For whatever reason, PPCG tends to get a lot of off-topic questions, generally about code-troubleshooting. Maybe it's because our help-center is inaccurate. Or maybe it's simply because we're a large-ish site with a lot of activity but very few questions per day, so each off-topic question is more noticeable. Either way, PPCG unfortunately has to handle lots of off-topic questions.
On one hand, I think we handle these questions very well. I don't have any hard data, but as far as I have seen, most blatantly OT questions are closed in under 5 minutes, and frequently deleted within the same day. This is excellent! But on the other hand, I'm noticing a disturbing trend in the comment section of the off-topic questions we get. Generally off-topic questions get comments like:
You're on the wrong site.
We're not gonna write code for you, and stack-overflow won't either.
In even worse cases, some users will post completely unhelpful/trolling comments on off-topic questions. For example:
D:< Y U NO CRITERIA?
Or the worst example I can think of is where one user provided broken code to troll the OP. Since the comment is now deleted, I don't know if the code was harmful or simply wrong, but either way, code-trolling is not something we want to allow in any context.
Now, I haven't linked to any of these examples because I'm not trying to shame anyone. In fact, I think I'm even a chief offender. For example, I wrote the following comment (Screenshot for <10K users):
I fully understand. After seeing the 84th post about
halp my CODEZ DON"T WORK!!!! plz send teh codez quik!
it's hard to be patient with users who do this. But I just want to reiterate a very important point:
is the primary rule on this site. It's a good read, and nothing on it says anything about be nice to users who follow the rules. In fact, it even goes out of the way to address this point directly:
Be welcoming, be patient, and assume good intentions. Don't expect new users to know all the rules -- they don't. And be patient while they learn.
With this in mind, I'd like to propose a set of guidelines for comments on off-topic questions. Of course, these are all specific to off-topic question. Blatant trolling/spam (which we thankfully get very little of) falls under a different category.
Explain why their post is off-topic, and what to do about it. This was discussed in chat a little bit earlier, and I think DLosc put it very nicely:
If someone posts a code troubleshooting question, being told you're on the wrong site will not help at all. Being told We answer programming competitions on this site, so you won't get an answer here. But you can get help on stack overflow instead! is extremely useful, and provides them a course of action. If the question in blatantly off-topic, even for stack-overflow, you don't need to send them there. But you can still explain that they won't be able to get help here simply because that's not what our site is about.
Flag unhelpful or rude comments. As trichoplax pointed out in the comments, flagging comments on off-topic questions is perfectly valid too. Obviously, it should come down to your discretion which comments should be flagged. I would recommend picking either not constructive or rude or offensive, depending on how bad the comment is. More info on comment flagging.
Be rude. This kinda goes without saying, but being rude clearly goes against the Be nice policy. And if that's not enough motivation, remember that these interactions are remembered and stored. We don't want PPCG to get a reputation for being a very clique-y, unwelcoming, and harsh site.
Now, "Be rude" is a very broad term. That means speaking in all caps, name-calling, code-trolling, and many many many other things fall under this category. But it's fairly easy to tell if a comment is rude or not.
Pile on comments. If one user posts a clear, kind, and well-thought out comment about the post being off-topic, that's plenty. If someone else has posted a comment similar to what you want to say, consider just upvoting their comment instead.
Feel obligated to comment. If you're frustrated by seeing the 8th off-topic question in the same day, or you simply don't have time to write out a good comment, remember that you don't really have to comment. A close-vote and/or a downvote is usually sufficient, since there are many other users that aren't frustrated or busy, that can hopefully write out a helpful comment.
Absolutely Do Not
- Answer their question! This applies to comments, answers and even chat. If a question is simply missing a really obvious semicolon, it doesn't matter. They are on the wrong site, and we don't want to encourage the wrong behavior. With all this effort we put into removing bad questions, what's the point if a user can get the answer they want anyway? The most effective way of discouraging off-topic questions, is to simply show that asking here isn't effective.
I think a good general purpose comment for off-topic questions is this:
Hello, welcome to the site! We host programming competitions and contests on this site, but we don't answer code troubleshooting questions. You may be able to get help on Stack Overflow instead, but they are pretty strict about which questions they accept, so make sure to read through their help center first to make sure your question will be well received. Thanks!
Or, in markdown:
Hello, welcome to the site! We host programming competitions and contests on this site, but we don't answer code troubleshooting questions. You may be able to get help on Stack Overflow instead, but they are pretty strict about which questions they accept, so make sure to read through their [help center](https://stackoverflow.com/help/how-to-ask) first to make sure your question will be well received. Thanks!
This does take a while to type out (especially with the links), so if you'd really like to improve your comments, you could use something like The Pro Forma Comments Plugin.
Now, I've complained and ranted a lot in this long post, so I figured I need something encouraging. We're not horrible (yet). Overall, I think PPCG still has a friendly and welcoming atmosphere. But we are definitely on a downward trend in this aspect.
Writing up this post is hopefully a way to raise awareness about blunt comments that verge on rude, and to hopefully make people rethink what they say in the comment section. It's also a good reminder for me, since like I said, I don't think I've always been the greatest example of being kind to new users.