Fix symptoms or root cause? (AskMe) April 5, 2006 9:48 AM   Subscribe

Food for thought regarding Ask MeFi: Answer the question or answer the underlying circumstances? Posit that the questioner didn't specifically ask that responses exclude a particular discussion, but, for example, this. A lot of people are saying "forget the computer, it should be disciplinary." Not directly responsive to the question, but responsive to the situation. Good? Bad? Thoughts?
posted by WCityMike to MetaFilter-Related at 9:48 AM (33 comments total)

Bad. Answer the question. Not that anyone will listen, since everyone on this site seems to be constitutionally incapable of any sort of restraint when it comes to meddling in other people's lives.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 9:54 AM on April 5, 2006


Blimey. I don't see a single attempt to answer the actual question.
posted by cillit bang at 9:55 AM on April 5, 2006


Yeah, answer the question asked. The fact is you don't KNOW much about the underlying circumstances, and people tend to ASSUME a lot - such as: you have no idea how to discipline your kid.

Just give the asker the technological help they are looking for. That doesn't mean that they'll do nothing holistic to discipline their child - and even if they didn't, why should you care?

Answer the question asked.
posted by scarabic at 9:57 AM on April 5, 2006


There is in fact no question in that post. It might have helped.
posted by teleskiving at 10:04 AM on April 5, 2006


It depends. I'm not a big fan of scolding questioners, but sometimes people ask questions in such a way that they betray a lack on insight into a larger situation that might need to be addressed in order for the actual question asked to be resolved. In that kind of case I think that pointing out the larger issue can be so helpful and necessary as to obviate the narrow question asked. With very emotional issues, though, like child-rearing, it seems like a poor strategy.
posted by OmieWise at 10:04 AM on April 5, 2006


I don't disagree, but an easy way to make sure that people only answer the relevant question is to only include the relevant information in your question.

For example, "What hardware solutions are available for restricting the use of specific internet applications?" or somesuch. No need to include the stuff about the kid and the homework if all you want help with is the technology.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:04 AM on April 5, 2006


There is in fact no question in that post. It might have helped.
I'd be happy to consider another hardware firewall that could sit between the internal network and the Internet, or even software (though he's certainly capable of cracking software protection). I'd like to be able to restrict services by time of day.
Alright, there's no explicit "How do I do this?", but does there really need to be?
posted by cillit bang at 10:09 AM on April 5, 2006


sometimes people ask questions in such a way that they betray a lack on insight into a larger situation

Perhaps, or perhaps they are aware of the larger situation but are looking for answers about one option at one location in one dimension of it.

Sometimes this perception of a "lack of insight" is based on assumptions.
posted by scarabic at 10:13 AM on April 5, 2006


an easy way to make sure that people only answer the relevant question is to only include the relevant information in your question.

Yep. That's a good point.
posted by scarabic at 10:14 AM on April 5, 2006


Bad. Answer the question. Not that anyone will listen, since everyone on this site seems to be constitutionally incapable of any sort of restraint when it comes to meddling in other people's lives.

How about assuming a little good faith? People are trying to be helpful by providing other, possibly more effective, avenues for the poster to consider.

Some of those answers smack of 'you're a bad parent', and that kind of judgement sucks. But it sucks because it's judgmental, not because it's off topic. Most of them, however, are people saying 'there aren't really good technology solutions for this, here's some social engineering options to try' with no judgement built in.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:18 AM on April 5, 2006


ludwig_van nails it. The quality of the answers you receive depends upon the quality of your question. You need to consider carefully the amount of context you put into your question before asking, because it will greatly impact the nature of the answers you receive.

If I ask the best way to mix arsenic into scrambled eggs such that I can't taste it - well, that's a bit suspicious but it's a 'technical' question about cooking that seals off any sort contextual discussion. If I ask people the best way to mix arsenic into scrambled eggs for purposes of killing someone, I shouldn't be surprised when people respond with "don't kill someone," or in scarabic's case, "don't kill someone that way."

I'm not a parent, never will be, and am a serious contender in the competition for the least qualified person in history to weigh in on matters of parenting, but even I am aware of the fact that technological solutions to disciplinary problems is Bad Parenting(tm). That lhauser got the sort of answers he did by framing a purely technical question as a parenting issue should come as no surprise to anyone. The answers given do not reflect poorly on the people answering, they simply reflect the fact the people answering are human.
posted by Ryvar at 10:22 AM on April 5, 2006 [1 favorite]


ludwig_van nails it. The quality of the answers you receive depends upon the quality of your question. You need to consider carefully the amount of context you put into your question before asking, because it will greatly impact the nature of the answers you receive.

Strongly agree.
posted by vacapinta at 10:41 AM on April 5, 2006


scarabic writes "Sometimes this perception of a 'lack of insight' is based on assumptions."

Absolutely, but many AskMe questions require some assumptions be made to answer them. The poster is free to come back to the question and say that they aren't interested in anything but a very specific answer, and, even if they don't, they can ignore any answer whenever they want. What they cannot do is ask for a perspective that they don't know is there because they lack it in the first place.

I understand that there is judgement called for in my prescription of sometimes answering the meta-issue and sometimes answering the direct question, but judgement doesn't have to be a bad thing.
posted by OmieWise at 10:41 AM on April 5, 2006


I was one of the posters that attempted to answer the question. My approach was to share my own experience with the same problem, and what worked and didn't work for my family.

When you ask a question to a large community, you have to expect a large variety of answers - good, bad, helpful, not. I think that people post questions on AskMeFi precisely because there are so many diverse experiences in the MeFi community - otherwise they'd simply ask their friends and neighbors.

I don't think that anyone was calling the poster of the question a bad parent. On the contrary, the fact that he/she was concerened about their son's homework testifies to the degree of caring.
posted by Flakypastry at 10:43 AM on April 5, 2006


Questions should at minimum have a question mark. Everything else is a statement! Am I right?
posted by blue_beetle at 10:43 AM on April 5, 2006


I removed a few answers that were just "your kid is going to grow up to be a nerd" and the like, and left comments by anyone who seemed to be making a good faith effort to help the questioner. With computer questions especially, it's very tough to try to assess the level of knowledge of a poster just by what they put in the question. Some people try to deal with this by asking direct questions -- good if the poster contributes to the thread, bad if not -- and others just make assumptions and jump in. I don't think this is bad, it's just less helpful perhaps than other ways of responding.

Put in starker relief, there are some questions where this sort of response is appropriate

"I'm trying to empty my basement full of water but my teaspoon broke, what other spoons will work for my task?"

And others where it is not, but we see it anyhow

"I'm trying to find the lowest tar cigarette made in the US so that I can do less damage to my lungs. What brands are good?"

You can imagine, knowing the community here, what sort of responses those questions would be likely to get. It was unclear whether lhauser's question was, at its root, a parenting question or a tech question and people responded to that ambiguity. lhauser was responsive to people in-thread and didn't seem to be fussy about this (or he/she could have responded "don't tell me how to parent!") and since he/she didn't, I think that opens the door for more similar replies.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:46 AM on April 5, 2006


If they didn't want that kind of response, they shouldn't have given all the extraneous background information.
posted by empath at 10:47 AM on April 5, 2006


"I'd be happy to consider another hardware firewall..."

How about a paddle labelled Board of Education?
posted by mischief at 11:17 AM on April 5, 2006


BTW, I don't have a dog in this particular fight — just a question I mused over. At times I lean towards the "be more expansive" question (and indeed have even been called out for it), but I also can definitely very often see the "I know what I'm doing, just answer my !@#!@#!@# question!!!" side of it, too.
posted by WCityMike at 11:18 AM on April 5, 2006


What you see as extraneous background information, the asker might see as providing context for the question so as to make things as clear as possible for us in order to answer better.

I think it's a shame that some of us are now suggesting that askers have to sift through their question with a fine-tooth comb and only include what other people think is "relevant" in order to pre-empt the inevitable JudgeMe answers.

There are a couple of things I really wish I could ask MeFi for help with right now, but imagining the kind of finger-wagging responses I would surely get (in addition to possibly helpful ones), no matter how carefully I might try to phrase the questions, just puts me right off the idea.
posted by Gator at 11:25 AM on April 5, 2006


at times it's almost like asking a concise question stripped of extraneous background noise that has a definite, non-opinion-based answer might work well in AskMe.
posted by kcm at 11:39 AM on April 5, 2006


I think, as Jessamyn says, that as long as people are trying to be helfpul (rather than judgmental), it's generally fine.

This is a community, not a reference desk. I think it's a huge plus that you get real opinions and new ideas from people here, rather than just simple answers spit out by a machine that don't take context into account.
posted by occhiblu at 11:48 AM on April 5, 2006


I think it's a shame that some of us are now suggesting that askers have to sift through their question with a fine-tooth comb and only include what other people think is "relevant" in order to pre-empt the inevitable JudgeMe answers.

No, the suggestion is that people only include in the question what they want other people to respond to. If you don't want people to comment on anything but X, don't include Y in your question. If you include Y, expect people to comment on it as well as X.

So I suppose in other words, yes, the asker should only include what he or she thinks is relevant to the question. I don't see what objection one could have to that or why you think anyone is suggesting that the asker only include what other people deem relevant.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:53 AM on April 5, 2006


Not that anyone will listen, since everyone on this site seems to be constitutionally incapable of any sort of restraint when it comes to meddling in other people's lives.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 9:54 AM PST on April 5 [!]


While I agree that we should answer the question, your response is way over the top; "meddle in other people's lives"? Did you read the question? The poster gave us all sorts of very personal information about his/her son ("his life") and then asked the question. How does one not respond to that?
posted by sic at 11:57 AM on April 5, 2006


Since everyone seems to be answering the implied rather than the direct question over there, I'm wondering what the better alternative would be: a dozen people going "Nope, software won't work for this" and leaving it at that? Or no answers at all?
posted by mendel at 1:20 PM on April 5, 2006


I generally argue for less expansive answers, but yes, there's room to do it well. I just see a lot of abuse in that so I hesitate to defend it. I have never seen what would constitute "abuse" in answering the question asked.

This is a community, not a reference desk.

As long as we're characterizing to make a point, it's an solutions resource, not Dr. Phil :)
posted by scarabic at 2:59 PM on April 5, 2006


Scarabic -- Heh.

Though I'm finding your stance here amusing, given that your answer here, which I thought was spot-on, more or less sums up my position on the question being posed here.
posted by occhiblu at 3:26 PM on April 5, 2006


"I want to use my mohel neighbor's Mogen clamp to declaw my 12-year-old cat, but it's a bit rusty. What sort of pliers should I buy?"
posted by aberrant at 5:21 PM on April 5, 2006


That's not very fair, occhiblu, in the context of my other responses in that thread. I gave him a totally good-faith answer to his question and encouraged him to keep talking to her. The comment you linked was directed more at Optimus Chyme, who was drawing a false conclusion about the premise of the question.
posted by scarabic at 6:53 PM on April 5, 2006


No no no, I wasn't at all trying to point fingers or be unfair. I just thought your analysis of the situation there was totally correct, and was the context in which most of us were answering the question. Which, in my view, was appropriate.

Your answer there was just a nice summary of why I thought it was appropriate.
posted by occhiblu at 9:21 PM on April 5, 2006


It's inescapable that people in Ask MeFi are going to respond to any and all information provided in the question, however tangential, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Tagging, searching and archiving all suggest to those answering that their answers aren't purely for the benefit of the original questioner, after all. I'm with those who suggest that the quality and relevance of answers is strongly correlated to the quality of composition of the question.

A bigger problem, in my opinion, are those who ask vague and poorly articulated questions, then evaporate and never reply to reasonable requests for clarification. Although I'm not sure there's much that can constructively be done about that.
posted by normy at 2:23 AM on April 6, 2006


I run into this conundrum when it comes to many questions regarding graphic design. Usually the ones from non-designers who ask a question that just screams "I am about to get myself in wayyyyyy over my head and don't know it." Giving them a straight answer to their innocent question would be so dependent on so many other variables going just right, that you almost feel obligated to give them a Design 101 walk-through. In those instances, just handing them a simple answer to their question would be almost cruel.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:15 PM on April 6, 2006


I think it's a shame that some of us are now suggesting that askers have to sift through their question with a fine-tooth comb and only include what other people think is "relevant" in order to pre-empt the inevitable JudgeMe answers.

Oh foo. As ludwig said, if there's some information in the question why would it ever be wrong to respond to it if the person answering thinks it relates? And as kcm so drolly points out, often the question isn't focused. And if someone doesn't know how to ask the question specifically it's perfectly reasonable to believe they might not understand or have identified the problem correctly.
posted by phearlez at 3:15 PM on April 6, 2006


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