I'm new to this Stack Exchange site and after browsing around a bit was wondering about the following seeming discrepancy between the FAQ and the questions on the site. The FAQ very prominently says that:

You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face.

I came across some questions where the asker is very explicit about the actual problem they're facing, such as the ones on “What was the life expectancy in Medieval Britain?” and on “How to research controversial history?”. But there are few such questions. Most questions don't mention what problem the asker is facing at all. Given that these questions weren't closed as off-topic, or that nobody asked for clarification on the problem (with some exceptions), I'm wondering why the above guideline is (still) so prominent in the FAQ. Shouldn't this guideline be given less prominence, or be reworded somehow? Or conversely, should people be asked more often to clarify what problem they are facing?

As Ted noted that line is copied from the general StackOverflow FAQ which was more based on Programming questions, which would be issues you face. A question on History that you are confused or unsure about COULD be construed as a problem you face as well. It's all perspective. – MichaelF May 29 '12 at 9:01
How should we rewrite the FAQ? What would you suggest? – Mark C. Wallace Nov 1 at 21:02

4 Answers 4

I've noticed that too.

That's copied verbatim from other FAQ's, such as the StackOverflow FAQ, which uses identical verbiage.

IMHO it is indeed inappropriate on this site. While there might be some folks who need a history question answered for an "actual problem they face" (eg: a novelist wanting to avoid anachronisms in a book they are writing), for the most part questions here are just going to be people confused or shaky on some bit of history.

I'm not sure what the best way to phrase that idea would be (perhaps "actual details that you don't understand"?), but I do know what's there now ain't it.


Unfortunately, the FAQ makes reuse of the same standard guidleines that are applied across all sites. As SE evolved to include other topics besides programming languages, these guidelines did not necessarily fit when applied verbatim. Each separate SE site, therefore, has to rely on the community at large to help determine which questions are appropriate or not appropriate. As moderators, we have the added responsibility of making judgement calls on certain questions, but for the most part, we rely on the community to help us police the content.

I agree with this in general. However, having something that is just flat out wrong in what is being promoted as our "FAQ" is liable to confuse new users, isn't it? – T.E.D. May 30 '12 at 14:56
Yes, there is definitely that possibility, which is why it is important that we have an active community to help educate and guide new users in a manner that encourages them to participate. – Steven Drennon May 30 '12 at 15:05
Yes, that is the point of your answer, and I agree. It just seems like a poor way to address the problem. Isn't the FAQ editable somehow? – T.E.D. May 30 '12 at 16:10
No that I am aware of. When I look at the FAQ on other SE sites, there does appear to be some additional questions or information, but the basic foundation, including this specific scenario, is exactly the same. As moderators, we do not have the ability to edit the FAQ, but I'm sure if you ask nicely, someone who works for SE could do so. – Steven Drennon May 30 '12 at 17:28

The original SE sites were for computer programming professionals, and those were the standard guidelines on those sites. In history, most of us are amateurs/enthusiasts, and that guideline isn't nearly so relevant. A more relevant one might be, what interests/bothers you in your "role" as a history enthusiast,


Proposed rewrite of the section follows

What types of questions should I avoid asking?

First, make sure that your question is on-topic for this site.

  • Don’t ask trivial questions. Check wikipedia and google; if the answer is there, then your question is trivial and off topic. However, if they provide an answer, but the answer is incomprehensible, please ask here, but explain why the other answers don’t make sense. Many pages in google or wikipedia are based on assumptions that aren’t obvious, and H:SE is very good at identifying the assumptions and helping you find pointers to further reading.
  • Don’t ask chatty, open-ended questions; ask narrowly focused questions. Open ended questions diminish the usefulness of our site and push other questions off the front page. Ensure that your question has an answer, and that a reasonable person can identify the answer unambiguously. If necessary ask several narrow questions rather than one broad one.
  • Don’t ask for a doctoral thesis; ask reasonably scoped questions. If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much.
  • Don’t ask for sources unless you are asking for a very specific, canonical source. “I would like a book about X” is out of scope, “I would like to know the authoritative source for Parliamentary records in during the English Republican period” is probably OK. This is frequently discussed in meta; if you’re unsure, search for “sources” in meta and review the discussion.
  • If your motivation for asking the question is “I would like to participate in a discussion about ______”, then you should not be asking here. However, if your motivation is “I would like others to explain ______ to me”, then you are probably OK. (Discussions are of course welcome in our real time web chat.)

To prevent your question from being flagged and possibly removed, avoid asking subjective questions where

  • every answer is equally valid: “What’s your favorite ______?”
  • your answer is provided along with the question, and you expect more answers: “I use ______ for ______, what do you use?”
  • there is no actual problem to be solved: “I’m curious if other people feel like I do.”
  • you are asking an open-ended, hypothetical question: “What if ______ happened?”
  • your question is just a rant in disguise: “______ sucks, am I right?”

(The above section was adapted from MetaFilter’s FAQ.)

Some subjective questions are allowed, but “subjective” does not mean “anything goes”. All subjective questions are expected to be constructive. What does that mean? Constructive subjective questions: * inspire answers that explain “why” and “how” * tend to have long, not short, answers * have a constructive, fair, and impartial tone * invite sharing experiences over opinions * insist that opinion be backed up with facts and references * are more than just mindless social fun
For more detail, read about our guidelines for great subjective questions and blog post about how real questions have answers.
If your question is about the site itself, please don't ask it here. Visit our meta-discussion site, where you can talk about things like what questions are appropriate, what tags should be used, suggest a feature, point out a bug, or generally discuss how this site works.


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