Please answer the actual question, not what you think should have been the question January 8, 2004 5:02 AM   Subscribe

AskMe policy proposal: "Please answer the actual question, not what you think should have been the question".

For instance here, crunchland seems to think the question is "what's a good approach to picking colors", whereas namespan is saying "fireworks used to have a feature, now it doesn't, what can I do". This happens all the time. People ask how to fix something on a computer running System A, and the answer is switch to System B. People ask about Anti-virus apps, and are told not to use them and just practice safe-computing. It's a small peeve, but the added noise is not appreciated, especially when you actually care about the answers.
posted by signal to Etiquette/Policy at 5:02 AM (39 comments total)

wait. A program doesn't have a feature any more, so you use a secondary program to do the same thing. How did that not answer the question?
posted by crunchland at 5:34 AM on January 8, 2004

oh, wait. I see. his program stopped doing it. it's not that they dropped the feature.

in review, call fucking tech support.
posted by crunchland at 5:36 AM on January 8, 2004

you think he's not fucking correctly?
posted by quonsar at 5:51 AM on January 8, 2004

Ask MetaFilter seems to have run off the tracks lately. It used to be "Just the facts mame", but now it's chatty and full of joking around. Please fix this.
posted by y6y6y6 at 5:59 AM on January 8, 2004

In general, I agree with this idea - especially when the question is something like, "I have this problem in Windows", and the answer is something like "Don't use Windows". But I think that, often, offering an alternative framing to the original question might be very helpful. I imagine that there might be many times when the original poster is struggling with a problem that really can be dealt with better by a different approach that they simply didn't know about... I also think that how these sorts of solutions are offered is important. "You might consider trying A instead of B, because...", is much better than "or you could just do A" (with an implied "dumbass" appended, and no explanation provided).

Just about everybody here knows a lot in some information area that will be helpful to others, but obviously not everybody knows the same things, which is why we can help each other. If we approach questions in the true spirit of assistance, we can usually contribute - even if our contribution is to suggest another approach. If we post answers just to show off or belittle someone else's knowledge in a certain area, then AskMe will lose a lot of its value, and many of its participants.
posted by taz at 6:07 AM on January 8, 2004

oh, and none of that last part had to do with crunchland, who was just trying to help when he thought that a feature had been dropped...
posted by taz at 6:09 AM on January 8, 2004

Who gets to judge whether or not a response is "worthy"? erm, aside from Matt, I suppose. Sometimes a response not quite on point can be incredibly helpful, or open you up to consider more alternatives or perspectives. As long as it's in the spirit of being helpful, anything should go.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 6:20 AM on January 8, 2004

I tend to agree with Ghost, but the poster's question was quite specific in this case. Seems like a reinstall would probably solve his problem but I wouldn't post such an obvious response in the green. Oh what the heck I may as well, now I've wasted the space here.
posted by cbrody at 6:32 AM on January 8, 2004

y6: I would expect that to become the norm as users become more familiar with the site, and given the increasing traffic (both Qs and As), Matt becomes less able to police it.
posted by mischief at 6:42 AM on January 8, 2004

I disagree. Whenever I've asked a question on AskMe, I've received all sorts of answers. Some answered my literal question. Others veered into tangents that were related to my question. Sometimes these tangents made me think of solutions I wouldn't have thought of had everyone answered literally. So why not leave room open for both? What does it hurt?

A clear example might be:

Q. Can anyone recommend a good fantasy novel?

A1: Lord of the Rings.

A2: If you like A1's suggestion, you'll probably like the movie versions too.

Assuming the questioner lived in a hole and had never heard of Lord of the Rings, I think A2's response is reasonable, even though the Q specifically asked for a "novel."
posted by grumblebee at 6:54 AM on January 8, 2004

I agree with much of the above. Signal makes a fair point, but I think extra information is useful if it's in the right spirit and there is a good chance the person asking won't have considered or know of the alternative option in order to even ask about it.

That said, I agree that there have been instances that this is clearly not the case. There has been a lot of noise on the board lately - answers to entirely different questions, silly comments, semi-related conversation.

I wouldn't wish to exclude answers that genuinely think outside the box, but there are cases where people aren't really identifying the issue and offering a relevant solution, especially when people ignore the conditions deliberately built into the question. The example was a good one.
posted by nthdegx at 6:59 AM on January 8, 2004

I think part of the problem is that there have been a lot of S2BU ("sucks to be you") problems on Ask Metafilter lately. This is stuff that is only happening to one person and that no one else can replicate, hence no one else can solve. Those aren't the best questions because people can't offer much help aside from: reinstall, call tech support, or try another program.
posted by mathowie (staff) at 8:13 AM on January 8, 2004

I've been trying to be specific but somehow vague in my answers... by this I mean that if someone asks something like "How do I format a screenplay?" I would respond with specifics (the "facts" of the answer) and generics ("when it suits your purpose, fuck the rules of 'format'", etc.), the reason being that I thought it would cut down on a very similar question ("I'm writing a screenplay. Is it absolutely necessary I follow the formatting rules at all times?") from needing to be asked by someone else. This of course assumes they first search for "screenplay format" or whatever.

Though I agree with "On windows..." / "Switch to mac, dummy!" type responses are ridiculous, there is also a good chance that someone using Program A will greatly benefit from being told about Program B (if it's on the same platform). I just hope that people won't do it in a snarky way.
posted by dobbs at 9:37 AM on January 8, 2004

I don't understand: crunchland volunteers two useful links out of the goodness of his heart (for it does exist) and gets ticked off for it. Are all answers now going to be monitored so that those deemed inappropriate will be handed back?

Talk about turning the milk of human kindness into yoghurt.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:57 AM on January 8, 2004

MetaFilter: The yogurt of human kindness.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:19 AM on January 8, 2004

While not direct answers to a rather specific (and difficult to replicate) problem, the posts in the thread offerred alternatives. It seems to me that this expands the scope of AskMetafilter and makes it more useful to readers. While the original poster may not have gotten what he needed (likely because nobody knows the answer) the thread was still worthwhile for others.

As a Fireworks user I read the thread and though I couldn't provide an answer, I found a couple of new tools. This is a bad thing?
posted by cedar at 10:24 AM on January 8, 2004

1) I wasn't picking on crunchland specifically, it was just the most recent example. I've been meaning to make this post for a while now and just got around to it.

2) I think that we should take questions at face value, assume the question-poster is a functioning, semi-intelligent entity who is capable of framing his/her/its question to maximize its relevance to him/her/itself.

3) Milk gives me the dry heaves, Miguel, whereas yogurt is quite yummy.
posted by signal at 10:29 AM on January 8, 2004

If your goal is to make people reluctant to reply and help people on Ask Mefi in the future, for fear that their assistance may be interpreted as misguided, it's working.
posted by crunchland at 11:12 AM on January 8, 2004

posted by signal at 11:19 AM on January 8, 2004

"Are all answers now going to be monitored so that those deemed inappropriate will be handed back?"

Yes, please. I second Miguel's suggestion.
posted by y6y6y6 at 11:31 AM on January 8, 2004

I've become reluctant to post anything on MetaFilter, don't much feel like having too much to say on MetaTalk. MeAsk is just about the only place I'm really very interested in participating these days, and that's because, for the most part, both those posting and those answering have managed to act like cilvil human beings interested in communicating.

If we start up with all the "must" and "shouldn't"s that are arbitrarily (and conflictingly) applied to front page MetaFilter, I will probably have to add MeAsk to that list of places to approach cautiously and post to sparingly, at which point I will probably stop visiting very often, or at all.
posted by taz at 11:50 AM on January 8, 2004

What's wrong with yogurt? No offensive intended, but it's better than warm milk from crunchland's teat.
posted by The God Complex at 12:08 PM on January 8, 2004

errr, "offense intended" (or "offensive intent")
posted by The God Complex at 12:10 PM on January 8, 2004

Exactly, taz.

Yes, please. I second Miguel's suggestion.

y6: that was not my suggestion but my fear, as you well know. Sometimes I think that the very idea that an important part of MeFi, like AskMe, could work well, practically from the start, without the help and guidance of the MeTa control freaks fills them with horror.

Quite frankly, I don't even think guidelines are now needed. Best practice has already been established. Some questions and answers work better than others. So what? It's doing fine.

*breaks into "Let It Be" (the full Phil Spector version)*
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:12 PM on January 8, 2004

Speaking as someone who recently took the liberty of "re-asking" a poster's question in a thread, I think these kinds of tangents are OK, and in fact, are good, in that the thread becomes not just a mob helping one person, but helping that person and one another as well.

I think as long as the question gets a decent airing, and some reasonable responses, what's the harm of some interesting side discussions?
posted by luser at 12:57 PM on January 8, 2004

Talk about turning the milk of human kindness into yoghurt.
At least this proves we have culture.

As has already been identified, one of the problems/features with AskMeFi is that the reason people are asking their question there is because they have not been able to find a suitable answer elsewhere, often because they do not know the "right" question to ask in the first place. It is one of those catch-22 situations where, if you know the right question, you can find the answer easily. One of the best things about AskMeFi is the willingness of members to think around the question and provide information that they feel is relevant.

*sings along with Miguel*
posted by dg at 3:00 PM on January 8, 2004

My feelings on the subject are that AskMetafilter serves both the role of answering an immediate question posed by a user, and also of being a repository of answers. If I need to find out something, I can just search for keywords in the search engine, and come up with a previously asked question. Providing ancillary information, like Crunchland (and, frankly 99% of other responders) do is good, because it widens the scope of the site's future usefulness.

And to respond to something brought up in this thread, I do not, with all due respect, think that even Matt has the authority to decide whether answers are "worthy" or not. Nor do I think our fearless leader has any desire to be that kind of judge. Matt's job, as I understand it, is to decide what content, both questions and answers, is appropriate for the site's mission. Only the person who asked the question can decide whether the information provided to them is worthwhile.
posted by Hildago at 4:02 PM on January 8, 2004

I agree with this. I posted a question to Ask about how to safe-guard my parents' computer against adware, spyware and malware because they don't know how to avoid these things, and I always end up fixing it.

The first wave of answers I got were all along the lines of "you shouldn't pay any attention. that'll teach em. it's not your computer anywya."

Yeah thanks, that's real helpful. I eventually got some helpful answers, but not before I re-stated the question and the fact that I was asking help with my course of action, not for criticism on my course of action.
posted by tomorama at 4:06 PM on January 8, 2004

Well, if you had just asked for criticism in the first place then they would have instead immediately provided you with assistance. This is all really very simple.
posted by mischief at 4:22 PM on January 8, 2004

"Talk about turning the milk of human kindness into yoghurt".

At least this proves we have culture.

Hee hee, dg! As a very old writer I should know my metaphors. But I don't. I started off with a cliché ("the milk of human kindness") and, to make it worse, I prolonged it by thinking of what happens when that milk curdles.

Milk is (with, er, hindsight) obviously bettered by curdling (yoghurt, cheese) so my stupid elaboration was the opposite of what I meant to say.

Next time, when I'm chiming against something I might say "Damn you, signal, you took one good carbon comment and, in your haste to destroy, turned it into an effing diamond!" :)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 4:40 PM on January 8, 2004

Uh... sorry I'm late everybody. You know, traffic, parking spaces...

I thought the answers were OK. Obviously not exactly what I wanted -- I'd still love to figure out if I just unchecked a box or why Fireworks stopped doing what I wanted it to do -- but obviously the underlying problem of picking color values of the screen is the important bit.

In general, I think signal brings up an important point: AskMe could become a poorer place if people completely ignore the specifics of a question. But the unexpected divergent answer has a lot of value too (in life as well as AxMe)... so it could also become a poorer place if we confined our answers to strict interpretations of the question. I suppose, like many other things, it's about balance.

Which of course, we may not do well sometimes. :)
posted by namespan at 6:37 PM on January 8, 2004

I don't see the problem of providing help and answers to questions that are along the lines of "Doctor, it hurts when I do this wrong!", even though the answer is "So do it right, you idiot!" Sometimes the answer isn't going to be a direct answer to the question simply because the question itself is a symptom of a larger problem that needs help. And some questions will always benefit from more information, especially if it's of the "teach a man to fish" variety.

I'd much rather (as in, I'm considering offering a cash bounty for scalps) the snarky non-contributing comments be met with the painful smack of justice. That is a far bigger problem for Ask and portends far worse things than the trend of people offering additional useful information. Every single one of these stupid "forget that, send the money to me" comments is another chance for a perfectly useful discussion to head off into the weeds.
posted by majick at 9:00 PM on January 8, 2004

What majick said. Damn right.
posted by y6y6y6 at 9:03 PM on January 8, 2004

Having said all that, yes, there is a rising tide of useless snarkiness masquerading as answers. So to answer signal's original proposal: No, I don't agree with the proposed policy. Yes, I think "switch to something else" can be a valid answer, though it isn't always or even often. But when you see someone trying to use a hammer to drive screws, you're doing them a service by pointing out the existence of screwdrivers.
posted by majick at 9:04 PM on January 8, 2004

So, in conclusion: no one wants to prevent alternative answers, but a little common sense is required to ensure the answer isn't merely a snarky sarcastic retort, and that it really does, in one way or another, answer the question.

It's a fair point, but looking back I concede that the example raised was not the best. If you want to understand better why this post was worthwhile look at tomorama's example.

I think this issue is being overly polarised, here.
posted by nthdegx at 4:43 AM on January 9, 2004

Well here's another "me too". I think alternative answers and anecdotes are great. Most questions on AskMe can be answered within specialized forums (,, even good ole usenet), but it's the alternative solutions that keep me reading computer related problems.

Personally, I only think that AskMe will see real issues in regard to quality of the questions. Obviously quality is in the eye of the beholder, but if the question can be answered by tech support, a quick google search or asking in a more relevant forum, then the degredation of the board will follow.
posted by geoff. at 7:04 AM on January 9, 2004

Gah... this stuff is getting preempted now, which can't be a good thing.
posted by nthdegx at 7:06 AM on January 9, 2004

When I write a comment and have hit preview, I ask myself, "Is this helpful and a possible answer to the problem as stated?" It really clarifies things for me. I've made just one non-helpful comment so far, but I just couldn't resist. And even then someone took me up on it, because he thought it might be helpful for a problem of his.

AskMe is just fine - people really are looking to help and be helped there.
posted by orange swan at 7:11 AM on January 9, 2004

Phil Spector version: briefly, I thought that said the Full Sphincter version.

DG is on the button, sometimes an answer is more apparent with a better question. (I've been bashful about using AskMe as I am not always confident that I have formed a good question.) I also think that some questions need additional questions; maybe that is my weakness but if someone wants information which I might be able to help with, I generally seek more information to provide a decent answer. This often appears in the give-and-take among the answers and questioner in the thread.

AxMe? Is this the new branch of the MeFi family, the one with the red background and the, err, never mind...
posted by Dick Paris at 2:05 PM on January 10, 2004

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