PM on February 7, 2009


Yeah, you know what's funny (this is not responding directly to what you said), is that as I was giving the assertive communication answer, I was remembering the great answer pineapple posted to my professional communication question, which was far superior to anything anyone googled and posted.

What I've been realizing is that it's a relative thing, how appreciated any answer is. It's compared to other answers. That is why I think we should take whatever people throw at us (within reason) and then decide what the best answer is later. If someone shows up and writes out all the lessons their professional years have taught them, awesome. If not, hey at least someone googled that handout.

More on topic, pineapple said: "If an answer is good, it's good because the answerer was good at finding the right info at the right time." Yeah, sounds like we agree here. Google as a tool is irrelevant, the necessary knowledge is something else.
posted by salvia at 12:20 AM on February 8, 2009


Hmm, more irritably. If I try to apply this "don't answer unless you know you have the right answer" standard to the vague human relations questions on the board now, it's impossible to meet it. Seriously, what's the expert answer here? I have no problem with people posting questions like that, but it feels like some people answering this Meta are watching answers with a critical eye. What type of answer meets that standard for a question like that? You can see me feeling inadequate in my answer there, where 1/4 is spent saying what I actually felt (if you can see both sides of yourself, you're on the verge of accepting both sides and finding a consistent way to be in the world), 1/2 worrying about the critique, and 1/4 giving something officially useful (a book that's recommended ad nauseum here). I don't think I'm just a paranoid person; I think it's impossible to answer that question to the stanard I hear here. So, is that a question you all would recommend not answering, or do you expect an expert with the perfect solution to chime in?
posted by salvia at 12:32 AM on February 8, 2009


I think that human relations questions are a distinct exception to "don't answer unless you know you have the right answer." I think that those are questions where human experience and opinion and a variety of perspectives are the real value, and there can't possibly be one right answer.

I should have disclaimed that more clearly, salvia. I think that the "soft" questions where there isn't a correct answer are exempt from this discussion. I think your answer in the coyness thread was a great one and that there isn't any reason to feel inadequate.
posted by pineapple at 7:25 AM on February 8, 2009


Here's someone who wants cheap glasses in Ottowa, and specifies that she doesn't want to buy online.

So far, the answers are two "here's a place to buy online" and one person who doesn't know what drugstore reading glasses are and assumes they will fit the bill.


No point, really. Just venting.
posted by CunningLinguist at 9:10 AM on February 8, 2009


Ah, okay, I missed that the first time around. Thanks for the clarification (and reassurance), pineapple.
posted by salvia at 11:53 PM on February 8, 2009


Yeah, just to clarify, I'm roughly the same shade of gray as pineapple on this. (Gray pineapple? Ewwww.) While I'd like to see more restraint than what we commonly see, I don't mean to suggest there aren't some types of questions where no particular expertise is required to answer and guesses and half-answers may be helpful. Sorry if I came off as overly dogmatic.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:46 AM on February 9, 2009


This current question is a good example of why answering science/math questions in ask mefi is so frustrating.

Lots of guesses and even wrong answers. But since physics/math/astronomy skills are so low in general, how does the asker or anyone else know good answers from bad? Should I have stated in that question that I have an astrophysics degree and have given public lectures on Mayan astronomy. That seems heavy-handed and annoying. But the alternative is, well....frustrating.
posted by vacapinta at 2:20 PM on February 10, 2009


One hates to tout ones credentials, but in that case I think it's totaly relevant.
posted by CunningLinguist at 2:41 PM on February 10, 2009


I think it's entirely kosher to mention your credentials when it's relevant, as it is here. I occasionally see "I am a lawyer but I am not your lawyer" in answers to legal questions, and I hope the poster gives more weight to those answers than to others.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:52 PM on February 10, 2009


« Older Miami-So. Fla meetup?   |   Michigan Meetup? Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments