Encouraging Conciseness in Ask Mefi? January 3, 2020 9:09 AM   Subscribe

Just want to bring up an idea for discussion: gently discouraging walls of text in Ask Metafilter (without doing anything to prohibit) ... through greater emphasis in the top text on the page, and UI guidance after a certain word count (maybe via a change in the text input box color background).

People seeking Ask Mefi help sometimes pour their heart out onto the page, and that can sometimes result in a lot of text. They also seem to quickly skip over the existing 'be concise'.

Unfortunately, answerers tend not to read many paragraphs or pages of background. Hurt feelings all around. (It'd be interesting if the corpus bore this out statistically, i.e., length of ask mefi post vs. number of comments, perhaps also vs. further posts by that user.)

My suggestion would be twofold:

(a) A gentle but more visible/strong suggestion. People might suggest better wording below, but something like: "Make it only as long as it needs to be. The more succinct your description, the more people help ... and unfortunately, vice versa."

(b) After a certain word count, the color in the box becomes yellow; when it hits its actual hard limit, it turns red.
posted by WCityMike to Feature Requests at 9:09 AM (38 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

(Just adding: these changes'd likely need to be made to the Ask anonymous form too.)
posted by WCityMike at 9:12 AM on January 3, 2020

I think this could be helpful for some people. The very long AskMes tend to be emotional ones, so I agree it would have to be gentle.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:37 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Counterpoint, sometimes people don't give enough detail and a lot of assumptions are made that turn out to be hurtful.

I'm not sure how to balance nuance needed in some vs. brevity. I just read and answered a very long AskMe that I wouldn't have wanted to be shorter.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:42 AM on January 3, 2020 [18 favorites]

As someone who checks out when I see eight paragraphs of text, I totally sympathize with where this is coming from, but I think that this is the sort of thing that you can gently suggest all you want, but if someone thinks they need a few thousand words to lay out all the details of their problem, they're going to use a few thousand words, gentle suggestions be damned.

(You mention a "hard limit" in suggestion b, but in the intro paragraph you emphasize that you're not doing anything to prohibit long answers, so I assume you just meant a word count at which point text turns red.)
posted by dfan at 9:46 AM on January 3, 2020 [11 favorites]

(You mention a "hard limit" in suggestion b, but in the intro paragraph you emphasize that you're not doing anything to prohibit long answers, so I assume you just meant a word count at which point text turns red.)

I thought the forms had a hard character limit; I now think I'm mistaken. In that case, I'd eliminate the 'red' portion of the idea.
posted by WCityMike at 9:51 AM on January 3, 2020

Usually, a wall-o-text means someone is unclear on their question, maybe unwilling to see things a bit more clearly. It may be helpful to them to pour it out. I answer a lot of Ask.Mes, and try to carefully read the question, and these can be hard to sort out, so I try to nudge towards better sorting out.
posted by theora55 at 9:55 AM on January 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

I just read and answered a very long AskMe that I wouldn't have wanted to be shorter.

It wouldn't prevent long AskMes. It'd just apply some UI nudges to encourage brevity.
posted by WCityMike at 9:56 AM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

There is probably some practical hard upper limit on the text size of the more inside in terms of how many bytes the db will permit, but suffice to say I don't think anybody's hit it. We do mention trying to be concise on the posting page, and nudge folks with a "hey..." sort of message on question preview if they have over-long text above the fold, but that's still just a nudge, not a hard cap, and if someone gets carried away there we just fix it after the fact by tucking some below the fold retroactively.

My general take is I share the sense that this is a problem that's not really generalizable to a one-size-fits-all solution. Certainly some folks write more text than is helping their question, but sometimes folks write a lot of text because a lot of text is necessary. We could implement a stronger nudge in general, but we have no way of implementing a nudge that can read for context and only talk someone down when they actually need talking down.

Folks incorporating gentle, constructive guidance about the framing of a too-long or unclear question into their topical answers to questions is probably the likeliest thing to help someone trending too long, too wordy, too rambly toward better framing for future questions; that's something where fellow members can apply some smarts in a way that a character count can't as far as whether and when and how to help someone think about how they're writing their questions.
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:58 AM on January 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

Personal vote: hard pass on this well-intentioned road-paving proposal. I don't much care for the destination.
posted by Drastic at 10:00 AM on January 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

I don't think there's anything wrong with a wall of text. People want to include details because they want the best help they can get and that means answerers need those details. It only causes problems when people answer the question without considering all the details. If anyone needs to be nudged it's answerers.
posted by bleep at 10:04 AM on January 3, 2020 [13 favorites]

I also worry that this would make people who have a perfectly reasonable length question believe it's directed at them and under-explain. Of course some people won't read the big wall-o-text, but that's fine, those people can skip those questions. I mean some people will also skip one key sentence from a 4-sentence question and answer anyway. I'm not really sure I agree that this is a problem that needs solving, or at least it's equally a problem with "make sure you include all highly relevant details"
posted by brainmouse at 10:38 AM on January 3, 2020 [7 favorites]

I understand what you are saying (my ADD brain cringes at wall o' text posts too) but I don't think it is necessary. Anyone who doesn't want to read it is free to click out and not answer; those who give inappropriate answers based upon not having read it through can be disregarded by the questioner (and often find their assumptions corrected by other answerers who did read.)

I feel like this would just intimidate askers into being too succinct and perhaps leaving out important details, or being discouraged from posting about complicated situations altogether.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 11:26 AM on January 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

As a web accessibility person, we'd need a way to convey this beyond just color alone. I'm not enthused by the idea in general.
posted by Alensin at 11:30 AM on January 3, 2020 [8 favorites]

I am not in favour of asking someone to limit their question length. I will always be in favour of encouraging people not to answer unless they plan to read the entire question.
posted by wellred at 11:32 AM on January 3, 2020 [27 favorites]

I think of it as a site characteristic that definitely usually shows up in only certain types of questions. I don't think it's the kind of thing that's open to abuse.

The way it plays out is that I might want to help, but won't have time to read and unpretzel the post. Thankfully there are usually other people who step up.
posted by rhizome at 11:46 AM on January 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

I really dislike this suggestion. The answer seems kind of simple to me: if something is too long for your taste, scroll on by. I don't see any percentage in making people feel like they're inconveniencing everyone, especially because people who leave long questions tend to do so because they're in emotional turmoil. And you know, they really aren't inconveniencing anyone. I mean, I'm guessing you don't read every single question on the green or every FPP on the blue; why single out certain ones to impose an arbitrary word limit?

And honestly, this feels kind of mean to me because I'm assuming that it's in response to a long, emotionally difficult question currently on the green. Even if it isn't, it could pretty obviously be taken that way. Surely this request could have waited so as to leave a decent interval between that question and this MeTa?
posted by holborne at 12:41 PM on January 3, 2020 [10 favorites]

It's kinder and probably better to assume this is motivated more by long-term general observations than targeting/subtweeting some specific post, especially since the poster didn't link to or highlight anything in particular. However much I don't think there's an obvious needful thing to implement here, it's fair to say that people writing what a decent number of folks are going to feel are overly-long questions on Ask is a pretty common thing, and this for sure isn't the first time the subject has come on MetaTalk. There's probably not a time to bring it up where there hasn't been a pretty wordy couple of questions in the last 24 hours.
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:47 PM on January 3, 2020 [8 favorites]

Not changeable behaviorally.
posted by Miko at 12:49 PM on January 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

No matter how long, short, concise or rambling the question, you will get helpful and unhelpful answers, answers that miss the mark or hit the bullseye. Most often the best you can hope for is a few new perspectives and a little momentum.
posted by amanda at 12:50 PM on January 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I think it's okay to decide that you don't want to read a wall of text question and skip on to some other one (which is what I typically do). I think all parties involved will be better served by it.
posted by Aleyn at 2:14 PM on January 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

Ultimately AskMe is for the askers and not the answerers. While I, personally, share your preference for conciceness in questions and feel many questions are as much a processing exercise as a question, if people feel they need to explain a lot, they should. I don't have to read them.

It's a worse user experience for an asker, imho, to have to keep commenting to add more details and have a lot of people answer confusedly at first because there's some important part missing. Not everyone is good at brevity.
posted by jessamyn (retired) at 2:17 PM on January 3, 2020 [19 favorites]

Concise questions about fixing your car or fixing your life?

If your car has a problem, get to the point and don't give us a lot of fluff.

But people with relationship problems often need to talk a lot, explain a lot, feel as if they're finally being heard. It's a normal compulsion. All the details seem essential to them. And then he said this. Then he did that. Then I tried this. But he always says this. And I really want to know this. But then... On and on. Like they're sitting around a table with friends and a few bottles of wine. If they could boil it down to a couple of sentences they thought explained the whole problem once and for all, they'd probably know the answer.

So that's where everyone else comes in -- we take turns sifting through the long tale of woe and seeing what we make of it. Maybe you try to help the person work things out. Maybe you toss around a lot of "you go girl, he's not good enough for you, DTMFA" stuff. Maybe your eyes glaze over and you just move on.
posted by pracowity at 2:32 PM on January 3, 2020 [6 favorites]

Okay – definitely understand people's views here.

Just as a note on motivation for this post, this was mostly borne out of feeling bad/empathetic for the people who need to pour it out. Very often, they seem to be in a state of distress and really need those answers, but it seems to be that very length that reduces the number of answers/viewpoints they end up getting. (I've even occasionally seen really big questions (emotion-related) that don't get any answers at all.)

Anyway ... if the mods want to leave this open, cool, but I think both the consensus answer and the mods' answer are clear here, so if you want to close it up too, also cool with me.
posted by WCityMike at 3:14 PM on January 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

I did see where you were coming from, WCityMike, and I'd been drafting something to say I agree with somehow prompting people who've written a wall of text to go back and see if they can put in a few paragraph breaks and condense a few “he said”, “she said” exchanges into a summary of what they were, and maybe pull a few details out to the front of the story, as well.

But I don't particularly think this is me wanting people to write a nicer question for me to answer. It's about making it possible for them to do more of the processing that will get them to either answer their question for themselves, or to put themselves in a place where they've had to turn it into a story and look at it from an outside perspective. And once they've looked at it from an outside perspective, then it makes dealing with the answers much easier.

I don't know that I have a suggestion that will work, but I think it probably would be possible to put a subtle note in somewhere during the preview process that says “this has a few very long paragraphs. Would you like to have a go at editing them out”, but worded better, and unobtrusively.
posted by ambrosen at 5:14 PM on January 3, 2020 [6 favorites]

If a change is needed to the AskMe interface, rather than limiting the overall question text, I would consider something that asked for a short, specific question in addition to whatever wall of text they have provided. Not in a tl;dr sort of way - because answerers should still be reading the whole thing - but in a "do you know what your actual question is?" sort of way. Sometimes those wall of text posts don't have much of a question in them and the responses can get a little off the rails as a result.

The interface kinda already does that, though so I don't imagine another opportunity to summarize the question would make much difference.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:37 PM on January 3, 2020 [3 favorites]

I have noticed in my completely non-scientific examination of relationship questions that the longer the question, the more obvious the answer is DTMFA, and the more likely the OP will hop back in to explain we don’t understand how great their partner actually is.

This is also why I’m happy remaining single.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 8:23 PM on January 3, 2020 [10 favorites]

Completely concur that the long emotionally unburdening questions tend to lead to DTMFA replies

So a suggestion: include “We noticed you’re writing a novella. Would you like some help with that? And have you considered just D’ing TMFA? If not, perhaps you should, and then revisit this question” as a pop up warning when a question hits 1200 words.

posted by spitbull at 8:34 PM on January 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

posted by slappy_pinchbottom at 10:52 PM on January 3, 2020 [6 favorites]

As the exception - the longest question I remember seeing on AskMe was requesting advice about a writing fellowship, I think (the question actually included footnotes).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:42 AM on January 4, 2020

“What If David Foster Wallace joined Metafilter?”

I’ve had the same experience as winterhill: I once wrote a loooong question about how to handle something that had happened with someone I was dating, and the minute I finished writing, the answer was clear to me. I never posted the question; it wasn’t necessary any more. So yeah, just writing those long questions out can be important, even without getting answers at all.
posted by holborne at 8:16 AM on January 4, 2020 [4 favorites]

One vote for the no limit, just writing out some of these seem to be beneficial to the writer. But...

... how about a technical fix, after a certain word count open a new entry box labeled: "Required TLDR" with a 50 word limit.
posted by sammyo at 3:48 PM on January 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

TLDR seems like a worst of both worlds solution... If someone doesn't want to read a long ask, then they shouldn't read it - we don't want to encourage answers from people who don't actually want to read the details of the question, that's going to lead to uninformed, glib responses, which seems worse than not answering at all.
posted by brainmouse at 6:40 PM on January 4, 2020

I am not in favour of asking someone to limit their question length. I will always be in favour of encouraging people not to answer unless they plan to read the entire question.

I agree with this. Reminds me of public restrooms where the outside of the door has a sign which reads “please knock first” but there’s no corresponding sign inside that reads “lock the door for privacy.”
posted by terrapin at 5:44 AM on January 5, 2020

what if i have a question about the Treaty of Westphalia
posted by Jacqueline at 7:43 AM on January 5, 2020 [5 favorites]

METAFILTER: what if i have a question about the Treaty of Westphalia
posted by philip-random at 10:29 AM on January 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

what if i have a question about the Treaty of Westphalia
Good question, and very concise! That already fits into the "Boring & Historical" category. Some browsers don't show the whole list correctly...

More seriously, I agree with that the people that say there will always be inappropriate answers regardless of any suggestions to the contrary. It is good that people are trying to tweak things, but I think things are already quite good. Occasionally the people that didn't read far enough come up with an off-the-wall suggestion that is actually good...
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 1:58 PM on January 5, 2020

Myself (52M) and my colleagues (52M, 54M) have been sent by our manager (9M) to a neighbouring duchy as one of 16 sets of delegates to settle a 30 year long dispute…
posted by ambrosen at 4:14 PM on January 5, 2020 [11 favorites]

A few days late, but want to add my voice as a really disliking this proposal. One of the things I most appreciate about Metafilter, inclusive of AskMe which is where I hang out, is that it's a place for *real* writing, in complete sentences, in paragraphs, with introduction and conclusions and addenda. Compared to some other popular advice sites, subsites, and forums, I think the conversation here is much more nuanced and substantial. I'm all for people giving as much context as they have the energy to provide when they ask a question.
posted by amaire at 4:16 PM on January 10, 2020

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