Are Some Questions Too Simple?

by Jeff Atwood

on February 22, 2011

On Podcast #58, Joel and I had a disagreement. Not the first, and certainly won't be the last:

Joel says that the only bad simple question is a duplicate simple question. I say simple questions are OK as long as they’re actually interesting (in some way) for other users to consider and answer. To prove his point, Joel actually asks the question on Stack Overflow: How do I move the turtle in LOGO? Do you think this question adds value?

We still have this disagreement. Our community is now struggling with the very same issue across multiple network sites:

We've seen it come up enough times now that I'm comfortable making a final decision: yes, some questions are too simple to be answered ... at least on our sites.

Not because they're bad questions, mind you, but because these types of questions can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference site with no additional explanation necessary. We discourage "answers" that are links, but for these questions, it's hard to argue that anything else is required.

The problem is coming up enough in the network that we're thinking about adding a new standard close reason for it.

General reference: this question is too basic; the answer is indexed in any number of general internet reference sources designed specifically to find that type of information.

User Borror0 ran with this concept and came up with this clever mini-flowchart for determining if a question is too simple to be answered on our sites:

is this question too simple to answer on a Stack Exchange website?

The key distinction to make here, in my mind, is that all questions are ultimately in service of the people answering them. That is the audience you need to satisfy if you want to have any hope of creating and sustaining a community of peers learning from each other. The minimum bar for a question is not "is this on-topic?", but rather "is this somewhat interesting and on-topic?". I'm not saying every question needs to be utterly fascinating, but please endeavor to make your questions more than a constant stream of no-duh underhanded softballs requiring nothing more than a quick cut and paste from Wikipedia, IMDB, or some other standard internet reference site.

There's nothing useful any expert can learn from ultra-basic questions. Allow your Q&A; community to fill itself with enough "General Reference" type questions and you'll soon find no experts there at all.