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11 of the last 12 questions are on hold for being off topic.

What can we do to encourage users to stay on topic?

Is there any indication that the authors of these off topic questions are returning to make edits? Are we scaring new users away by closing questions quickly (in less than a minute in at least one case)

  • 48 seconds, to be precise. I felt a little harsh about it, but hey. – ArtOfCode Nov 11 '15 at 21:48
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We sort of knew this would be an on-going challenge going into this. That's okay; there's really no way to avoid it completely, but we've pulled off some strange "not what they seem" sites before, so stick to it.

The problem is, at the surface, this looks like a place where folks can request and write up "hardware recommendations". Sounds simple enough; right? — "What monitor should I buy?", "Who makes the most reliable memory?" Except that the Stack Exchange engine was not designed to host discussions that have a strong component of personal opinion and brand preferences. Question are generally asked that have one correct answer (roughly speaking)… and the answer that is vetted by the community as "correct" would be voted to the top.

Then how did this site get created?

The story that created this site was a limited use case — where folks would ask about a hardware situation that was so singularly unique/rare/original/special… specific, that our collective experience would be a great resource to help someone find that "one solution" and stay within the precepts of a healthy Stack Exchange site.

Except that many questions I see here quite broad, soliciting a random list of brand preference that are being answered by virtue of who happens to be reading the post. Answers could offer dozens (sometimes hundreds) of different answers with no grounds but personal preference for choosing between them; that's not good. That's not a Stack Exchange site, and soliciting requirements like "it has to be cheap" or "must have USB port" doesn't generally mitigate that.

So what do we do?

So this doesn't get deleted at not an answer, I have some specific suggestions about how to keep this site on the healthy side of what having a Stack Exchange site is about.

  • Consistent Moderation
    First, stick to your core premise. I know you want to help folks who ask. So when you have an answer (any answer), you are just itching to post it. I get it. But your front page is the de facto definition of your site. So when folks are a bit too eager to let a question slide because they have one of those random recommendations, no amount of documentation is going to undo that. You get the site you build, and moderation doesn't fall to just the capital-M Moderators♦ on this site; it takes the combined efforts of everyone in this community to see that the scope and purpose for having this site is upheld.
  • Thoughtful Moderation
    Remember that we're the odd man out here. Stack Exchange is somewhat unique among the on-going discussions and threaded forums around the Internet. So when someone comes to us with a question and doesn't quite get it right, you have to explain it patiently and thoughtfully… every time; explain what we do. That doesn't mean barking out one-liners from your FAQ, or huffing in derision because you've said it hundreds of times before… because for these users, it is the first time, and you are likely their first experience with a Stack Exchange Community. Don't shrink yourself down to the size of an insular community of insiders who actually went ahead and read all your faqs and meta posts. Because that's a pretty small site.
  • Look to Skeptics SE
    I would suggest exploring the makeup of the Skeptic site more than any other because — Skeptic is Different — and somehow they managed to get it right. They have a similar problem to your scope in that it's not all that obvious what the site is about until you actually use it. But somehow they managed to stave off the glut of pseudoscience nonsense and random "my uncle pete said" questions. I'm sure they still get a good portion of it, but it's a high-quality site, and despite the up-hill battle they face(d), they stuck to their central premise… unwaveringly; and they are better off for the experience.
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Are we scaring new users away by closing questions quickly

I very highly doubt it. The kind of users the look at recently asked questions before asking are mostly the kind of users that would read /help/on-topic.

That said, I'd like to add something about our scope to the sidebar on the ask page:

enter image description here

There would need to be minor wording changes, of course.

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I have to say we are scaring new users away by closing questions quickly.

As Robert briefly discussed in his answer, these new users (at least half of them so far) have never used this site before and usually do not yet understand how everything works and what is required of them. Having your first question immediately closed for whatever reason is never a great experience. Most people take that to mean they have failed and/or aren't accepted among the community.

Now that's not to say we should stop closing questions so fast; any question that doesn't fit the guidelines needs to be closed or edited, but that right there is the problem I find myself running into in most cases: If closing the author's question so quickly will discourage them from participating any further, being as nice as possible and simply asking the author to edit the question with more info would be much more benficial. If the author doesn't go on to edit the question, then it should be closed. Though following this rule leads to more gray areas we would have to sift through each time. Doing this can also fight off the bad image created by the front page being full of closed questions, another thing Robert mentioned.

So I think we can and should take a look at our question-closing habits; it has a big impact on the site as a whole. And as for how to encourage users to stay on topic, Robert's answer is spot on.

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