It's election time and I read a bunch of meta.

I noticed that there seems to be a lot of focus by hi-rep users and moderators on low quality questions. Much of those discussions involve laments by discouraged users about how the community is doomed. It looks like the matter of low quality questions has even culminated in at least one SF rage-quit. This confuses me. I mean, I understand that if you look at the front page there is a lot of what has been described as "typed-out diarrhea". But why are single individuals so invested in policing all of the low-quality questions on this site?

The scope of what is on-topic on SF is obviously much much broader than what any single individual could ever hope to have a comprehensive professional understanding of. Furthermore, the breadth of technologies that are on topic at SF seems likely to increase over time and so will the number of questions per day - both high and low quality. At some point the volume of low-quality questions became high enough that either some low-quality questions persist or some acceptable-quality questions become collateral damage. And these are still small numbers compared with SO which probably handles about 50x the volume of SF. Yet SO seems to be managing this without so much drama. Is SF somehow fundamentally more vulnerable to low-quality questions than SO?

I subscribe to a few tags on SF, SO, and networkengineering.SE. Those tags surface questions I care a lot about because they almost always concern topics I work with almost daily. Altogether, I see about 10 questions from these tags each day. Some days half of them are indeed "typed-out diarrhea". I make sure those get flagged, downvoted, or improved. At that volume it's absolutely manageable for me. I have even gone back and answered an old question that I just happened to learn the answer to.

On the other hand, I sometimes look at the SO [powershell] tag and it makes me lose faith in the concept of stack exchange. But then I ask a good question and I get not one but two good answers.

My point is that it makes no difference to me whether 500-odd questions about "panels" were closed "rightly" or "wrongly" or without "due consultation" or whatever. I benefit from SF just the same whether those questions remained open, closed, or were never asked in the first place. The broken windows argument seems irrelevant to me because those broken windows are in a part of SF I never see. But I see many other users whom I respect dedicating mindshare to these broken windows instead what must be more productive pursuits. Why should I care about broken windows in parts of SF I never visit?


Background: I started frequenting SF in 2012. I'm an avid beneficiary of SF but my systems administration work started well after many of the SF questions I benefit from were answered. Perhaps I am missing some relevant history.

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    That wasn't a rage quit btw. That was the result of calculated actions by the SE community team and Josh in particular, having failed miserably to influence the result of the last election. – Iain Sep 6 '15 at 20:27

Stack Overflow is so large that it is not possible for any single person to read even the titles of every question posted there on a given day, let alone all of the questions. However, Server Fault, while fairly large, is still small enough that someone could at least read all the titles of all the questions posted. Some people do this, and as a result, they see the quality issues.

But you have hit upon one of SF's big problems: Many people asking questions here are not only not professional, they are not even system administrators. As a result, we end up with two classes of low quality questions: Those where the user is asking for technical support, and those where the user has absolutely no idea what he's doing and would need to read several books before he could understand an answer.

In a way, we're victims of Stack Exchange's success. As the SE network grows it gains authority in Google, drawing more people here from the Internet. Most of those have no idea what they're doing, or aren't the target audience, and they ask the low quality and blatantly off-topic questions, even after being told they are off-topic.

SF is not and was never intended to be "I am a sysadmin; AMA". But many visitors from SO and from the rest of the Internet treat it as exactly that.

When we do manage to attract someone in our target audience, they often do something similar to you: They ask and answer questions in tags of interest. Later, many of them will look around the rest of the site out of sheer curiosity. Then they will see the "river of crap", as Iain puts it, and begin following the road to burning out on the site, or they are just scared off immediately.

I don't know of a good solution to this: How do we scare off people who are not our target audience, instead of scaring off those who are? At the moment we have exactly the opposite of what we want.

  • 3
    There is also the added annoyance that new users who mean well and come here with a half-decent but badly written question might, during a bad day, end up on the receiving end of ire not their fault. The worse the main site's content gets, the less likely that half-decent content will get quality attention. – Reaces Sep 7 '15 at 8:59
  • Actually I do recall that back in the early days of SF it was intended to be the destination for all much like SO was (meta.stackexchange.com/questions/5280/embrace-the-non-googlers) this however changed. – Jim B Sep 10 '15 at 1:33

TL;DR: The focus on low quality questions is a sisyphean obsession of the remaining community members who think this site can still have the quality and community it used to.


Professional Capacity

If you have not yet had a chance to read sysadmin1138 excellent summation of Why professional capacity is a requirement I really suggest you start with that. A lot of that answer forms the framework for the on-going meta discussion that the community has regarding professional capacity and the perception, either correctly or incorrectly about the increasing ratio of low quality questions to high quality questions.

But why are single individuals so invested in policing all of the low-quality questions on this site?

That's hard to answer because I suspect that the answer will be unique to those individuals. :)

The Community. What Community?

The active Server Fault community, the people that vote, answer and review questions here is very, very small. My crude metric is to check the number of voters on a Saturday to see how many users voted a mere dozen times. I probably do this once a month and I have never seen the number of users above 40. If you set the bar a little higher to 24 or more votes it is often under 30 users. As StackExchange has enjoyed more success this means more and more work for fewer and fewer people. The perception is that a change to Google's indexing a year ago, dramatically increased the visibility of this site and consequently the traffic and questions. We have essentially seen a 100% jump in traffic but a decline in every meaningful metric indicating participation and engagement (votes, reviews, questions, etc.).

We're special! We're unique snowflakes!

The common refrain, again either correctly or incorrectly, is that "ServerFault is different" because we have for lack of a better term "ability requirements" (or did, the FAQ/About Page has gone back and forth between the community and SO so many times I cannot really remember where we are right now). Regardless, I think it is safe to say the community believes that ServerFault should have "ability requirements"; users should be able to do research, should not implement crappy workarounds or shortcuts (i.e., increase their technical debt) and have some familiarity with the domain field their question is in. The parallel to this is that the community wants ServerFault to be for "SysAdmins to ask questions to other SysAdmins" not "Users/Developers/Potential Contract Clients to ask questions of SysAdmins". No one wants this to be a help desk. I should note that these are not uncontroversial viewpoints and they have been contested, mainly between the greater SO/SE community and SF over time.

Why do low quality questions matter?

  1. There is just not enough active users to deal with them. We literally do not have the votes or reviews being cast that are needed. The more questions we get, the more traffic gets sent here and the more the workload outpaces the community's ability to deal with them.
  2. The more low quality questions the more burnout we get. I used to vote a lot. Now I just follow a few tags I care about and hardly ever review or vote. This is a self-reenforcing cycle, if I don't cast my votes and help the good content float to the top and the bad content sink the more inclined I am to hunker down inside of .
  3. If we cannot keep the level of questions high enough we cannot attract and retain the deep knowledge professionals needed to provide answers. If I have a question that I want a real answer to, I just jump on Slack and ask someone there. I used to post those questions on ServerFault and they used to get fantastic answers but now they just sit unanswered and buried under hundreds of unvoted "HALP! COMPUTER ERRR. VERY BAD" questions.
  • 3
    Eloquence in action. – Iain Sep 10 '15 at 17:49
  • 1
    Agreed, if you ever write a book let me know. – Reaces Sep 10 '15 at 18:51
  • +1 for sccm – MDMoore313 Sep 18 '15 at 2:51

In very short words: SF is a site for professional system administrators exclusively and we don't want non-professional questions. Low quality questions are by definition non-professional.

This is a major and important difference to most/all other sites on the SF network.

Why?

  • Broken window theory. I see it every day. And unless you filter very heavily for specific tags, you just see all of SF if you are on the site often, as we don't get nearly as much traffic as SO.
  • We want to attract new high quality users. That is more difficult if there is a lot of crap here.
  • We don't want to read crap ourself.
  • We are not the internet's help desk. Other sites exist for this.

In the end, this could be different and similar to SO, but the majority of our most active users prefer a somewhat exclusive site. This might be at odd of how the SE network sites work in principle, but without those users, SF would be an empty shell.

  • Lets be clear in that "unprofessional" questions are not simply questions unrelated to the professional duties of an admin but also questions that have answers found elsewhere. – Jim B Sep 10 '15 at 1:59
  • Well this explains everything – user448564 Oct 5 at 17:41

where we came in?

There is always a focus on quality not just at election time, SE is supposed to be a repository of high quality Q&A.

Perhaps I am missing some relevant history.

Yes, lots, most if not all of it is here on meta. It boils down to

  • SF is largely a river of crappy questions easily answered if the OP would be bothered to read some documentation or even search the site first.

  • The people with rep are bored with answering easy questions over and over again because people find it easier to ask a crappy question rather than educate themselves by reading the documentation or searching the site.

  • Talented people who have lots to offer leave because of the crappy questions and the site is poorer because of it.

  • New talent comes through the gates, get involved but quickly leave because of the river of crappy questions. It is my impression that fewer talented people hang about to even get to 3k.

  • The river of crap keeps flowing.

  • The rest is history, acrimony, low quality

Isn't this'

  • 3
    We need a bigger wall! – Ward Sep 7 '15 at 19:18
  • Indeed @ward, indeed :) Although it was more a reference to the perennial circularity of this discussion. – Iain Sep 7 '15 at 20:31

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