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Recently posted on the Stack Overflow blog:

Are Some Questions Too Simple?

We’ve seen it come up enough times now that I’m comfortable making a final decision: yes, some questions are too simple to be answered … at least on our sites.

Not because they’re bad questions, mind you, but because these types of questions can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference site with no additional explanation necessary. We discourage “answers” that are links, but for these questions, it’s hard to argue that anything else is required.

The problem is coming up enough in the network that we’re thinking about adding a new standard close reason for it.

General reference: this question is too basic; the answer is indexed in any number of general internet reference sources designed specifically to find that type of information.

There's more, including a flowchart that demonstrates how to determine if a question is to basic to be appropriate for Stack Overflow sites.

How does this apply to Bicycles.se? Does this relate to the Broad questions or specific? question that ChrisW opened?

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Does this relate to the Broad questions or specific? question that ChrisW opened?

I don't mind questions about simple problems.

The problem I had, with the question that I referenced in "Broad questions or specific?", is that that question refused to identify any problem at all (it was "how do you use a prototype?" without identifying what problem the OP was trying to solve).

If you look at the examples of the questions which are deemed 'too simple', one is this:

What is tapioca?

Where does it come from? How is it made? Where does it grow?

IMO the main thing wrong with that is not that it's too 'basic' or too 'broad', but that it doesn't identify a problem.

Another example was from StackOverflow:

How do I move the turtle in LOGO?

IMO the main thing wrong with that is that:

  1. Programmers are supposed to know the first thing about what they're doing.
  2. There's a huge (and unwelcome) gap between that question and the experts reading it
  3. The question reveals a questioner who's so clueless that the task of adequately informing them is daunting (read about how to spot a "help vampire")

An equivalent question on this site would be, "How do you learn to ride a bike?" (however even that question isn't too basic for this site).

Perhaps vocabulary questions are too simple ("What is a derailleur?"); but, that's adequately/easily answered by a single 'Terminology' Q+As.

I suggest that the existing FAQ is adequate: that a question is OK as long as ...

  • It's phrased as a question
  • It's about bicycles
  • It's practical; it's answerable; and it's based on an actual problem that you face
  • It's not subjective; not a disguised rant; not merely hypothetical; and not just idle curiosity

Perhaps mods and high-rep users should readily use "vote to close" on questions which don't meet any/all of these criteria defined in the FAQ (on a higher-traffic sites like StackOverflow, it's easy/easier to find 5 users who are willing to close off-topic/inappropriate non-questions; there can be be 5 votes-to-close within the first minute).

Personally I don't think that "too basic" need be a criterion, because I'm guessing that, unlike with programming, and I might be wrong, a question that's a real problem but 'too basic' might have a correspondingly brief answer. Or maybe not: maybe there are some questions like, "How do I build a wheel?", that would take too much explanation to answer properly?

What would you suggest as examples of answers which meet the FAQ criteria but are 'too basic'?

I also suggest that for as long as Bicycles is relatively low-traffic and wants to welcome new users, you can afford to allow even basic questions, as long as the questions are 'high quality' in other ways.

I'm not one of your expert users though, so beware; a different point of view is that you mustn't drown out what expert-to-expert conversation there is (however you interpret/perceive 'drown out').

On the subject of 'community' and 'experts': when I said above that "programmers are supposed to know the first thing about what they're doing" I meant that, IMO, 'professional and enthusiast programmers' ought to know about using e.g. Google to find a tutorial and/or reference to introduce the elementary use of any given programming language. If someone doesn't do that, then they are arguably not "a programmer" at all as described in the first sentence of the StackOverflow FAQ. In contrast, the audience for Bicycles is defined as "people who build and repair bicycles, people who train cycling, or commute on bicycles": I'm not aware of questions about bicycles that could be so "basic" as to prove that the questioner isn't a member of that group. Here the FAQ allows commuters (bicycle users), as well as builders. The corresponding programming forums are split into several distinct forums (one forum for narrow coding questions, another for more subjective how-to-be-a-programmer questions, another for server administrators, another for UI designers, another for computer end-users, etc.). This forum, with a wider audience, a broader range of experience, might therefore invite a wider range of questions (including some more 'basic' questions).

  • @ChrisW - Well-thought out answer. I don't have example questions, although there doubtless are some from the early days of the site, particularly when we seeded with example questions during the private beta. Also, moderators lose the ability to cast close-votes, we can only close a question or not close it. (I've asked for this to be changed, but it's not happening any time soon.) – Neil Fein Feb 24 '11 at 2:32
  • @Neil - I added a final paragraph. It depends on the moderator, but I've sometimes seen various moderators (in other forums) decide unilaterally to close a question. – ChrisW Feb 24 '11 at 3:04
  • @Neil - I don't know: I've seen few questions being closed. I think that implies that either existing questions have mostly all been OK; or, that insufficiently-many high-rep users have been visiting frequently and/or been willing to vote-to-close. In the latter case, although peer moderation might be better than unilateral, unilateral may be better than none at all (but I'm not a mod in any forum so, I don't know about all that). – ChrisW Feb 24 '11 at 3:14
  • @Neil - Even when a question is closed, before it's deleted, people can use comments to drop helpful hints/replies to the OP (for example "Read [this web site], or Google for [this search term]"). So, closing a question needn't be completely unhelpful/the end of the world to the OP; it only means that the question will be deleted, sooner or later, instead of becoming part of the permanent record; and that anyone who does want to answer can only give a relatively short answer. – ChrisW Feb 24 '11 at 3:21
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    @ChrisW - As a mod, I prefer the community closing a question to doing it unilaterally, but in my judgement, it's sometimes more harmful to leave a very bad question open. But that's another discussion. I've reopened a few questions as well, and that's always a nice feeling. But if a lot of changes are made to a question, it's better to disallow answers until changes can be made. At least that's how I interpret it. – Neil Fein Feb 24 '11 at 3:49
  • @Neil - Apart from questions being too unclear, or being not-specific-problem-focused; and apart from such questions leaving a legacy/record of useless/vague waffle on the forum (unhelpful to future readers); maybe the focus/intent of Jeff's blog post is at the end: he's worried about boring and losing any expert users. It's not the job of an expert to "Let me Google that for you", nor to transcribe information from the relevent encyclopedia or other reference. People don't benefit from answering such questions. His definition of "too general" is if it's 'General reference'. – ChrisW Feb 24 '11 at 14:26
  • I like the "if it can be answered definitively by a link, it's a poor question" metric. I've steered away from doing that, but I have struggled with the feeling that it's not worth answering certain questions because the person asking has not bothered to type their question into a search engine and read even the first result. I don't think I've done it here, but in other places I have deliberately given the "advanced answer" that assumes knowlege the questioner clearly lacks and can only get by doing some basic research. Here I doubt it'd work, but we have comment options for that anyway. – Мסž Feb 25 '11 at 0:03
  • As far as closing questions, I thought you needed 1000 rep to close and bicycles.SE has only 3 of those, which is a problem in itself. – Мסž Feb 25 '11 at 0:04
  • @moz. you only need 500 rep; if a user still doesn't have enough, post a comment suggesting closing the question. – darkcanuck Feb 25 '11 at 2:20
  • @darkcanuck: oops. So I see, now that I actually look. But why bother with research when I can ask a question :) – Мסž Feb 25 '11 at 2:22
  • @moz and @darkcanuck: if a question should be closed, in addition to voting to close it, you can flag it for moderator attention. It's entirely possible we haven't seen it yet, or that we're waiting for some community feedback before acting... – freiheit Feb 25 '11 at 22:47
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While not a cycling advocacy group I think bicycles.so has more of an encouragement role than SO's simple 'technical problem' = 'solution' model.

So "how do I write a program" is a useless SO question but "how do I learn to ride a bike" or "can I cycle to work" are very useful bicycle.so questions

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