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I was prompted to ask this by a couple of recent posts by new users and the response they received. I also took a look at some of the available data on the site, and I suspect we might have a problem. This might be an uncomfortable question, but I think we need to have the debate.

But first the posts ...


The first of these was this post about Nixon's visit to China.

Now, I happened to see the question as it was posted. To be honest, my first reaction was:

"Another request for trivia. Don't these people know how to use Google?"

Then two things gave me pause.

  • Firstly, it asks about "past policies" (plural). As far as I know, the visit went against his own previous policy (as expressed during his 1964 visit to Asia). I wasn't aware of any other policy, and a brief Google search didn't find any either.
  • The second point was that this was the first post by a new user.

So I added a comment asking the OP to add a link to the article. I figured that would clarify the question. I also hoped that asking the OP to include a link to their source would encourage them to do so in future as well.

Five minutes later (just 6 minutes after the question had been posted!) it got the first vote-to-close (surprisingly, perhaps, not because it's a request for trivia, but because of "Uncited source no evidence of research").

Well, this was 2am, so I just posted the best answer I could and called it a night.

The follwowing morning, the question had been closed (hardly a surprise, if I'm being honest), but the OP had added a link to the article. The article states:

The shorthand is “Nixon goes to China,” meaning a moment in which a leader reverses his past positions to do something that is shocking but beneficial.

which, presumably, explains the plural "past policies" in the question.

Hopefully, in this case the OP hasn't been put-off using History:SE by their experience, but a glance at the list of users suggests that others may have been. More on that later.


The second post was yesterday. It asked what made a region an "upper" or a "lower" region. At the time of writing, the question has 3 down-votes as a "request for trivia". As originally posted, the question certainly showed that the OP had carried out some research:

"There doesn't seem to be a correlation with altitude, relative orientation, or size. Maybe up or down river?

I imagine it's reminiscent of the Roman empire, but I'm uncertain."

Now, personally, I would say that the question was trivial to answer, but then my father was a land surveyor, so I'm probably at an unfair advantage. On balance, I think I'd agree with T.E.D. and Tom's comments and say that it is a perfectly reasonable question.

In particular, Tom's comment about how to improve the question is an example of just the sort of thing that I think we should be doing more.

Again, this was a user who was new to History:SE. At the time of writing, they have made their opinions about the people who down-voted the question clear in the comments to the question. On the basis of that comment, I'd guess History:SE wouldn't be getting any 5-star reviews!

So should we be handling questions from new users better?


According to the site stats, at the time of posting, we have 17,317 users. That sounds like an impressive number, but I'm a bit of a data nerd - I like to try and understand data trends. I took a look at the user lists.

On 20 September 2017 there were 443 pages of users (each page displaying 36 users).

Of these:

  • 162 pages of users have a reputation of 1.
  • 171 pages have a reputation of 101 (a majority of these are probably new users who have the site association bonus).

Which leaves just 110 pages, or 3960 users. That's not quite as impressive.

[Several pages of users have scores just below 100. I'd guess that a number of them joined the site with the association bonus and posted questions/answers that attracted down-votes. Without better data-analysis tools it would be too laborious to try to identify them, but it is worth remembering that the figure of 3960 is probably a slight over-estimate].

Now, I'm sure that many of the users with a reputation of 1 or 101 have joined the site out of interest, and just haven't had a particular question to ask, or answer to give. Others have probably just joined to answer a specific post that they came across as a HNQ or that came up in the results of a Google search. Nevertheless, these figures do make me wonder if we are intimidating new users away from the site.


Now, don't misunderstand me. I think that poor-quality questions should either be improved or deleted.

Had the first question above been posted by a user with a rep of 501, or even 201, I'd have said that the comments, down-votes, and votes-to-close were entirely justified. But shouldn't new users be given a chance to learn what's expected of them before their question is deleted?

  • If it looks like a request for trivia, post a comment and ask them if they've looked on Wikipedia or Google. Ask them what their research has found so far.
  • If they haven't quoted their source, maybe we should just ask for it in a comment?
  • Perhaps we should direct them to the Site Tour and the Help Centre? Especially if they look to be very new to SE.

At the very least, shouldn't we give them something more than 6 minutes before we vote to close their questions?

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    I've been pondering an answer to the above but I think your excellent question / opinion says pretty much everything. I noted the person who asked the 'upper/lower' question reacted very strongly ('condescending jerks' I think he said). A bit strong because, as you noted, some people (Tom Au, T.E.D) here are really supportive / helpful (but I sort of understand how he feels). – Lars Bosteen Sep 21 '17 at 14:02
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    As a new user with a down voted question, of which I still think it's a legitimate one, I find this question very promising and it makes me hope that the tone on SE.history might improve. – user1785730 Sep 29 '17 at 9:07
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    Absolutely agree! We need to encourage, not deter. – TheHonRose Oct 2 '17 at 21:02
  • Amazing! In a domain of "wealth", measured in "site rep", a typical Pareto Wealth Distribution has been found to occur. Get over it! Your assumption of expecting to find a Gaussian (ie Normal) distribution in a field of creative accomplishment is flawed. – Pieter Geerkens Oct 7 '17 at 13:02
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    @PieterGeerkens Where did I say That I was expecting to find a normal distribution? In fact, this is not a typical Pareto Wealth distribution either. Because of the way that "wealth" (site rep) is allocated, a reputation of 1 actually equates to 0 on the typical distribution curve. It is the lowest possible score. (in the absence of the association bonus, the same would also be true for most of those with a rep score of 101). None of which detracts from the main point, which is that we need to be a little more supportive towards new users if we want to grow the site. – sempaiscuba Oct 7 '17 at 17:59
  • @sempaiscuba: Yes! That is the consequence of a Pareto distribution. read up on it, and you might learn something. What basis do you have for believing that these particular users have anything to contribute to this particular site? – Pieter Geerkens Oct 7 '17 at 19:59
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    @PieterGeerkens I have read up on them. They're used in the application of AI in robotics (and in Self Driving Cars). Parato distributions have an asymptotic decay. The site user distribution doesn't. The figures suggest that about 75% of our users would have 0 rep if not for artificially inflated figures. That suggests we have a problem. – sempaiscuba Oct 7 '17 at 20:14
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    @PieterGeerkens Although, I was intrigued that you would think that anyone would assume a normal, Gaussian, distribution for a rating system like this. Almost nobody I know is that ignorant of basic statistical theory. Perhaps we move in very different circles. Either way, perhaps we should focus on how we can fix the problem, rather than arguing statistical semantics? – sempaiscuba Oct 7 '17 at 20:15
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I agree that if we want new users, we do need to be more polite to new users. I think we need to be like parents: Tell the new users clearly what we expect, and give a few clear examples.

At the very least, the first comment to a bad answer should have a link to How to Ask.

I thought it would be a good idea to give new users a set of templates - so I posted a meta question last year. I still think it would be a good idea to provide a link to this meta-question in the comments of these poor questions. However, that post only got one up vote and a response from Mark Wallace, so I gather that this idea did not resonate with anyone else. I was hoping that there would be a half dozen templates, and one that gets a buncha votes, so that a newbie would have somewhere to see what to do.

Alternatively, we could make a list of "ideal" questions that users could refer to - and link that in the comments.

I also am of the opinion that we should not hesitate to close the bad questions - just we need to provide plenty of information about how to save a bad question if the user is interested. And we should be polite about it too.

  • "At the very least, the first comment to a bad answer should have a link to How to Ask." - While desirable this might be asking too much from users in general. If the UI of SE sites was so that you could simply pick from useful comments it would be one thing. A few SE sites, in fact, have a meta thread that compile such useful comments in the hopes that they'll be used - I doubt they are that much in practice. But I suspect that the need to constantly retype or reference and actively maintain such a list gets in the way of doing this constructively. – Denis de Bernardy Sep 22 '17 at 19:34
  • (I've just added this thread to SE meta to that effect.) – Denis de Bernardy Sep 22 '17 at 19:43
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    It is fairly easy to refer in comments to help center (which is bracket Help Bracket). It isn't as precise as I'd like, but it is quick & easy. Would be nice if there were shortcuts to some other resources for low rep/new users. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 24 '17 at 14:23
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    @MarkC.Wallace Check out Add data.SE style “magic links” to comments on Meta Stack Exchange. Example: [help/on-topic] becomes help center, and [ask] becomes How to Ask. – a CVn Sep 29 '17 at 20:34
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    !! @MichaelKjörling !! Thank you!! – Mark C. Wallace Sep 29 '17 at 20:59
  • @MarkC.Wallace You're welcome. – a CVn Sep 29 '17 at 21:01
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I totally agree that we should be more supportive to new users. Okay, I've seen 2 questions recently, Rep 1,which were fairly obviously "do my homework for me". Well, no, we're not here to do anyone's homework, but I think we could - and should - be a little less tetchy with very new - and often young - users. We all love history, or we wouldn't be here, and I would rather encourage a newbie to discover its joys - and pains - than in effect growl "Go away and read a book!"

From a more self-interested pov, if we want History:SE to grow, we need to encourage new users, teach them how to use the site, how to pose good questions, and where to do preliminary research. No, Wikipedia has no claim to infallibility, but it's a good starting point, and has a good deal of cross-references.

I try (I don't always succeed) to welcome new users and ask what they've learnt so far. If they just want a model answer provided, they won't respond, but I think we should at least make the attempt. We were all beginners at everything once!

Edit

I'm actually tempted to downvote my own answer! I have just seen 3 questions (sorry, I'm on my phone so can't reference them) - one confusing one about George Washington, two, from a new user, about the Battle of Bosworth, and Henry VII's reign. A lot of members have been very supportive of the latter, but I cannot escape the suspicion that the OP is doing a course on Tudor England, but has not yet found the college library! I'm afraid in this case I have done what I specifically said we shouldn't do, and recommended a book to read!

I do want to support new users, but am at a loss to know how we deal with questions which, frankly, look like sheer laziness!

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    Don't downvote yet! ;-) I think the one about George Washington was actually posted by a long-time (5 years +) user! The early Tudor ones are from an unregistered user. I think that most of the low quality posts I've seen recently have been from unregistered users. It makes me wonder whether we should require that people register before posting? – sempaiscuba Oct 11 '17 at 11:03
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    @sempaiscuba Thank you for staying my finger on the down vote button! ;) The George Washington question was the confusing (and confused?) one about Quakers, Puritans and Washington's religious beliefs, now on hold, from a Rep 1 user. I think the suggestion of requiring users to register before posting is a good one, although I have no idea how we would/could insist on it, given the SE format. I am considering a personal policy of referring "I haven't read any books but Why did Richard III lose the throne?" type questions to OUPs excellent A Very Short Introduction series! – TheHonRose Oct 11 '17 at 13:38
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    @sempaiscuba I wonder about the feasibility of a script forcing the unregistered user questions to be cleared before posting to the main page,similar to low-rep edits? It would add work to the flow, but totally prevent some troll posts. – justCal Oct 11 '17 at 13:43
  • @user2448131 Excellent suggestion, if feasible. – TheHonRose Oct 11 '17 at 13:46
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    The question of unregistered users came up on chat a little while back. According to Yannis, it's just a matter of asking SE to "flip a switch". I do like @user2448131's idea though. – sempaiscuba Oct 11 '17 at 13:46
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There is no doubt we have a problem. It is very difficult to ask a question on H:SE. I think you've got a strong thesis - although I think you weaken it with your last line - Would the site be stronger if we left poor questions active longer?

That said, what can we do constructively?

  • I fully support your suggestion to ask a question rather than level an accusation. "What did Wikipedia say?" is better than "Insufficient preliminary research". (or variations on each). I'm one of the culprits and I'm trying to shift my responses, but I get so very very tired of people asking me to look things up for them.

  • I do my best to avoid hammering English as a Foreign Language speakers - if the grammar/spelling/phrasing indicates that the individual is not a native English speaker, I try to edit rather than downvote. I should probably begin doing this with new users too, but it is harder to see the 1/101 reputation than it is to see grammatical errors.

  • Given that I'm a major culprit of the behavior you describe, I've been trying to split my actions to give more time - When I spot a fatally flawed question I insert a comment asking for a fix and then I move on. I'll vote to close if the question comes up in the review queue, but I try not to case the first VtC unless the question is egregiously bad. I hope this gives more time for potential fixes.

  • We need the periodic reminder that the reason we close questions is to fix them. (or so I understand). I wonder if there is a way to search for recently closed questions and try to salvage them. (there probably is and I'm just not awake enough to spot it. ) I think that most of the questions are salvageable - if OP doesn't check google, there is no amount of editing that will make the question non-trivial.

  • I have tried to offer the trivial answer to the trivial question - if the question can be answered through searching Wikipedia for the primary noun, then just offer a one sentence answer linking to the Wikipedia page. I avoid VtC on any question with an answer.

  • I think the ultimate answer is to implement what has been discussed before; a convention that all questions must include a summary of the prior research. Much of the problem is that the questions are trivial and the system is working. Questions on programming languages or math or project management are inherently practical. OP asks a question to solve a problem. H:SE questions are not (usually) practical, they are founded in curiosity. There is a larger proportion of the questions that should be closed because they are:

    • per se trivial - answered by google or wikipedia

    • Beer & Pretzels questions - suitable for pub discussion, but not for serious historical research or thought

    • Book length (most questions that begin "Why..." or "why not..." - Causality is not simple. History doesn't consist of X because Y. Usually any historical event has dozens of interaction precursors, factors, causes, etc.

I fully support your fundamental thesis - that we (including me) need to be more welcoming to those pages of users. But the quality of questions is already pretty low. We need to simultaneously (1) discourage bad questions, and (2) encourage novice querents.

RE: Wikipedia is not infallible; I'm not going to argue this point, but a strategy of permitting questions on the basis that Wikipedia might be wrong will certainly transform this site into a cesspool of trivial mediocrity. If someone asks, "Wikipedia provides a birthdate for A. Hamilton that contradicts this source and that source, how do I determine which is correct?" that question is ipso facto not trivial. It demonstrates research and cannot be answered by Wikipedia.

[Help] says we don't want to replace Wikipedia. Neither are we the corrections bureau- Wikipedia has a process for quality control and I would vigorously oppose substituting H:SE for that process.

If people want to oppose Wikipedia, that is fine, but what is the solution? what is the definition of a trivial question? What is the solution to the trivial question problem?

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    My last line was more about giving new users a chance to respond to constructive advice/criticism. "Would the site be stronger if we left poor questions active longer?" Actually, in the case of new users I think the answer may be yes. That certainly isn't to say that poor questions should be left on indefinitely. – sempaiscuba Sep 21 '17 at 11:56
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    And as for "Beer & Pretzels questions", you are absolutely right, but isn't that exactly the sort of thing we have a chat room for? ;-) – sempaiscuba Sep 21 '17 at 12:05
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    Hrm. I was trying to acknowledge my part without crossing the line to self shaming. I think failing to acknowledge is the worse sin. As for what is at stake... I get disgusted by SE periodically and walk away - usually because of some personal abuse resulting from explaining my downvote, occasionally because the quality of questions is distressing. I keep coming back. It is a flawed community because it is made up of human beings. Perhaps SE 3.0 will include an AI front end that will predict downvotes and resolve the problem proactively. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 21 '17 at 20:51
  • I hope you won't mind a bit of unsolicited advice, but I think you could use a short break from moderating. See a crap question? Ignore it, and move on. Someone else will take care of it, eventually. – yannis Sep 26 '17 at 11:44
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    @sempaiscuba Unfortunately, there's a 20 rep requirement to talk in chat, making it entirely unsuitable for very new users. Who - more often than not - are the ones posting Beer & Pretzels questions. – yannis Sep 26 '17 at 11:45
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    FWIW, I respectfully disagree with the notion that if a question is answered on Wikipedia, it must be trivial. Wikipedia is very often wrong, and it bothers me that we rely on it so heavily to gauge questions. It's entirely legitimate to ask for verification that something Wikipedia says is correct. Even if a claim is cited, the citations very often misrepresent what the actual source says: this happens for a variety of reasons, including that someone is lying. – Ne Mo Sep 28 '17 at 12:01
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    Re Wikipedia: my point was that just because a questions is 'answered' on wikipedia, that ought not be enough to condemn it as trivial. It may be trivial, but that alone isn't enough. I would add that Wikipedia's quality control is woeful, and WP is where everyone (us included) gets a huge amount of information about history. For many people WP is their only source: academic books and journals are financially, practically and linguistically inaccessible. If we're not allowed to question Wikipedia's claims, I don't see the point of us. – Ne Mo Sep 28 '17 at 13:03
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    I understand your point. But I think trivial questions on this site are a much larger problem than Wikipedia quality. We cannot and should not fix the Wikipedia problem. If we don't fix the H:SE problem, this site will degenerate further into what someone else has called a cesspool. – Mark C. Wallace Sep 28 '17 at 13:08
  • I'm glad you understand my position, but I'm not 100% on what yours is. Are you saying questions of the form wikipedia says xyz, is this really true are unconditionally trivial, no matter how suspect the WP article is and no matter how good the querent's reasons for doubting it? I'm going to raise this question elsewhere, but I don't want to strawmander you. Is that what you meant, or did I not get it? – Ne Mo Sep 29 '17 at 10:36
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    @NeMo I'm not a regular here, so please take this with a pinch of salt, but I'd urge to make the distinction clear between questions on the form Wikipedia says xyz, is this true? and those on the form Wikipedia says xyz citing souces A and B, but sources C and D say pqrs, which one is correct?. The former may or may not be considered on topic and/or a poor question as "lacks research", but the latter obviously cannot be answered by Wikipedia alone, and probably requires subject matter expertise in order to judge the relative merit and reliability of the sources and the claims therein. – a CVn Sep 29 '17 at 20:51
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In my opinion this site currently is too welcoming to poor questions and their authors. We enforce reasonably strict standards compared to other SE, but it's nothing unbearable and it keeps some of the sewage at bay. Whether this will keep enough of it away that this site won't ever turn into a cesspool is another question altogether.

Personally, I tend to draw a line at rep 50 on any site of the SE network:

  • Until then my working assumption is they're new and learning how to use SE sites. I close vote when appropriate and sometimes throw in a comment but I rarely downvote.

  • Once a user has enough rep to comment on any SE site, methinks they've been around for long enough that they should know what's acceptable and what isn't.

I'm also lenient about downvoting kids, because brutally downvoting them isn't the best way to promote their self-esteem. A glance at the Maths SE profile of your first question's author, for instance, suggests that they're in high-school.

That being said, I mercilessly downvote two types of questions:

  1. Questions whose author a) hasn't bothered to do any obvious preliminary research such as googling it and b) is displaying signs that they expect this site's users to do it for them.

  2. Politically charged questions that show signs of having been asked in an effort to troll or cherry pick answers that comfort its author's worldview.

Either way, I'm not seeing any reasons to slow down the process of close voting poor questions. Plus questions are technically put on hold, purportedly so their authors can improve them and get them re-opened, rather than closed altogether like they were in the past.

  • Are you saying SO is a cesspool compared to history.SE? – MaxB Sep 22 '17 at 6:40
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    @MaxB: yes, I think SO unfortunately has become a cesspool over the years, and I sincerely hope History SE will avoid this sorry fate. – Denis de Bernardy Sep 22 '17 at 7:39
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    SO provides a vital public service which is accessible and useful to millions of people. I wish I could say the same about us. – Ne Mo Sep 29 '17 at 10:47
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As a new user, I discovered something approaching hostility to my first answer on the History site on 1 May 2019. I answered a question by another new user, and give a bit of historical information about the time period in question, quoting from one book and stating what that book was, then putting together related information I had in Word documents of my own. Within an hour, my answer had been removed. The reason given was,

"Parts of this answer appear to be copied verbatim from elsewhere and posted without proper attribution." I could not respond as I cannot get in touch with the moderator, so I left a comment under the question, explaining,

"I gave a source for some of my quotes in my answer which you removed. I worked from the LIFE Nature Library book series, 'Evolution'. It is by Ruth Moore and The Editors of LIFE. It starts with a detailed history of Charles Darwin. I also added material I have previously posted on other web-sites, but all of it is my own work. If you remove an answer, you should be able to say where the answer is wrong, or misleading, not removing it just because you require detailed attribution. I compiled it from various documents I have written over several years plus that book."

I have received no response to this, and my answer remains obliterated. As a new user, I object. I should have a way of explaining to the moderators (plural) and getting a direct reply from them. It is quite shocking that if one moderator does not like an answer, they can remove it instantly without any means of appeal. And to do that to a brand new user indicates, well, what? You tell me.

If you do not like this answer (and I know you will not) I expect the same treatment of this as of my removed answer. If you think I am abusing the forum by posting my objection here, then tell me where I CAN object. Thank you.

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    If you are the author of the article you are quoting, then simply edit your answer to reflect that fact and flag it for moderator attention asking that it be undeleted. Also, if you are trying to ping someone in comments, don't leave spaces between the '@' symbol and their username. – sempaiscuba May 2 at 15:42
  • Thank you, but I cannot edit it because it has been permanently closed! I shall try to flag it for moderator attention but I have no idea how to do that, given that my answer no longer exists. You see the difficulty for a new user? – Anne May 2 at 15:45
  • You should be able to edit your own deleted answers. The 'edit' link appears below the answer, as does the 'flag' link, exactly similar to the way they appear on this post. – sempaiscuba May 2 at 15:47
  • Many thanks for enabling me to make the requested edit and I hope the issue of attribution will now be satisfactory. – Anne May 2 at 16:02
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    You're welcome, although I am surprised that you were unable to edit your own answer before flagging it to be undeleted. If that problem ever happens again (on any site), I'd suggest posting on meta:SE to find out exactly what the problem is. – sempaiscuba May 2 at 16:06
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    I was surprised too! Thanks for the tip about no bar-space after @ – Anne May 2 at 16:09

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