I felt this is probably a substantial enough topic to splinter off, discuss & develop some community consensus about.

This meta raised the matter of how we shouldn't deal with answers to off-topic questions. Specifically, it calls out posting comments to the effect of "don't answer off-topic questions".

Yet, stating what not to do is doesn't necessarily cover what to do instead. That's what I'm asking here: what should the response be? In particular, is there a way to address the situation that is welcoming to users who seemingly don't see the problems they might be perpetuating? And ideally, are there solutions that don't create more problems than they solve?

I don't think we need to do anything. We got along fine for years before this became a trend, and we'll get along fine without it for years if we start deleting the "please don't answer off-topic questions" comments when they pop up from now on.

The justification we seem to have gravitated towards for this is that failing to do so causes more off-topic questions. But I don't think there's actually data to back that up. I think it's just a theoretical point we've clung to in order to make ourselves feel okay about it.

  • Are we expected to leave these answers totally alone, or should we treat them just like on-topic answers, upvoting good ones and downvoting bad ones? – Tyyppi_77 Apr 27 at 20:13
  • Yeah; they're just answers. I'm proposing we treat them no differently than any other answers on the site. – Josh Petrie Apr 27 at 20:23

I tried something new with a question that came up today:

Is there a stable Unity release for linux?

Rather than closing it immediately, I posted an answer giving the current info and also explaining why this particular site is not the best place for such questions:

No. At this time the Unity site still refers to the Linux editor as an "experimental" Beta feature.

...

In future, please direct this type of software query to the makers of that software. Because it's time-sensitive (maybe in two months there will be a stable Linux build released), handling it through our Q&A here risks leaving misleading signposts for future users.

(So, if you're a future user reading this after May 2018: don't take my word for it — check the manufacturer's website for the most up to date information)

Technically this is an answer to an off-topic question, but I'm hopeful this gives a friendlier experience for the asker and visitors who happen by the question, while still having the effect of teaching that this type of question is not appropriate for this site.

So this may offer another avenue to deal with answers to off-topic questions: edit them into a form like the one above, where the answer itself instructs about why the question is off-topic.

This strategy wouldn't work for all off-topic questions, but maybe those that are "topic-adjacent"?

  • The question is about game development (we shouldn't go way off-scope)
  • The question is readily answerable to some extent (we shouldn't invest a ton of time on off-topic questions, but if it's trivial to answer there's not a big cost)
  • The Q&A does not fit the StackExchange model for some reason (eg. time sensitivity, reliance on external resources, etc.)

I'm not sure whether this is a good solution to the problem, so I submit it here for the community's review.

  • I can appreciate the effort & am glad to see us try some different things as we work this stuff out. Were you still planning on closing the question? Isn't there a risk that seeing a mod answering will be seen as condoning such off topics questions? – Pikalek May 3 at 19:09
  • 2
    @Pikalek I've gone ahead and closed the question (didn't want to do so immediately since it would have the effect of locking in my answer as the only one allowed - I wanted to leave some time for other voices). Myself, I'm not sure that seeing users answer off-topic questions encourages asking off-topic questions. In most cases where someone's asked a clearly off-topic question, I haven't seen much evidence that they've looked at ANY previous questions. ;) – DMGregory May 4 at 0:58

I have a few concerns with not doing anything about these anwers:

  1. How do we justify even closing these questions? "Sorry, but your question is a type of question that can be only answered up to the point where 5 people with close rights have seen this or a moderator sees the question." This might make new users feel that they're being treated unfairly, since some off-topic questions might have answers, and their don't.
  2. Will this affect the deletion of closed questions? I'd assume closed questions without answers get cleaned up more frequently, but this is just a guess.
  3. Voting behavior: How are we supposed to vote on off-topic answers? I feel like the most frequent off-topic questions that get answered are of the type "how to get started?", and the off-topic answers to those are often very opinionated. Should one vote up if they agree with the answerer's opinion, and down-vote if they disagree?

I agree that it's not the nicest thing to say "Please don't answer off-topic questions." After all, the user is being generous and providing their input to a question they feel they know the answer to. However, I personally believe that we'd be best of deleting these answers. Stack Exchange's purpose is to be a good collection of questions and answers, and I feel like dead weight like off-topic answers are not something we should have to deal with.

That said, I wonder if it'd be possible to perhaps get a custom deletion reason for these, with a very kind reminder about the site's purpose?

  • I'm not sure I understand the point you're trying to make with (1). We justify closing those questions because they're off topic. Answers -- whether they exist or not, whether or not they've been deleted, and whether or not somebody has commented on them -- don't have anything to do with how on-topic a question is. So I'm confused about what you're trying to get at here. – Josh Petrie Apr 28 at 15:46
  • My point here is that users asking off-topic questions are not treated equally: their chance of getting an answer depends totally on how fast their question is closed. – Tyyppi_77 Apr 28 at 18:02
  • I guess, sure, but I don't see that deleting answers from closed questions helps. Now ones "chance" of getting an answer depends on how fast the question is closed and how fast any answers posted are deleted. Deleting answers off closed questions seems not only pointless, it seems like it actively prioritizing strict adherence to dogma over trying to help people. – Josh Petrie Apr 28 at 22:21

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .