A week or so ago Dmitry Grigoryev brought up the problem of informationless answers and how we deal with them. This was largely inspired by a popular Stack Exchange Meta post from several years ago. The reason an “informationless answer” might even potentially be regarded as an answer by anyone is because it contains a link to external information, so the issue is somewhat synonymous with minimal, link-only answers.
As per my reply there, the problem with simply deleting all such posts here is that it will do more harm than good; ideally they should be fixed, and discouraged through comments and downvoting. This turns out to be (sort of) in keeping with a perspective expressed here about 3 1/2 years ago by our former moderator Jivings, meaning we have (kind of) had a policy of (sometimes) tolerating these.
[As of June/17 our policy includes converting these to comments.]
I’ve discussed a further experimental step we could take with Steve Robillard and Ghanima, but before explaining that, I’ll summarize the issue.
A worst case scenario link-only answer is one which, if the link is removed, contains literally no information. For example, the obvious:
You can find an answer to your question here.
This one is fictional and I did not bother to include a link. Insert it where ever you like, but observe that other than the idea an answer can be found somewhere, the actual text contains no information about anything, including the link. To split hairs a little, I’m going to include with this answers that contain a nominal amount of infomation about the link by either:
- Including the literal URL text.
- Including a title in the link text, or referring to sections therein.
- Indicating the information from the link is “helpful” or “can solve your problem”.
Since this is information that would be meaningless if the link were dead, etc.
These can be objectively distinguished from a nearly link-only answer such as this one:
You can try chroot approach using qemu-user-static from a linux vm. Here’s the tutorial.
This one is real and was posted during the last week. It can be objectively distinguished from an informationless answer because it contains a sentence of information that could stand as an answer on its own.Perhaps not a very good answer, but to repeat what I’ve said in my reply to Dmitry and in declining certain kinds of flags, a “not good” answer is still an answer.
In this light, the former case, the literal “here is a link to information”, is really unforgivably lazy. There is no excuse, if you’re actually able to click “Post an answer”, to not include a single sentence beyond, “here is a link”.
One thing I do regularly do with these is convert them to comments, i.e., I don’t actually decline 100% of flags against them and I largely agree with Dmitry — just not 100%. However, ideally, again, I think the most constructive thing that could be done is fixing them, or encouraging the original author to do so.
So my proposal, which we would like to put to a one month trial if there are no serious objections, is to deal with them in the following way.
- When such an informationless link-only answer is identified, I, Steve, or Ghanima will post a comment with a link to this Q&A, explaining that if no relevant information is added to the answer within 48 hours we will progress to the next step. We will keep track of these and follow up on them with the help of our small team of gremlins.
- The “next step” is that after 48 hours if nothing is improved the answer will be converted to Community Wiki. The major consequence of this is that it means anyone with 100 reputation can edit the answer without needing peer approval. Since such answers can’t get much worse, this should, hopefully, be more positive than negative.
A secondary consequence is that no one earns any points from a Community Wiki post once it is converted (points from votes prior to then, up or down, stand). I think this takes away a sort of disincentive from cleaning up bad answers, namely, that the original author, who was too lazy to do anything themselves, may benefit from someone else’s helpful activity. This is generally bad for the site since it also means people can earn privileges here they do not deserve and should not be handed the opportunity to exercise, so all in all, this “secondary consequence” is appropriate.
That won’t necessarily apply to 100% of cases — some link-only answers contain links so marginal they should at best be converted to comments and applying “lipstick on a pig” there would be silly. However, many or most link-only answers are I think posted more out of naivete than a truly neglectful attitude, and often are appropriate and potentially helpful.
Rather than swooping in right away and deleting the post, this offers a positive means of informing people about our standards and giving them an opportunity to correct the problem themselves. If not, hopefully we as a community can do it.
This could be applied to brand new or old answers. So, again barring any serious objections:
- If you notice such posts, in addition to taking whatever action you deem appropriate within your power (downvoting, leaving a comment), please flag these “for moderator attention” (or as “low quality” or “not an answer”— low quality is perhaps the best choice since I think that puts them in a review queue for other users, like close votes do on questions).
- If you are motivated to edit such answers, remember, it does not have to be a major production. It is still a substantive improvement to add a single sentence of information regarding the proposed solution which would stand on its own as meaningful if the link were removed.
There is a complication with the 48 hour grace period for people who would like to correct answers but would prefer to wait until after the original author’s opportunity to do so before conversion to Community Wiki has expired. If you post the flag, you’d have to remember to come back later. However, we’ve created a chat room for tracking the posts, which can also be used if you have a few free minutes and want to improve something (see the answer below for more information about this).
Depending on how things play out in practice, we may decide to tweak this further by saying that the conversion will be applied if the only substantial improvements made during the 48 hour grace period are by people other than the original author.
- If you are tempted to post link-only answers because you are too busy for anything else but feel it is better than nothing, please read the last point.
Keep in mind that exploiting this by making an art of posting link-only answers with a bare minimum amount of information is still not okay, and that making a habit of chain posting low quality answers is grounds for suspension.
As Goldilocks has pointed out we, the three current moderators, discussed the issue at length. We concluded that the benefit for the site as a whole outweighs any drawbacks for the individual contributor (do I need to quote Spock’s dying words on you?). Per this meta post What are “Community Wiki” posts? and specifically this phrase:
How does a post become a Community Wiki post? – A moderator has reason to believe that the post serves better in community wiki mode
I am also inclined to already consider the moderators mandated to proceed as described. However in the spirit of Stackexchange’s idea of community moderation, that we try to live up to, we seek a consent with the users, which means that we invite you to discuss the issue here or in the site’s main chat room. Not only might you have a valuable point that we have overlooked so far but more importantly we as moderators need your full and continued support in moderation of the site.
After a number of months using the methodology described below, we decided to adopt the policy used at Stack Overflow and many other exchanges, namely to regard these as “not an answer” (aka “NAA”, which can be flagged by normal users) and convert them to comments on the question.
The problem with tagging them, posting them in a chat room for 48 hours, etc., giving those with the best of intentions a chance to exercise them is that this was quite tedious for us and had an abysmal success rate.
In order to help track the posts, we’re adding them to a list in the “Link-only Community Wiki Additions” chat room (which is read-only for non-moderators). The links expand to a precis like this:
These are now added only after they have been converted to Community Wiki (i.e., the 48 hours is up without any response from the author), so if you are bored and this stuff bugs you, it should be easy enough to just browse the list of converted answers and pick ones to edit.
They are not removed from the room just because someone has made a change — hopefully this will be clear, but a definitive clue should be the nature of the “Community Wiki” attribution, which will say something like “65% FredFoo” if the answer has been edited by multiple users.