6

So I had asked How do I identify a high quality HDMI -> VGA adapter? and it was closed, which is fine. I don't think it should be reopened, it is probably too broad. It's not even that great of a question. (Note: I've since deleted the linked question.)

However, the reason given brought up some concern:

I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because we don't provide general advice because it goes out of date too quickly. If you need a product, you should specify requirements for it and we'll recommend one to fit those requirements. – ArtOfCode ♦

I did some digging on meta and found some directly relevant posts and prior discussions:

Issue

To be clear where I stand: I am weakly of the opinion that general advice questions are OK as long as they pertain to gathering info to make a purchase, but I am not strongly for this. There are good arguments both ways (especially that these questions tend to be broad) and I fully support whatever the community decides. This post is about establishing consistency no matter what the consensus is, not about me trying to push one or the other.

The issue here is there are a large number of contradictions in the above comment and meta posts. The reason that there are contradictions is because the issue isn't truly resolved (otherwise these contradictions would not exist). To name a few:

  • The comment states general advice goes out of date quickly and implies that specific recommendations do not, or at least implies that general advice is unwanted because it goes out of date quickly. However, the exact opposite is the case: Specific recommendations by their very nature go out of date quickly, while general advice does not. I found this confusing.
  • The implication that things going out of date quickly is a reason for not wanting them here seems to contradict the nature of this particular site, which specifically revolves around giving advice that goes out of date quickly.
  • The linked help center topic and guidelines state, pretty directly:

    A question on Hardware Recommendations has one of two goals:

    • A request for a product recommendation, OR
    • A request for information that will lead to a product decision

    This contradicts the above. If this type of question is not wanted here then it should not be listed as acceptable in the very help center topic that the close reasons point to.

  • The "Do we still want general advice questions?" topic has 5 votes yes and 5 votes no. There is no consensus, and a check mark on an answer in that type of question does not constitute community agreement. This lack of consensus is somewhat contradictory to a unilateral close of general advice questions for this reason.

Moving Forward

So, hopefully this illustrates how up in the air things are. Right now, given that there is no consensus, I think the following should happen:

  • Moderators, despite their opinions on the matter, should not be taking unilateral action when specific vs. general topics are in question. At least not until we have a clear community consensus. Unless it's obviously too broad, for now defer it to the usual CV mechanic, or at least wait for 3 or 4 close votes.
  • From what I've read the actual argument against general advice questions is that they don't always directly lead to purchases. Whether or not that is a good or bad thing is part of the debate, of course, but let's be clear on that: The argument against general advice questions is not that they "go out of date quickly". We don't want to confuse people (it is confusing with the contradictions outlined above in mind).
  • We may want to edit the relevant posts above to state that the issue still seems to be up in the air, assuming it is still up in the air. We can't have rules stated in help center topics when we don't all agree on the rules.

After that, once a consensus is reached, here's a short todo list of things that need to happen to clean up the consistency:

The Big Question

What can we do to reach a clear consensus, either way? And, how can we clean up the help center, guidelines, close reasons, and our own thought processes and comments regarding these types of questions?

9

This isn't a knock on ArtOfCode; this is a common fallacy that has been propagated across the network.

this question is off-topic because … it would go out of date too quickly

This is an inferior maxim I wish people would forget.   If the longevity of an answer was a valid reason to close a question, then half the technology questions on this network would have to be closed.

Interestingly enough, this misplaced explanation first caught on (across the network) when a moratorium on "shopping recommendations" was over-zealously applied to just about everything even closely related to making a purchase — reasonable questions deemed summarily off topic. Folks couldn't explain why the need for a product somehow made any question they had inherently unfit, so this overly simplistic phrase sounded like sufficient explanation… if even only through its popular use. Ironically, this is what created the apparent need for this site in the first place.

But let me answer your question specifically.

This site is supposed to be for people seeking specific product recommendations given a very specific set of criteria (I thought labeling this site "hardware search" would make that clearer, but that aside…) Opening this site to general advice would make it very difficult to explain the difference between "general advice" (on topic?) and "technical support" (off topic). You have to make this site simpl(er). This type of gerrymandering of scope makes this site increasingly confounding to just about everyone else looking on — anyone who isn't intimately familiarity with these meta stories we weave.

Getting back to your post:

Your question dances around asking for a product recommendation specifically. I can understand that; you had some bad purchase experiences, so you include some interesting anecdotes about not trusting reviews or the lack of pictures, and you list some ratings of products. Then you ask for a general primer about digital and analog converters. But when it comes down to it, your criteria for recommending a product is: "it must work."

That's an awfully broad premise base a recommendation on.

I'm not sure how we can help you specifically. This site is supposed to avoid becoming a forum of broad product reviews or soliciting the people's choice awards for brand preferences. Given that, I might have closed your question as "too broad", but I really submitted this meta post to address the broader issue of saying something will go out of date quickly, so we have to close it.

There are times when folks just know a question should be closed as off topic, but they're hard-pressed to explain exactly why. It's not always easy, and that's why you have to be careful about making the criteria for using this site too complicated. You'll never be able to explain it to anyone who gets lured into this Q&A. In a lot of ways, we already can't.

In the meantime, when a question needs to be closed for exceptional reasons, try to explain the problem from the point of view of the user. Don't fall back on tired platitudes; they usually make little sense without knowing the long history behind it, and they are usually more off-putting than helpful. But in this case, saying we can't help you because the answer will not stand for all time isn't really a good fit for this site — it probably isn't a good reason to close a question anywhere on the network.

  • <raises hand> I'm one of those being confounded! – Code Jockey Mar 16 '16 at 11:20
3

Let's address those contradictions first.

  • The comment states general advice goes out of date quickly and implies that specific recommendations do not, or at least implies that general advice is unwanted because it goes out of date quickly. However, the exact opposite is the case: Specific recommendations by their very nature go out of date quickly, while general advice does not. I found this confusing.

I meant what I said, rather than what it might have implied. Specific recommendations do go out of date quickly, I don't deny that. However, general advice questions are more likely to become canonical advice sources and Google targets, which would require (or at least make it highly desirable) for us to update them regularly and keep them up to date (because yes, advice does go out of date quickly with the introduction of new technologies and systems).

Product recommendations, on the other hand, are generally only used by one or a few people, and are designed to be valid once and not again two years down the line.

  • The implication that things going out of date quickly is a reason for not wanting them here seems to contradict the nature of this particular site, which specifically revolves around giving advice that goes out of date quickly.

That's also explained by my notes above.

  • The linked help center topic and guidelines state, pretty directly:

A question on Hardware Recommendations has one of two goals:

  • A request for a product recommendation, OR
  • A request for information that will lead to a product decision

This contradicts the above. If this type of question is not wanted here then it should not be listed as acceptable in the very help center topic that the close reasons point to.

That's fair enough; maybe we need to update the help center to reflect that. It was last updated before the newer meta post about general-advice questions was posted.

  • The "Do we still want general advice questions?" topic has 5 votes yes and 5 votes no. There is no consensus, and a check mark on an answer in that type of question does not constitute community agreement. This lack of consensus is somewhat contradictory to a unilateral close of general advice questions for this reason.

You're right here; however, the issue was also discussed in chat at some point (though I don't know when) and I recall it reached a consensus for disallowing those questions, which is why I put the checkmark on the no answer. That's the current consensus, as far as I'm aware. Other general-advice questions have been closed based on that premise without complaint, so I haven't found issue with it yet.


Now let's address those moving forward points.

  • Moderators, despite their opinions on the matter, should not be taking unilateral action when specific vs. general topics are in question. At least not until we have a clear community consensus. Unless it's obviously too broad, for now defer it to the usual CV mechanic, or at least wait for 3 or 4 close votes.

You're most used to Stack Overflow, it seems, where moderators are almost invisible in terms of question closure. The situation here is somewhat different; moderators are very active in closing questions because we have to be to keep the quality requirements and standards up. The community does still VTC questions, but mod votes are far more common.

However, I don't close things without policy to back me up. I've already discussed why the consensus is to close general-advice questions; that's the policy that's backing my decisions up on this type of question.

  • From what I've read the actual argument against general advice questions is that they don't always directly lead to purchases. Whether or not that is a good or bad thing is part of the debate, of course, but let's be clear on that: The argument against general advice questions is not that they "go out of date quickly". We don't want to confuse people (it is confusing with the contradictions outlined above in mind).

Fair enough. I'll be citing both reasons in future closures, if they continue to be required. I talk about going out of date quickly because that's one of the reasons discussed in chat (which raises the point with me that we need to update Meta documentation to reflect that).

  • We may want to edit the relevant posts above to state that the issue still seems to be up in the air, assuming it is still up in the air. We can't have rules stated in help center topics when we don't all agree on the rules.

I don't think it is still up in the air, to be honest. If you'd like to revisit that issue, a new meta post is in order, along the lines of Do we still want general-advice type questions? (this post is more about one situation, and is not suitable to be a canonical documentation source).

As for editing, I'll have a review of the various posts associated with this issue, and edit them to bring them all in line to one policy.


And now finally, the todo list.

Yup.

  • We need to decide on a good reason either way so something reasonable can be provided in comments if asked.

Unless anyone can come up with anything better, I'll use the combination of the two reasons we saw above. Feel free to ping me in a comment or in chat if you've got something.

  • Perhaps a custom close reason could be in order.

Possibly, possibly not. Historically, we haven't got enough of these questions to warrant a full close reason on them - we're already using 2 of our 3 possible custom reasons. That said, I have seen more of these in the past few weeks, so maybe it's time to start collecting data about the issue to see if we need one now.

  • "General advice questions are more likely to become canonical advice sources and Google targets ... which would require ... for us to update them regularly" is a clear and fairly strong argument. That is probably the language that should be used when describing why these are (presumably) off topic. An ideal general answer would never go out of date but most aren't ideal, so I think that is a solid reason to state. – Jason C Mar 5 '16 at 20:43
  • Also: I may revisit the fundamental issue in a new topic depending on what else is said here: One important thing to remember is that when things like chat discussions happen, that information is lost; so when e.g. posting canonical guidelines about things like this it's important to link to or restate a summary of what was discussed. This is how we can avoid having the same discussions over and over - documentation should be written with the assumption that whoever is reading it has never seen (or cannot readily access) any of the prior discussions. – Jason C Mar 5 '16 at 20:44
  • But in any case, A+, would buy this post again. – Jason C Mar 5 '16 at 20:44
  • You bought this post? Huh, never knew. :) – ArtOfCode Mar 5 '16 at 20:58
  • You might have to do a little backtracking, heh. Regardless, should we start looking for meta posts like that one and marking them as duplicates of the now-FAQed meta.hardwarerecs.stackexchange.com/questions/343/…? Consensus or not it's probably not a great idea to leave those floating around on their own. – Jason C Mar 5 '16 at 21:20
  • @JasonC IIRC that was one of only two other posts about general advice questions... the other is locked and about to be duplicated. – ArtOfCode Mar 5 '16 at 21:48

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