I'd like to propose some changes to the guidelines in our help center on what questions are on topic.

The goals of this change are:

  • Alter the language to focus on the question being asked as opposed to the person asking the question.
  • Clarify some of the wording to be clearer to the target audience what kinds of questions are permitted.

Mainly, what I'm hoping comes of this is a small change in the community's approach to handling questions, so that we're a little more approachable and give a better first impression to potential contributors - we need people getting involved and contributing who aren't already experts, which will help spread the current load of community moderation.

(This is a new post of the current version of the draft here so we can get feedback for the current iteration that's been much improved due to the discussion there. Those interested can see the full background discussion here.)

Here's the current draft:

Server Fault is for questions about managing information technology systems in a business environment.

If your question is about:

  • managing the hardware or software of servers, workstations, storage or networks
  • tools used for administering, monitoring, or automating these
  • deployment to and management of third-party provided information technology platforms

and is not about:

  • consumer workstations or networking (which belong on our sister site, Super User)
  • working with a service provider's management interface, such as cPanel
  • product, service, or learning material recommendations
  • product licensing inquiries or legal advice
  • career, salary, personnel, employment, or formal education
  • unauthorized use or misuse of IT systems

then you’re in the right place to ask your question!

(then leaving the rest of the content of the page alone)

For replacing the "not professional" close reason and covering a gap that we'd end up with after removing it:

"Questions should demonstrate reasonable information technology management practices. Questions that relate to unsupported hardware or software platforms or unmaintained environments may not be suitable for Server Fault"

This doesn't perfectly capture what we need here, because questions about fixing a busted or old environment are on-topic, but we don't need perfect verbal coverage of every condition (which will make things way too wordy).

  • 4
    Hm, the stuff about development environments went missing. What are we doing with that? Accepting every XAMPP question? Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 0:13
  • 1
    @MichaelHampton I'd say for dev environments, it's really not "managing systems", so that leaves it off-topic.. but if someone's setting up some Vagrant stuff for developing their Chef infrastructure, we want it, so it's a hard line to draw. Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 1:39
  • One quibble, and it's a UX thing, but lists of more than 5 get tl;dr reactions far more than 5-point lists do. We have one in the current list, so we've broken that rule before.
    – sysadmin1138 Mod
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 2:33
  • @sysadmin1138 Yeah, that's a good point - I wonder if we can find two of those to collapse. Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 2:34
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    I wish I could believe that more than 5% of the new visitors to this site bothered to even read the help section. Although there is verbiage stating that this is for professionals, the very first picture you see (immediately next to the words about professionals) says Anybody can post a question. The supermajority of the questions I see are either beginners venturing beyond Gnome on their Ubuntu for the first time and following some online tutorial and not receiving instant results or someone looking for a free architectural review instead of hiring a professional to do it.
    – user143703
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 7:55
  • I think the help page "in a business environment" text is a good way of rephrasing it. I note that the new "not professional" replacement text doesn't reference this, but I'm assuming the intent is that these questions should be migrated instead of closed?
    – Andrew B
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 7:56
  • @yoonix Yes, there are absolutely some people who ignore the site's scope and the prompts they're given when asking their first question (though given the stats, I'd say it's more like 30-40% and not 95%). Obviously, community moderation needs to deal with that. But I'm not sure why that's a negative about this proposal? Yes, it won't force people to read it any more than the current one does, so it's a net of no change for people who weren't going to read it anyway. Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 18:59
  • @AndrewB Yeah, going with Chris's reasoning here that we can close the stuff that needs closed accurately without it. We can definitely adjust the close reasons after the fact if it turns out we do need it. Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 19:01
  • @ShaneMadden I have nothing against the proposal, I just don't think it's going to make much of a difference. I'm all for trying though.
    – user143703
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 19:42
  • This help center topic is as much about y'all coming to an agreement and being on the same page as to what the site's about as it is for helping new users, @yoonix.
    – Shog9
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 0:20

4 Answers 4


I believe that the issue about professionalism is just as much reflected in the presentation of the question as it is the content of the question. New users are going to write their issue in the box and never click the link tucked away on the right side pointing towards "visit the help center" or "asking help". Why? Because you click on links related to the word "help" when you don't understand what you're doing. Posting the question itself is fairly straightforward.

How about perhaps a condensed version of the excellent Better Question Checklist more prominently on the actual Ask a Question page. Not a link, but the content itself. Five bullet points with concise advise on how to get an actual, serious answer.

  • 1
    I like that idea. Right now there's the "How to ask" box and the "Formatting Help" box - it does offer a tiny bit of direct advice ("Provide details. Share your research."), but I think we could definitely stand to use the space we have there more effectively. I believe we'll need some development work to make that happen, I'll look into it. Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 17:50
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    @ShaneMadden, yeah - we've recently noted that "formatting help" is pretty low on the list of things we'd pick to use that guidance real estate for if we were picking today.
    – Jaydles
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 20:01
  • 3
    Formatting help should be there, but it doesn't need to be anywhere near as prominent (maybe have the "helper bar" above the edit window that you get when you click the red question mark expanded for low-rep/young accounts & clearly label it "Formatting Tips" or similar?)
    – voretaq7
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 20:31
  • What if we add a pop-up for 'beginners' (e.g., those with less than X questions), with a BIG ARROW pointing to the "How to Ask" sidebox? The big arrow should provide a kind exhortation to check out the links in the sidebox. After the new user 'graduated' from beginner status, no more need of the big arrow...
    – pepoluan
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 1:02
  • @pepoluan The problem is not usually that people are failing to see the copious quantities of help that we provide. The problem is usually that they intentionally ignore it. Commented Dec 17, 2014 at 19:04
  • We can customize Formatting Help to a degree now (Geoff just rolled this out). Think about what you want there, keep it short & clear, post a feature-request.
    – Shog9
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 0:17
  • To give a professional appearance, even non-professional questions should be dealt with in a professional manner. I have seen more than a few cases on this site where mods are NOT professional at all in their dealing with sub-par questions. Yes, the questions are sub-par, but the mods themselves once asked lackluster questions too.
    – cutrightjm
    Commented Dec 20, 2014 at 6:24
  • Also, this NEEDS to be READ by moderators and taken to heart: serverfault.com/help/be-nice
    – cutrightjm
    Commented Dec 20, 2014 at 6:59
  • 1
    Perhaps questions and answers that demonstrate a certain level of professionalism should be recognized and made front and center? Commented Dec 21, 2014 at 20:41

Suggestion: Add a statement that we give people the benefit of the doubt... if the question gives no hint as to whether it is in a business environment or not, but seems like it could be, assume it is appropriate.

For example, someone recently asked a question about copying millions of small files over a network using rsync. The question was brief and while I could have assumed they were copying their personal MP3 collection, instead I assumed this was business data. The rationale for my decision was that if someone else came along with a business-related issue that was similar, the answer provided would have helped them.

  • 5
    I think the benefit of the doubt is a good sentiment and definitely something that we need to have in mind, but that's more a guideline for the people in the community who are answering questions and doing community moderation - the target audience for this document is someone who's never been on the site before and needs to know what they can ask about. Commented Dec 11, 2014 at 23:59
  • 5
    I agree questions should be given the benefit of the doubt - however this also means we're going to assume that the person asking them meets our standards of professionalism (which to me also means "If you're told what you're doing is bad/wrong/dangerous that's an answer. You don't get to cry about it not being the answer you want unless you can explain why you have a business need to do this bad/wrong/dangerous thing.")
    – voretaq7
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 20:28

One big flaw is that there's now no generic "off-topic" close reason.

There are tons of crappy questions that are arguably on-topic somewhere else but you're not supposed to migrate crap. The generic "not related to professional sys admin" close reason was perfect for them - close in place, w/out fobbing them off on SU or UL (and then possibly having them bounce back 'cause they're crappy.)

Of the 10 close vote reviews, the old generic "not related to professional sys admin" would've been my choice for at least 1/2 of them. The new wording doesn't fit, but I still picked it as being the closest.

(And no, I am not writing custom close reasons... for the amount that I close vote, that's not feasible.)

Update 1 day later (Merry Christmas!) - It looks to me like this is going to be a problem: of the 10 close votes I just reviewed, 7 of them had "migrate to another site" showing, and at least 5 of them were crappy questions. I'm certainly willing to wait and see how the actual stats turn out, but it looks like a lot more crappy questions are going to be closed and migrated to other sites with the generic close reason gone.

  • 1
    That's exactly what I'm doing - continuing to close as "not professional", and using the new text. This is not helpful for users, but what can I do? Like you, I find writing a custom reason each time infeasible.
    – MadHatter
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 11:55
  • @Ward As I mentioned above, Chris made a good argument for removing it. But if it turns out we do miss it, we can adjust. We were completely overusing that reason, I think we can do better. Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 17:43
  • Rather than complaining about "crap" questions, could you cite some specific ones so that we can have a constructive discussion about their proper treatment? It's not certain that everyone has the same idea as you of what constitutes "crap". Commented Jan 4, 2015 at 7:34

These changes have been implemented, but they're not set in stone by any means - if anyone has recommendations to improve, please speak up!

  • 8
    Yes. Put the professional requirement back.
    – MadHatter
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 0:08
  • @MadHatter The community's clearly willing to give this a shot, I'm sorry that you won't. Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 17:45
  • 2
    Thanks for the response, which genuinely is appreciated. My personal feeling is that the community wasn't going to get the choice. We lost minimal understanding as a close reason with what seemed like indecent haste. I admit that Professional got more discussion, for which I'm grateful, but we did that discussion nearly to death in meta.serverfault.com/questions/6701/… , and I felt no consensus was reached - and yet, we did the whole question again not three weeks later...
    – MadHatter
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 18:16
  • 7
    ... which - combined with some unguarded statements made during the moderators' election - very much led me to feel that the powers that be required a change, regardless of whether the community could reach consensus on it. I freely concede that the community isn't united behind me in wanting to keep the not professional close reason - and, more importantly to my mind, the corresponding mission statement - but I don't feel there's a clear mandate for this change either. That we got change, despite the lack of a mandate for any particular direction, rankles somewhat.
    – MadHatter
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 18:20
  • @MadHatter The point of this being reposted was to reset the feedback based on the current revision (and get more eyes on that version, as some people wouldn't have seen the edits). As you can see from the vote totals, it's +18 / -2 right now after almost two weeks (and it was +18 / -0 at the start of the week, collecting the two downvotes most recently). There are certainly some people in the community who still disagree, but a clear majority is willing to give this a shot. Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 21:50
  • 4
    A fairly-made point, though you will note that I stipulated above that there was no community agreement to retain not professional. That the community wants to give this a shot is certainly one way to interpret the voting figures that you quote (though "18 in favour, 2 against" is hardly a thunderous majority for a change as substantial as this); I'd interpret it as "the community is heartily sick of the whole discussion and will go for anything as long as we stop talking about it", a position that argues for no change - though I also freely stipulate that I can't disambiguate the two.
    – MadHatter
    Commented Dec 24, 2014 at 22:18
  • 3
    It's honestly a coin flip whether December vacations mean that our regulars are spending more time on SF, or less as they spend time with family and things that aren't related to computers. Speaking for myself only, fast trigger pulls after a very long lull in SE admin attention span does not instill confidence. That said, I encourage people to use the vote tally on this answer to share how they feel about this having been enacted.
    – Andrew B
    Commented Dec 25, 2014 at 9:53
  • 4
    From where I'm sitting, people are "willing to give this a shot" in the same way that North Koreans are willing to be ruled by the Kim family. This feels very much like something that has been done to the site, not for the site.
    – Rob Moir
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 10:10
  • @RobM And you may now refer to me as Dear Leader. A North Korea comparison? You might be taking this a little too seriously. Let's look at it this way: what horrible consequences are you worried about from this? Replacing "professional" with "business environment" is a pretty minor change. Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 17:26
  • 5
    I'm not the one who ram-rodded through a change with, at best, minimal support and picked Christmas time to do it so no one would notice, Shane. Does your "clear majority" supporting this include all the people you had rally to support this from the teacher's lounge when Iain called you on this nonsense last time?
    – Rob Moir
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 18:16
  • @RobM This post has been up for two weeks and was tagged as featured so that it was appearing on the front page, so you really can't argue that this has been going down behind the community's back. And yes, +18 / -0, where the post was when we decided to pull the trigger on the changes, is a "clear majority". You're assuming that the whole community agrees with your position (and a vocal minority certainly does), but you're wrong. Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 18:22
  • I encourage people to actually use the close reasons (including OT->Other) to demonstrate what is needed here, @AndrewB. Hard data on what sorts of questions are problematic on this site is a whole lot more useful than hyperbole on meta.
    – Shog9
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 18:34
  • @Shog I think you have me confused for someone else, or are replying to the wrong answer.
    – Andrew B
    Commented Dec 27, 2014 at 0:41
  • I guess I glanced over the close reason verbiage...but I'm not a fan of "Questions should demonstrate reasonable business information technology management practices. Questions that relate to unsupported hardware or software platforms or unmaintained environments may not be suitable for Server Fault" -- I like the Help Center link itself...but the close reason is confusing IMO to people wanting to close it. I read it 3x before clicking the Help Center link and then coming here to read your OP and then going "Oh, got it." I know the verbiage is tough...and I don't have a great replacement.
    – TheCleaner
    Commented Dec 29, 2014 at 14:19
  • 1
    @TheCleaner Yeah, I still don't like it, but figured it was better to just go for it for now, see how it works in the wild, and adjust -- instead of spending another month agonizing over the wording. Hopefully shouldn't take us long to figure out something better. Commented Dec 29, 2014 at 18:04

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