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I'm going to be bold on this one. I do not want to raise controversies, I do not intend to cause any heated discussion and I do not wish to complain about how AU works. I am just going to share my observations that worry me.

I feel a great urge to discuss the matter of the general scope of Ask Ubuntu. It's not like I feel it's wrong, I do not attempt to question it nor to apply any changes. I just need to make sure that what is going on is The Right Thing.

Now, what is my point?

Have a look at some activity that takes place on Ask Ubuntu. Looks like browsing the recently active questions is a good way to see a glimpse of what's going on. What sort of questions do we see there? Pretty predictable if you are not new here.

About 5% of the questions seen there will be those cool "how do I do ", "what should I do to configure XYZ", "what does the is", "how does ABC work", "why does Ubuntu do BLAH this way". These questions are lovely and I guess we all welcome them, as they are very likely to be valuable to future visitors, some of them are plain interesting, and... oh come one, you know what I mean.

The next group of questions, probably around 10% of new questions are these average "how to add a second launcher", "what is the cli command for ...", "can I install XYZ" etc. - these common questions that are interesting for some users, have some real potential of being useful for others, are not very canonical, but still represent some knowledge that is worth exchanging.

But the vast majority, more than 3/4 of questions are plain boring support requests. "trouble when upgrading ...", "dpkg fails with ", "kernel panic when browsing internet", "why is my BCM4313 failing to perform DHCP blah blah, here are my system logs, what should I do?". This is fine, and we all agree it is okay to ask these. For a long time we were eager to answer these, and I am not trying to say it's wrong - isn't Ask Ubuntu oficially listed as the community support for Ubuntu? :-)

Yet a closer look at these questions worries me.

  • Most of them is going to be marked as duplicates.
  • Most of them should be closed as too localized, but not always it feels right to close a question just because it refers to some rare bug affecting a very unusual hardware configuration.
  • Almost all of these questions never get more than 30 views. (I recall there were statistics for average views, the "answered" factor etc. but somehow I cannot find them)
  • Very little of them is going to get at least 5 upvotes.
  • Many of them are not likely to be answered, because of different reasons, including the difficulty to dig into rare configurations, as well as the following:
  • A large number requires to be discussed with the OP first - asking for details, suggesting commands to type in etc.

These facts are, again, what we all realize and have gotten used to.

It wasn't always this way, these of you who remember AU from few years back can recall that the percentage of such support requests was much smaller. This has changed once AU started being recommended as the support website. Also it's clear that the more questions have been asked, the less likely it is that a new one will be something interesting. Therefore this process is not reasonless.

But that's how things are, right? Now I am asking you to think for a while about how does this phenomena affect Ask Ubuntu, both in terms of its content and in terms of community.

The first thing I notice is that Ask Ubuntu fails to provide top-quality support for newcomers. There are several reasons for that:

  • In order to keep AU clean we do our best to detect duplicates. Because of that, it is common that a slightly different problem gets treated as a duplicate of something that will not help the OP. We have to do it this way, otherwise we'd need separate "how do I configure network" for each network card! But the side-effect is that the questions are generalized, and very often the OP may feel wrong, when their question gets closed, but he realizes that it's not a perfect duplicate.
  • It turns out that the reputation limits for some actions are participating in this effect too. A newcomer to Ubuntu needs help with something - they are headed to Ask Ubuntu, they start with 1 rep point, and they lack some goodies we are used to, like comments. If their question gets mistakenly closed, if they are asked to comment with more details, their experience becomes painful. You're going to say that that's how the rep points are supposed to work, and I totally agree, but this does not change the fact that it makes life harder for those who just want to request support.
  • Select some of these questions at random and see for yourself how much of them need/needed some discussion - including "please tell us what your graphics card is" as well as "does XYZ work for you?". AU is not really a place for discussing matters, it is also not suitable at all for leading OP through step-by-step "do X and tell if it helped, I'll tell you what next". This is thing for the forums, but apparently a huge number of those who ask new question need that sort of help (even though they usually do not realize that their question would be best turned into a free posts exchange).

If you happen to pay attention how people who are not active in the community (the "just common users") see Ask Ubuntu, you must have noticed that since some longer time they are getting more upset about how are their questions treated. A lot of users in my local community, as well as random folks on the Internet, have some sort of imperfect experience with Ask Ubuntu - be it their question getting closed while the original duplicate does not help, or any other reason. It kind of seems like AU is not the perfect place to ask "please help" (which is not a question, by the way).

In general, even though I am not a forums fan, and do not use them myself, I end up recommending the forums to Ubuntu newbies as the place to ask for help. The forums are mainly a platform for communication, and they do not care about content as much as we do, so probably it's a better place to go in order be helped by someone.

Another significant problem that I am experiencing is that because of what an average question has become, I contribute by writing answers much less than I used to. This is not only caused by the fact that it requires much more work on my side, as so many questions are specific to some hardware or software-configuration. Main reasons are that my answers would not be helpful to anyone but the OP, and that mostly I can't just answer, I'd need to ask the OP so many things before we start.

I can bet I am not the only one who would love to write more answers, but is put off by what questions are available. So that is another factor in which this state of things contributes negatively to the quality of the site: writing answers gets so much less rewarding!


I can't really decide myself if I am happy with all that or not.

On one hand, it is obviously great that we provide such support, that many people have their problem solved thanks to AU.

But then again I feel like these questions are killing us. Please review again the first bullet list in this post. Are these questions really worth much?.

Comparing the amount of similarly case-specific, unlikely to be any interesting to future visitors, and localized questions to other Q&A sites - nowhere it is that bad. Maybe we're getting of the Q&A style?

Or maybe just general support is not fit here? That would be a very bold and controversial statement, yet maybe the general question policy needs to get reviewed. I can't imagine Ask Ubuntu not welcoming everyone with their questions, though, there must be other way.

Unless this is all fine and sound. Maybe the situation is not that bad as I see it?

I am unsure what is wrong, if anything. I would be really glad to see what others are thinking in this matter. Maybe you need to explain me why I should stop worrying about AU quality :-) Or maybe that phenomena I described is actually something worth noticing.

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    I'm about 5% of my way through your post and some of the things you're pointing out are things that are a lot more noticeable around releases. 13.10 was just released and everybody and their mother is asking why their laptop's fan is whirring louder than in Windows. The ratio of install questions is a bit lower when averaged out over 6 months. – Oli Oct 18 '13 at 22:28
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    And I agree about the general quality, so much that I spent an indecent amount of time trying to do something to guide new users. I need help to do it but nobody else seems willing to put in the time. – Oli Oct 18 '13 at 22:33
  • @Oli These aren't just install questions that I am referring to, though your point is very right, and I might have chosen an unfortunate moment to post this :-) However, my urge to write this post down has been growing up in me since months, prior to release there were indeed less 'install' questions, but as many 'it is not working' questions and as many 'i broke something' questions. Also, your link the the second comment is probably broken. – Rafał Cieślak Oct 18 '13 at 22:42
  • Should work now. – Oli Oct 18 '13 at 22:45
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    I would like to point you that you are able to comment your own posts and the answers you get in your questions independent of your reputation. – Braiam Oct 18 '13 at 22:48
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    Welcome to the wonderful world of tech support.... – Seth Oct 18 '13 at 23:23
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  • To me, its seems that after being elected moderator I have lost power and words on the site. Instead of being able to close and point others in to closing, and having time to answer questions on the site and actually helping, I am spending my time in useless discussions about what can I do or not for the site, and what is considered harsh or or in a newbie point of view about the site... I am actually fed up discussions and points and retard arguments about this and want to do some work. That has been the main reason why I havent spent a lot of time around Ask Ubuntu. – Bruno Pereira Oct 20 '13 at 9:47
  • It seems that for every actions there are 100 steps you need to take to convince people that its is better for the site to be harsh first, and apologize (and learn from your actions) later. – Bruno Pereira Oct 20 '13 at 9:49
  • @Oli Would you not want to spend less time worrying about clean-ups and users and more time cleaning, answering and helping users? – Bruno Pereira Oct 20 '13 at 9:50
  • @BrunoPereira Yeah. It took me a while after becoming a moderator for me to get my voice back. Now I try to write more answers than deal with bad posts. I would however like to get the Wizard done because I do believe it could cut out a lot of the couldn't-be-bothered-to-search and didn't-know-what-to-search-for questions, as well as making new questions better. That would free up a lot of review time. – Oli Oct 20 '13 at 10:28
  • @Oli what can I do to help? I havent been around enough to understand what a wizard will do for us, care to describe it to me in (mod) chat? How can I assist in anything? – Bruno Pereira Oct 20 '13 at 10:53
  • I feel the part in bold is not factual: "The forums are mainly a platform for communication, and they do not care about content as much as we do, so probably it's a better place to go in order be helped by someone." Quite sad. – user25656 Oct 20 '13 at 16:45
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    Even if others don't quite agree on what the OP is saying, I think that he did a very good job on his question. This question is politely-worded, it contains good grammar and spelling, it is long, detailed, and better thought-out than some other questions that I have seen, and he raises some valid points. Even if we don't agree with him, I think that the OP has written a good question very well. – fouric Oct 28 '13 at 5:32
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Background: I'm a long-time user of stack-exchange websites, fairly new user to AU.

Most of the issues that bother the OP seem to be the same ones that plague all website veterans when encountering the tide of the new users that come with an upsurge in popularity. In my mind, they boil down to: "The new users don't play by the rules."

I agree that writing answers in this situation is less rewarding. So don't - this is a situation where moderation tools are more important than answers.

At least, that's true for people who want to write answers for posterity. But often enough there's a trickle of new users who stay around long enough to want to desperately bid for more XP, and they'll be willing to answer anything. If enough of them are have just the right amount of knowledge, then the website will continue to function as a Q&A website.

I expect that the quality of the site will seem to only improve. The really common questions that users will want answered will get ranked up by UA and Google up, so the drive-by asker will get directed to that first. And we can never know when a new question will turn out to be a hugely common issue.

  • You Stack Overflow guys really know what this is like! You're probably thinking "You call this bad?" ;) – Seth Oct 20 '13 at 19:04
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    @Seth - Not really. What I'm trying to say is that it only seems bad, but it'll balance out. – Shalom Craimer Oct 21 '13 at 6:04
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AU is not really a place for discussing matters, it is also not suitable at all for leading OP through step-by-step "do X and tell if it helped, I'll tell you what next". This is thing for the forums, but apparently a huge number of those who ask new question need that sort of help (even though they usually do not realize that their question would be best turned into a free posts exchange).

The site is designed for editing. Instead of "do X and then tell me what next" it's "do X and then edit your question", THEN you can either adjust your answer or if it leads to another thing the user has to do they need to edit it.

But the vast majority, more than 3/4 of questions are plain boring support requests. "trouble when upgrading ...", "dpkg fails with ", "kernel panic when browsing internet", "why is my BCM4313 failing to perform DHCP blah blah, here are my system logs, what should I do?". This is fine,

I don't think those questions are fine, I usually vote to close those. Usually most of these are bug reports; we just need to keep voting and closing!

be it their question getting closed while the original duplicate does not help, or any other reason.

They should add that to the question! If someone says "I looked at this question and it didn't help me" then we won't close it, but in my experience the question is so vague that the user doesn't give us enough information for us to act on.

  • Problem is, me, as a moderator, when I do it and start cleaning up the site I get voices around that say I am too harsh in my actions, or fast in judging what is worth keeping or not: "Lets leave it for the community to decide". Well, this is not working and its bs most of the times. I want to work, I want to close crap before they are even read by users actually trying to help other users, instead they spend their time on the site "cleaning" and asking for more information, and sorting if a question should or not be closed in a automatic fashion... – Bruno Pereira Oct 20 '13 at 9:36
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    Can we please stop being condescended with users and make the site work the way it should? If its crap, close it? Maybe that way we can stop having these clean up actions and discussion we have every time the site is ranked low in SE and actually help users with their legit doubts... – Bruno Pereira Oct 20 '13 at 9:41
  • Your preaching to the choir man, if it was as simple as "oh just help everyone" then we wouldn't be having this discussion; it's just hard to action on "ubuntu 13.04 firefox"-like questions. – Jorge Castro Oct 21 '13 at 5:20
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    @BrunoPereira Just Do It™ Seriously, there are over 208 questions in the close vote queue. The "community" hasn't been able to handle it yet, and I doubt we ever will. We need your diamond! – Seth Oct 21 '13 at 18:17

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