The Stack Exchange philosophy is not a particularly common model of online community (yet). I think it's really cool and have been following it since SO was conceived, but it's not obvious how it works to new users. The lack of "fun" or "lightheartedness" in questions seems to catch people off guard. I've seen new users get angry when their ascii art is removed, their posts are edited, or a topic is closed as "getting to know you..." or "a poll".

Obviously, closing those topics / editing those answers is part of the SE model and is part of what makes it so effective and different from other places. However, I've seen new users get upset and discouraged by this. How can we present these changes in a way that better educates the new users while keeping the SE model intact? Maybe just a boilerplate template with a friendly welcome and explanation that accompanies any changes? I don't really think this is happening yet and believe it will be important to the growth of the site.

Note: This is not an attack on any of the moderators who have been doing this. You guys have been doing a great job, and I appreciate all the hard work you've put in to making this site work. I just think that new users could easily get scared off by a rather strange new paradigm if they are handled brusquely on their first interaction or two. We want this to be a welcoming place as well as an efficient place, I think.

4 Answers 4


Primarily it's important to be polite. This includes all of the following:

  • Don't be rude
    • Don't call them stupid or anything similar
    • Avoid saying "this question sucks"
  • Don't assume they (a new user) should have "known better"
  • Explain why it is off-topic
  • Suggest changes, or do them yourself, if possible
  • Provide a link to a relevant FAQ or meta discussion

Personally, I try to do all of these when possible. Sometimes this is difficult because we haven't even had a FAQ until today (sort of), and our meta traffic is rather low so there may not be a relevant topic.

I think we could use a lot more discussion on meta regarding how to ask questions here so that we can provide a helpful link without having to type a small essay every time we close a question. I'm considering seeding meta with some topics on this.

Readers: Please comment on what you think would be more helpful:

  1. A single CW discussion covering in-depth what types of questions are good/bad/on/off-topic
  2. A series of individual discussions covering specific question "types" - these could be tagged with [asking-questions] or something similar.
  3. Both?

I'd like to have a way to provide links to virtually every potential type question that gets asked. The single discussion is convenient, but might be too wall-of-text overwhelming. The second option would be more targetted, but is more maintenance. We could still provide the user with the tag link as a way to "read more" bout other questions.

I have a few things to say regarding how a user reacts to having their post closed. Getting frustrated and/or confused when your first question is closed is completely understandable. Closing admittedly does tend to have a negative connotation, and can feel like a personal attack. However, if comments are left, and the tone is polite there really is no reason to get bent out of shape. How a user handles their frustration is not under our control, and outside of being polite and helpful, we have very little influence on it as well.

There are several users who have had their initial questions closed that simply took it in stride. Take mfg for example. His initial question was closed, but he has gone on to become a productive member of the community, and hasn't asked another "what is your favorite ..." question since.

Then there are users who get completely bent out of shape when their question is closed. They react strongly, and lash out at the closer(s), or the community as a whole. This type of reaction is just not helpful. It is anti-social, inflammatory, and detrimental to the community. Of course we should remain polite and helpful when addressing these types of reactions, and a normal, social, rational person should end up feeling in one of two ways:

  1. They understand why the post was closed, and see why it was off-topic, and completely agree.
  2. They disagree that it should have been off-topic, but "agree to disagree". They adhere to the rules of the community.

An anti-social, irrational user will do one of two things:

  1. Raise hell (flame, troll, etc.), and continue to raise hell lashing out at everything in sight.
  2. Leave

Should we worry about these users? Absolutely not. These users would have reacted the same way no matter how polite and helpful we are in closing. There is a line between being polite and obsequious. I don't cross it. They simply aren't welcome here. If someone cannot handle polite, constructive criticism like an adult, go away. We don't have a shortage of users here. We don't have a shortage of good, quality questions being asked and answered. I'm confident that this site will continue to grow, and continue to attract additional polite, social users.

  • +1 good answer. I think different meta-questions for different types of question types is easier. That way you can link someone to an answer, rather than to a discussion that may include the answer if they look hard enough. That's the whole point of SE, right?
    – yossarian
    Commented Aug 27, 2010 at 20:48
  • Excellent post. I've been impressed with your civility in the face of hostile users. How complicated would it be to explain with examples what makes a good question and answer? Does it warrant multiple pages? It seems to me that it could be done concisely in a single page without it being overwhelming. Commented Aug 27, 2010 at 21:01
  • I think you already have both and if you don't start them, they will bring it to you ;-)
    – Ivo Flipse
    Commented Sep 1, 2010 at 18:16

I found having my first question closed taught me pretty quickly how to approach Q&A. I think that the learning curve can be split though. For some people, there are 'types' of questions you cannot ask, or they will get closed. For others, there are 'ways of asking questions' that get the same question closed.

I think that approaching SE by correcting the latter lends itself toward truncating the learning curve because you learn how to apply an appropriate level of specificity to the situation, and how to clearly ask about a [definable thing] that can be answered. Most comments simply say 'don't ask list of x, or GTKY questions' but don't explain how to refine the question to be answerable. This leads many users to become frustrated early on because they think that their question is taboo and worthless, or to think that their question cannot be answered on this site so should go elsewhere.

I think that some of the closing comments might go further to elucidate how to ask a question, rather than dismiss a question by categorization.

  • I think you are a great example of a user who did not get bent out of shape for having their question closed. The commentary on your question was succinct, but polite. You didn't get bent out of shape, you clearly learned from this, and have gone on to become a great contributor to this site in terms of both questions and answers.
    – hobodave
    Commented Aug 27, 2010 at 19:25

I should apologise for resurrecting a old question but I just today had a bad experience at the hands of another user on the site (editing an answer of mine for being offtopic). He had a valid point and was even-handed towards everyone, but his tone was brusque and condescending. I also thought he applied the "off-topic" rule a bit harshly to the answers involved.

At root was an item on the FAQ that was perhaps less clear than it could have been. I guess it would have been better if the editor was a little more gracious about the need for edits.

But, yes, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth about this site.

  • 3
    Sorry for you experience. I think part of the issue is that now users have been here for 2 years and have seen the same off topic questions / discussions a million times. While everyone starts out being very polite and offering good explanations, eventually it gets frustrating and leads to 'because I said so'. In particular, the health and nutrition questions were clearly defined as off topic way back when, and new users tend to get very defensive about wanting to talk about it. So it's not a response to you, but rather the 400 people that came before you.
    – yossarian
    Commented Oct 4, 2012 at 12:51
  • Thanks @yossarian. I discovered that there is a Nutrition SE site that is languishing in Define. Would it be inappropriate to make it's existence more visible here on Cooking?
    – staticsan
    Commented Oct 4, 2012 at 23:51
  • Your best bet for garnering interest is in chat. Definitely don't put anything on the main site, and I'm not sure what would be relevant in meta.
    – yossarian
    Commented Oct 5, 2012 at 16:14

Being one of those users, who will never actually visit cooking.stackexchange.com again, he's sorry to add, the cooking site simply needs to refine itself.

Example? 'A dish that can objectively be described as mean.' All right, that was funny when the site first started. But it doesn't cut it. I came on here thinking, 'this question is borderline, but I trust that people aren't too trigger happy here.'

Now my opinion is that I'll never find this site useful at all, because the question I asked was pretty similar to any question I'm bound to ask. I know how to cook, and I'm not interested in other people's techniques. I just like to experiment with flavor combinations -- and that is something you need to ask questions to get. It's something that varies all over the world, and yes, inasmuch as curries, Sichuanese, and Mexican all combine the taste of oils with the taste of chili (a plant that was only found in the Americas as little as 500 years ago) it is an objective matter.

  • Lets assume that your first question was off topic and was going to get closed (and not talk about whether or not it really was / should be). How could this community let you know that in a way that you would want to continue to explore the site and community?
    – yossarian
    Commented Aug 27, 2010 at 18:32
  • "I know how to cook, and I'm not interested in other people's techniques" - then unless you care to share some of your own, I'm sorry to say that you don't have much to contribute here. The site is simply not about "flavour combinations" i.e. recipes - that was made clear from the proposal phase.
    – Aaronut
    Commented Aug 27, 2010 at 22:51
  • 3
    One more thing: If you encounter this situation on any other SE sites in the future, I suggest that you calmly and politely inquire as to why your question was closed instead of barging into the meta site with guns-a-blazin'. You might receive more sympathy that way.
    – Aaronut
    Commented Aug 27, 2010 at 22:55
  • 2
    @Aaron, while there are tons of people that "know how to cook", I doubt there are many chefs worth their salt who aren't interested in the techniques of others.
    – yossarian
    Commented Aug 28, 2010 at 2:20
  • You really get the point. What was good on Stack Overflow isn't necessarily good on Food and Cooking, especially all the nonsense rules of what is off topic as being subjective and so on. I think that, if this site wouldn't change its policies, it will not be embraced by a significant community.
    – Wizard79
    Commented Aug 29, 2010 at 10:38

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