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Sometimes someone asks how to do something that is very hard, unlikely to have the intended effects, or fundamentally impossible or meaningless due to an insufficient understanding of what it would mean to do it. In these instances, it makes sense that answers will suggest that the OP should do some other thing instead.

Furthermore, sometimes it is valuable to interpret a question more broadly than it was asked, so that it can be more beneficial to the community (while usually still being at least as beneficial to the OP).

But at what point do we consider "you can do this instead" answers to not really answer the question anymore?

I'm not insisting we need to have a formal set of rules about this. Instead, I'm hoping people may have ideas about some practical pointers for deciding questions like:

  1. I have an idea that might be helpful to someone, perhaps even the OP. It does not answer the question, as the question was asked. In fact, I have even written in my answer that it doesn't answer the question, or that it won't solve the problem as articulated in the question. Should I be submitting this as an answer?
    • Variation 1: It could just as well be a comment, given its length and complexity, and I have enough reputation to post it as a comment.
    • Variation 2: I've been composing a comment that's sort of like an answer but not really, for the above reasons. Should I post it as an answer instead, so it can be improved, voted on, more easily noticed and flagged in case I'm mistaken about it being valuable, and so forth?
  2. I have come upon an answer that provides information that might meet the OP's needs, but which is clearly outside the scope of what the OP was asking for. The question has not been edited to expand it. Should I flag this as not an answer?
    • Variation 1: Should I flag this using a custom flag that explicitly suggests it be converted to a comment?
    • Variation 2: Should I comment to suggest the author ought to post this sort of thing as a comment instead, even if I'm not flagging the post?

There might be some hard and fast rule. But even if you think these questions can only be decided on a case-by-case basis, I want to hear from you. Specifically, I am interested in suggestions about what kinds of things to consider, in making those judgments.

This answer put me in the situation described in question 2, situation 1. The OP was interested in workarounds for a particular bug, ways to get a particular program to perform a specific task. The answer, while potentially valuable (even to the OP), instead suggests a different application altogether. Furthermore, the question of what applications can be used to perform that general task is essentially identical to an existing community-wiki question. It seemed to me that:

This is a potentially valuable suggestion, but it doesn't answer the question (and it would be bad if this question becomes filled with answers recommending various different BitTorrent applications). So I recommend this be converted to a comment.

I submitted that custom flag, which was declined with the canned response:

a moderator reviewed your flag, but found no evidence to support it

This is not about whether or not my flag should have been declined. I don't think it was wrong for that flag to be declined. Instead, I think it was probably reflective of a community consensus with which I am not sufficiently familiar, or of differing standards within the community. (If there is no community consensus to support a flag, such that a good percentage of the community would want the post to remain, then I think that's a perfectly good reason to decline the flag.)

As far as I know, having a small number of declined flags is in no way harmful to anyone ever. I do not feel wronged in any way. Instead, I want to know, at what point do we consider an answer not to be an answer (or to be better as a comment) because it is too peripheral?

To reiterate--I was planning to ask a meta question like this for quite some time before I ever saw and flagged that answer. I just didn't have a good example. I'm asking this because, now I do. Answers to this meta question about whether or not I was wrong to flag that post are acceptable, but that is not centrally what I am interested in.

Instead, please try to answer this: What kinds of questions should I be asking myself when deciding if peripherally relevant content is appropriate as an answer?

  • thanks for asking Eliah, I have been wondering the same thing. Great to have an answer, and, the great detail of your question made the answer easy to understand and completely unambiguous. – TrailRider Aug 31 '12 at 21:01
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I tend to think of the answer as appropriate if:

  1. It's evident that the user is after a specific way of doing something, but the goal can be accomplished in another way
  2. It's appears that the question is a bug complaint, but there is a known work-around
  3. Don't do it answers are, I think, occasionally appropriate. Most often more appropriate as comments, but I think sometimes an answer of "Bad idea" is appropriate

Here's a simple example. It's evident that the OP wants a CSS based solution. A CSS solution might break if the theme was changed, so I suggested an alternate way of doing what was needed.

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