Every now and then I see questions (and the occasional answer) that include pictures of text, often commands and their output and similar.

Maybe I'm stating the obvious, but for clarity these are the main problems I see with this practice:

  • The text is not searchable
    • makes the question and any answers less useful to others
  • The text cannot be copied
    • requires more effort to answer
  • The image is rescaled to fit the Stackexchange layout, often making the text illegible without taking further action
    • requires more effort to answer
    • makes the question and any answers less useful to others
  • The image is external and can disappear at any time, leaving the question/answer potentially useless
    • makes the question and any answers less useful to others
  • Probably doesn't play nice with screenreaders and the like
    • makes the question and any answers less useful to others

From my point of view it seems obvious that questions/answers should not be posted in this state but often there does not appear to be much of a reaction to this when it does occur.

What I wonder is what the sensible action would be when this has happened?

I generally just try to point out the problem in a comment when I see this. On occasion I have OCRed the image and edited the text into question in place of the image but doing that is more work than one generally cares to go through.

Should one downvote based on this? (Or is that just misdirected?)

Can a question be put on hold for this reason? (Should the very inclusion of images be considered 'suspect' on sites like SF where the image-rate seems generally low, potentially triggering moderation?)

Or is this whole practice even considered acceptable? It seems this might actually be the case, but the practice seems potentially really bad for this types of site (much worse than your average formatting problem). Maybe it simply doesn't matter too much unless a larger percentage starts doing this?

  • 6
    Where possible they should be avoided. If they are the output from a terminal then they often point to an OP that really isn't in our target audience. – Iain Jul 27 '14 at 21:17
  • 1
    @Iain Yes, if it's a screenshot from PuTTY, then they might not be a professional. If it's a screenshot of a server console over IPMI or whatever, then they just might be. – Michael Hampton Jul 28 '14 at 0:43
  • Can you provide some examples of questions where this is a problem? – ewwhite Jul 28 '14 at 1:30
  • @MichaelHampton I was careful to say terminal for a reason. – Iain Jul 28 '14 at 5:07
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    What if they got a screenshot from someone else (e.g. the helpdesk got it from a client), and in researching the problem they haven't found a good solution, but they also don't want to type out the entire ream of JVM stack trace they've been researching / find and figure out how to use a good OCR system that will transcribe the text for them? – Parthian Shot Aug 1 '14 at 15:22

Where possible this should be avoided; users should copy and paste relevant text and format it with the code button {}. Please continue to encourage users to copy and paste instead of screenshot when possible.

However, it isn't always possible to avoid this. Often these images are the result of taking a screenshot of a KVM, iLO, iDRAC, etc., from which it would be impossible to copy and paste anyway.

In these cases I recommend editing the post. If the image isn't hosted at i.stack.imgur.com then take its URL and upload it there through the image upload tool, and replace the user's image URL with the URL hosted there. Optionally you can also make the image link to itself, so that it can be clicked on to view it full size.

I do not recommend downvoting simply because a user chose to include a screenshot instead of text.

  • Thanks, I appreciate the input. Regarding situations where it's "not possible to avoid this", I don't think that's actually true. It's really rather that it's convenient to ignore the problem in these cases instead of putting in a little bit more effort to make a significantly more useful post. Surely, if I can OCR their images or retype their text (if short), so can the OP. – Håkan Lindqvist Jul 27 '14 at 21:49
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    Maybe. I'd usually rather have a 100% accurate image than a 99% accurate OCR, or a 90% accurate retype. I've seen too many typos cause confusion... And, I don't even have any OCR software! – Michael Hampton Jul 27 '14 at 21:50
  • You definitely have a good point. The reason why I consider this type of fix to require much effort is precisely because it involves careful proofreading to actually help. I don't have any OCR software either but there's no shortage of free online services. – Håkan Lindqvist Jul 27 '14 at 22:45
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    Accuracy is important. If OCR is the only option, then we should not encourage replacing an accurate screenshot with inaccurate OCR. But I would rather have the question contain both of them, I'm just not entirely sure how the question should be formatted, if it does include both. – kasperd Jul 28 '14 at 6:29

I don't see any problem with screenshots. I don't even understand the issue here. It's a strange complaint, be.

Depending on the problem, the environment, the frequency of the issue and the resources available, a screenshot is sometimes easier to capture. This is especially true in the case of complex terminal output or any form of remote console/KVM/out-of-band management.

More than that, the screenshot is there to illustrate a point-in-time condition. Searchability is a non-issue.

I use code blocks and screen captures in nearly all of my questions here. Sometimes it's to illustrate a point. Sometimes it's absolutely critical to describing the problem. Very rarely are the contents of such an image necessary for search reasons. Sometimes text is the only appropriate method.

Let's say I'm trying to describe the state of the storage appliance I'm working on... Which looks better? Which makes more sense? Copy/paste is tricky, given the refresh rate. A screenshot of the relevant window does the job. Neither have important searchable text.

┌nmon─13g─────────────────────Hostname=san2─────────Refresh= 2secs ───18:40.40───────────────────────────┐
│ CPU Utilisation ───────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────│
│                           +-------------------------------------------------+                          │
│CPU  User%  Sys% Wait% Idle|0          |25         |50          |75       100|                          │
│ 1   0.0   0.0   0.0  100.0| >                                               |                          │
│ 2   0.0   0.0   0.0  100.0| >                                               |                          │
│ 3   0.0   0.0   0.0  100.0| >                                               |                          │
│ 4   0.0   0.0   0.0  100.0| >                                               |                          │
│ 5   0.0   0.0   0.0  100.0| >                                               |                          │
│ 6   0.0   0.0   0.0  100.0| >                                               |                          │
│ 7   0.0   0.0   0.0  100.0| >                                               |                          │
│ 8   0.0   0.0   0.0  100.0| >                                               |                          │
│ 9   0.0   0.0   0.0  100.0| >                                               |                          │
│10   0.0   0.0   0.0  100.0| >                                               |                          │
│11   3.0   0.5   0.0   96.5|U >                                              |                          │
│12   0.0   0.0   0.0  100.0| >                                               |                          │
│13   0.0   0.0   0.0  100.0| >                                               |                          │
│14   0.0   0.0   0.0  100.0| >                                               |                          │
│15   0.0   0.0   0.0  100.0| >                                               |                          │
│16   0.0   0.0   0.0  100.0| >                                               |                          │
│                           +-------------------------------------------------+                          │
│Avg  0.2   0.1   0.0   99.7| >                                               |                          │
│                           +-------------------------------------------------+                          │
│ Memory Stats ──────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────│
│                RAM     High      Low     Swap                                                          │
│ Total MB     32035.1     -0.0     -0.0  32755.0                                                        │
│ Free  MB      6578.1     -0.0     -0.0  32755.0                                                        │
│ Free Percent    20.5%   100.0%   100.0%   100.0%                                                       │
│             MB                  MB                  MB                                                 │
│                      Cached=   688.1     Active=   471.5                                               │
│ Buffers=    71.6 Swapcached=     0.0  Inactive =   601.5                                               │
│ Dirty  =     0.1 Writeback =     0.0  Mapped   =    43.2                                               │
│ Slab   =    90.0 Commit_AS =  1607.7 PageTables=     7.9                                               │
│ Kernel Stats ──────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────│
│ RunQueue              1   Load Average    CPU use since boot time                                      │
│ ContextSwitch     525.2    1 mins  0.22    Uptime Days=  0 Hours= 7 Mins=33                            │
│ Forks               5.0    5 mins  0.20    Idle   Days=  5 Hours= 0 Mins= 9                            │
│ Interrupts        356.3   15 mins  0.28    Average CPU use=-1491.10%                                   │
│ Disk I/O ──/proc/diskstats────mostly in KB/s─────Warning:contains duplicates───────────────────────────│
│DiskName Busy    Read    Write       Xfers   Size  Peak%  Peak-RW    InFlight                           │
│sda        0%      0.0      0.0KB/s    0.0   0.0KB    0%      10.0KB/s   0                              │
│sda1       0%      0.0      0.0KB/s    0.0   0.0KB    0%      10.0KB/s   0                              │
│sda2       0%      0.0      0.0KB/s    0.0   0.0KB    0%       0.0KB/s   0                              │
│sda5       0%      0.0      0.0KB/s    0.0   0.0KB    0%       0.0KB/s   0                              │
│sdb        0%      0.0      0.0KB/s    0.0   0.0KB    0%       0.0KB/s   0                              │
│sdb1       0%      0.0      0.0KB/s    0.0   0.0KB    0%       0.0KB/s   0                              │
│sdb9       0%      0.0      0.0KB/s    0.0   0.0KB    0%       0.0KB/s   0                              │
│Totals Read-MB/s=0.0      Writes-MB/s=0.0      Transfers/sec=0.0                                        │
│────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────│
│                                                                                                        │
│                                                                                                        │
│                                                                                                        │
│                                                                                                        │
└────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────────┘

enter image description here

  • 4
    On the computer where I am viewing this now, the text version is more readable. Also, posting an image rather than text, can result in duplicate questions being posted. meta.serverfault.com/questions/6334/how-to-deal-with-incorrect-reviews – kasperd Jul 28 '14 at 6:14
  • 2
    My question was focusing on utility rather than aesthetics. The example comes across as an edge case where maybe it subjectively doesn't "look better" (not sure that I think there's really a huge advantage one way or the other, aesthetically) but I would still say that the text version is both more legible and more useful for someone to work with. – Håkan Lindqvist Jul 28 '14 at 6:17
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    And by "useful to work with" I mean such things as being able to copy part of the text, be it for a quote in an answer, for researching the problem or something else. – Håkan Lindqvist Jul 28 '14 at 6:24
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    I don't see pictures as a problem by default. There are cases where one is preferable to the other of course; for Ed's case here I prefer the picture. If, however, someone screen-shotted windows error message popups then yes, I'd prefer the text. I personally wouldn't see it as an issue that drove me to vote a question up or down or to VTC by itself. – Rob Moir Jul 28 '14 at 9:56
  • Screenshots are not searchable. – voretaq7 Jul 28 '14 at 17:57
  • @voretaq7 They don't have to be. – ewwhite Jul 28 '14 at 17:57
  • 1
    @ewwhite Non-Searchable things kind of defeat the purpose of Stack Exchange: We're supposed to be building a knowledge base other people can use, and if that knowledge base is obfuscated from search engines its value is greatly diminished. There are some cases where screenshots are the appropriate way to include information, but they're misused far more often by lazy and/or stupid help vampires. – voretaq7 Jul 28 '14 at 18:04
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    @voretaq7 Nobody here has posted an example of a problem question... – ewwhite Jul 28 '14 at 18:05
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    @ewwhite and I'm not inclined to spend time looking for one right now, but I can tell you that I have personally seen and closed several "problem questions" (literally "screenshot of a terminal window"). I don't have a blanket objection to screenshots, but I consider transcribing the relevant portion of their content (like error messages) to be the bare minimum standard of effort. – voretaq7 Jul 28 '14 at 18:16
  • 1
    Screenshots are not searchable. If the question is otherwise sound (e.g. it's not just "HALP!!!!!11!!!1!one!!one!!1" and a screenshot) then that's an argument in favour of a bit of editing to improve the question rather than closing the question imo. – Rob Moir Jul 29 '14 at 20:01
  • serverfault.com/questions/619443/… – Iain Aug 11 '14 at 5:05

There are cases where posting an image of text is possible, but the text could not just have been copied into the question. Others have pointed out some cases of remote consoles where this would be the case. The same holds true about the text in a kernel panic, which might also be relevant for a question.

But there are certainly also cases where it would clearly have been possible to simply copy the text into the question. In those cases I would like us to discourage the use of screenshots instead of copying the text. If the screenshot could provide some useful context, which could not be provided by the text alone, I would rather see both text and screenshot be included.

I am thinking adding a comment to the question asking for the text to be copied into the question, and then voting to close as "unclear what you are asking" might be the most appropriate response.

A different close reason might have been better, but would it be used often enough to warrant a separate close reason?

  • 5
    I don't think this occurs enough for it to be a concern or its own problem close reason. – ewwhite Jul 28 '14 at 11:48
  • 3
    This is definitely not worth its own close reason (at least IMHO). The kinds of questions with screenshots that should be closed are the kind we don't want anyway ("Herp Derp Here's a screenshot of a terminal with an error message. I haven't even googled the error, you should help me now."), and there are already plenty of applicable reasons to punt that kind of trash. – voretaq7 Jul 28 '14 at 17:59

Just another note: if the screenshot is not included directly this increases the time one needs to read a question (click link etc..)

Additionally screenshots/images take more traffic, are more cpu intensive and basically take longer to load.

While personally i do not use SE other than on a desktop, it might be problematic for having console-only browsing.

(yes i do use that for other things..)

Fully aware that i am a minority on the usage though.

I still think if one is able to copy the text (not rewrite..) one should not be allowed to post a screen.

  • I remember seeing browser agents like Lynx in the logs for Brazzers.com. Never understood why until now! – ewwhite Aug 6 '14 at 12:00
  • 1
    @ewwhite you cannot decipher it on the fly? send in your geek card now! – Dennis Nolte Aug 6 '14 at 12:09

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