Q&A is Hard, Let's Go Shopping!

by Jeff Atwood

on November 23, 2010

Over the last 2.5 years, we've identified a few problematic classes of questions that tend to get asked on our sites. Many of these are documented in our standard set of close reasons: exact duplicate, off-topic, subjective and argumentative, not a real question, and too localized.

However, as we launched the great Super User experiment, a new, previously unknown class of problematic questions emerged -- the shopping recommendation.

That is, on Super User we began encountering questions like:

Macbook Air vs. Macbook Pro?
What's the best dual-band wireless router?
Dell GX280 Processor upgrade?
What RAM should I buy?
Nvidia or ATI video card?

These questions may seem tolerable at first glance. Isn't it our mandate to help our fellow ewoksusers? But consider the voluminous amount of information you need to even begin properly answering a shopping question:

  • What is your budget?

  • Where do you live?

  • What are your preferences?

  • Which alternatives will you consider?

  • When do you want to buy?

Let's say the question asker provided all that information. Fat chance, I know, but let's pretend for a moment they did -- and we were able to provide the perfect, ideal shopping recommendation to them. Even if that was the case, technology moves so rapidly that the best shopping recommendations will be utterly obsolete within a year! What's the point of a bunch of labor intensive questions that provide only temporary benefit to a limited (some might say Too Localized) audience? There isn't any. That's what we concluded, and we explicitly disallowed shopping questions in the Super User FAQ:

Super User is for computer enthusiasts and power users. If you have a question about …

  • computer hardware

  • computer software

and it is not about

  • videogames or consoles

  • websites or web services like Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress

  • electronic devices, media players, cell phones or smart phones, except insofar as they interface with your computer

  • a shopping or buying recommendation

… then you're in the right place to ask your question!

However, there is a way to ask these questions that avoids the inherent problems with shopping recommendations. For example, let's say you wanted -- as I did -- to buy a point-and-shoot camera that takes good low light photos. So we're going to ask on photo.stackexchange.com, naturally!

Here's one way to ask:

Q: What's the best low light point-and-shoot camera?

A: Canon S90 and Lumix LX3.

Here's another way to ask:

Q: How do I tell which point-and-shoot cameras take good low light photos?

A: I strongly recommend looking for something with

  • a fast lens (2.0 at least)

  • reasonable ISO handling (at least 400, but preferably 800)

  • the biggest sensor available

The sum of these factors are really critical for low light situations.

The former question provides the path of least resistance: a laundry list of products I can buy without thinking about it too much. But that answer will only be valid for a year at best. The latter question may take some thinking, but its answer will be valid forever … or at least until camera technology somehow shifts beyond lenses and sensors as we know them today. Thus, when it comes to shopping questions, don't ask us what you should buy -- ask us what you need to learn to tell what you should buy.

If I had to summarize our network in a single word, that word is "learning". People come to our sites to learn about topics they are passionate about. As the old Chinese proverb goes, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." Every question and answer ultimately should be about teaching and learning -- yes, even the shopping ones.