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This question mainly relates to users and contributors' interpretations of the Help Center » Asking guidelines:

Super User is for computer enthusiasts and power users. If you have a question about …

  • computer hardware,
  • computer software, or
  • personal and home computer networking

and it is not about

  • programming and software development,
  • video games or consoles,
  • websites or web services like Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress,
  • electronic devices, media players, cell phones or smart phones, except insofar as they interface with your computer,
  • issues specific to corporate IT support and networks,
  • asking for a product, service or learning material recommendation,

… then you’re in the right place to ask your question!

It seems we get a lot of users who do actually read the guidelines, but still have some confusion on what's actually acceptable to ask.

I have personally had questions that I answered closed because of my misinterpretation of the help section vs. the community members' interpretation. I have also seen the same users that closed my answers, answer questions that would fit into the category they gave for closure.

I don't want to say there is a double standard for higher ranking members, but earlier on when I joined it certainly felt that way.

I am now of the opinion that its just the guidelines not being specific enough in the help center. This is not meant to be a jab at any members. I would actually like to hear people of the community weigh in on this.

This is my interpretation of the guidelines set out in the help section.

  • Computer Hardware
    • In general personal computers, laptops & peripherals, not excluding
      home servers (Ubuntu server, Windows Server, etc. in a home or personal environment)
  • Computer Software
    • Personal/home computer software, operating systems, not personal-
      programmed software, C#, Arduino or Raspberry Pi sketches, proprietary
      software, etc.
  • Personal and Home Computer Networking
    • Wired and wireless networking (cards/adapters, cables, routers,
      switches, bridges, APs, etc.) insofar as it deals with personal and not
      business/corporate environments, (my definition of this would be
      environments that house less than 25-30 connected devices.) and should
      not relate to questions specific to cellular networks, corporate networks,
      inter-ISP switched networks, or DOCSIS network troubleshooting (excluding
      inside wiring troubleshooting from modem/PC to the demarcation point.) an
      exception could also be made for public participation networks such as,
      LibreRouter networks or similar.


Some examples

As what seems to be the tradition for SE, I decided after 5 up-votes of fixer1234's comment to give some examples. Please note: These are not meant to be a poke at any particular user, just how we all may interpret the broad bullet points. These examples are not meant to distract from the main points of the question.


Two ISP's on one network - Help needed?

In this question first the user Davidgo states that the poster cant be helped without more information (too broad). Then seems to indicate after the OP edits with the business-grade equipment, that the criteria for the post being on-topic in superuser is dependent on whether or not the poster is "a networking expert". My opinion was that it was off-topic because it deals with a corporate/business network, and not "Personal and home computer networking" as defined in the help center.


Is it possible to force a device to sign onto the 2.4g network band with band steering turned on?

Here an ISP support agent is asking a generalized question about deployed equipment's use of band-steering from the ISP, and how it relates to customers consumer devices use of band-steering.

Why did i consider this off-topic?

  • This is an employee of an ISP asking about equipment they have deployed.
  • ISP's work directly with manufacturers to create ISP Specific Firmware that run on these devices. (how did Comcast implement band steering on the latest triple-play modem?)
  • The user indicated in the comments; "I cant remember off the top of my head" either the deployed devices model numbers, or the customers make and model numbers of the devices in question.
  • The point above leaves us with nothing to answer, other than a generic response about band-steering. Spiff was nice enough to give an answer about how band-steering is generally implemented. Without both the access point make and model, and the end-users device, or card/adapter, there is no problem, or possibly an answer to one.
    Comparing two broadband options (LTE with wireless router and DSL with a wired router)

Here is a question that I thought at the time was on-topic, but was closed as primarily opinion based.

Why did i think it was on-topic at the time?

  • Both devices would technically fit under personal networking as defined in the help-section
  • This user is not directly asking for a shopping recommendation.
  • This question can be answered with empirically gathered data. (Although the data may change from country to country or even between two carriers.)
  • This is a user asking about possible performance differences between two consumer services/products.
  • This comparison of the two technologies may help future readers make an informed decision if they are also unaware of the finer points of the two.

So was my answer clearly just opinion based? Or was it just this particular users formation of the question? (I should add that this user was clearly confused about the definitions in the help-section in his previous questions that day.)

actual repeater vs router-as-repeater

Here is a comparison between two consumer devices that was edited by Davidpostill to be on-topic. Some of the same bullet points from the above question could also be applied to this one...

How to compare two network adapters?

This question I originally answered was clearly on-topic. Then like a sneaky ninja in the night, the OP edited the question to be a shopping recommendation, which of course we all know is a cardinal sin here in SU, as it violates the commandment "Thou shall not answer questions that could be construed as a shopping recommendation!"

Does my answer here redeem the question which then clearly became off-topic?


PCIe Wireless Card vs. USB dongle

In this question, community members interpreted the post as primarily opinion based. It was my interpretation of "better" from the OP's question, that he was asking about the performance differences of the two, and not that he was asking the community which one was better in anyone's opinion. Just look at the wording after better, speed, latency, & range. (Performance)


Now we come to the curious case of Mr. Harrymc in:

How can one use CDMA(code division multiple access) in individual communications

Here I am going to break this up into the main points of:

  • Why I thought this question was off-topic.

    • This question is not about personal/home networking
    • CDMA historically was used first in military communications, then when it moved to the private sector it was used to maximize communication channels in already licensed frequencies/bands by major cellular providers / telecommunication companies. (see U.S patent #US4901307A Spread spectrum multiple access communication system using satellite or terrestrial repeaters ) & CDMA History
    • The user isn't asking about "how does CDMA work" as harry states it in meta. the question is asking "How do I use CDMA in individual communications." This is further clarified by the poster in the question "unlike GSM that is used in mobile handset for communication"... We can now see the user is talking about CDMA cellular service and how a handset interacts with the cellular tower.
    • Just in case anyone missed it, the paper that Harry quotes in his answer is based of off and listed at the bottom as a main reference: (E.H. Dinan, B. Jabbari, "Spreading codes for direct sequence CDMA and wideband CDMA cellular networks, IEEE Communications Magazine, pp. 48-54, September 1998.) Maybe harry just skimmed through and didn't actually read the paper?
  • My interpretations of the question.

    • This could be a student asking a generalized question about CDMA. (still off-topic)
    • This user seems to want to know how to pick through a CDMA stream to isolate a single communications channel. (this could be someone making a DIY CDMA Stingray device )
    • This could also be someone with a HACK-RF-ONE or some other Software Defined Radio with RX/TX capabilities trying to make a pirated mini tower for the old handsets he has laying around.
  • My thoughts from the comments in his answer

    • "It's about hardware technology". (nope, it has nothing to do with computer hardware as defined in the help section. you are disingenuously misconstruing definitions.)
    • "and networking is in our domain" (only personal & home networking)
    • "This isn't Meta, so long discussions are out." (well here we are...) ;)
    • "But saying that a technology is out of bounds because it's not used in home computing is:"
      • "Needs proof" (Not really, this isn't a COURT OF LAW. Its more like a tribunal, where the burden of proof was on you to prove to us, the people reviewing why it should remain open. Did you read the paper in your answer?) I should also add, if you had shown me any reference of consumer networking gear using CDMA I might have reversed my action.
      • "Perhaps will change in the future" (You may be a wizard in some aspects of computer science, but neither of us are fortune tellers.)
      • "May be an invalid argument, since we also have company people asking questions here about software & hardware and large networks." (They shouldn't be ~ for-profit companies shouldn't be trying to exploit a volunteer community for help. If they need help they should hire a professional.)

TL;DR: Based on broad interpretations of the help section, users and new contributors alike get questions and answers closed, sometimes by conjecture, confusion, or misunderstanding.

If anyone has any constructive feedback on the subject, feel free to comment or answer.

Thanks for reading this.

  • 5
    This would be easier for people to respond to if you include some examples of questions that seemed to fall into the gray area. Part of it may be that what's happening is really in the other direction; the community makes an exception for questions that are off-topic or borderline off-topic because of some redeeming value. For example, it might attract a good answer that demonstrates there is an on-topic interpretation or the question provides a link to very useful, on-topic information in the answer. – fixer1234 Mar 20 at 2:39
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    "I don't want to say there is a double standard for higher ranking members, but earlier on when I joined it certainly felt that way". I read several comments complaining "same topic had been already asked and answered in X questions" those very often reflect to 5+ year old posts, so changing of scope rather than double standard. Besides of course there are gray areas, inconsistencies and so on. – Máté Juhász Mar 20 at 5:34
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    "I am now of the opinion that its just the guidelines not being specific enough in the help-center" AGREE! There is definitely room for improvement. Although I don't think he'll should made longer, a link for detailed discussion could be added. – Máté Juhász Mar 20 at 5:41
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    You would also need to define programming. For example excel formulas and conditional formatting can get quite complex and while they belong here there is UDF which involves programming, and also recording macros is a button on the UI but then to edit it , it's programming... – Steven Martin Mar 20 at 7:17
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    @Tim_Stewart: Thanks for inviting me to this discussion. But as I had too much to say, I started another post. – harrymc Mar 21 at 16:42
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    "Those very often reflect 5+ year-old posts" - The age of a question shouldn't determine if it should be closed today. If it truly is out of scope, even if it has hundreds of upvotes, it should be closed if it is out of scope. A user made a similar argument against 3 questions, I voted to close those questions, due to their scope. – Ramhound Mar 21 at 17:24
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(My other post was closed as a duplicate, so I'm forced to copy it here.)

Are on/off-topic rules not clear enough?

The help page What topics can I ask about here? contains a vague list of subjects that are on- or off-topic. This list is the guide-line for us all, but it leaves many gray areas.

For example:

  1. Electronic devices are off-topic, but then what else is a computer?
  2. Phones are a de-facto electronic device that is off-topic, but tablets are on-topic, although the difference between them lessens continuously. In the very near future there won't be much of a difference between laptops and phones.
  3. All Linux distributions are on-topic, except Android, but this isn't mentioned in the rules. If the reason is because there is an SE site for Android, then what about Ubuntu?
  4. Programming questions are off-topic, but script programming is on-topic.
  5. Material recommendations are off-topic and this has been extended to buying recommendations, but are all posts mentioning "buying" automatically off-topic?

Interpretations of these rules vary from one person to another. Not all posts that are flagged for closing are finally really closed. Some closed posts are reopened, some after only the most minor cosmetical edit (or none).

It seems to me that in many cases, the verdict of whether a post is off-topic comes down to a "gut feeling", rather than solid rules. I don't see this as bad, but maybe the rules need to be more precise.

Some puzzling examples I have encountered for posts that I answered and that were subsequently closed are listed below.

Gives TSX-NI an advantage for running virtual machines?

In the original version of the topic, the poster said that while searching for a computer to buy he encountered a hardware feature that he doesn't understand, and asks whether it has any bearing on his type of work. This was closed for material recommendation, although no materials were ever mentioned, just because buying was the motive. I easily reworded the post to comply, but was it really necessary?

How can one use CDMA(code division multiple access) in individual communications

The poster asks about how does CDMA work. This was closed because of the (unproven) claim that this technology is only used for networks of phone companies. Why would a technology that is used for communication between computers be off-topic?

I suspect that because of the prevalence of computer technology in modern life, with time the topic rules will become even harder to apply and even more arbitrary, and that even today there are too many unwritten rules.

As a side remark, there are some practical points which I miss in the rules:

  • A question being too trivial is not a motive for closing,
  • Ditto for no independent research attempted by the poster.

I think that the question of whether the (so-short) topics help page needs more precision or examples merits a discussion, or whether the current situation is seen as "good enough". However, I must admit that today, deciding whether a post is on-topic is a bit of a guess, and I'm really looking for some clarifications.

Note: I have added another answer with a try at making some rules more specific.

  • There is definitely gray areas, (1) I agree, the argument could be made that any consumer product that has a microcontroller is technically a computer because: it has a cpu, clock, ram, storage space, and accepts digital inputs/outputs. This is exactly why I started this discussion. – Tim_Stewart Mar 21 at 17:13
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    @Tim_Stewart: You are trying to define new rules. I think that this is impossible since the technology is too vast and cannot be listed. I rather prefer that the moderators will spell out their criteria and put them up for discussion. The rules are really outdated and need being refreshed. – harrymc Mar 21 at 17:19
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    @harrymc - Your question was closed as a duplicate. It is not deleted. There is a huge difference. – Ramhound Mar 21 at 17:25
  • Agreed that the rules may be outdated. I do not wish to have the "rules changed", rather I would like them to be set in stone. This is an attempt to get new users asking questions, and new users contributing along with long standing members to all be on the same page. Nothing more... – Tim_Stewart Mar 21 at 17:34
  • Technology is evolving too fast to be set in stone. I think the moderators need to start a project here for improving the rules. – harrymc Mar 21 at 17:38
  • @Harrymc, slightly disagree with that statement, the fundamentals of computer science have not changed since I was in school (+15 years ago). Maybe a review accounting for Moore's law is in order every 18-24 months? Other than starting this discussion, how do we go about getting attention from moderators to get meaningful change? – Tim_Stewart Mar 21 at 18:35
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    @harrymc Moderators do not decide site policy. That is done by the community. All we do is provide guidance and advice. If the community wants to decide that a particular area of technology should now be on topic they should should write a meta question with reasons why and let the community vote. – DavidPostill Mar 24 at 14:07
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    @harrymc Mods may start the ball rolling by writing a meta question, but at the end of the day it is a community decision. – DavidPostill Mar 24 at 14:09
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    @harrymc So after much prompting you have finally read the help pages? ;) – DavidPostill Mar 24 at 14:11
  • @DavidPostill: And much good it did me? – harrymc Mar 24 at 15:22
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SU was always meant to be a bit of a broader site - but not overlapping with SO and not much with SF.

Its worth remembering SU was always meant to be the "PC" site - we included tablets cause of windows 8 on arm (and modern windows on a tablet form factor isn't that different from windows on a PC) - there's a meta discussion on that.

Phones have never been on topic - and we have sister sites that cover most of the major phone OSes (other than maybe kaios).

I've historically argued that we're a general purpose computing site. We do networking in addition.

Now - questions that don't work well are "explain how this broad technology can be used" or "explain this definition"

I don't really think there's a need for a rethink in general. If there's specific bits that confuse, we can review those bits.

Don't forget, these are rules we've built specifically because people get confused. We can clarify but

computer hardware, computer software, or personal and home computer networking

Really sums up what we're about.

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    The rules are broad, but their interpretation varies even from one moderator to another. Would it not make sense to put some of these unwritten dogma into writing, update the rules to the current level of technology? The rule you have quoted can be applied to an enormous chunk of our life, even to posts that were closed. What we're saying that it's time to tackle clarifying the rules. Or is the task too large? – harrymc Mar 24 at 19:10
  • "If there's specific bits that confuse, we can review those bits" let's suppose we want to review them, what's the process for it? – Máté Juhász Mar 25 at 9:31
  • @MátéJuhász - A meta question (tagged as a discussion). I would keep it as focused as possible. You should bring examples to the table when possible. – Ramhound Mar 25 at 14:12
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    Pretty much 'this is unclear + why + proposed changes' on meta. I did it myself once or twice – Journeyman Geek Mar 25 at 14:14
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    Do we need another question, or can we use this one (it's already a question on meta tagged [discussion]) and add answer(s) with proposed changes. – Máté Juhász Mar 25 at 15:17
  • I have added another answer with a try at making some rules more specific. – harrymc Mar 26 at 9:48
  • Thanks for taking the time to write this Journeyman Geek. It seems we now have a "let's create clear definitions question", a "let's interpret it more broadly answer" and a "leave it be answer". – Tim_Stewart Mar 27 at 22:20
  • well said, is the new ask wizard going to be deployed here any time soon? that's the place to teach! – Jeff Atwood Mar 31 at 1:18
  • Well - that's something I've been quietly pointedly hinting about a while - Both sites I mod are excellent candidates for it, for different reasons ;) – Journeyman Geek Mar 31 at 1:24
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We also need a description of the forum that is easily accessible. Its not clear where to find out the subject matter of a particular forum. Eg what is 'superuser'? Where do I quickly find out the official subject matter for the forum without having to guess by reading some random questions. If I wasn't a developer, I wouldn't know what 'stackoverflow' means. So there should either be a tooltip defined for the forum logo, that would provide a description, or there should be some other intuitive and easy means of finding this out. Some forums are easy to guess because the name of it is explicit. Others like superuser and stackoverflow are not.

1

TL;DR: The site relies on discussion in Meta for clarification and detail. The help section sort of points people there for clarification, but new users rarely look at the Help Section let alone go searching Meta. Even many experienced users don't spend time researching what's available in Meta. To make matters worse, much of the Meta clarification isn't even in our own SU Meta, it's in SE Meta.

There's a ton of clarification out there (although there are still some questions that aren't definitively resolved even there). However, there is a relatively small number of fundamental clarifications to common issues that account for a substantial portion of the recurring misconceptions and unfamiliarity. Summarizing those within the Help Center would go a long way to clarifying the apparent gray areas.


I'll offer some observations on the examples in the question.

  1. Two ISP's on one network - Help needed?

    I'm not a networks guy so not qualified to comment on the question being too broad (the close reason). Questions can be a bad fit for the site for multiple reasons, so closure for a different reason than you might have picked doesn't mean the guidelines are confusing; it just means that more people picked up on a different one of the potential reasons.

    The issue with corporate IT isn't that it's in a corporate setting. It refers to matters that are typically under the control of IT administrators and we don't want to interfere with their job or circumvent policies that may be in place for a reason. Matters in an enterprise setting that don't entail those kinds of considerations are generally on-topic unless they're really better suited to Server Fault. I had this very question early in my SU experience (What is the definition of "corporate IT support"?). Like much of the detailed guidance, this got explained in a Meta thread, but it would be beneficial to better explain it in the Help Center guidance.

  2. Is it possible to force a device to sign onto the 2.4g network band with band steering turned on?

    The OP clarified the question with an edit, "My question is about whether or not anyone has heard of manually directing a device to a single band if band-steering doesn't work well with it (but works for other devices) without turning band-steering off." The question attracted several close votes, but reads like a general question on networking. Again, I'm not qualified to judge this one, but to me, it reads like a typical networking question that's routinely considered on-topic, or at least close enough to commonly get a pass from the community.

    I'm not sure it's possible to define things so cleanly that any and every question is unequivocally either on- or off-topic. The SE network relies on the discretion of trusted users, in a consensus, to decide things that fall in the gray area. What is on-topic and why is, to some extent, philosophy and culture, and it's that way on purpose to allow sites to evolve.

  3. Comparing two broadband options (LTE with wireless router and DSL with a wired router)

    Your answer was well received and the question was closed anyway. This is another networking question and I'm not qualified to judge it. Maybe one of the close voters can elaborate on the thinking behind their vote. But I would ask what kind of clarification in the guidance would help for a question like this? Some questions rely on subject matter experts judging how answerable a question is within the site's constraints.

  4. actual repeater vs router-as-repeater

    This one doesn't appear to be in the gray area, at least after editing. There are no close votes and everyone seems to agree that it is on-topic. It looks like this example was included because it seems to have similarities to #3, reinforcing the question of why #3 was considered opinion-based. I'll have to leave it to close voters on #3 to compare them.

  5. How to compare two network adapters?

    Looking at the history, only one or two readers thought this was a hardware recommendation question. If I read the timeline correctly, there were no actual close votes (or perhaps one or two that timed out). This isn't a hardware recommendation question and doesn't fall in the gray area. A purchase decision was the impetus for the question, but it doesn't actually ask which product to buy. It describes unexpected poor performance and asks how to compare adapters in a way that would reliably reveal expected performance.

    This is the kind of detailed guidance that requires a Meta search to find, it isn't in the help section. There are canonical discussions, like Jeff Atwood's post Q&A is Hard, Let’s Go Shopping!, which describes asking for technical information that can enable you to make your own, informed purchase decision. There are a number of such discussion in Meta that are pretty fundamental explanations for what the help section guidance means. It would be helpful to users to summarize these clarifications in the Help Center.

  6. How can one use CDMA(code division multiple access) in individual communications

    This isn't in the gray area, you're spot on -- it's off-topic, and you laid out the reasons well in the question here. It doesn't need clarification in the guidance. This is another case where a small number of users interpreted the question as on-topic. That why actions like closure require a consensus of many experienced users (a moderator = many), and the system worked on this question.

-2

Judging by the number of upvotes on the post, I'm not the only one that finds the rules somewhat confusing. This is just a first try that I'm putting up. I'm not asking here for a vote on including it in the help, as that's for the moderators.

Let me have a go at the current rules of:

In: computer hardware, computer software, or personal and home computer networking.

Out: electronic devices, media players, cell phones or smart phones or game consoles, except insofar as they interface with your computer.

I would suggest something like:

In: Computer technology and computer hardware, software, networking and auxiliary devices, for the purpose of improving understanding, usage, or just making things work.

Out: Special-purpose electronic devices such as media players, phones and game consoles, except when networked to computers or running a general-purpose operating system (such as routers or Embedded Windows).

EDIT:

I have been member of this community for 9 years, and it's always the same story : People arguing heatedly about the meaning of the rules, each with his own interpretation, moderators coming up with explanations with don't always find consensus etc. etc. forever and forever in Meta in countless posts.

I have tried to suggest here one small improvement, very negatively received, so apparently there is no audience for it.

Question: Are site rules are like the weather - everyone talks about it but nobody does anything?

If the moderators ever feel motivated to improve the rules and make them more precise, I'll be happy to take part.

  • Downvoter: This is only a discussion and you are welcome to add your opinion. – harrymc Mar 26 at 10:02
  • "only in relation to end-users"...such a constraint will only create confusion, not clear any up. – I say Reinstate Monica Mar 26 at 15:57
  • @TwistyImpersonator: I did have a hard time with phrasing this, and it's the best I could think of for a way to phrase "SuperUser" as somewhat distinct from SO although overlapping. You would be welcome to help. Perhaps something like "for improving understanding, usage, or just making it work". I modified it to that. – harrymc Mar 26 at 16:17

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