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I've read a lot of answers in the last few days that predominantly recommend a non-hack answer to the question, but also save themselves with a paragraph or two containing some kind of hack.

Here are two examples:

  1. How to shred papers/letters without using a shredder machine

    In this example, the primary part of the answer (and the associated picture) is not a life-hack, rather a suggestion of a product to use. Then there are two hack suggestions, followed by another standard solution.

  2. How to preserve a soda's fizziness?

    Here, the primary solution is to buy a product designed for this purpose.

The answers provide some useful information, so I hardly consider them works of evil. But I see this type of answer more and more often. I don't entirely understand why people are including standard solutions in their answers, yet I feel I shouldn't down-vote them because the answers typically contain some hack info.

Possible Solutions

How should we handle this? I feel these answers present a danger to a beta site that is struggling with its scope. I see a few options:

  • Ignore the answers, provided they contain some kind of hack somewhere within them.
  • Down-vote them and leave a comment, explaining that the standard solution has no place in the answer.
  • Edit the answer to remove the standard solution, leaving a comment explaining the action.

In many cases, the questions are quite legitimate and so we can't place the blame there.

  • possible duplicate of Should we be downvoting conventional answers? – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Feb 4 '15 at 11:40
  • @Gilles My question is about a subtlety different topic - how to handle answers that mix and match hacks and conventional solutions. I'm mostly interested as to whether people believe this is a bad thing or not. Your proposed duplicate was one of the questions I uncovered during my searching - it was remiss of me not to mention that and explain why it didn't cover my question. – Duncan Jones Feb 4 '15 at 13:26
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    I'm delving into this issue now, but long story short — You cannot have a site that insists the best way to drive in a nail is with the back of a shoe. If the question itself doesn't specify some out-of-the-box situation, you cannot fault folks for actually answering it. When someone with this problem finds this site through search, they expect to find the best possible answer. We can't turn this into a game show where the "best" solution isn't allowed at all. The scope of a "lifehacks question" is still up for debate, but if it's asked, it has to be answered... completely. – Robert Cartaino Feb 4 '15 at 15:06
  • @RobertCartaino While there may be debate over what a standard solution is, I don't think we should welcome answers that are patently "go buy this purpose made tool". If I see such answers, I down-vote them. But I've recently encountered several answers that are a mix of hacks and standard solutions. I'm interested to hear other views on whether this is a good thing or not. I'm concerned that if too many drive-by viewers see that pattern, they will see this as a "how do I get stuff done?" site, rather than a life-hack site. – Duncan Jones Feb 4 '15 at 15:24
  • I'd also be interested to hear from down-voters. Is this just frustration that I appear to have asked a duplicate (in which case I'd welcome responses to my comment to Giles) or is this because you disagree with my viewpoint? If it's the latter, please explain which viewpoint you don't like, since I've presented several. – Duncan Jones Feb 4 '15 at 15:25
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    @Duncan I cannot express how patently absurd it is to share with someone how you solved their problem only to be told your answer is not weird enough; unwelcome. Gilles has some of the best insight I've seen on this site, and his ideas about people simply looking for a solution to their problem has a lot of merit. This idea of an "everyday site" was interesting but problematic, but I'm trying to figure out how to constrain something like that within the scopes of lifehacks. – Robert Cartaino Feb 4 '15 at 15:41
  • @RobertCartaino If people are asking questions on this site, it is because they want a life-hack answer. I will down-vote answers that don't appear to be a life-hack. It is a community, of course, so when I get it wrong, hopefully others will see it differently. I can only hope that answerers are posting things they consider to be hacks, otherwise they are not helping us here. I agree the "everyday site" scope is interesting and might lead to something that makes us both happy. I remain unsure how I will respond to answers that mix life-hacks and standard solutions. – Duncan Jones Feb 4 '15 at 15:58
  • @Duncan The apparent disconnect between "it answers the question" and "I'm going to down-vote it anyway" is exactly why I have no idea what to do with this site. I hope everyone doesn't feel that way or this site will not work. With that thought, I'm out. – Robert Cartaino Feb 4 '15 at 16:23
  • @RobertCartaino There isn't a disconnect in my eyes. I just think that all questions here have an implicit "answers shouldn't suggestions of a commercial product used for its normal purpose" caveat. – Duncan Jones Feb 4 '15 at 17:28
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    It is very confusing to us when two different StackExchange employees (Robert and Shog9) give exactly opposite viewpoints on how the site needs to work or else it will be shut down. Perhaps this is a clear indicator this place needs to be closed down. – Sterno Feb 4 '15 at 19:07
  • @Sterno You are misreading Shog's position like this one. He talks a lot about how to evaluate questions. But the closest he got to talking about moderating answers was in noting that a good answer to an off-topic question shouldn't stand in the way of calling the question off-topic. – Robert Cartaino Feb 4 '15 at 20:04
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    @RobertCartaino Well, I've read it again and it's still pretty unclear to me, then. He compares leaving a conventional answer to a question implicitly asking for an unconventional answer (as it is assumed questions here are doing) to leaving an answer about the D&D role-playing game on a question about a D&D video game. He seems to be saying Don't do that, that's not what they're actually looking for. If I'm misreading that, fine, but I think I'm far from the only one doing so. – Sterno Feb 4 '15 at 20:15
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I feel these answers present a danger to a beta site that is struggling with its scope.

There's a common tendency to see a collection of answers heading off the rails and say, "these answers are the problem - if it weren't for them, things would be fine here." Familiar examples include:

  • Subjective questions attracting polarizing, opinionated answers
  • Poorly-researched questions attracting poorly-explained answers
  • Broad questions attracting scattershot answers
  • Extremely popular questions attracting tangential answers

Look around on other sites, read through past meta discussions, and you'll find countless examples of these, along with dozens of proposals for stricter or more elaborate answer-moderation schemes. They all have one thing in common: they don't scale.

Exceptional vs Routine

Stack Exchange is built on the understanding that the vast bulk of moderation is handled by the community at large, the enormous effort broken up into tiny little pieces and spread out such that no one shoulders the bulk of the load. Moderators - the elected or appointed members with the little diamonds next to their names - handle the exceptional cases where the work can't easily be broken up.

Moderating answers should be something you can break up:

  • It should be trivial for the core membership of a site to look at any answer and quickly determine whether it actually attempts to answer the question or if instead it is merely a reply, spam, or utter nonsense.

  • It should be feasible for subject-matter experts to review answers to a question and determine if they are accurate and useful. And even when that doesn't happen, it should be possible for the asker and others sharing the same problem to decide which answers are helpful in solving their problem.

...But this all falls apart when you start trying to make up for the deficiencies in questions with additional requirements placed on answers. That is, when an answer can be both accurate and useful in solving the problem and yet still be inappropriate for the site, it's no longer possible for the community at large to moderate answers - you have to rely on Moderators. For every. single. question.

Which transfers moderators from the role of exception-handlers into that of dictatorial gatekeepers.

Don't be blind to the root problem

Years ago, I moved into a place with an ancient refrigerator, and quickly found that I couldn't keep anything fresh in it for more than a day or two. Milk went sour; vegetables rotted; meat spoiled. I could keep things longer by carefully packaging them before refrigeration, but this quickly became a burden. At first glance, the fridge looked fine - it was clean and well-maintained - but it was sick; it had been left unplugged and unused for months at some point in its past, and there were things growing in the insulation.

I could've spent the next year throwing out a lot of food or carefully hermetically sealing any food I wanted to keep... Or I could fix the root problem. Guess which route I chose?

Don't waste your time - or the efforts of those who would contribute their knowledge here - by blaming answers while ignoring a "sick" question.

How to evaluate questions on LifeHacks

I wrote about this before, but I'm afraid I left folks a bit unclear on what exactly I was recommending. So I'll go over it again:

... a question asked here must fulfill two requirements:

  1. It must be a clear, specific question on a practical topic. The asker must communicate specifically what he's looking to accomplish, what the constraints are, what research he's already done, etc. - in other words, all the usual advice for asking a good question applies first - if it's not a good question, it doesn't matter if it's on-topic or not (and in fact it may be impossible to determine).

  2. It must implicitly demand an unconventional solution. What, specifically, "unconventional" means is up for debate, but it's pretty obvious when someone isn't looking for one. Fixing floors and household appliances are ordinary HOWTO tasks; indeed, there are professions dedicated to them. Whether or not there exists a Stack Exchange site for professionals in these fields, simply learning a new skill is not a Life Hack.

Now, here's the punchline: if a question fully satisfies #1, we can often just assume that it satisfies #2 as well! Unless something in the question prohibits unconventional answers, we can just go right ahead and provide them; if it turns out the asker forgot what site he was on and wanted a conventional solution, then he's free to go ask somewhere else.

I followed this up with the line, "we must guard against the temptation to provide conventional solutions to ambiguous questions" which apparently some of you took to mean "go downvote conventional solutions" (even though I did clarify this in the comments). But that's insane: if an asker presents a problem, someone else provides a conventional solution to it, and the asker is satisfied with this solution... Then it's not the answerer's fault that this isn't a Lifehack question! What you have to guard against here is the temptation to keep around every question that gets an answer, even if it becomes apparent that the asker does not want - and the problem does not warrant - a hack.

Conclusion: evaluating your answers

Your two examples are somewhat different:

  1. The first is an answer to a question that clearly defines the problem: how to quickly destroy paper documents without tearing or shredding them. The top answer ably does this by suggesting burning or soaking, although it also suggests two alternative ways of shredding that will probably not meet the asker's needs. Therefore, its only fault is that it is more comprehensive than it needed to be (and also that it distracted you with a picture of scissors).

  2. The second answers an ill-defined question about keeping soda fresh. It's too broad (the question explicitly asks two related questions at the start and then expands the scope again near the end) and the answer does not come close to answering it satisfactorily.

There's no particular reason to criticize the first answer. If you're going to criticize this answer, you should criticize it for failing to satisfy an unrealistic request - and then you should shut down that request (which I've now done). Note that the most problematic answer was a direct response to a problematic question - if y'all hadn't ignored the root problem there, the answer would've been a non-issue.

For more discussion of the various strategies for answering questions here, see: What should a good Lifehacks answer look like?

  • I posted my question on the false assumption that more people were irritated by conventional answers. (Although I note that the top rated answer in your final link agrees with that view). I seems like I need to jump into one of the original debates on the matter to try and convince a few more people of my viewpoint. Only then is it worth discussing what to do with answers that mix good things and what I consider to be bad things. – Duncan Jones Feb 5 '15 at 8:26
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    Although I agree with everything you've said, it seems like the core problem here isn't that someone asked a non-lifehack question, but that there's no way to determine if a question requires a Lifehacks solution without the asker already knowing the answer. This is one of the core problems the site has, and it still hasn't been resolved, despite being in beta for 2 months now. I really don't see problems like this going away because of that. – Wipqozn Feb 5 '15 at 13:31
  • The core problem this site has is that folks haven't read this, @Wipqozn - which is the same on every site regardless of topic. This "is it hacky enough?" problem is an interesting side discussion, but not even close to being the biggest problem faced here. – Shog9 Feb 5 '15 at 19:45
  • You didn't follow that link, did you @Wipqozn. The site's topic could be "snails found in Washington State" and folks asking vague questions about hypothetical problems would still be an issue. Either you have a real problem and are able to communicate it, or the whole thing goes down the tubes - no amount of lipstick in the "what's on-topic" section will change that. – Shog9 Feb 5 '15 at 20:01
  • @Shog9 I did follow that link, and although helpful, a much, much bigger problem is that the sites scope isn't well defined enough to be put onto the "What is on-topic page?". Giving people instructions on how not to ask crap questions is helpful, but if they still don't know what kind of questions falls within the sites scope they're still not much better off. – Wipqozn Feb 5 '15 at 20:04
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    To be clear, I don't disagree that people asking questions when they don't have a realm problem isn't a major problem the site is facing. I just think that the fact the site still is struggling with the core question of "What is on-topic?" after 2 months is just as large of a problem, if not greater. – Wipqozn Feb 5 '15 at 20:08
  • Meh. It was a couple of months and many thousands of questions before Stack Overflow's scope was defined beyond "questions of interest to programmers". Arqade went about 4 months before officially defining their scope beyond "gaming". Off-topic questions are rarely a big problem for new sites unless product recommendations become a big deal (and I don't see that here); ill-defined questions are a universal issue, and it bugs me that folks keep ignoring the latter in favor of hand-wringing about the former here. @Wipqozn. – Shog9 Feb 5 '15 at 20:21

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