Just ask the question, don't be clever! August 18, 2011 4:39 AM   Subscribe

I've noticed lately that askers on Ask Metafilter often post something they think is clever but which gives you no clue to what the question actually is until you click through. Like this.

When posting a question on Ask Metafilter, there are two fields - one labelled "your question" and one labelled "extended explanation (optional)". I think that's a clear indication of how it should be used. I like a bit of cleverness as much as the next person, but purposefully obfuscating the question kind of seems to go against the whole point of the site.

Also, it not damned hot in England. The highest temperature to be found on the mainland this week is about 15c/60f.
posted by cilantro to Etiquette/Policy at 4:39 AM (69 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

Was that trying to be clever, or was it just a mistake? Mistakes happen, that's why they put erasers on pencils and why we have an edit window.
posted by Elmore at 4:49 AM on August 18, 2011


I meant ... Oh, damn.
posted by Elmore at 4:49 AM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I hope that when no one claimed it wasn't not hot in England my silence wasn't taken as consent. If so, I apologize.
posted by DU at 4:51 AM on August 18, 2011


Well, people are gonna post how they post. If they write a question in an obscure way, they're going to limit the number of answers they get. And there's really no way to regulate what words people put into the field, unless you're suggesting that the mods should routinely edit what people post, and I don't think anyone wants that, least of all, the mods.
posted by crunchland at 4:54 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Since questions are primarily* for the benefit of the asker, this behavior primarily harms them, if it in fact harms anyone. One could make an argument, however, that a clever lead-in might get more clicks than a straightforward question. Either way, we don't mandate a specific way in which people can ask questions. Nor should we.
posted by OmieWise at 4:56 AM on August 18, 2011


Crunchland, I think that's taking it a bit far. I was thinking more along the lines of just getting the idea out there that maybe it's not the best way to post because it makes the site less useful.
posted by cilantro at 4:58 AM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah, no, I'm not calling for any kind of "mandate". Just pointing out that this seems to happen more and more lately, and that it's kind of annoying, and that maybe it would be nice if Ask-ers considered that it might make the site slightly less useful for other users. I saw the question and thought "hey! I always lose sunglasses, this is relevant to my interests" and then it turned out to be a completely non-related question about shipping costs. I found it annoying. That's all.
posted by cilantro at 5:07 AM on August 18, 2011 [9 favorites]


Well, I have a feeling that most of the people who use askme don't read metatalk, but maybe people will commiserate about your annoyance, and you'll feel better.
posted by crunchland at 5:11 AM on August 18, 2011


OmieWise: "*"

This upsets me even more than unclosed parentheses.
posted by Plutor at 5:14 AM on August 18, 2011 [13 favorites]


Almost everything that "has been happening lately" is a perception, not a fact.
posted by DU at 5:17 AM on August 18, 2011


I think they just switched which one was supposed to be the question and which one was supposed to be the "Headline/Title" - it's a relatively common mistake, despite the layout of the Post a New Question page.
posted by muddgirl at 5:27 AM on August 18, 2011


Your pleas are destined to fall upon the deaf ears of innumerable special snowflakes.
posted by trunk muffins at 5:39 AM on August 18, 2011


I've seen people refer to the above the fold section as "the teaser", with the expectation that the question will be asked below the fold. This is clearly doing it wrong. I don't think there's any way to stop people doing things wrong, though.

The admins have done what they can to prevent this, and have refined the "New Question" page down the years to be close to idiot-proof. It now makes it as clear as is possible to do which box is for the question and which is for optional supplementary information, and people still mess it up. There's nothing more they can do.

It happens increasingly on the Blue and on the Grey — you have to click through to find out what the post is about. It's a bit like reading the New York Times, where you invariably have to get through a cryptic headline and a four-paragraph dropped intro before you find out that the story is only about what the journalist had for breakfast anyway.

Besides which, it's actually pretty damn warm here in Merseyside. I'm off to the beach!
posted by nowonmai at 5:45 AM on August 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


This upsets me even more than unclosed parentheses.

(Me too. I had something niggling at the back of my mind, and that was it.

*Of course there is a secondary benefit to the community as a whole, as the answers provide a huge general resource.
posted by OmieWise at 5:58 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


)
posted by OmieWise at 5:58 AM on August 18, 2011 [14 favorites]


There's nothing more they can do.

People used to make "clever" jokes leading in to the "more inside" text. The mods just started deleting them, and now it wasn't something people saw and copied, and it died. So... there is more they can do.
posted by smackfu at 6:05 AM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


The mods just started deleting them, and now it wasn't something people saw and copied, and it died. So... there is more they can do.

See also, snowflake.
posted by Gator at 6:09 AM on August 18, 2011


Perhaps the NQ page should let you know that most people don't read every question, and that the FP part should attract people who know the answer to your question. I understand the trade-off between how long the instructions are and how many people read them, so maybe deletions are the answer.

Better FP part = more signal to noise in AskMe, which is crucial for the AI google is building.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:09 AM on August 18, 2011


Yeah. This irks me too. Especially bait-and-switches like this one. Part of the (persistent) problem is that the Headline/Title doesn't show up until after you click through on the question. But, I agree with sentiments that it hurts them more than me.
posted by cocoagirl at 6:20 AM on August 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


One could make an argument, however, that a clever lead-in might get more clicks than a straightforward question.

It might get a higher number of clicks ... but of people who are less likely to have a good answer to the question.
posted by John Cohen at 6:20 AM on August 18, 2011


For instance, the question cocoagirl links to will be clicked by people who are good at answering human relations questions. What the OP should want is people who are good at answering sports questions.
posted by John Cohen at 6:23 AM on August 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


See also, snowflake.

"Snowflake" is the new "hive mind."
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:27 AM on August 18, 2011


This does kind of suck, but maybe they are content with the question being that informal.
posted by cashman at 6:36 AM on August 18, 2011


"Snowflake" is the new "hive mind."

How many times do I have to tell you: WE. DO. NOT. USE. OUR. CODE. NAMES. IN. PUBLIC.

Now go fill out some forms Agent mumblemuble.
posted by griphus at 6:37 AM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well, people are gonna post how they post. If they write a question in an obscure way, they're going to limit the number of answers they get. And there's really no way to regulate what words people put into the field, unless you're suggesting that the mods should routinely edit what people post, and I don't think anyone wants that, least of all, the mods.

The whole intro text of this question used to be: "I've fallen in love." Then I left a comment recommending that this be changed to reflect that this isn't a love question; it's a music question. The OP had "fallen in love" with the songs of Stan Rogers and was looking for similar music. As you can see, the question did get edited. I don't know if this was done of the mods' accord or at the OP's request, but it happened.

So, it's not true that there's no possible solution to this. There might not be an automatic solution, but specific mishaps can be solved on a case-by-case basis.

There could also be something about this in the FAQ.
posted by John Cohen at 6:40 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm a confirmed overthinker, but eh, I just don't think this is such a big problem that it needs Official Discouragement.
posted by desuetude at 6:40 AM on August 18, 2011


As you can see, the question did get edited. I don't know if this was done of the mods' accord or at the OP's request, but it happened.

Sometimes people do this sort of thing by accident--making the title the question and the above the fold part some other part and then more of the question below the fold. We really examined how the "ask a question" page was set up to see if there was a design thing we could do differently and we really felt like the combination of explanations and previewing was really mostly okay. There's always a cost to making changes and this one didn't feel desperately needed.

However, sometimes people just ask the question in a weird way [like this example] and our Official Mod Approach is that sometimes we'll edit it to move where the "more inside" starts, like in the example John Cohen gives, and sometimes we'll leave it alone. We'll also sometimes put some of the question into the "more inside" part if people's questions wind up looking like bgi walls of text.

So yeah I think a little encouragement to make sure th above-the-fold part of your question is actually a question is a good idea, not because we're all super fussy and uptight [though I certainly am] btu more because you'll get better answers to your question, just like you would by using better tags and accurate categorization.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:57 AM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well, people are gonna post how they post. If they write a question in an obscure way, they're going to limit the number of answers they get.

Beyond totally agreeing that people formatting their questions more clearly is a win all around but particularly for the asker who presumably wants a lot of people to answer their quesiton, this is pretty much the start and end of it, practically, yeah. Not in a HA, SERVES YOU RIGHT sort of way so much as just that there's a whole lot of questions posted every day, the vast majority of them are fairly clear above the fold about what they're asking or at least the specific subject domain they're asking in, and of the ones that aren't the asker is free to drop us a note if they've accidentally rather than intentionally shot themselves in a foot with cutesy framing.

Every now and then I'll go ahead and autonomously prepend the title text to the above-the-fold text on a question if it's really unambiguously just a formatting mistake by the asker and it totally ruins the possibility of the question being recognized. But that's an edge case, and at that is about as much editing as we're ever going to do to someone's question or post without a specific request by them to do something more specific. If someone seems like they want to intentionally bury the lede, I think it's going to not make for great answers for them but short of contacting us with regrets about it they can do that.

My feeling is that a poorly-asked question now and then is a drop in the bucket, as annoying as they are to see from a data-presentation enthusiast's perspective. Definitely worth people thinking about if they've gone cutesy without considering the implications, but it feels like it may be a self-correcting problem in a lot of ways since the cutesiness isn't likely to yield a bumper crop of great answers compared to more typical askme presentation.
posted by cortex (staff) at 7:23 AM on August 18, 2011


Jesus, that's an obnoxious way to ask a question. Talk about making people do as much work as possible before they can help you, just so you can fancy yourself a clever writer. I totally agree with you, cilantro. Good callout.
posted by Dasein at 7:25 AM on August 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


A new one!
posted by cashman at 7:30 AM on August 18, 2011


Yeah, the whole above-the-fold of that one could be nixed, since it's also the title, and the [more inside] be moved up.
posted by Gator at 7:32 AM on August 18, 2011


nowonmai writes "It happens increasingly on the Blue and on the Grey — you have to click through to find out what the post is about."

Mystery Meat has always been a problem on the front page. Its popularity waxes and wanes but I haven't really noticed a uptick. And at least the one link per letter mystery meat has stopped.
posted by Mitheral at 7:35 AM on August 18, 2011


Yes this seems to be a thing lately on Ask and its not something a new user would think to do.

Fine on the blue, annoying on the green.
posted by Ness at 7:40 AM on August 18, 2011


A new one!

Repaired that.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:41 AM on August 18, 2011


I'd be OK with removing the title field altogether. Sometimes I'll see an answer that responds to the above-the-fold question ("Well, it depends on the size of your pigeon") and the OP points to the title, which is the only place that indicates the pigeon's dimensions.

I realize that the URL is pulled from the title, which is why my pony is destined for the factory, but I think many people formulate an answer before clicking through, since the title isn't shown on the main AskMe page.
posted by catlet at 8:10 AM on August 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


This doesn't bother me so much—I'm just less likely to look, that's all, if I don't know what the question is about when looking at it on the main page.

The questions that are full of a whole lot of trying in the asking, though, are the ones that drive me nuts—you know, with impenetrable prose that's been over-written and then rewritten until they're dense little knots of self-referential and self-indulgent "wit". Like AskMe is some kind of contest. I was thinking of a recent one the other day—it was insanely over-written, maybe contained thees and thous?—but I can't for the life of me remember what it was about, so I can't find it again.
posted by peachfuzz at 8:11 AM on August 18, 2011


Okay this is overthinking it in a serious way, but what about a clunky algorithm that checks for word order and then just puts a little note that says, "It looks like there isn't a question in the main content of your post. Please make sure there is a clear question there, as that will help you get better answers."

It would be as simple as as just seeing if there are question marks and/or question words (who, what, when, where, how, why) in the main body of the question. It wouldn't keep the post from going through, it would just be a notice saying, Hey, looks like "It's hot. Damned hot. And I lose sunglasses" isn't actually a question. Are you sure you have a question somewhere in there?
posted by Deathalicious at 8:38 AM on August 18, 2011


That sounds like a really fun NLP project, Deathalicious, but boy oh boy is it not something I want to try and actually get into reliable enough shape to have a like 99% success rate against typical askme input.
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:41 AM on August 18, 2011


what about a clunky algorithm that checks for word order

We could eliminate 75% of the problem with an algorithm that just checked for a question mark, though maybe that's tough to do with regexp?
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:44 AM on August 18, 2011


Oh no. I'm really worried about catlet's pony going to the factory now. =(
posted by maryr at 8:44 AM on August 18, 2011


When you come across a question like this, post a clear, sympathetic, and reasonable answer, followed by savage ridicule for the way the question was posed. The goodness of the answer might prevent the ridicule from being deleted.
posted by Bruce H. at 9:06 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Without actually searching, I'm going to guess we get a fair minority of questions that are totally legitimately formatted but which have no question mark above the fold. People will often sort of state an instigating situation that prompted the question, in terms of "x happened" or "I need to accomplish x", with the question either before the fold or simply implied. So searching for missing '?' characters would lead to a lot of false positives.
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:12 AM on August 18, 2011


I checked about half an hour ago, cortex. 16 of the 60 questions on the AskMe front page didn't use a question mark.
posted by catlet at 9:24 AM on August 18, 2011


I think the clever, humorous 'above-the-fold' bits are people acknowledging that they have a first-world problem and therefore they feel a bit ridiculous so it leaks out as they type.
posted by pink candy floss at 9:24 AM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


cortex: That sounds like a really fun NLP project, Deathalicious, but boy oh boy is it not something I want to try and actually get into reliable enough shape to have a like 99% success rate against typical askme input.

jessamyn: We could eliminate 75% of the problem with an algorithm that just checked for a question mark, though maybe that's tough to do with regexp?

Well, here's a simple example in ColdFusion, no Markov needed. I think it probably catches most things that are questions or question-like. It checks for the existence of a question mark, and if not found, it looks for something matching a sentence or phrase starting with who, what, when, where, how, why, does, or is (you could also add in am i and are we).

<cfset variables.text_to_test="input from question here">
<cfset variables.question_like=False>
<cfif find('?', variables.text_to_test)>
    <cfset variables.question_like = True>
<cfelse>
    <cfloop list="who,what,when,where,how,why,does,is" index="variables.question_word">
        <cfif REFindNoCase("[[:punct:]]\s*\b#variables.question_word#", variables.text_to_test) 
            or REFindNoCase("^#variables.question_word#", variables.text_to_test)
        >
            <cfset variables.question_like = True>
            <cfbreak>
        </cfif>
    </cfloop>
</cfif>
<cfif not variables.question_like>
    <div class="not-a-question">
It looks like there isn't a question in the main content of your post. 
Please make sure there is a clear question there, as that will help 
you get better answers.
    </div>
</cfif>
So there are going to be a few false positives, obviously, but it always helps to
posted by Deathalicious at 9:31 AM on August 18, 2011


The questions that are full of a whole lot of trying in the asking, though, are the ones that drive me nuts

Actually I think those seem to work pretty well. People like a good amount of explanation. People will put a mountain of problems and questions in one post and draw it out, and get detailed explanations and answers where a shorter one just leads to deletion or people asking for more information. People like the trying in the asking, it seems to me.

Metafilter: Reasonable answer, followed by savage ridicule
posted by cashman at 9:32 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


...it always helps to point question-askers in the right direction.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:32 AM on August 18, 2011


Actually I think those seem to work pretty well. People like a good amount of explanation. People will put a mountain of problems and questions in one post and draw it out, and get detailed explanations and answers where a shorter one just leads to deletion or people asking for more information. People like the trying in the asking, it seems to me.

Agreed on people who post detailed and clear relevant information! I meant the occasional questions that are self-conciously styled, like, trying really hard to be clever or funny or grandiose or...whatever, so much so that the question is obfuscated. Fedora guy's bastard children. But of course I couldn't find the one recent question I was thinking of, heh.
posted by peachfuzz at 9:39 AM on August 18, 2011


You cannot legislate away stupidity.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:48 AM on August 18, 2011


I stayed out of this thread all day because some of the early replies were kind of condescending and it put me in a bad mood, so it's nice to come back and see that interesting discussion and ideas have occurred!
posted by cilantro at 10:16 AM on August 18, 2011


So there are going to be a few false positives, obviously, but it always helps to

More than a few, because a perfectly reasonable AskMe along the lines of "Please suggest to me the best route to get from New York City to Rochester, NY without taking any four-lane highways - thanks" or will get nagged unfairly. It's hard to algorithmize this sort of thing, I guess.
posted by aught at 10:31 AM on August 18, 2011


Cilantro, I've been stewing a bit over this as well. Thanks for the call-out.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:31 AM on August 18, 2011


I'd be OK with removing the title field altogether.

Me too. Whenever I get to that field when asking a question, I go argh, now I have to summarize it again?
posted by smackfu at 10:34 AM on August 18, 2011


It's hard to algorithmize this sort of thing, I guess.

Yeah, StackOverflow tries to determine if a question is subjective, and it seems to get it wrong most of the time.
posted by smackfu at 10:35 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


You mean, questions like this one?
posted by Nomyte at 11:20 AM on August 18, 2011


Is it fair for me to also hate when someone asks for recommendations for shoes or headphones or whatever, and half the answers are like "I've been really happy with this one but this is also nice, and I'm thinking of getting these in a couple months". And you have to click on all the links just to find out what the hell they're talking about, and since these are links to shopping sites, in a month or two they're not likely to be leading anywhere anyway. There are a bunch of recommendation threads I haven't participated in because I just can't be bothered checking whether the thing I was going to mention is somewhere among the many mysterious things that are already being discussed.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 12:52 PM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Of the first two pages on AskMe (120 questions?) I count 32 without question marks. 19 of those include one or more of the words "looking," "help," or "please." 4 more include "need" or "want." 9 of them have none of the above, if my count's correct.

I personally wouldn't mind getting nagged even if my question was actually legimately clear, I just click on through and forget about it. But people's mileage may vary.
posted by EmilyClimbs at 1:51 PM on August 18, 2011


Yeah, part of my feeling is that I know for a fact that lots of people don't like getting nagged, with reactions varying from a bit of polite annoyance to outright What The Hell type reactions, which is why we keep our nagging functions on the site to a minimum and mostly human-driven besides.

So something that does a pretty good but not close-to-perfect job of identifying only the minimal set of actually-problematic stuff is dicey, because even a clever idea that executes fairly well can still have enough false positives, and accordingly ruin someone's day a bit (and possibly ours in response). And we mostly want to avoid that as much as possible. Measured against the occasional not-well-presented question, it's hard for me to find a clear incentive to complicate things with a new auto-nagger.
posted by cortex (staff) at 1:55 PM on August 18, 2011


To elaborate, we have a little built in nagging thing when people who have accounts that we think are sock puppets ask a question within seven days of each other. So let's say you have two accounts, maybe they're both yours, maybe one is yours and one is your partners, or your friends. We get a little admin alert when we see two linked accounts asking a question within seven days of each other and we check it out. If we're not sure what's up, and it's clear there's no emergency, we'll send an email asking what's up. Most of the time we get a "whoops sorry, will never do that again" email. Sometimes we get a "hey this is my rommate's account" email [and then we can unlink the accounts] sometimes we get cussed out by rule-evaders [and then we can close one of the accounts] and sometimes we trip into something problematic like maybe the account is owned by an ex and we've emailed them about their ex's question and things are a little awkward [and we unlink the accounts]

All this is to say that automated nagging is problematic because there are so many edge cases, and the edge cases can be annoying or embarassing, that for something that is not much of a problem it may be better to just skp the nagging and deal with the vaguely problematic behavior.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:10 PM on August 18, 2011


sometimes we get cussed out by rule-evaders [and then we can close one of the accounts]

Only one?!
posted by nicwolff at 3:44 PM on August 18, 2011


It's about as clever as a Rick Roll, and it's endemic on the Main as well. No context, surprise-inside posts fall below my expectations of content quality here, but that is just my opinion.
posted by Brocktoon at 3:52 PM on August 18, 2011


Only one?!

Yeah. In very few cases [I can think of one off the top of my head] this isn't sufficient to solve the actual problem.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:55 PM on August 18, 2011


You are all being assholes for some reason.
posted by Elmore at 4:01 PM on August 18, 2011


whoops sorry, will never do that again
posted by Elmore at 4:02 PM on August 18, 2011


Cathartic
posted by Elmore at 4:02 PM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


You cannot legislate away stupidity.

Oh, you can pass the legislation -- but actually managing to enforce it is a huge pain in the ass, if not actively impossible without resorting to atrocities....which is why I always skip the legislation part, and go straight to atrocity.


And now you know (long pause) the rest of the story.
posted by aramaic at 2:05 PM on August 19, 2011


Oh god, I hated that guy.
posted by maryr at 8:05 PM on August 19, 2011


... Good day.
posted by crunchland at 8:46 PM on August 19, 2011


Is this actually an increasing behavior, or is it a just a behavior that tends to happen in clumps?
posted by desuetude at 2:47 PM on August 20, 2011


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