32

Last week, I spoke to a colleague who had some problems where he asked me for help but I didn't knew an immediate answer. I suggested to ask a question on ServerFault, but he denied, claiming this site to be "worse than usenet". I shrugged this off as his loss and as an exaggeration, but somehow this resonated with me and with something that bothers me for some time now.

Usenet, especially in Germany, had a reputation for an overly strict requirement to follow a somewhat arbitrary set of rules (the Netiquette) and even really minor violations resulted in very harsh responses that often ended in totally OT flamewars.

Some comments to a question today (which has been deleted since) illustrated what bothered me and apparently holds off the colleague from joining. This question is a catastrophe, it's off-topic, written in bad english (from a native speaker, apparently), the OP doesn't has the start of a clue what he is talking about or where he asks the question. In short: A prime example of a bad question.

I think the immediate closure the question received was absolutely warranted and so would have been a comment along the lines of "This question is off topic here, please read our FAQ". What he received instead was an all-capital/shouted reprimand by a moderator to read the FAQ and only come back when understanding the site, followed by a cynical recommendation by another high-rep user to drop the computer class and take english instead. What's even worse is that these comments have been up-voted by other users.

I can understand theses responses and I am also extremely annoyed by the steady influx of clueless newbies who don't bother at all to think before posting but I believe this kind of reaction should be unacceptable here and it does us a disservice. It doesn't help at all at stopping said users, but prospective new pro users of the kind we want to attract are easily being put off when reading comments like that. Also, it leads to a bitter atmosphere where people might think harsh responses are normal and adapt their writing, ending in a spiral of doom.

So, if you can't stand it anymore, please take a while off, concentrate on the good parts of SF or do something else entirely for a while. In case of mod overload, maybe we should try to either hold another election to have more moderators and/or relieve long-serving current ones or alternatively we could try to convince SE staff to give more mod-like powers to high-rep users.

Anyway, I hope I didn't step on anyones toes too heavily, and please be assured that none of this is meant personal in any way.

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    I do sometimes wish we could go about the business of tidying up without the need for a pile on. – user9517 supports GoFundMonica Dec 12 '11 at 16:59
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    Let me just point out that there is NOTHING worse than usenet. – John Gardeniers Dec 13 '11 at 1:03
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    Oh come on. The Usenet was highly democratic - and a loud mob of egocentric people craving for recognition, acting angry and pecking on newcomers and strangers is what you inherently get with a democracy - you can see it on TV every freaking day. Aside from that it was an open platform which served its purpose of facilitating discussions rather well. Stackexchange "meta" and "area51" are nothing but implementations of the same regulatory concepts you have seen in alt.admin groups. – the-wabbit Dec 13 '11 at 11:19
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    Just a reminder: Usenet still exists. – Keith Thompson Dec 18 '11 at 9:45
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I have to admit, cries of "Read the FAQ!" are a hallmark of USENET. I used to rail at length at newbs who clearly did not do their due-diligence in newsgroups of yore, and even daily postings of it didn't do any good since all they saw was a group named something interesting, saw a few posts that seemed like that there were smart people around, and posted their question.

SF takes it a step further since it allows such questions to be taken out back and quietly shot rather than posted front-and-center for everyone to flame against. However, we're not above a little singeing of the newbs before shooting them.

In my opinion, ServerFault has become more elitist in the last 6-12 months. The mod-flags I was handling as a brand new mod back in February do have a different flavor than the ones I'm handling right now. Communities grow and evolve, that's just how it works.

As a perfect example of this, we've been actively weeding out the 2009/2010 era questions that wouldn't past the topical test today. The only reason we're doing that is because our definition of topical has evolved; some topics have lost the benefit of the doubt, others have been explicitly declared off-topic.


However...

Just like USENET, flaming the newbs only makes yourself and your flame-buddies feel any better about things.

Flaming the newbs is not equivalent to hanging their flayed corpses on the bridge as an example to anyone else who may transgress similarly.

Flaming the newbs is more equivalent to taking them to an alley somewhere and beating the snot out of them because you're %&$#-well tired of all the %(&@!(& newbs running around wrecking the place, and maybe this newb will tell their newb buddies to swing wide this time.

ServerFault is a place where people can come and have professional interactions. We've been stricter about that lately, and we're getting harder on those who don't hold up to that standard. You may see that as a bonus, but in actuality it isn't. The offended non-professionals we leave in our wake lead general perception that ServerFault is just like every other sysadmin community in being prickly, sarcastic, rough-and-tumble havens of thick-skinned smart people.

It works very well when people are behaving like we're supposed to. But pissing off those who don't do their due-diligence scares off others who will do the work to be successful here.

We don't need the help scaring people off!

Looking at our site statistics, our answer rate is slowly dropping, question-rate staying about the same, while our overall views are going up. Our search relevance is gaining, but we're net-losing active users. This is not a good trend, and providing a hostile site, even for people who don't belong here, does us no favors.

  • When you see obviously out of place content, vote (or flag) appropriately.
  • If there is a clear section of the FAQ they're clearly ignorant of ("all of it" doesn't count for this, alas), direct-link to the section. Our FAQ is a large, daunting document. People don't read it in its entirety unless they're motivated to do so for some reason.
  • Do not indulge in harsh, belittling, or sarcastic comments.
  • If you see harsh, belittling, or sarcastic comments, flag them.
  • If the questioner asks for clarification, provide it in professional language. Link to Meta-posts if you need to, as they're the best we have for 'case law'.
  • The noobs who ask those Questions probably aren't the people you want to attract to be Answerers. You are correct however, we don't want to scare off potential sources of knowledge. I'd like to upvote this, but it seems like an extended comment/observation... no "answer" to the situation. – Chris S Dec 12 '11 at 17:32
  • What exactly do you mean by answer rate ? – user9517 supports GoFundMonica Dec 12 '11 at 17:42
  • @Iain One of the metrics I can get at is a list of answers-by-day. The trendline is chaotic, but downward pointing. – sysadmin1138 Dec 12 '11 at 17:47
  • @ChrisS Good point, I'll add some action-items. – sysadmin1138 Dec 12 '11 at 17:51
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    @Iain, while the number of unanswered questions is decreasing; the total number of answer posted each day is also decreasing. SysAdmin could be correct, but it could also be attributed to people recognizing one correct answer to a question instead of debating several possible correct answers; possible a side effect of a narrower definition of "Question". In any case, correlation != causation; we should be careful drawing conclusions from the little bit of raw data we have. – Chris S Dec 12 '11 at 17:53
  • @sysadmin1138 So that's questions that are unanswered rather than the number of answers a question gets. Interesting, my perception was that it was going up stackexchange.com/sites shows 82% and I thought it had been lower. Having spent some time in the unanswered bowels of [linux] [centos] [ubuntu] [iptables] I suspect that most questions that can be answered are and what's left needs culling which is another project. – user9517 supports GoFundMonica Dec 12 '11 at 17:56
  • @Iain The screen I see is the total answers across the site per day. So that one question that gets 50 answers since it's kinda funny and made the SE Top Questions list will mask 40 unanswered questions elsewhere on the site. The SE stats you see there show those 40 unanswered questions in the percentage. Another way to view the numbers I see is that we're getting fewer answers to questions than we used to, but are answering more questions at all. More one-answer questions I guess. – sysadmin1138 Dec 12 '11 at 18:04
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    @sysadmin1138: Thank you, that is about my sentiment, and you do a much better job of explaining it. – Sven Dec 12 '11 at 18:06
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    "The offended non-professionals we leave in our wake lead general perception that ServerFault is just like every other sysadmin community in being prickly, sarcastic, rough-and-tumble havens of thick-skinned smart people." I really fail to see the problem here. This community isn't for them. That would be like me being pissed that NASA engineers won't answer my emails asking if the moon is really made out of cheese. – MDMarra Dec 12 '11 at 18:09
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    @MarkM To use your example, the NASA engineers would reply to you using rather harsh language, at which point you, the cheese-head, would tell everyone you know that NASA engineers are bunch of blow-hard elitist bastards. That would get to someone who doesn't know of your cheese-head status, who would form an opinion of NASA engineers based on your experiences that says they're prickly and suffer fools poorly, and don't talk to them unless you're exceptionally well qualified. – sysadmin1138 Dec 12 '11 at 18:34
  • @sysadmin1138 And I, personally, don't think that there's anything wrong with that exchange. We're not catering to anyone other than professionals in our field. Most of the "piling on" happens to users that ask things that are way OT. The chances that they have an opportunity to influence a SA is slim. The chance that the SA in question wouldn't know that the complainer is a cheese-head is even slimmer. I do see your point, I just don't think that it's a problem. – MDMarra Dec 12 '11 at 18:50
  • I should say that being overtly mean is certainly never welcome anywhere as a first response, but a very short comment containing something like Read the [faq] before you post next time. is certainly warranted, IMO. If the user responds indignantly (still without reading the faq), then it should be fair game. – MDMarra Dec 12 '11 at 18:51
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    @MarkM If the user responds indignantly (still without reading the faq), then it should be fair game. This is where I strenuously disagree. At that point the question should be closed Not Constructive. If they come back indignant about the closure, do what @Iain and @JohnGardeniers do and keep a level tone about why it got closed, and mod-flagging for either further hammering or a timed lock, and possibly a mod-message if needed. Piling on is never appropriate, and I hammer it whenever I see it. – sysadmin1138 Dec 12 '11 at 21:57
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    IMHO, I really feel like this whole conversation could be summed up as "don't be a dick"... which, in more diplomatic terms, is part of the FAQ... just Flag/Vote to close as appropriate, comment why and be on your merry way. If a user responds flippantly, there's no reason for you to as well. Remember we're supposed to be professionals, and professionals are polite, especially in situations where they have every reason not to be. – user62491 Dec 21 '11 at 8:31
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I'm a bit borderline on this one. I'm more than fed up with new users ignoring the prompts to read the FAQ, which are pretty damn prominent, and then proceeding to post crap that violates said FAQ. I can't image how many times I've posted comments suggesting, at various strengths, that they do read the FAQ.

OTOH, rudeness of any sort has always been frowned upon on SF, which I believe is a good thing. For anyone to get rude and insulting is both unnecessary and undesirable.

Oh how I miss FidoNet in its heyday. It was sad to see it branch into that disgusting mess known as usenet or to see the dregs of it trying to stay alive today.

7

Since Chop fessed up to being the one in all caps, I should probably admit I told them to drop the computer class and take English (<- Proper nouns are capitalized by the way) class instead. I freely admit I'm a bit of a grammar Nazi (and am fallible, finding one of my mistakes isn't going to change who I am). I did not think that I stepped over the line, but can understand how one could be offended. I will try to curb that impulse in the future.

In the end the Questioner is asking for something of value to them without compensation. The least they can do is put minimal effort into making their Question look professional. When that minimum level of effort isn't put forth it should be our duty to defend the community we have crafted from the intellectual assault.

I adamantly object to the assertion that we're worse than Usenet. Your friend is right that Usenet had taken Netiquette to the extreme. Server Fault is a long way from that extreme, even if we do not tolerate the uninspired flailings of anyone who drops by.

  • Your grammar was correct, I misquoted you. Sorry about that, but I am not a Nazi of any kind and not a native speaker :) I agree with you on both other points: SF is better than Usenet, I was merely quoting and I would also request this minimal effort (and would consider it as an act of courtesy of the questioners part), but as I said, being unfriendly doesn't help us, neither in the sort nor in the long run. I also likely wouldn't have stumbled about your comment if if hasn't followed Chopper's one immediately. – Sven Dec 12 '11 at 18:02
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I think ServerFault is better than Usenet personally. Or if we want to really draw the analogy, ServerFault is probably equivalent in quality to the comp.* hierarchy on Usenet before the AOL Mass Invasion came in, netiquette died, and Usenet imploded under a tide of spam, filth, and people who couldn't be bothered to read FAQs/manuals.

The StackExchange reputation/vote-to-close/comments system lets the active core of users gently swat newbies who don't conform to community standards. Either the users shape up, or they have a nutty and flounce out.


Now I will admit sometimes our swats aren't as gentle as they should be - That's something we've discussed a few times in the past, and something I think we all need to continue to be aware of.

5

Sorry I used caps, I shouldn't have, but I'm not sorry for what I wrote. What you miss is the piles of crappy questions, spam, moaning users, spam, flags, spam, gaming, spam, even more crappy questions etc. that mods have to deal with every single minute of the day - that I was 'overly clear' with a user who hadn't even bothered to read the FAQ or observe the site is nothing - there are days when I want to shut this site down for a few hours. I'd never be short with a user that had put even a tiny bit of work into their posts but many don't and we shouldn't accept that. Oh and I'm more than open to elections, why not try out for it yourself?

  • Yes, I have the feeling that you moderators are doing an excellent job of moving most of the filth out of the way before we even see it and I am more than grateful for that. I also have the feeling that this job is a lot of work, based on comments by you and others, but of course, I can't see that for myself, lacking the proper privileges :) Your answer makes it clear though that the work is too much for the smallish mod group we currently have and that something should be done about it. – Sven Dec 12 '11 at 17:49
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    Some ideas beyond electing more or new moderators would be to give more power to normal users. It's stated in the FAQ that there is little difference between high-rep users and mods, but I think this is nonsense, even at 20K rep (which is way too high anyway for our site), we would have no way do deal with flags or have better closing powers. Some suggestions to help with that would be to scale the "close power" of high rep users, counting for two or three votes, and also to show us flags and give us means to do something about them. – Sven Dec 12 '11 at 17:50
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    But frankly, before I step into the lions den that is meta.so with a suggestion like that, I would think that you moderators need to tell Jeff etc. that something must change, as it's in their best interest to keep good moderators. – Sven Dec 12 '11 at 17:50
  • Also, I am not eager at all to be a mod myself, and I don't think I would be qualified, being short-tempered myself sometimes and not so well versed in the inner workings of the site or integrated into the community, but if no one else better qualified would step forward, I would run in an election, but not before April, as I start a new job in February and move into a new apartment in March, which will leave not enough room for anything else. And again, I am grateful for your work, my posting was not meant personal, and I hope you don't take it that way. – Sven Dec 12 '11 at 17:50
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    @SvenW: More power to low rep users isnt a great solution. Look at the piles of crap we get migrated from SO from users with high enough rep to close questions.. More community-elected mods however is a great idea. – pauska Dec 13 '11 at 14:35
  • @pauska: I would restrict this to higher rep users. Getting e.g. 10K rep on SF is hard work, and I believe that everyone beyond that level should have a good understanding how the site works. Many below that level (you, among others) would have this too, but it's an easy criterion already used extensively on the site. But I still think that this global scale between 0 and 20K rep used on all SE sites is fundamentally broken. They need to come up with a scale that is adapted to the activity of a site. – Sven Dec 14 '11 at 12:22
4

(Sorry, this is a rambling answer, there's a bunch I want to say but I can't take the time just now to edit it decently.)

First off, "worse than Usenet" is either hyperbole or lack of familiarity with how bad Usenet became when the Internet became popular.

OTOH, one way that SF is like Usenet, and one thing that's universal across any system that allows people to exchange information is that you get much better results when you understand and work with the system. Standard instructions to newcomers to a Usenet group were "lurk before you post and read the FAQ or you might get flamed." Unfamiliarity with the norms of some groups (alt.folklore.urban) would get you mercilessly mocked by some very smart people.

I think all the regulars here find certain things frustrating, and it's no surprise that we sometimes vent. I don't think it's a problem, because the vast majority of newbies who jump in here w/out learning about SF get decent to excellent help. There are probably some newcomers who might've stayed if they'd gotten softer treatment (more than "this type of question is off-topic"), but not many.

The last point I want to make is that one thing I've seen in other fora that have strict rules is that it's better to be firm about them. Explain what the rules are and why they came to be, but don't bend them. Licensing questions don't work well - close and refer to the canonical answer. Shopping questions don't have much lasting relevance - close them. Home networking - off-topic.

2

I think that I should clarify my position, since this is being downvoted. I'm not advocating being a dick to new users that don't read the faq right off the bat. I'm just saying that I don't think that we should go out of our way to be nice to them. Something like "Reading the [faq] is a polite thing to do when you join a new community" and then voting/flagging the question is more than appropriate in my opinion.

Perhaps I misunderstood the intent of the original question, but I don't feel that we need to do anything differently. If a user doesn't follow the numerous prompts to read the faq when they are signing up, chances are they aren't the type of person that will end up being a valuable contributor.


Honestly, I don't think that there is an issue at all. I use /review quite a bit to sort through the "First Question" tab and there is an abundance of decent content. Some of it needs some love with formatting and such, but overall the content is generally good.

All that being said, some 1-rep users come here like a chicken with their heads cut off screaming "HALP HALP! MAH SHITZ BORKEN!" and it's unnecessary. We have a FAQ. It's clear that we have a FAQ. New users are reminded with a notification bar that they should read it, and there's even a badge for having read each section of it.

I don't feel an ounce of remorse for someone that didn't even bother to read the FAQ and then is bombarded with comments that make them feel unwelcome. I try and make them feel unwelcome, because they are. They're lazy and looking for a quick fix, not to be a member of the community. That's not the kind of person that I want joining a community that I am an active member of.


tl;dr If someone can't take the time to read the faq, then screw them.

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    As I said, I am as annoyed by those posts as everyone here. I am also not concerned at all if these people stay around or not. No, that's not true, I can't wait to get rid of them, as they are unlikely to be an asset to us ever, just an annoyance. But the way we react to them is part of how potential valuable contributors see us. – Sven Dec 12 '11 at 18:16
  • @SvenW It's a double-edged sword, though. If you aren't completely candid about how unwelcomed OT content it, problematic new users just tend to ask the same question over and over until they get a suspension. I think that most of the "Read the [faq]. Now." style comments end up on questions that are very quickly closed, and many valuable perspective users probably don't even see them. Obviously your colleague did, but I'd say that he is probably in the minority. – MDMarra Dec 12 '11 at 18:20
  • @SvenW I understand what you're saying completely, but I'm not sure that analogy holds up. This site is an enormous ongoing discussion. It's loud, not quiet like a restaurant. Sometimes for messages to be heard loud and clear over constant chatter, that message has to be shouted. I do completely understand where you're coming from. I just disagree that having that image is problematic. – MDMarra Dec 12 '11 at 18:24
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    Explanation: I posted a comment where I created an analogy between SF and a restaurant and asked what one would prefer: A place where staff deals with unreasonable patrons in a loud and aggressive way and one where they try to be silent about it. – Sven Dec 12 '11 at 18:27
  • @SvenW I didn't mean for you to delete your previous comment, I was just suggesting an alternative analogy :) I think that my biggest point is that having the image of an elite community is not necessarily a bad thing. We're one of the only SE sites that I'm aware of that is for professionals only in a very specific field. As such, we should be elite. The term "elite" has negative connotations for many things, but I don't necessarily agree that it's a negative connotation when applied to our community. – MDMarra Dec 12 '11 at 18:33
  • And I'm comfortable with politely asking people to read the FAQ (though I'd prefer, "this is off topic, read the faq section on what we do and don't answer" to just "this is off topic"). I also think its reasonable to expect people to put as much effort into asking a decent question - and yes that includes making sure its asked in the right place - as they expect the community here to put into answering it. – Rob Moir Dec 13 '11 at 14:46

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