Ask Metafilter Answer-ers and Reading the Question September 12, 2022 11:28 AM   Subscribe

I'm wondering if we could have a short discussion about Ask Metafilter answers. Yes, people respond there out of the goodness of their own hearts, but it does feel as if there's less attention being paid to questions' parameters, resulting in less-good answers and thus a less-good Ask Metafilter.

It might be that I'm the only one to think this, and if so, then so be it, table this. But it feels that the worldwide lowered attention spans result in questions not being read before people post their answers.

I'm not as concerned with this about my own questions (and I'm sure I've been guilty of this fault myself when answering others).

But it feels as if it's becoming more and more routine that someone can say I need item X that is attribute Y and attribute Z, and there will be answers that seize upon X and go far afield of Y and Z.

"I need a children's bat that is blue plastic, not metal, and can be bought on Amazon."

"Well, if you're willing to go to Walmart, they sell a great aluminum bat with a sheer blue metal finish."

I'm not sure how one might address the issue, really. My mind goes to UI, either in the form of a flag and/or checkbox:

The checkbox solution might merely be a checkbox that enables the Post button for a comment that simply says "I have thoroughly read the question" (much like the function of MetaTalk's checkbox).

The flag might be a Ask Mefi-specific flag for "veers from question" or "inaccurate" or better wording than I am coming up with this moment.
posted by MollyRealized to MetaFilter-Related at 11:28 AM (153 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

(previously)
posted by brainwane at 11:44 AM on September 12 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure this is something that is a big enough problem to rise to the level of requiring a technological solution like a clickthrough 'I have read the terms and conditions question' every time you comment. If something is egregiously off base, we already have flags, or commenting in the post note, the OP needs a plastic bat.

There's also the category of answers that suggest that the question itself is mistaken or has false assumptions. (e.g. The 2019 Wiffle Settlement prevents Amazon from selling plastic bats - you'll need to buy from Wiffle Inc directly., or My kid got a plastic bat and regretted it.) Sometimes the answerer is wrong about that assertion, but it's often a helpful alternate perspective.
posted by zamboni at 11:49 AM on September 12 [17 favorites]


I disagree! Buy the ticket, take the ride — if you don't like the answers you get, feel free to ignore them. I don't agree that this problem has gotten worse recently (seems about the same to me, or if anything, vaguely improved over the years?), and I definitely don't think it requires a technical solution. Plus as zamboni says, very often those "wrong" answers do correct or illuminate something significant and missing in the ask.
posted by Charity Garfein at 12:06 PM on September 12 [34 favorites]


FWIW, I use "noise/derail/other" for flagging egregiously off topic askme replies under the assumption that they add noise to the thread, tend to derail the discussion or are otherwise irritating to the asker. I don't think they are particularily getting worse over time that I have noticed.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:16 PM on September 12 [25 favorites]


Suppose somebody gave the Walmart answer.

Then if a link was supplied with the answer, the asker could go there, look at pictures and perhaps notice a non-Walmart brand on the bat and then find it on Amazon.

Or they could decide the Amazon specification wasn’t absolutely essential and buy from Walmart. The fact that the thing they want actually does exist and is being sold seems like valuable and useful information even if it doesn’t exactly match all stated criteria.
posted by jamjam at 12:18 PM on September 12 [4 favorites]


As someone who notices this all the time, and still commits the same error, I honestly don't think it's generally bad faith or willful ignorance - it's just reading comprehension fail. I can re-read a post half a dozen times and still either forget a point or mis-remember a point from some other post entirely (this is maybe a personal specialty?), and it's just because the old cognitive wheels are heavily burdened and sometimes it just goes sideways.

If it's really off-base or feels like a choice is being made in an aggressive way, I'll flag it. If it's tangentially related in a reasonable way, it may very well help someone else or end up being a necessary fallback if the asker's restrictions just aren't going to produce a result.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:20 PM on September 12 [15 favorites]


I've been noticing this the whole time I've been on askme a good like 10 years at this point. I've thought a lot about it over the years. And yet even tho I hate it when people do it to me, and I REALLY try not to do it to others, I still find myself seeing something I answered and thinking "Oh boy that was NOT my best work."

I think that periodic community discussions are a good way to get people to think about the quality & helpfulness of their answers but I'm just not sure a real solution is possible. I think it's just a symptom of human communication.
posted by bleep at 12:27 PM on September 12 [27 favorites]


I’ve noticed this and it bothers me. I think the best ‘fix’ is pushback / clarification from the asker. To use your example, if buying from Amazon is non-negotiable, there’s nothing wrong with a simple “thanks for the suggestion but Amazon availability is a must”.
posted by Diskeater at 12:34 PM on September 12 [9 favorites]


Like several others here, I come down on the side of Yes, I've noticed this, Yes, it's annoying, and No, I don't think there is anything to do about it beyond trying to have grace about it.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:41 PM on September 12 [22 favorites]


My mind goes to UI, either in the form of a flag and/or checkbox:

I work in a different capacity at a different place with an online form that people have to fill out to get a particular service. They must have an account at the place in question in order to receive that service. We added a checkbox that says "I confirm that I know I must have an account to use this service" that is mandatory before submitting this form. People check the box. People don't have an account. The percentage hovers around 10-15% and it hasn't changed in years. I understand that it feels like a technological change might fix this issue but I assure you (speaking as me, not as a mod or in any other capacity) it will not.

If it gets really bad/egregious, flag the non-answers and a mod can step in. Use "flag with note" and add information so the mod knows what's up.

As an answerer, I will sometimes say "I know you said must be bought on Amazon, but did you know that you can get a bat for 50% less if you can go to a brick and mortal Walmart?" because in that case it's clear that you've read the question and are offering a good faith answer. If you're an asker who absolutely can't deal with seeing answers that are off-topic or somehow miss part of the question, AskMe may not be the best place for you to ask your question.

I, too, find it aggravating. I do not notice that it's been happening more than usual. I do think FIAMO (flag it and move on) is the right move here.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:47 PM on September 12 [40 favorites]


I don't think this is a technical problem or an AskMe problem, I think it is a Human Nature problem. And so I don't think there are any fixes aside from either the asker, or someone else, to point out that "please note that the OP said they did not want a metal bat". I've done that on occasion and try to provide my own answer as well so it doesn't look only like a spank.

Although one time I didn't provide my own answer and instead just called out another answer lead to one of my favorite Metafilter Moments:

1. The other answer.
2. My response.
3. The person who originally asked the question.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:49 PM on September 12 [51 favorites]


It's been about the same since AskMe first went live. It's annoying, but I think it's just human nature. It's the same with work emails... people just don't read the question or, in my case, by the time they get to the end of the question they've forgotten the rest.

I have, on occasion, put things in bold in my question that I wanted to emphasize. That may be seen as hostile, I dunno. It doesn't seem to solve the problem.

Honestly, I've accepted that it's just part of the charm of AskMe. I just vent about it on Twitter and occasionally flag as noise.
posted by bondcliff at 1:01 PM on September 12 [4 favorites]


Agree that this is a problem, but disagree that it's in any way new or getting worse. About 5 years ago, I asked a question about design podcasts, whose whole last paragraph was about how I know 99 Percent Invisible is very popular but isn't what I was looking for for [reasons]. The very first comment (deleted after I flagged it as derail/noise/other) was along the lines of "I've never listened to it but I'm pretty sure 99PI is exactly what you're looking for."

I've tended to write my questions fairly defensively since then, which seems to help a bit, but ultimately people's desire to help overcomes their reading comprehension sometimes. And while I'm open to someone coming up with a clever solution to nudge people to do this less, I'm skeptical that one exists that's significantly effective without making answering questions much more of a pain or being disruptive in other ways.
posted by firechicago at 1:19 PM on September 12 [5 favorites]


Frankly, I think it's really unrealistic for someone to post on a (basically) free, (basically) open to the world Q&A forum and expect only thoughtful and correct answers that take the entire question into account. I think the vast, vast majority of us try really hard to give good answers, but at the end of the day almost everyone here is just doing it as a pastime (however you want to define that). Mistakes will be made both in the reading and the interpretation of the question.

Some might say you get what you pay for, but I think that on average with Ask you get a LOT more than you pay for. This place is so much better about these things than the rest of the internet. If the signal to noise ratio of answers on Ask is not good enough, I think that you probably shouldn't be asking your question of random strangers on the internet at all.

I can't imagine any change that could materially improve this without risking significant harm to other parts of the community.
posted by primethyme at 1:26 PM on September 12 [38 favorites]


Yes, I've noticed this.
My theory is that as parameters about the quantity of questions were relaxed, people internalized the idea that parameters about the quality of questions and answers could also be relaxed. I think the change has led to bad questions (along all kinds of criteria) and as a result, people feel less obligated to provide good answers.

That said, FIAMO.
Though I'm never sure whether I should flag as [breaks the guidelines] or [noise/derail].
posted by cocoagirl at 1:55 PM on September 12 [2 favorites]


I roll my eyes about it (and flag as noise/derail anything I find truly egregious) but it has occasionally deterred me from answering a question when it seems like a majority of answers are outside of /in contrast to the posters Ask -- mostly because I think "well, maybe I read that wrong."

It is definitely not new, but I think I notice it more now because I'm starting to become kinda bitch-eatin-crackers about this place.
posted by sm1tten at 1:55 PM on September 12 [4 favorites]


Part of the problem is that the Asker wants an answer that satisfies all their criteria.

The Answerers want to post answers. Generally, they want to post helpful answers, but I think the tendency is to assume that, the the absence of meeting all criteria, meeting most or some might point the Asker in the right direction.

Of course, this frequently leads to a thread full of in the ballpark but not necessarily right answers, which can be frustrating for the Asker.

I feel this has been the case since I arrived on the site and isn't much worse now. I have gotten some great answers regardless. I doubt that a technological solution would solve the issue.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:58 PM on September 12 [15 favorites]


i'm all for using emojis on mefi
posted by lalochezia at 2:17 PM on September 12 [22 favorites]


Also, I think I've said something similar to this before, because I know there have been several similar previous posts. But as an asker, I have absolutely benefitted from answers that ignored or contradicted certain parts of my question, whether it's because the answerer didn't read it, or they just didn't care. Sometimes I unnecessarily or even unknowingly constrain things, and I'd rather have people broaden my horizons a bit rather than fretting over not answering exactly the question was asked.

Another way of thinking about it is, would I rather have 3 answers that perfectly address my question precisely the way I wrote it, or 15, with 12 of them somewhat missing the mark? For me, it's unquestionably the latter. It takes only a few minutes to read through the answers, I certainly am capable of ignoring the ones that are totally wrong or useless, and I may learn something new from the others. The opportunity to consider solutions or angles I never thought of is more than worth the few minutes of extra time reading imperfect answers, IMHO.
posted by primethyme at 2:18 PM on September 12 [30 favorites]


I find this very annoying and don't think that it should be excused because the site is free/open or the asker can just look hard at the wrong answer and divine a useful one. I always flag it as noise. Part of the problem is that it can confuse others answering or lead to tangents. I also dislike answers that say "you will never find this, it doesn't exist," with no further explanation. If someone wants a mask with a straw hole, then explain why that would not work instead of just saying the equivalent of "I don't know." It is okay not to answer every question.

I wish my flags on answers to my own questions would be deleted, especially when it is just one or two out of many. It can really derail a thread when the first answer is way off base. If the asker is using flags to silence any push back, that is different.

The problem with a checkbox is that it will just become part of the answering process and people will continue to ignore it.
posted by soelo at 2:27 PM on September 12 [11 favorites]


Having mods prioritize askme over other parts of the site might help.
posted by bleep at 3:00 PM on September 12 [1 favorite]


I confess, when I have badly misread a question, I am usually frantically contacting the mods to have my garbage answer burned with fire. Because it’s embarrassing.

Note: I speak only for my own bad answers.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:20 PM on September 12 [8 favorites]


A decent number of Askers - not all - do one or two of the following things:
  1. Ask targeted/specific questions and untargeted/non-specific questions. If an Asker finishes a question with some variant of "any thoughts?" or "what do you think I should do?", then they are going to get answers that are afield of their expectations. Open-ended questions - even those following a series of narrow questions - will get open-ended answers. To resolve this - and to ensure my answers are not deleted for being off-base - I generally quote the specific question I am responding to. Often, I suspect it is not the question the Asker actually intended to ask.
  2. Ask questions that have false constraints. A decent number of folks - both on AskMeFi and broadly in the world - convince themselves they have no agency or ability to change their situation. They add constraints that don't actually exist to their problem solving so that the solution space is limited to only one solution. This seems to pop up most frequently in relationship questions and work related questions. When I have such questions myself, I strongly welcome my assumptions being challenged. I've found in many situations, people find the right solution given the constraints - so if the solution doesn't seem to make sense, the constraints are probably wrong. Hence, I think many AskMeFi people are really asking "is my understanding of the constraints accurate?" as opposed to "given my constraints, what is the right solution?".
My secret approach is for people who do 2), to take advantage of 1) to question their assumptions.
posted by saeculorum at 4:20 PM on September 12 [16 favorites]


One thing I find useful when reading questions to determine if I can give a helpful answer or not is when they specifically break out their key criteria in list format, like

* Criteria A
* Criteria B
* Criteria C

because it's way more legible than catching every bolded or italicized item in a dense paragraph.

Of course, not all questions break down like this, and plenty of questions warrant both "structured list of criteria" and "explanation of where I'm coming from with this question" freeform text, but when I can answer a question, I find it easier (though not foolproof, we're all human here!) to not miss something important when there's a short list I can mentally run my answer through. Maybe some prompts on the page to highlight key criteria in a question being asked might be useful? Perhaps in the "Your Question" area, and/or the "Advice for Composing" area?
posted by Pandora Kouti at 4:28 PM on September 12 [3 favorites]


My specific pet-peeve version of this is people who automatically assume you're in the US, even if you specifically say you're not, and answer something like "Why don't you go to [SOMETHING THAT ONLY EXISTS IN THE US]???? They'll fix ya right up!"
posted by signal at 4:31 PM on September 12 [19 favorites]


I think all good faith answers should be welcome. Realistically, the quality of answers are going to vary and most AskMe threads are short enough that it's easily possible to read every single answer and the time spent reading the few clunkers is going to amount to a couple of seconds at best. It's a non-issue to me. There's a reason "Mark as best answer" exists- if every answer was perfect, there'd be no need for it.
In a question which has multiple parameters, it's hard to know how the OP weights them. Is the most important thing that the baseball bat is a children's bat? That it's blue? That it's plastic? That it's sold on Amazon? It's possible that some of those parameters are mild preferences (color?) and some are non-negotiable deal breakers.
Sometimes questioning the OP's assumptions is a good thing, and sometimes answers which aren't spot on for the OP might still be usefully close enough for people other than the OP who are reading the question.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 4:40 PM on September 12 [17 favorites]


"I know you said must be bought on Amazon, but did you know that you can get a bat for 50% less if you can go to a brick and mortal Walmart?"

I have nothing constructive to add to this comment, I just wanted to let y'all be the first to know that I'll be naming every fantasy football team, pet, and sockpuppet account I ever own with some combination of the words "brick and mortal Walmart."
posted by Mayor West at 5:17 PM on September 12 [25 favorites]


When posting an AskMe, I just accept that some of the answers might drift all over the place, it's just human nature, which is probably better than having hippopotamus post answers, because they can be quite ornery.

I usually post AskMes at a time where I'm around for about an hour so I can clarify any derails that occur from people misreading the question. After than it's in (insert mystical being)'s hands or tentacles, so what will be will be.

As far at technical solutions go, I'm doubtful that anything other than an actually sentient computer could possibly help. Even then, can you imagine it asking you if you REALLY want to post that response because ABC wasn't explicitly mentioned?

In the end, we just have to accept that even when we're trying to help, we can be imperfect and hope others understand our efforts.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:20 PM on September 12 [9 favorites]


I agree with the OP that there too many questions about baseball on AskMe. I don’t think we need a technical solution to reduce the number of baseball questions, though. That seems like overkill. People should just pay more attention.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 6:15 PM on September 12 [10 favorites]


I was on Metafilter before under a different handle (it's in my profile) and came back recently after about six years away. FWIW I have not noticed a significant change in the quality of answers on the AskMes I read and I remember occasional MeTas on this same subject before I left. We're all doing our best here but sometimes our best is not as helpful as we would like it to be.
posted by gentlyepigrams at 6:59 PM on September 12 [5 favorites]


if i ever really feel like an AskMe answer is what a person might be looking for, i'll post it, with the caveat that i've read the question but feel like the answer i am posting miiiiiiight transcend it. idk maybe it will help someone else looking for a base ball bat some day
posted by capnsue at 8:15 PM on September 12 [3 favorites]


I hate, hate, hate when I give an answer that the OP specifically nixed. And yet even though i read any complicated question at least twice, read all the previous answers and read the question once more before posting ( which usually catches it because now I actually have a fully formed answer to align with the question) I still manage to let slip the occasional clanger. No check box, which will just become finger memory anyways, is going to help me and instead will just be annoying.
posted by Mitheral at 9:18 PM on September 12 [5 favorites]


It's part of the charm of AskMe, but I sense a little outrage here, that answers posted to this free forum aren't... good enough? Well what I hate is MeFites who ask very region-specific questions but don't say exactly where, and when I check their profile, they've neglected to add even a clue as to their location.
posted by Rash at 9:44 PM on September 12 [11 favorites]


Quite honestly, yes the overall ability of people to do a close read during the middle of an ongoing global catastrophe has gone down from when there was much less ongoing global catastrophe. Stress reduces the brain’s ability to take in a lot of complexity and check against it before composing a response. That’s just how it is. Askers who want to really tightly constrain answers need to do upfront heavy lifting and make those constraints *extremely* easy to find and very clearly stated. Pull them out of a paragraph, use a list, use bold, etc. Make it so that the important parts are really easy to go back to. Because uh, yeah, people who are doing their best while their brain is constantly overheating from the general *waves hands around* really are doing their best and probably can’t and shouldn’t be expected to do better without some help from the asker.
posted by Bottlecap at 11:01 PM on September 12 [4 favorites]


I've been in these parts since 2006 and honestly the answers from poor readers have pretty much stayed about the same. The mods work a bit harder now to keep the really dreadful answers off the site and realistically there isn't a tech solution to people answering their questions from within their own assumptions. Like I've asked for vegan recipes and had people recommend fish. Sometimes folks just can't move past where they are to answer where you are.
posted by Jilder at 1:52 AM on September 13 [11 favorites]


I have lost count of the number of times that I have consulted a professional for something, spent considerable time laying out the exact constraints I am up against in careful detail, paid for their time, and still gotten back a response that didn't address my requirements.

Expecting this not to happen on AskMe is beyond unrealistic.
posted by automatronic at 2:16 AM on September 13 [31 favorites]


I find it frustrating. I really try to list constraints. I flag both answers from my own asks and others.
I also find myself doing more threadsitting.

I find myself asking fewer questions.
posted by sciencegeek at 2:39 AM on September 13 [7 favorites]


I too find it frustrating but have come to think of it as reading comprehension going both ways. If some answers miss the mark you read through them and move to the next one, but even the ones that moss the mark have some wisdom in them.
posted by terrapin at 5:44 AM on September 13 [1 favorite]


I care a lot about this, and pride myself on exhibiting good comprehension when answering. I flag wildly off-base answers with “it breaks the guidelines” and fairly often that answer gets removed or a mod leaves a note saying something like “please note OP has specified XYZ”. But I don’t actually flag for this when some of the question is responded to correctly and it’s just one thing or so that got ignored or glossed over. I also never flag this when an answer is all “have you considered that your concern is not what you think it is at all? Here is a coherent explanation of my perspective.” I just flag when someone asks for like, new leather shoe suggestions they can get online in the UK and an answer is used PVC boots from local thrift shops. Or whatever.

That said, I have certainly been guilty of missing a few things when I think I have an answer. Recently I answered a food question that asked for vegan suggestions with almost every variation including seafood, honey, and eggs. Whoops! But I have a pretty good record of best answers and and I think it’s mostly because I do try hard to take the entire question into account. It’s not like when I make this mistake I don’t think I have read the question, you know?

AskMe has gone through some cultural shifts since I’ve been a member (2009, I think?) but this aspect has stayed pretty much the same. It’s annoying, but it’s also the same kind of thing where people in general just don’t have very thorough reading comprehension. Like, I’m pretty big on attracting a more diverse membership here and that includes people who might not be able to hold all the aspects of a wordy askme in their mind at once and also write a coherent answer. There could be infinite reasons for this and most of them are not “this person couldn’t be bothered to read the question”. Language skills, vernacular, cognitive difficulties, misunderstandings, getting distracted, mental health conditions, accessibility challenges, being from a very different cultural context, thinking they have relevant knowledge so they get psyched to answer and skip over a caveat that makes that knowledge moot… I want all the people like that to feel like they can participate. The diversity of experiences and perspectives will vastly outweigh the concerns.
posted by Mizu at 6:03 AM on September 13 [9 favorites]


As someome who has done this - usually accidentally, sometimes on purpose because I feel the question itself is flawed -- i feel it really does boil down to you, as an asker, taking what you think is valuable from the answers and ignoring the rest. You can only control how you react to the answers - you can't control other people. Assume they're trying to assist in good faith but just missed the mark, and move on.
posted by cgg at 7:06 AM on September 13


Charity Garfein: Buy the ticket, take the ride

But if the ride sucks, are you going to take it again?

sciencegeek: I find myself asking fewer questions

That's really the danger. Ask only works if the answers help the asker. Personally, there have been times where I've asked a question, gotten bad answers, and decided to take a couple of days/weeks away from the site. I always come back, but not everybody else does. And considering the challenges the site is facing with revenue and declining membership, I don't think this is something where you can just say "you get what you pay for".

I agree with the people who say that sometimes the question is flawed, and answering outside the parameters of the question will help the asker more than answering within them. I do that myself pretty often. But I think it's helpful to point out that you're doing so, so that the asker at least knows you read the question. I think jessamyn's example is good:

I know you said must be bought on Amazon, but did you know that you can get a bat for 50% less if you can go to a brick and mortal Walmart?

The problem is that a lot of posters will only give the second half of that answer. And some are even worse. There have been times where I've seen questions like "I really like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd; could you recommend some other blues-influenced British hard rock bands from the 70s?" and one of the answers is "you'd really like Pink Floyd". I guess that sort of thing could be flagged, but it's pretty frustrating to see.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:33 AM on September 13 [5 favorites]


EmpressC., Thank you for providing me with a very much needed laugh on an otherwise mirthless day!
posted by 15L06 at 7:59 AM on September 13 [2 favorites]


We have over 20 years of evidence that people do come back to this ride.
If you don't think "you get what you pay for" isn't sufficient, then what would be sufficient? Paid answerers? Such a thing doesn't exist & we definitely don't have 20 + years of data that it works.
posted by bleep at 8:02 AM on September 13 [3 favorites]


I can't speak for other people, but I often skate right past questions that are overly constrained or where I think the premise of the question is faulty. If I can make a good faith effort at either a real answer that threads the needle or one that pushes back (gently, I hope) on a particular constraint in order to open up the answer space, then I'll do that. Sometimes I get the impression there's a lot of anxiety or defensiveness built into the constraints of a question, though, and I'm not equipped to deal with that. Nor is Ask the right place for a series of clarifying questions in order to get the Asker down to something that I feel I can answer, like I might do if a friend asked me the same sort of question in person.

But I don't know if the best solution for me personally (just skip that question) is the best solution for every Asker with a tightly constrained question. Is no answer at all better than an answer that ignores constraints? I think that's going to depend on the Asker. Some people might think, "oh hey, I hadn't considered Walmart and that's perfect!" Some might dig out the brand name and/or UPC code from the Walmart web site and search Amazon for it. Some people might just get frustrated that their careful list of constraints was being ignored. And "X, but in country Y" is a special sort of minefield. We might have a whole bunch of X in country Z, and in fact may have more X generally available than in country Y for legal or commercial reasons. What sort of answer is most helpful? Is it "Here in Z we can get this particular X; have you tried searching for that by name?" Or is the Asker really only helped by answers from other people in Y? Again, this may depend on the needs of the specific Asker.

I can't think of an alternative format that would necessarily work any better, though. Stack Overflow has a mechanism for suggested edits to a question, and it is horribly toxic. A "clarifying question" UI seems like it might be a lot of work for little positive gain, and I think in a lot of ways it could make the problem worse.
posted by fedward at 8:17 AM on September 13 [2 favorites]


One of the things I've wondered about is adding an editable clarifications box for the OP that would allow them to add or emphasize details in their original question. I imagine it will sometimes get used a little defensively, in the way that they already do with in-thread responses, but something that lets them say "Hey, I see a lot of people are suggesting the Model X Thingamawhuzzit that is available at Whuzzitmart. I've looked at it and it doesn't work for me because while the Thingama is metal which is great, the Whuzzit is green and I really need a blue Whuzzit." and have that appear at the top of the thread, with some emphasis around it, I think could help.

When I worked at Chowhound, we tried to develop a Q&A format that would keep questions and answers a little more focused and included an option to ask questions about the questions and it was mostly used "wrong", which is to say people found it confusing and not helpful.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:32 AM on September 13 [2 favorites]


"...a brick and mortal Walmart?"

Am unsure if typo, or I have missed out on the latest thing cool kids do, but thank you Jessamyn for my new fave term.

As for the topic..Yeah, I've noticed and experienced this since my day-1 here, and it definitely ruffles my feathers a bit, especially when the non-answer-answer ends up being the thing subsequent posters respond to.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:55 AM on September 13 [3 favorites]


One of the things I've wondered about is adding an editable clarifications box for the OP that would allow them to add or emphasize details in their original question.

I like this suggestion quite a bit! I think it would be especially beneficial in those (not infrequent) instances where the asker takes a more—shall we say—novelistic approach to composing their question.
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:18 AM on September 13 [1 favorite]


I don't know if the situation has gotten worse. And I doubt technology can help solve the problem.

But it is especially frustrating to get answers that amount to only challenging the premise of the question. A couple of examples:

Q1. I want to replace the whatzit. There are various problems with using the whatzit. What are good things I can use instead?
A1. Don't replace the whatzit. Just keep on doing what you are doing.

Q2. What is a good place to make doohickeys? I have years of experience with doohickeys, and I'd like to make my own somewhere else.
Q2. Don't make doohickeys! Doohickeys are doomed.
posted by NotLost at 9:19 AM on September 13 [4 favorites]


There have been times where I've seen questions like "I really like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd; could you recommend some other blues-influenced British hard rock bands from the 70s?" and one of the answers is "you'd really like Pink Floyd".

If I'm going to give a useless and annoying answer, it's this but in book questions where I read the description of what the person is looking for, immediately think, "Oh, they should read This Book," overlooking the part where they say they either already read it, or that they read it and it wasn't quite what they were looking for.

I haven't yet recommended a book to that book's author, but I could totally see myself doing it. I appreciate EmpressCallipygos having a sense of humor and sharing their Adam Savage anecdote, in part because There But For The Grace of God and all that.
posted by Well I never at 9:24 AM on September 13 [2 favorites]


And in the answers where the answer ignores the questions constraints, or basically protests the question, it would help if they at least paid attention to the point of the question. For example, in my exchanges: above:

A1b. I think whatzits could actually work for you, if you increased the speed by using the dial on the back.
or
A2b. Doohickeys have a lot of challenges. You might be better off making thingamajigs in West Podunk, anystate.
posted by NotLost at 9:26 AM on September 13


Even though I don't think this is a fully solvable problem or even one we necessarily want to fully solve, I am particularly feeling this frustration right now, because a couple of weeks ago, I asked Metafilter what to look for in a new laptop, and some people were like 'get your old laptop fixed' and I was like 'sigh, I knew I shouldn't have provided any context to the question' but then I finally decided to take their advice and now I am three weeks and $400 into repairing my laptop and I still don't have a working laptop. And if all y'all had just answered the question I would have a new laptop by now.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:26 AM on September 13 [13 favorites]


If people give pretty good answers, they are 'rewarded' with favorites. It's wildly imprecise, sometimes a good answer is overlooked, less often a bad answer is popular, but it's generally effective. Not everyone learns well. As in the rest of MeFi, and, ideally, the world, Be kind, be sincere, flag it and move on.
posted by theora55 at 9:38 AM on September 13 [1 favorite]


I've been a diligent reader of AskMe since inception, and have not noticed any significant in reading comprehension fails over that time. I've committed a few myself and have received a few in response to my own questions, so I'm definitely familiar with the "D'oh" feeling on both ends.

What annoys me more are answers to questions that don't seem like they're dealing with sensitive content, like recommendations for places to stay in a certain city, where the answer is nothing but "memail me". It's not common enough to be a problem, or maybe there's something sensitive about it that I'm not aware of, and it's not annoying enough to require any kind of solution, but I feel it detracts from the idea that AskMe is some kind of archive of useful answers into the future.
posted by LionIndex at 9:42 AM on September 13 [8 favorites]


Since MollyR specifically asked for a "short" discussion, we really have to make this one into a longboat thread. I'm counting on all of you!
posted by Well I never at 10:46 AM on September 13 [5 favorites]


I assume such answers are of such a nature that they will apply in the specific instance but not generally for whatever reason. Maybe the answerer has a gift card or hotel booking or something they can't use. Or maybe they own a B&B and are willing to comp the OP for whatever reason.
posted by Mitheral at 10:48 AM on September 13 [1 favorite]


Rash: Well what I hate is MeFites who ask very region-specific questions but don't say exactly where, and when I check their profile, they've neglected to add even a clue as to their location.

I'm with you on this, sibling. So much, in fact, that I posted a rant/request about this very thing years ago.

Many people seem to assume that everyone here is in the US unless specified otherwise; many seem to expect that others assume them to be in the US, so they don't have to specify.
Well, I'll have you know that I will from now on assume all y'all to be in the Netherlands, because that's where I am... unless there is information to point to a different location. So there!
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:49 AM on September 13 [13 favorites]


I could have sworn that the previously link would be to a post of mine, but it looks like I had intended to post a MeTa about this exact problem and was talked out of it. For reference, I had asked this question: Simple programmable cell phone for a confused older person? You can see my replies showing more and more frustration as one person after another gives an answer that I had already ruled out. As far as I can tell, the correct answer to my question was "This doesn't exist".

I was pretty worked up about it and went to post more or less this exact MeTa, but a mod talked me out of it in a very kind and thoughtful email exchange. The crucial point they made was this:
We want to leave space for better answers, even if the original question doesn't encompass such answers. (A lot of relationship questions are pertinent here.) So, a strict "answer only the question asked," is not really a good way to go in every situation.

And though you say "As an asker, I have been really frustrated with my last couple of questions ..." I noticed that in the question before your latest (how to sell the childhood rock collection), your favorite solution was actually completely different than what you asked, and would have been prohibited by your suggested change.
Damn if they weren't spot on! My Rock collection AskMe was solved by an out-of-the-box answer that definitely did not answer the question as asked.

So in the end, I did not provide a (previously) for this post. I still think that this is a real issue for usability though, and I would be in favor of UX nudges. There are two reasons why I think it's worth taking action rather than accepting the status quo:

1.) Historically, a large value of AskMe has been as an entry point for non-mefites to find us. The high quality of answers is a real, tangible draw. Thinking about AskMe as a whole, it's in our best interest that it remains as high quality and noise-free as possible.

2.) Answerers may be less likely to provide answers to questions that already have a lot. If I see a 12 answers (12 new), then I don't expect I have much value to add even if I can provide a good answer. This is another reason to try to keep the signal-to-noise ratio as high as possible.

I think of MeTa as a place where we can collectively hash out site norms, so even in the absence of any UX changes (which again, I support!), I think it's valuable to have this discussion. Thanks for starting it, MollyRealized!
posted by dbx at 11:56 AM on September 13 [8 favorites]


I get that questions can have annoyances, this is about answers and I think it would help if we can keep the discussion about improving answers, or if they need to be improved. I wonder if some kind of shorthand would be useful to differentiate questions that are looking for a big wide net of answers versus those that need a specific narrow set of answers. Something like ocean, lake, pond; so that the user can lead the answers a bit better. I have asked some very specific questions and some very broad ones and I find my annoyance is higher on the specific ones.
posted by soelo at 12:05 PM on September 13


And if all y'all had just answered the question I would have a new laptop by now.

But most people did answer the question. I know it's absolutely frustrating that you don't have a working laptop right now and it's really hard to know which is the "correct" path to take a lot of the time. I just don't think we (MetaFilter users) should necessarily blame answerers for what is ultimately our (AskMe answerer's) decision.
posted by cooker girl at 12:06 PM on September 13 [6 favorites]


There are several possibilities:
1) answerer does not understand or misunderstands constraints, because:
a) didn't read; or
b) read and did not understand; or
2) answerer does understand constraints and gives answer outside of scope anyway.

In situation 1, multiple factors may be at play – the amount of time dedicated to reading the question, the answerers comfort with the text, the way the question is drafted.

For 1a, while potentially frustrating, a flyby comment based on the short version of the question can be helpful. I would still argue this is preferable to nothing at all, and taking active steps to discourage it by suggesting these answers are unwelcome would be detrimental to the overall helpfulness of the site.

For 1b, many ask questions are written in lengthy undifferentiated paragraphs with key information buried deep within. If the asker is concerned with communicating key information, it would be helpful to include that information as a list of criteria right below the fold or at the bottom of the question. Headings also help.

For 2, as mentioned by many people here, sometimes people don't understand the problem and place false or on helpful constraints on it. I have had questions where 3/4 of the answers disregard a clear constraint, but are still helpful in some sense. I may decide that constraint doesn't exist.

Even where the answerer fully understands the question, answers should not be relied on as a full evaluation of the circumstances and advice on them to the extent that the asker does not exercise their own independent judgment.

I think it's in the hands of the person asking to communicate what they want and make that information accessible. Provided that it is, the number of comments not listening are an unavoidable feature.
posted by lookoutbelow at 12:11 PM on September 13 [2 favorites]


Something I think might help with this some, and I'll do it myself in the future, is to put your restrictions as the final paragraph of your Ask. I do scroll back up and re-read as I'm answering pretty often, out of a desire to not make this mistake, and it might make at least the occasional tired brain better register the requirements.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:31 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]


I do think it would be nice if there was a dedicated "region" part of when you posted an Ask -- I think it adds to the cognitive load of the answerer to have to figure out where the specific region the AskMefite is from. Like when I wrote about the 988 hotline in my most recent ask, I realized that's the major disclosure that I'm from the US, but I don't feel comfortable forcing Mefites to guess based on that.

As for my observations, I noticed that I write my Asks in an unofficial house style that gets me pretty good answers, and that's based on aggregation from answering and reading a ton of Asks over the years. I notice that sometimes when Asks don't follow that unofficial format, people's information can more be frequently overlooked, it's kinda weird! I have made that mistake too when answering other people's.
posted by yueliang at 1:52 PM on September 13 [8 favorites]


Hey, how would you describe this unofficial house style?!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:00 PM on September 13 [4 favorites]


But most people did answer the question. I know it's absolutely frustrating that you don't have a working laptop right now and it's really hard to know which is the "correct" path to take a lot of the time. I just don't think we (MetaFilter users) should necessarily blame answerers for what is ultimately our (AskMe answerer's) decision.

I know, and I don't really blame AskMe for what was ultimately my decision. I just thought it was a sort of coincidence that I am still dealing with this stupid laptop issue right now, while this thread is ongoing. I had initially very firmly decided I was just buying a new one, but the Mefites who thought it could be fixed kinda reminded me that 'buy a new laptop' is not exactly the fiscally sound choice so I went back on that decision in a way that I probably wouldn't have without that prompting.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:19 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]


I don't disagree, mostly. But, I'm not sure it needs to be fixed. It's not hard to skip reading pointless comments as an asker.

I've also been very grateful to be told that my questions are badly formed. Not here, I think. But many times in person. Being told that what you've said is stupid isn't always a bad thing. Even when it's wrong, it's often interesting.
posted by eotvos at 2:31 PM on September 13 [3 favorites]


In one of our previous discussions about Ask and the usefulness & accuracy & etc of answers, someone - I forget who, sorry - made an interesting point; that you could (and maybe should, at least sometimes) reframe it as less "The Answerer fails at reading comprehension and/or doesn't care about your conditions" and more "The Answerer is so eager and enthusiastic about helping a fellow member of the community that they sometimes blow past the details."

IOW, in the example given, "I need a children's bat that is blue plastic, not metal, and can be bought on Amazon" an answer of "Well, if you're willing to go to Walmart, they sell a great aluminum bat with a sheer blue metal finish." isn't meant as "I don't notice "plastic" and Amazon can fuck off and I don't care about what you think you need" and instead is offered as "Oh, you're looking for a kid's bat - hey let me clue you in on this GREAT kid's bat we got !!!!" Read it as a good faith attempt to be helpful, rather than a failure to understand the question and respond accurately.

Obviously, this doesn't work with all Asks and answers, but trying to keep that in mind has helped me be less GRAR (in my own head, anyway) about some off-the-mark answers.

(Also, count me among those who doesn't feel like there's been a significant rise in these sorts of answers, and who doesn't think a technology-driven solution is the way to go. We could maybe slowly shift the general culture of Ask if the mods ruthlessly culled "inaccurate" answers, but LBR I think they got more pressing concerns on their plates.)
posted by soundguy99 at 2:32 PM on September 13 [11 favorites]


Sometimes this gets on my nerves. Sometimes I get righteously annoyed when the OP asker marks as best an answer that clearly ignores all the parameters in the question. Sometimes I find reading people's varied "have you considered" takes in other people's questions interesting and wise and helpful. Sometimes I post an answer that doesn't match the question, either because of bad reading comprehension or because I somehow missed some line in the question or intentionally, because I think it might possibly potentially help. Once in a while apparently it does. Life is a salad.

I do think overly stringent UI like more barriers to posting (e.g. checkboxes) is not a great way to go. (I also think all the apologies you see askers include about "threadsitting" when they post to add clarifying information are a sign that maybe things have gone a bit far in the wrong direction - threadsitting to argue endlessly about answers to (usually human relations-type) questions is one thing, but I don't think anybody should be worried about posting a followup clarification or nudge.)
posted by trig at 3:31 PM on September 13 [3 favorites]


I just posted an Ask looking for Edgar Allan Poe screen adaptations and even though I specified I didn't want works that simply riff on EAP, only actual adaptations, it is just this side of a mortal lock that at least one reply will begin with, "Well, [________] is basically a Poe adaptation..."
posted by DirtyOldTown at 5:06 PM on September 13


Thank you, Jilder. I hadn't realized I was carrying something around from an Ask, and your "Sometimes folks just can't move past where they are to answer where you are" lifted it away.
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:10 PM on September 13 [5 favorites]


DirtyOldTown, bingo on answer #4.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 6:41 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]


But I think it's helpful to point out that you're doing so, so that the asker at least knows you read the question.

I don't think it's such a terrible thing to suggest something that may not meet all of the criteria (especially if not clearly identified as absolute deal-breakers) but might be a decent second choice given that nobody has had the perfect answer yet. But yeah, it's nice to indicate that you have read the questions and know you're doing that.

I don't ask a lot of questions, but I have a few, a couple anonymously. Some people have straight up read the question the way they wanted to read it and not the way I carefully tried to write it. That's fine; enough people have given me what I was looking for. The signal/noise ratio is still high, and I don't think the ones I'd call 'noise' were doing it in bad faith.

Not to point to another wrong as justification, but imagine AskMes being answered in the style of Stack Overflow or some other internet site. I like the tone here, even if some answers miss the mark from time to time.
posted by ctmf at 12:49 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]


What works for me is imagining asking a question and then imagining the answers I would get to it. That is usually enough to dissuade me from asking the question.

The last time I asked one, even after spending a lot of time trying to word my question carefully, I got so many answers that missed the mark or made me feel like such a rotten person that I asked the mods to delete it. I wasn't feeling the best at the time I asked, which is part of why I posted the question and also much of why I was so crushed by the answers I got. Nevertheless, the whole experience was enough to confirm for me that imagining the answers is the best way to use AskMe. I still read AskMe, grateful for all the people with thicker hides than mine who get answers that help me with imagining the answers to my questions.
posted by Athanassiel at 1:27 AM on September 14 [17 favorites]


I appreciate this question, MollyRealized. I feel like Asks have gotten more talky/discussy in recent years. I poked around a few months ago and looked at some Asks from years ago and it seemed to me like the samples I hit were far more oriented toward answering the question, less discussing it. My guess is the same as folks have said above, in terms of the pandemic, but I also would not be surprised if it is something do with the slowing of posts on the blue. Fewer discussions there, so they migrate elsewhere on the site?
posted by cupcakeninja at 5:36 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]


I notice answers that haven't read the question all the time, I don't think it's got worse recently (although I agree AskMe is more chatty than it was), it annoys me and I don't think there's much we can do about it other than set good examples. I also think there's a difference between consciously questioning the assumptions of the asker and skipping chunks of the question.
For reference, I had asked this question: Simple programmable cell phone for a confused older person? You can see my replies showing more and more frustration as one person after another gives an answer that I had already ruled out. As far as I can tell, the correct answer to my question was "This doesn't exist".
I remember that question well. I read it carefully, read it again and spent a decent chunk of time researching an answer. I couldn't find anything that met your requirements and so didn't answer. I shared your frustration at people giving answers that you'd clearly ruled out for good reasons.

It's not a worthy emotion on my part, but on introspection I think I felt frustrated that others were appearing to be helpful with low-effort answers while my hard work was invisible. And while that's embarrasing to admit, I think being honest about the incentives for high and low quality answers on AskMe is valuable if we want to make it the best resources it can be.
I do think it would be nice if there was a dedicated "region" part of when you posted an Ask -- I think it adds to the cognitive load of the answerer to have to figure out where the specific region the AskMefite is from.
I like it. Most suggestions of technical solutions to behavioural problems on Metafilter strike me as over-optimistic but this might be an exception. It would obviously be optional but a lot of questions would benefit from location information even if it's not immediately obvious. "Since you're in a big city, there will almost certainly be..."
posted by Busy Old Fool at 5:54 AM on September 14 [8 favorites]


I don't know how necessary the location information would actually be, but it seems like it would be a pretty easy thing to implement technically. For posts categorized as "travel and transportation", there's already a text box that comes up asking about the travel location. You could just remove the logic (jQuery, I assume) around it so that it's always visible. You don't need to add any new fields and it's backwards-compatible.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:15 AM on September 14


Man, I just did this! In a question about graphic memoirs, I listed several of my favorite graphic novels, completely blanking on the "memoir" part of the question (it was in the title aaaaaah dummy). But I did list a couple of memoirs, since they are among my favorite graphic novels, so I hope that the asker takes what is relevant from my sub-par answer and gently rolls their eyes at the rest.

I think that it's often true that folks answering without paying attention to the constraints set by the asker are doing so out of enthusiasm rather than wilful misreading.

For me, there are definitely questions I don't ask here. Anything too personal - there won't be any deep existential asks from my corner, and I try not to ask about work-related stuff since I'm in a small workplace in a small field and I do at least try to recall that this is all in public. And I try not to answer every question that falls under my very small umbrella of expertise, since sometimes, when I think about how I would answer, it basically boils down to Vibes rather than Substantive Answer. I think this is part of being a thoughtful user - taking into account my limitations and simply refraining rather than chatting. I think that most of us have a similar approach, if this thread is anything to go by.

It is tough to see Ask threads go wrong, but tend to think that it is simply baked in to the whole "asking for advice" dynamic. Think of all your friends, and how you might not ask all of them for advice on the same issue, and then think of how Ask is basically casting a very wide net.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 6:17 AM on September 14 [2 favorites]


I think people are fine about this and not getting any worse, at least. I mean it's hard to get worse than people trying to interrogate my desire to not do file backups in the way they think they should be done instead of just recommending a backup program
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 7:36 AM on September 14 [2 favorites]


This current thread about mayo seems like a strong example of the phenomenon, where the asker explicitly states above the fold, "what is your exact recipe?", and every comment so far talks about the quality of the ingredients but doesn't mention a specific recipe.
posted by terretu at 7:49 AM on September 14 [4 favorites]


I don't really mind when someone goes a little outside the parameters of my question. Sometimes that's actually the best option. I'd rather get a bunch of answers along a bell curve of helpfulness rather than, like, two that are exactly what I asked but it turned out I didn't frame my question well enough for them to actually be right on target.

What really used to grind my gears about Ask in my younger, broker years was the assumption that everyone was middle class. So I'd post a question with a strict budget or some other criteria that was in play because of budget and I'd get people telling me that I needed to spend more or that it was impossible to do this thing the way I was trying to do it. Occasionally, that was probably true-- but most of the time it just wasn't the way that someone with more money would do it, given the choice.
posted by geegollygosh at 8:06 AM on September 14 [5 favorites]


I'm just providing my perspective and not making an argument.

But the amount of upset over slightly off-base answers kind of blows me away. I do my best when answering to focus my answer based on the question, but I know I've blown it. I know sometimes I've gotten answers or read answers that gave me pause.

But to me fundamentally it's a conversation. I value the conversation as conversation, and I don't require...perfect answers.

When I ask my friends questions they too sometimes give me lame answers, and as people have pointed out, sometimes even when I'm paying for expertise I get answers that aren't what I would like. To me this is just part of life.

And kind of gently but...if people missing information in your question or going down tangents is making you feel like a bad person, maybe a question isn't the right format for whatever help you are seeking? Like I don't ask for advice on my DID/MPD here because I'm pretty sure there would be a strong set of people who would really want to help, and would also contribute to my feeling a bit like an alien by their answers because their base assumptions would be incorrect about how my brain works - and that's on me, not them.

For me, it's not that there's a fundamental flaw in AskMe. It's that it's not an all-purpose perfect machine.

I do think talking about it in on MetaTalk and staying aware of people's varying perspectives is great; I know sometimes I go through a phase where I'm engaging a bit too hard in Answering Things and that's usually when I answer something I really should not because I am not the right person to answer it.
posted by warriorqueen at 8:08 AM on September 14 [18 favorites]


it's hard to get worse than people trying to interrogate my desire

I have an idiosyncratic Wordle strategy, delaying the introduction of the letter 'e' as long as possible. After I finish every puzzle I open up Wordlebot and see what I should have done instead. (Today my weird strategy beat the bot, FWIW, but usually it doesn't). I know the bot isn't going to tell me to do what I did, and yet I check it every day. Asking the hive mind for a solution to an idiosyncratic problem of your own making is a little like asking Wordlebot not to tell me I did it wrong, when, honestly, I know before I even check that I didn't do what the bot would have done. Am I going to change my strategy? Probably not, because I find the puzzle more fun with that constraint than without it. Am I solving the puzzle in the most efficient way possible? I am not.

I think if you're going to ask for a solution to an idiosyncratic problem when the common solution to that sort of problem flatly ignores the given idiosyncrasy, then you should be prepared for the solution set to converge on eliminating the thing that makes the problem unique. That goes double for questions where the constraint seems arbitrary and ill-explained. But I also note that people did attempt to accommodate your desires as well as the commonly available tools allow (e.g. Backblaze with an exclusion list), and they seemed to be pretty gentle (to my nerdy, IT professional eyes, anyway) in their corrections about your assumptions on how differential backups even work (after the initial backup, only new and changed files are transferred, not the whole set every time). But I'm not trying to relitigate that thread, just to say that the outcome there seemed to be about as good as it could have been given the stated criteria.
posted by fedward at 8:17 AM on September 14


I love this ("The fact that the thing they want actually does exist") so much because it is the problem! Boldly and cleanly stated, right here in the fixit thread, the problem in the wild! The claim that the WalMart answer might be useful because it proves

"The fact that the thing they want actually does exist"

Hahaaaa! Because, see, no! No! No, it doesn't! The point of the question is that they thing they want does not exist as far as they have been able to discover, because the thing they want is yes blue but no not metal and no not at Walmart. Not at Walmart. And not metal. NOARWT MRRTRRLLL... guh... hurrgh...

This happens all the time and is hilair. I have done it myself a bunch because I get to the "blue" part and fireworks go off, shutting down all mental function with "I saw that great blue aluminum bat at WalMart YESTERDAY!!!" And then I get to typing the annoying answer. Sometimes I'm able to stop myself before posting it and go back and reread the question and the answers so far. Too often not.

I think it might make it perversely easier to laugh these off if the questioner could anticipate and even more pointedly try to prevent WalMart answers in the initial phrasing of the question. "I have seen the cool blue aluminum one at WalMart but my nephew has an aluminum allergy and would end up on life support if he touched that thing."

The fireworks phenomenon and WalMart answer would of course still happen. But some answerers will have read carefully and will flag it or comment when they notice it. The querant can then mark any "I found this plastic one woot" answers "best answer" and pointedly ignore all the WalMart answers. If they still keep piling up and no other answerers comment to deter further, maybe it would be okay to leave one (1) possibly slightly acerbic "Please note not metal." comment?
posted by Don Pepino at 8:40 AM on September 14 [2 favorites]


This current thread about mayo seems like a strong example of the phenomenon, where the asker explicitly states above the fold, "what is your exact recipe?", and every comment so far talks about the quality of the ingredients but doesn't mention a specific recipe.

This.

Most of the time I find people's off answers annoying but funny, or annoying but irritating (depending on if it's someone else's question vs my question, probably) - especially when someone says "I want songs like X, Y, Z and Q", and someone inevitably suggests Y which is literally right there in the ask.

But when someone asks specifically for recipe links, or shopping suggestion links, or other "show my this specific thing" requests, and people answer variations on "make it yourself," it makes me NUTS (especially when it's my question). I don't want to know that it's easy to build my own birdhouse with stuff I can find around my house "if I'm handy", or find the recipe you're suggesting on my own. I know how to google. If I come to Ask asking for links, give me links. If I say I want recipes, put them in the thread or link to them.

Sometimes I think it could be solved by an optional limited-character text box for askers to fill out that shows up at the bottom of your question just says "I am looking for ____" and a second that says "I am not looking for _____." But I can see how that could be a nightmare.
posted by Mchelly at 8:55 AM on September 14 [2 favorites]


It's not the dreaded Male Answer Syndrome, but it is infuriatingly close — perhaps worse. At least MAS might get you answers related to what you had asked.

When people choose not to answer the question as written, what can you do? When people ignore your pleas to read the question and only address what is specifically asked, what can you do?

FWIW, I see the same trend on Stack Exchange sites, as well, where people will not answer the question, but instead latch onto some tertiary detail and muse on that.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 9:54 AM on September 14


I think people are fine about this and not getting any worse, at least. I mean it's hard to get worse than people trying to interrogate my desire to not do file backups in the way they think they should be done instead of just recommending a backup program
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em


I must admit, I LOL'd! At your flat response to why? "Because I want to." Dude. What else is there to say when the parameters are so cleanly stated? Don't challenge the premise, it's so rude when there is a technical answer. This gets muddy when it's interpersonal drama as a question, but this was a pretty easy one to just go ahead and accept the Asker's parameters. If you have a problem with how someone wants to do something, move on.
posted by tiny frying pan at 9:55 AM on September 14 [6 favorites]


In my experience, this problem isn't specific to MetaFilter. In general, people's online reading comprehension is shockingly bad.

That said, there's also an art to writing a good question. It should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. It should anticipate and address possible points of confusion. It should make clear whether you're a total n00b to the subject at hand, or an expert looking for help with a special case, or somewhere in between – so that responses can be calibrated accordingly. And so on.

Sometimes, though, even that doesn't help. I've posted many questions which (I thought) were as clear as they could possibly be – and still gotten wildly off-base answers.

It can be pretty frustrating. I spend a lot of time to figure out exactly what I actually need to know, and to pose a question that communicates those needs clearly. I do not see AskMe as a place for conversation – I see it as a place to get answers to a question. So when someone responds with a "just conversating" answer that blithely ignores the parameters that I so carefully spelled out, it feels like they're more interested in making the conversation about their own tangentially related thoughts than in helping me.

I don't know if there's a technological solution.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 9:59 AM on September 14 [4 favorites]


I once naively asked a personal question that resulted in relatively unempathic commentary instead of actual answers; I had asked for resources such as psychology/sociology books and articles, but got unsolicited advice and judgement about my situation. For personal and interpersonal issues this outcome can be very upsetting and should not be normalized by the site (for example flagging or sorting the answers still requires the user to read upsetting off-topic "answers"). I think I could have avoided this unhelpful result by first depersonalizing the details of my question into a much more generic question, but I was a novice AskMe user and didn't anticipate this level of complexity when I tried to use it. This experience did show me that one does not simply walk into AskMe with their question.
posted by polymodus at 10:39 AM on September 14 [5 favorites]


That said, there's also an art to writing a good question. It should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. It should anticipate and address possible points of confusion. It should make clear whether you're a total n00b to the subject at hand, or an expert looking for help with a special case, or somewhere in between – so that responses can be calibrated accordingly. And so on.

Sometimes, though, even that doesn't help.


And sometimes one tries so hard to anticipate and address possible points of confusion that one comes off as defensive, or helpless-and-hopeless ("Tell me how to solve my problem! By the way, I have already tried every possible way of solving my problem, or decided not to try them because I already know they won't work!")

I don't have a solution to this, it's just something I've filed away under "human relations: more difficult than they should be."
posted by Jeanne at 10:54 AM on September 14 [4 favorites]


What works for me is imagining asking a question and then imagining the answers I would get to it.

I do this. Quoted for emphasis. Ask is the subsite i read at least twice a day, followed by metatalk.
I like reading and also answering questions, i hope not too many off target, and reading answers. Personally it does not annoy me because i ask rarely, but i am sure that it can be annoying to the asker.
Realistically, i think nothing much can be done or should be done.
posted by 15L06 at 11:19 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]


I have an almost identical previously on this topic from 2017, when we were still limited to one Ask per week. We came to a similar nonconsensus on this then. Ultimately, different people on this site have very different expectations for Ask and what makes it useful.

warriorqueen: the amount of upset over slightly off-base answers kind of blows me away

Speaking only for myself, it's a "straw that breaks the camel's back" situation. The occasional slightly off-base answer wouldn't have bothered me, but I remember feeling a long buildup of frustration over time that culminated in me posting to MeTa five years ago.

These days, I post here a lot less, but when I do, I just try to focus on Best Answering the comments that actually answer my question and ignoring the others.
posted by capricorn at 11:30 AM on September 14 [2 favorites]


The framing of the question matters a lot. I mildly sabotaged my own recent Ask, and the answers all played off a potential mohawk and motorcycle jacket. But the answers were fun, and there may not be better answers.
posted by theora55 at 11:44 AM on September 14


I think if you're going to ask for a solution to an idiosyncratic problem when the common solution to that sort of problem flatly ignores the given idiosyncrasy, then you should be prepared for the solution set to converge on eliminating the thing that makes the problem unique. That goes double for questions where the constraint seems arbitrary and ill-explained. But I also note that people did attempt to accommodate your desires as well as the commonly available tools allow (e.g. Backblaze with an exclusion list), and they seemed to be pretty gentle (to my nerdy, IT professional eyes, anyway) in their corrections about your assumptions on how differential backups even work (after the initial backup, only new and changed files are transferred, not the whole set every time). But I'm not trying to relitigate that thread, just to say that the outcome there seemed to be about as good as it could have been given the stated criteria.

I don't really get this. If the question is not idiosyncratic in some way, it is much more likely that it is google-able. You ask real people because of the idiosyncrasies. Of course, sometimes the reason it's not google-able is that the asker has missed something. But sometimes it's just that they want something unusual. "Actually, you want something usual because I would prefer to be able to answer this question" or, perhaps worse, "actually, you want something usual because I would prefer that you do what I want you to do" is not helpful in those scenarios.

There is sometimes a very strong vibe of "I am better at thinking/problem solving/googling than you" when someone answers a question by challenging the stated parameters. (And I answer that way too sometimes, it's very human to want to jump in and correct people who are already asking for advice!) However, this vibe is why framing can be incredibly important in making sure that you're not coming across as disrespectful. A polite "you may have already considered this, and apologies if so" can go a long way towards making your answer part of a benign conversation, rather than having your answer come across as condescending/critical/rude.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 12:12 PM on September 14 [12 favorites]


People are trying to be helpful - I doubt very many have browsed AskMe with the intention of “fuck that guy’s question in particular”; this isn’t Reddit, after all. I think you just have to allow a bit of leeway in the answers and accept that not all of them will be winners. We’re human beings, not wise beings.
posted by JustSayNoDawg at 12:16 PM on September 14 [4 favorites]


Speaking only for myself, it's a "straw that breaks the camel's back" situation. The occasional slightly off-base answer wouldn't have bothered me, but I remember feeling a long buildup of frustration over time that culminated in me posting to MeTa five years ago.

I can see that but again, speaking for me, this is a part of interacting with humans and I take it as a sign to go hang out with some dogs or something. :)

I honestly value the intention of this community and people's willingness to share their expertise and time more than I value the information. I may well be an outlier in this. But I will never ever make my own mayo - ever - and yet I read that question!
posted by warriorqueen at 12:26 PM on September 14 [5 favorites]


But I will never ever make my own mayo - ever - and yet I read that question!

You read it - but did you try answering it?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:36 PM on September 14


Sorry - my prior comment ("you read it, but did you try answering it?") was actually pretty unclear; I done goofed up with it, apologies.

My point was: Warriorqueen, you were commenting about how you never planned on making your own mayo, but you still read that question. My comment about how "yes, but did you try answering it?" was actually meant to point out that you seemed to have the presence of mind to not try to answer a question about which you didn't have much experience - and that's a GOOD thing.

There's been several times - and, admittedly, there maybe should have been more - in which I started an answer to an AskMe out of a desire to help, but then realized that my understanding of the question was a little shakey, and so I stopped. But it was born of a desire to help. And I do think that for the most part, most of the people who leave comments on AskMe want to help - but not everyone is as good at the self-reflection which would warn them "actually, maybe I'd better leave this one to people who know more".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:26 PM on September 14 [7 favorites]


I honestly value the intention of this community and people's willingness to share their expertise and time more than I value the information. I may well be an outlier in this. But I will never ever make my own mayo - ever - and yet I read that question!

I think there's a bit more to it than this for some people. For one, the answerer should sometimes be the one to think things through and avoid making things harder on the asker because they may have more resources to do so. "Recommend a song," not a huge deal. But sometimes people are asking for help because they're very low on resources, including tolerance for frustration. Like, say your basement is flooded and it's 2am and you just spent two hours trying to bail it out and are hot, sweaty, sticky, and sleep deprived. Then people are saying things like "you should have installed a sump pump." That does just kinda suck interpersonally and is inconsiderate even if they think they're trying to help. Is it some kind of mortal sin? No, it's ultimately not a huge deal, but I can see why people get genuinely pissed about it.

There's also the fact that a lot of people view asking for advice or help as already kinda stressful and weak/vulnerable, and they can react badly if they view the responses as being aggressive or socially...reinforcing that vulnerability, or taking advantage of it, by implying that the asker is dumb/impractical/wrong. Sometimes that is just people being a bit overly touchy, but sometimes answers really do poke at the asker in a way that is hard not to see as socially aggressive, even if not intentionally so.

Honestly, I'm very glad about this metatalk thread because it's a good reminder for me to check myself and be a bit more thoughtful/gentle in my answers.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 1:42 PM on September 14 [9 favorites]


Like, say your basement is flooded and it's 2am and you just spent two hours trying to bail it out and are hot, sweaty, sticky, and sleep deprived. Then people are saying things like "you should have installed a sump pump." That does just kinda suck interpersonally and is inconsiderate even if they think they're trying to help.

You've reminded me of another non-answer I've sometimes seen, but I have to admit I'm a little less charitable about this one:

"You're having an issue with your new Windows PC? Go buy a Mac."

....I will never not see that as smug.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:58 PM on September 14 [7 favorites]


As the owner of both a Mac and a PC, I believe I can safely say anyone giving that answer can eat a bag of PICs*.

They both have their issues, though, since I use the Mac more often, I have spent more time working around them.

*It’s a microcontroller.
posted by JustSayNoDawg at 2:16 PM on September 14


I am a rare asker and a rare answerer. I go through stretches where I have an abundance of time to READ Ask, but usually not the knowledge requested or the time to write an answer like the ones some are requesting here.

I am of two minds of the issue. I see why some are frustrated when particular requirements are set out and 1 or more are ignored. At the same time, I see great value from answers don't meet all criteria. As others have said, sometimes the asker has certain criteria because they haven't considered all the options. ("I know you said the bat has to be ordered from Amazon, but is Walmart an option? This is the bat at Amazon, and this is the same bat at Walmart for half the price.")

The other thing (and one of the reasons I read Ask when I can), is I don't consider the answers to be JUST for the asker. So, if I read the question about the bat and I think, "Oh, yeah. I need a bat, too!" and one of the answers is "I know it's Walmart, not Amazon, but....", that answer may work for me.

On that same train of thought, someone else may read and say.... "Oh, now that so-and-so has found one at Walmart, maybe I can do some Google-fu/Amazon search to find something similar at Amazon!"

I agree sometimes things go too far astray, but I think their is worth in the almost right answers, too.
posted by a non mouse, a cow herd at 2:23 PM on September 14 [8 favorites]


Oh, I've waded into my fair share of questions where I shouldn't. I've been trying to curb it but especially when I'm evading stress elsewhere in my life, my desire to make something good/be helpful often results in being shitty. Sigh. Why is humaning so hard?

Anyways, I totally agree that the best approach is gentle and considerate and thoughtful answers.

But I also think that perfection is the enemy of the good.

And here on AskMe, I honestly think the general standard is pretty high. I feel like there's a give and a take, and part of the responsibility of the asker is to be prepared for non-optimal responses that miss context, etc.

I'm not sure how we get from there to "you should have installed a sump pump." That's not really an honest miss or trying to think outside the box, unless the next comment is "you can buy a time machine at this link."
posted by warriorqueen at 2:27 PM on September 14 [3 favorites]


"You're having an issue with your new Windows PC? Go buy a Mac."

Mods really try to delete "not answering the question" answers like that, smug or not. Same with "well this is what you SHOULD have done before this disaster befell you" especially in disasteresque questions because it often involves a failure to read the room and a lack of empathy (not that empathy is necessary to engage with AskMe but it helps). Please flag this sort of thing if you see it.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:13 PM on September 14 [8 favorites]


OMG, I feel this one in my bones. There have been times I kind of had to step away and not read Ask, even though it's my fave part of the site, for a while just because the collection of responses to, say, a question about what comedies to watch that mentions already having seen Ted Lasso and The Good Place, immediately list Ted Lasso and The Good Place. Maybe it shouldn't make me so unhinged, but it does, and sometimes I find myself envisioning some poor person who's provided very clear boundaries trying one of the things people recommended that blew past those boundaries and I almost hyperventilate. (I'm especially thinking of a recent one where someone mentioned some things they absolutely couldn't handle in movies with very clear rationales and so many of the answers were just appallingly wrong and I was really worried for the poor Asker.) There have been some questions I've asked that left me stewing for months because literally not one single person could just answer the damn question.

I'm sure this has to do with my generally fussy nature, but a lot of it is because my job is basically about helping people achieve clarity and ensuring readers can comprehend material, and so the comprehension fail gives me hives. But I also realize that, as people have pointed out, sometimes enthusiasm is why the comprehension fails, or what have you. I keep wondering why it's such a chronic problem, but also, well, we're dealing with humans and that's always going to be the case. I wish I could conceive of a technical solution, but I can't.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 3:35 PM on September 14 [6 favorites]


I'm only half serious about this, but:

What if we added a dropdown to the AskMe posting form? Options could include some version of:

– I said exactly what I meant – please answer the question that was asked
– Some creative liberties in responses are OK
– This "question" is actually just a free-association prompt – respond however you like, as long as you use some of the same nouns and verbs
posted by escape from the potato planet at 3:51 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]


(I'm especially thinking of a recent one where someone mentioned some things they absolutely couldn't handle in movies with very clear rationales and so many of the answers were just appallingly wrong and I was really worried for the poor Asker.)

If it's the one I'm thinking of, I think part of the problem is 1) that people have imperfect memories of things that they watched a while or even many years ago (witness some Fanfare threads about Buffy where people are just confidently ranting about their completely inaccurate memories of the show), and 2) if you don't have a sensitivity to (for example) infidelity storylines, you may not remember that the movie that you watched and liked 5 years ago had a minor infidelity subplot. If I were to try to answer a question like that, I'd probably run by wikipedia and/or doesthedogdie just to confirm that the movie I'm suggesting meets the asker's criteria but realistically I know most answerers won't do that.

That said, solidarity fist bump, because it kind of drives me nuts too (the one that I remember years later was someone asking for novels where "the plot is not driven by violence" and someone recommended a book that has a murder on like page 300 and the last 100 or so pages of plot are all about the repercussions of that murder.)
posted by creepygirl at 3:56 PM on September 14 [4 favorites]


This is a data point of one. On my previous account I answered more than a thousand AskMes over a six year period. My belief was, and is, that ask.metafilter isn't just for the question asker, but for all of the readers. I've favorite-ed a lot of questions and answers over the years as the advice was directly helpful to me. I tried to take that view in my answers - to only answer questions where I had some direct experience or expert knowledge, to cover the basic question of the asker, and to make the answer general enough to help other readers of the thread both at the time the thread was active and in the future. I got a lot of favorites and best answers and occasionally got exasperation from the asker. I liked Charity Garfein's answer at the top of the thread: Buy the ticket, take the ride — if you don't like the answers you get, feel free to ignore them.
posted by BlueTongueLizard at 4:51 PM on September 14 [8 favorites]


This is a small pet peeve of mine, and it's really honestly not that big of a deal because I know people mean well when they do this. But I get really irritated when someone asks a question about interpersonal conflicts or anxieties, specifically mentions that they ARE in therapy, and then half of the answers are "You should be in therapy/find a therapist."

It's happened in questions I've asked. I specifically mention that I'm in therapy but sometimes I just want input because 1) my next appointment isn't for a while and I am looking for help on how to cope till my next appointment or 2) sometimes it's just nice to hear how other people coped with a thing, it gives me ideas that I will often BRING TO MY THERAPIST for discussion and it actually helps make my therapy sessions better! Hive minds are cool!

I know people mean well when they do this and I also think everyone should be in therapy at some point in their lives. But it just rubs me the wrong way when the question clearly states that the asker is in therapy and then 12 people show up and say omg you need to be in therapy. Like, when it happens to me, sometimes it just makes me feel worse about myself. Maybe that's irrational. I dunno, I'll ask my therapist about it at my next appointment. (HAHA I crack myself up)

YMMV but this is something I've noticed a lot lately and it makes me itchy so I thought I'd mention it.
posted by nayantara at 7:00 PM on September 14 [9 favorites]


What if we added a dropdown to the AskMe posting form? Options could include
It is clear to me that many people hate these extra answers and many love them. I do think there should be a way to indicate what kind of answers you desire.
posted by soelo at 8:57 PM on September 14


There is already a way to indicate what kinds of answers you desire and that's by writing "please answer the question as asked / creative answers welcome / respond however you like" somewhere in the question.
posted by Diskeater at 9:34 PM on September 14 [3 favorites]


Diskeater: that only works if the person reads carefully, and we seem to have amply established that "the person reads carefully" isn't always a given.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:55 AM on September 15 [6 favorites]


Because I don't think it's been posted yet, a quote from the Ask form, about the basic question:

This will show up on the front page along with the title, so try to ask your entire question while keeping it to a paragraph. (If you must go on longer, use the optional extended area.)


Many of us have longer questions (I certainly have). Lately, though, I always feel a jolt of surprise when I read an Ask that actually keeps it brief. I am so accustomed to seeing things like this --

[Quoted from lookoutbelow:]

... many ask questions are written in lengthy undifferentiated paragraphs with key information buried deep within. If the asker is concerned with communicating key information, it would be helpful to include that information as a list of criteria right below the fold or at the bottom of the question. Headings also help.

Yes. 100-1,000+ undifferentiated words below the fold can be difficult to parse.
posted by cupcakeninja at 5:04 AM on September 15


There is already a way to indicate what kinds of answers you desire and that's by writing "please answer the question as asked

Throwback to that time when I asked for suggestions for bed warming devices that specifically were NOT HEATED MATTRESS PADS and fully 1/4 of the answers were about heated mattress pads. No one cares. It's fine.

This question re. Ask is the eternal Plato quote about kids these days disrespecting their elders.
posted by phunniemee at 5:58 AM on September 15 [1 favorite]


that only works if the person reads carefully, and we seem to have amply established that "the person reads carefully" isn't always a given.

I agree. I just don’t think a technical solution would help. Some kind of “the asker has indicated they are looking for (whatever type of answers)” checkbox that forces a user to click it before posting might work but I doubt it. It would be treated as an annoying “Yes I’ve read the Terms And Conditions” barrier.
posted by Diskeater at 6:30 AM on September 15


Mods really try to delete "not answering the question" answers like that, smug or not. [...] Please flag this sort of thing if you see it.

Oh, I do. fret not, I'm just venting about the need to flag in the first place because for the nerve of some people, yaknow?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:38 AM on September 15 [2 favorites]


Related: I wish askers of tightly-constrained questions would indicate in the question how open they are to alternatives that don't quite meet the constraints. I'm thinking of a specific question about a lamp a few months ago. As far as I know, the specific combination of design and features the asker wanted doesn't exist as a product. It would've been useful to know if the asker's philosophy was "if you can't check all the boxes, don't bother answering" or "If I can't get exactly this thing, I'm most willing to compromise on X but not at all willing to compromise on Y," since that really changes the answer.
posted by Alterscape at 7:17 AM on September 15 [4 favorites]


fully 1/4 of the answers were about heated mattress pads.

To be fair to answerers, the first comment was asking you what about them was a problem for you.

Sometimes I think AskMe answerers like the problem-solving nature of these questions and sometimes also the frisson of "Oh ho you don't THINK you want a heated mattress pad but really they exist without the feature you hate that you thought was indivisible from them!" and, I get it, there's an aspect of "I know this subject more than you do" which can be aggravating to someone who knows the subject pretty well.

I think one of the larger questions is if this is intended to be a collaborative problem solving space. And I think the answer is partly yes and partly no. Interpersonal relations question askers are asked to not turn the thread into a back and forth about their topic. "Help me find a thing to buy" threads often benefit from additional detail if some was missing, or askers want clarification or want to narrow the options.

And this gets further complicated by the degree to which askers have certainty and confidence about their own questions which doesn't always correlate to accuracy about how they're describing things or their own (stated or implied) premises. And some people are just not in their element as written communicators. While it might be worth thinking through the submission steps for AskMe and seeing if the UI could be improved, I'm not sure it can compensate for some of these things.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:04 AM on September 15 [5 favorites]


It literally just happened in a question i asked just today!

I posted this question asking for ideas about stuff I could put in a little compartment in a necklace I have. And right there in the question, I link to a picture I saw on Etsy, but then say that "it looks kind of like, this, but does not have a spoon".

And sure enough someone just posted a suggestion, and said "but I don't know if the spoon would get in the way."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:09 AM on September 15


But at least that answer had a suggestion nonetheless? This is AskMe working fine, imo.
posted by tiny frying pan at 9:52 AM on September 15 [4 favorites]


But at least that answer had a suggestion nonetheless?

And in all honesty, that was the only reason I didn't flag it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:36 AM on September 15


Yeah, some of these links to "egregious" examples of Bad Answers are having the opposite of their intended effect and leading me to conclude that the main problem with AskMe is that sometimes people can be annoying and sometimes people are too easily annoyed.
posted by Atom Eyes at 11:36 AM on September 15 [11 favorites]


Yeah...cause it was helpful.
posted by tiny frying pan at 11:48 AM on September 15


Fair cop....I think this has just kind of made me a little sensitive to "but we were just talking about this kind of thing" and I over-reacted a bit.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:16 PM on September 15


There is no "we" in MetaTalk though. I always assume that most readers of the site never read it. That's my impression anyway.
posted by tiny frying pan at 12:23 PM on September 15 [1 favorite]


....Tiny Frying Pan, I am trying to apologize.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:32 PM on September 15 [4 favorites]


Now everybody's getting annoyed with each other!
posted by nobody at 12:42 PM on September 15


FTR I am not annoyed, love everyone that tries to answer questions. 🐱‍🏍
posted by warriorqueen at 12:45 PM on September 15 [2 favorites]


I'm not annoyed. You're annoyed.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:46 PM on September 15


Okay? I'm still allowed to comment, right?
posted by tiny frying pan at 1:48 PM on September 15


(That felt like an admonishment for no reason.)
posted by tiny frying pan at 1:59 PM on September 15


(Hey, sorry -- I made my wide-eyed exclamation trying to defuse tension, not to make anyone feel worse about the little vectors of annoyance and misunderstanding spinning out in a thread about, at its root, annoyance and misunderstanding.)
posted by nobody at 2:38 PM on September 15 [2 favorites]


I'm curious if there is a correlation between how annoying a person finds off-topic answers, and whether AskMeta is their main/only experience of online questions and answers?

For example, compared to the avarage reddit thread, most AskMeta answers are pretty on target.
posted by Zumbador at 9:34 PM on September 15 [3 favorites]


Okay? I'm still allowed to comment, right? (That felt like an admonishment for no reason.)

I mean, you CAN comment, of course. But so am I, and that "admonishment" was not an admonishment - it was a comment that "ouch! I was trying to say I'm sorry, and I don't understand why you decided to get nit-picky about my word choice instead of understanding the MEANING of what I was trying to say."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:53 AM on September 16 [1 favorite]


What if we added a dropdown to the AskMe posting form? Options could include some version of:
– I said exactly what I meant – please answer the question that was asked
– Some creative liberties in responses are OK
– This "question" is actually just a free-association prompt – respond however you like, as long as you use some of the same nouns and verbs


I really don’t think this should fall back on the shoulders of the Askers (beyond the usual “be as clear as you can” proviso) This is on answerers who either don’t read the Ask fully/correctly, or simply see a subject and have thoughts. Honestly, if you don’t have an actual answer, move on.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:20 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]


Humans are gonna human and you can't stop them from doing that.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:41 PM on September 16 [6 favorites]


But you can still wish they wouldn't human in that particular way as much.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:31 AM on September 17 [4 favorites]


That wish is also very human :-)
Let us be accepting, like all-seeing gods.
posted by trig at 1:10 AM on September 17 [4 favorites]


I totally agree on wishing people wouldn't human as much, but you cannot stop them!
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:06 AM on September 17


Not without being smart from the very beginning.
posted by zamboni at 12:57 PM on September 17 [7 favorites]


The checkbox solution might merely be a checkbox that enables the Post button for a comment that simply says "I have thoroughly read the question" (much like the function of MetaTalk's checkbox).

I am in profound agreement with you, and yet I must also admit that this is functionally identical to the current situation, just with an extra click. Nobody will read it, nobody will take it seriously, and there is nothing we can do.

This is akin to being angry about entropy.

(note: I am very much angry about entropy. That anger does me no good whatsoever, and is probably hastening my inevitable demise, which will in all likelihood be a deeply tedious experience for all involved. All I can do is hope that outcome makes things better somehow, at least in a local sense. Also, fuck entropy.)

None of the above was a joke, I am serious.
posted by aramaic at 7:10 PM on September 17 [3 favorites]


This discussion seems to have mainly centered on answers that didn’t meet criteria set out, but the example of the general phenomenon of the post that most caught my eye recently was one where the poster said, in the title, that they had noticed themselves doing X behavior. The question was on the long side, and admittedly didn’t mention the exact word X again more than once or so, but described the behavior and asked for strategies for not doing it as much. And multiple replies were basically “oh, what you are doing is called X”.

I can see where that comes from: skimming the title, having the term X in the back of their minds but not really conscious of having read it in the title, so then when they remember/term X pops to the forefront of their minds again later, it feels like they’ve just thought of it on their own, and thus will be contributing something useful by stating that the behavior described is called X. But also, as a third party observer, it felt rude to the question-asker in the context of a fairly personal question.
posted by eviemath at 7:12 AM on September 18 [2 favorites]


It should a noted that turning off titles is a supported interface function. One should use caution when putting key information in titles because some users won't see them/it.
posted by Mitheral at 7:22 AM on September 18 [2 favorites]


It should a noted that turning off titles is a supported interface function.

Hey, can you clarify how to turn off titles?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:52 AM on September 18


If you change the title font size to zero, they go completely away. This is definitely a thing I think some old school users did (I did for a while) but I think most current users don't even know it's a thing you can do. I have noticed more people putting their question in the title with the text part of the question not containing a question and I often find it confusing. This is a me problem, not a site problem, but I'd just noticed it recently and was interested in my reaction to it.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:15 AM on September 18 [4 favorites]


Hey, can you clarify how to turn off titles?

Per the Display Preferences FAQ:
Classic and Plain theme allow you to customize the size and font of different text types. You can use any font that's installed in your computer, just enter the name. (If a font name isn't working, try copying the exact name of the font as it appears in your computer's Fonts folder or library.) You can set the fonts to be bigger or smaller, and you can set any font size to 0 (zero) to remove that text from the display.
posted by zamboni at 9:47 AM on September 18


MetaFilter: Now everybody's getting annoyed with each other!
posted by escape from the potato planet at 8:26 AM on September 19 [2 favorites]


I'm someone who often gets stuck inside boxes when I'm trying to solve a problem, and I actually appreciate when Ask reminds me that there are things near my solution box that might also suffice. I guess maybe I am in the minority but I've definitely had best answers that apologized for not being the sort of answer I said I'd wanted.
posted by potrzebie at 11:01 PM on September 19 [7 favorites]


and didn’t mention the exact word again more than once or so

Part of it is folks trying not to be too wordy, no doubt, so I can’t tell if the comments after my comment are demonstrating the same phenomenon as this MeTa is about, or if folks saw that and are just responding to the main/most salient part of my comment, the one that was linguistically emphasized given how I wrote my comment. The potential for misunderstanding and frustration in especially more personal Ask threads is clear, at any rate.
posted by eviemath at 4:26 AM on September 20 [1 favorite]


Play human-interaction games, win human-interaction prizes. Someone being overeager to help or proselytize their favorite podcast or share their experience - even someone being smug or swinging around their big righteous feelings of correctness - is a person at the party we all chose to attend. The social contract is tough, but drop downs and extra categorization are not going to make people any more observant - did scrolling and tick boxes make us read EULAs? Has any teenager ever clicked No when asked if they are Over 18?

How would such data structures be *used* by MetaFilter for decision making? What happens when everyone ticks all the boxes and *still* someone flubs and answers “wrong”? Do they get points on their license and sent to a permissions group that can only post Asks once a week? Banned after 3 strikes? How will users lodge a protest that they really DID understand, or that the Ask was ambiguous enough that they thought they *were* answering Correctly By The Parameters? I am completely and utterly serious. Is this a good use of mod time, to filter out answers that a subset of users find annoying, or to clean out answers that a subset of users don’t think adequately answer the question being asked?
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 10:29 PM on September 22


I don't think anyone intends that the tickboxes should be "data", per se. More just hoop jumping to remind people to read the question.

And mods already do, based on flags, filter out answers that simply repeat things that were already mentioned in the question, so adding tick boxes won't change that.

I'm not particularly advocating for tickboxes, but let's not argue against them as if they are something no one is proposing that they be.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:24 AM on September 23


The original post proposes a tick box as a hoop to jump through for commenters. Hoops to jump through like this aren’t particularly helpful in my professional experience - I used some examples that people may be familiar with, but I make a living designing data-collection tools, training people to use them, socializing them with respondents, and analyzing the data. My experience isn’t in managing online platforms, so maybe it doesn’t obtain, but it seems counterproductive to impose an inconvenience cost on 100% of comments in order to weed out a minute fraction of all comments, which in turn are annoying to some MeFi users but a crucial part of membership for others… especially when (again, speaking from experience) the people who want to proselytize or swing a big opinion are going to tick that box anyways. Coding and maintaining that feature takes time and money: again, is the *potential* reduction of annoyance for some MeFi users on some small number of overall comments on the site an adequate return on investment, given MetaFilter’s resources?

The original post also proposes a flag category for mods: flags are a way of categorizing the data of user comments, in order to take action. Flag options already exist for both noise/derail/other and flag with a custom note, so what is being proposed is a *new* way of categorizing data, which would again take time and money to code and maintain, and in effect make “I’m annoyed by this comment” an official category for mods to respond to.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 4:04 PM on September 23 [1 favorite]


I spent several years, a lot of money, and a lot of effort going to grad school to get a master's in not giving advice, because generally advice is not helpful, mostly because people end up (inadvertently) pushing their own agenda or trying to prove they're clever rather than actually figuring out what would help someone. And actually figuring out what would help someone requires at least some, and sometimes a lot of, back and forth, which AskMe explicitly forbids.

I'm thankful that AskMe helped me realize I wanted to become a therapist to help people. Becoming a therapist then made me realize how AskMe is never going to be any more useful than the stranger who sits next to you on an airplane. Sometimes you luck out and it's very useful! Mostly, you might just get some other fragments of ideas that can help you better formulate your own Google search. Trying to make the site into something better than is possible when you hire someone with professional training (interpersonal relationship skills or more practical matters) is kind of pointless, in my opinion.
posted by lapis at 9:04 PM on September 23 [3 favorites]


(And I still give advice on AskMe. I know that it's mainly for my own gratification, and the feeling of being helpful is likely a bigger motivator than actually being helpful.)
posted by lapis at 9:08 PM on September 23 [2 favorites]


I don't think there's been any real increase in non-answers over the years, not in my perception anyway. There's always been some and always will be. Often this is because the question was answered in a way that led to different interpretations, but it's sometimes really hard to ask the question without falling into that trap when you try to make the question short enough to fall within the average human span of attention.

Sometimes, though, answers to not-the-question can be helpful. I recently asked a question where the best answer ended up being one that didn't precisely answer what I asked, but did answer the question I didn't know to ask and sent me in the right direction to resolving the issue.

So, expecting people to be too precise can actually be a negative. Yes, it can be annoying when someone says 'do x' when you specifically said 'x is not the answer', but it pays to remember that people are answering in good faith and trying to help. Making it harder to either ask or answer is not the solution. Being grateful that someone spent time trying to help is not the whole solution either, but it helps.
posted by dg at 4:44 PM on September 27 [4 favorites]


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