I am new to the site and have seen some large grey areas pop up fast.

For instance I asked a question about Black Vinegar:

What is Black Vinegar?

the article is down voted and I get a comment of only the wikipedia article of such.

I took the message and figured that anything with a wikipedia article is off topic.

Though this question about Zest gets up voted and a positive response:
What is "Zest" - In particular: lime/lemon zest?

They seem glaringly similar, and i'm curious why one edges towards off topic and one is very much on topic?

  • You also have to ignore any of the questions that AttilaNYC asked, as they're not really representative. They tended to be when the site was very young, and people would upvote most anything, but he also asked questions with such a wide variety of experience levels and would ask in such ways that suggested tht he was looking for a specific answer. Enough of the moderators became suspicious and upon investigation it was found he was plagerizing questions from other Q/A websites (which is why I can say that his questions were early -- he hasn't asked any in the last two years)
    – Joe
    Dec 26, 2012 at 17:49

2 Answers 2


I understand what it must look like to you. I agree that this behavior is inconsistent.

The reason is that there really is a grey area here. (Actually, "dictionary definitions" is a grey area across the whole stack exchange network, and there are one or two sites which have experimentally implemented it as an official closing reason). This type of question looks indeed very basic and easily looked up. Is that bad? Well, some people seem to think yes, and some think no. Our community is heterogenous. And many of the people who stuck around and voted in August 2010 aren't around today to upvote your questions. The new ones don't remember that somebody used to upvote this kind of question back then. And also, there are some question types which were greeted with many upvotes back in the first months of the site - like the questions about favorite cookbooks - because everybody found the question interesting. Later, the community noticed that such questions don't get good answers, they just generate long me-too lists, and they get closed today by common decision. Still, some of the old questions still kick around because nobody has cared enough to look them up and close them.

So yes, this behavior is indeed inconsistent. We are doing our best to prevent this from happening (for example by documenting our decisions here on meta and by members leaving comments about how we do things here when somebody does something we don't agree with), but it doesn't work perfectly. This is indeed confusing for new members, but the democratic nature of the site (everybody can cast an up- or downvote everywhere, anonymously) has this side effect we cannot prevent completely. The definition of "on topic" changes a little bit over time because the community evolves.

What can you do as a new member? First, remember that downvotes are nothing bad or personal. They are a regulating mechanism which promotes or demotes content. This happens to everybody, I am one of the members with highest rep around here and I have had my questions closed back when I didn't know the rules well, and people continue to downvote my questions and answers. It used to bother me at the beginning, but I learned to take it in stride, because really, nobody cares how many downvotes you got. It is just a reminder that somebody disliked your question or answer. Well, you can't have everybody like everything you do.

As for close votes, the system requires that five members with sufficient rep or one moderator cast a close vote before it can be closed. This is exactly because the opinion of one member shouldn't be sufficient to close (except for mods who are elected to represent the community and are supposed to know the rules better than the average member). If somebody thought that your question doesn't fit, he may be wrong. Even if he is right and the question gets closed, this doesn't matter much to you, we are not resentful in any way. (Closing a question actually removes the rep gained from a question, so if your downvoted question gets closed, you get your rep back). Most of us are also nice enough to leave a mention as to why we cast a downvote or a close vote so that the OP can learn our rules better and/or bring counterarguments.

Which brings us to the only way questions and downvotes should concern you: you should take them as a sign to learn our rules better. In your case, you have done the right thing: first, looking around for similar cases, then asking on Meta about the inconsistency. Other things you can do is to leave a comment asking the downvoter to explain, and to ask in chat. But Meta is the most official channel, which stays here for the next wave of newbies to read long after the chat transcripts are forgotten.

A last word about the specific example you are asking about: Officially, a question being very simple (enough to be resolved with a Wikipedia lookup) is not a closing reason. I doubt that it will gather the five close votes needed, but I can reopen it if that happens. So, you can hold it there, and will probably find somebody willing to give you an answer. On the other hand, every member in the community has the right to dislike an on-topic question for whatever reason they choose, and downvote it. If the downvotes bother you, you can request the question to be closed, or deleted, and decide by yourself if you want to continue asking definition questions or not. But regardless of the downvotes, both questions are on-topic.

  • 2
    I thought we all agreed that we would close general reference questions, whether or not there's a special reason for it. IMO the very simple solution to all of this is just to close the old question as Off Topic, like we have for all the other Wikipedia fodder; it's nothing but rep-farming anyway.
    – Aaronut
    Dec 2, 2012 at 1:27
  • @runtscho Thank you for the serious and balanced answer to my inquiry. I am in no way rep farming... this isn't a game to me. I am as serious a food hobbyist you can get that isn't professional. I am purely curious about food and the idea that food knowledge is not something easily laid out in a wikipedia article. There is always more to know about something thoroughly documented. I have a tone more generic ingredient questions though im not wanting to ask them here anymore. I feel people resent it. But I do still find the site extremely useful and helpful for specific on-detail insights.
    – underarock
    Dec 2, 2012 at 8:28
  • @Aaronut Looks like I became a victim of the grey area myself - I see I have upvoted both the question you linked and its accepted answer. It seems that I have become more cautious with closing suggestions since becoming a mod and err on the site of not closing now, a consequence of my vote being binding.
    – rumtscho Mod
    Dec 4, 2012 at 19:24
  • @underarock I wasn't suggesting that you are rep farming. The rep system is intended to make you feel good about giving good answers, and people react to it that way even when you are not frantically trying to amass points, I assume that it works that way for you too. As for the generic ingredient questions, if they are answerable by a simple Wikipedia visit, then you lose nothing by not posting them here. If you want to know a detail missing in general references (and point that out), nobody will resent your question.
    – rumtscho Mod
    Dec 4, 2012 at 19:27
  • 2
    I also think it is important for people asking these ingredient questions to be explicit that they are looking for something above and beyond the wiki article that states "x was made by doing y to z" so that someone who may typically down-vote something like that will see that the user is requesting more rich details and not "being lazy" or whatever the thought may be.
    – Brendan
    Dec 5, 2012 at 19:42

In addition to what rumtscho so thoroughly explains about the split opinions and historical perspective on these types of questions, there is one huge thing that you can do here (or on any other Stack Exchange site) to help your questions stay open and garner upvotes and answers rather than downvotes.

Show your research.

One of the reasons why many members of Stack Exchange sites don't like these "basic" or "general reference" questions is because they are often asked in a way that leads the community to think the OP hasn't made even the smallest effort to find the information elsewhere. For something that can be easily, clearly, and completely answered by the first hit of a web search, many community members will feel that it's a waste of time to answer. Or that it's unfair of the asker to expect people to put in the effort that he or she was unwilling to provide.

For any question asked on a Stack Exchange site, it is almost a guarantee that you will receive better answers and a more positive attitude if you tell us what you've already tried. Did you read the Wikipedia article? Say so. Then tell us what part you didn't understand, or what sort of explanation you felt was missing from the article. Did you search for your question and were unable to find any answer within a reasonable number of search result pages or in a reasonable amount of time? Include that in your question.

On the "Ask Question" page, we show the same "How to Ask" box to every person, every time he or she asks a question. One of the tips there reads, "Provide details. Share your research." One could argue that we don't do the best job of guiding the user's eye to those tips, but they're there, and they do try to help prevent the frustration that often accompanies people's realization that we're stricter than a lot of other online communities.

Dislike of "basic" questions has been around for as long as Stack Exchange has existed (even back when it was just Stack Overflow). The less polite term for people who ask these types of question out of laziness or desire to get rep (neither of which seems to apply to you), is "help vampire", and since many people felt in the early days that the way to get rid of them was to just close and delete the help vampires' questions, that attitude has stuck around to some degree. We try to build communities of experts who provide high-quality knowledge in their areas of expertise; when we succeed, the members of that community become protective of their quality standards and reputation (in the true sense of the word, not necessarily about their reputation points on the site). Unfortunately, that desire to enforce our quality standards can be a bit off-putting for new users and is not always adequately explained.

The best case scenario would be for each person to explain his or her research every time a question is asked, and for the community to always assume that the asker has done some research, read the manual, etc., but didn't understand it - even if the asker doesn't explicitly state as much. The way we can take small steps toward achieving that ideal is to have conversations here on meta, in chat, or politely in the comments below the question.

I would encourage you to continue asking your questions here as long as they are thoughtful and you can be specific about what you're looking for. And do keep asking questions here on meta if you encounter something unintuitive, inconsistent, or just plain confusing. If you're looking for information that you feel might be too "basic" for a question, consider popping into the chat room - Seasoned Advice is one of the friendliest Stack Exchange communities I've participated in, and there are almost always people in chat who are happy to help.

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