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I see a problem with people asking questions which have already been asked and answered. This seems to happen regularly as a number of new users are joining this site, and it seems to annoy a lot of people. The result is a lot of down-voting of questions and snappy "RTFM" answers, or "see my answer on this question, or this one".

This response would be fine, except that it doesn't help build the wiki of knowledge here. Questioners are encouraged to accept an answer to their question quickly, sometimes before all possible answers have been explored, and answerers are incentivised to focus on answering questions with no accepted answers, and not look at old questions that already have accepted answers. As new features are available in WP core, sometimes new answers are possible to old questions. And sometimes a new commenter will have a new way of solving a problem that nobody thought of when the question was asked previously.

The question I have in mind is this one (change set_post_thumbnail_size according to post type admin page), which Jan Fabry answered with a link to a nearly identical question asked a month earlier. The temptation would have been to flag the question as a duplicate, but because it was re-asked, some new answers came out - I proposed another (clumsy) way of solving the problem, and somatic pointed out another context available that solved the issue much more cleanly.

I don't know how to address the issue, but I have a couple possible ideas:

  • People with edit capabilities edit questions to add links to related questions where appropriate.
  • A new feature be made available which gives moderators the ability to link questions somehow (so that the links be reciprocal, and associated somewhat more tightly than the current tag system does)
  • Give questioners the opportunity to reopen questions which have been asked, answered, and accepted - if they don't believe the accepted answer is the best possible one.

Each of these issues have their own problems, and the 2nd and third require major changes in the SE system which would probably cause a number of other unintended problems, so I don't suggest them as serious feature requests at this point. I just want to hear what ideas other people here have on dealing with this. I've foubnd myself starting to down-vote some of the more negative answers on here, but I understand the frustration that leads to them. Does anyone have more productive ideas for dealing with duplicate/repetitive questions?

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6 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

In general, I would watch for the duplicate questions that

  • come up very often
  • differ only in small details
  • are so mechanical and by-the-numbers that they bore regular participants

A good example of this on Stack Overflow is the "build my regex for me" question. A good example of this on Server Fault is the "build my IP netmask for me" question. And on Super User, it would be the "my pc is freezing help me troubleshoot it" question.

In our opinion, these types of duplicates are good candidates for the "canonical question", where you ask a generalized form of the many duplicate questions and close all new questions of this form, as duplicates of the canonical one.

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This seems to happen regularly as a number of new users are joining this site, and it seems to annoy a lot of people. The result is a lot of down-voting of questions and snappy "RTFM" answers, or "see my answer on this question, or this one".

I am not much annoyed by duplicates. I am somewhat annoyed by bad questions and plenty of duplicates only seems such because they are such - without enough meaningful details and context provided.

As for me current rate of duplicate (or seemingly duplicate) questions is nothing to brood about. When/if we start getting dozens of duplicates a week then it will be more relevant to tackle.

But so far most duplicates are because people are bad with search or bad at formulating their question. No technical solution or rule can solve either. These are simply inherent to many novice users of site.

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"plenty of duplicates only seems such because they are [bad questions]" - True, the real problem is bad questions, but like you say there's nothing we can do about that. I was just trying to break off a piece of the problem that could be addressed. But I agree with all the comments here to the extent that duplicates are not a big enough problem here to bother with yet... –  goldenapples Dec 31 '10 at 19:10
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I definitely concur with the issues your post here addresses. And in the comments of the other post you mention that it is the mechanism that drives this behavior, to which I completely agree.

But I don't think suggestions 1, 2 or 3 will resolve it. There is nothing in the mechanism to recognize the people who spend time curating instead of answering new questions. I think this is an area the current StackExchange mechanism fails to address.

I think it would be really helpful if StackExchange were to have "topics"; instead of a question someone would write a "topic overview," and instead of answers there would be "related questions." The "best answer" checkbox feature would be removed from this and then points could be given for writing a good overview and also for associating a good answer with the topic. Maybe a fixed size explanation of why a specific answer makes sense for the topic (280 chars)?

Think of these like Amazon's lists but with answers instead of products. These topics could then be associated with tags sorted descending by the topic with the higher total points (adding points for the topic and for its related answers). Example topics could be Registering Custom Post Types" and "Plugins for Custom Post Types" and they could both be associated with the [custom-post-types] tag.

Adding these features to the mechanism would create incentive for curating good answers vs. just answering more of the same questions. This of course would require Jeff and Joel to like the idea and then have it implemented. Here's hoping they'll consider it without dismissing it immediately.

-Mike

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@Mike: Can't we use the tag wikis or a form of community wiki question with a good summary of all proposed questions as the eternal edited, upvoted and accepted answer? Of course, this question is a Q&A site, it can/should not replace the Codex. –  Jan Fabry Dec 31 '10 at 8:03
    
@Jan Fabry: We could use the tag wikis, but without reputation I realistically don't think it will happen; a "good idea" that almost nobody does. One of the reasons SE sites work so well is the reputation system. Anything that doesn't contribute to reputation gets less attention, especially when there are more questions to answer. I want to do right by the site but I'd be lying if I said reputation doesn't concern me. As for not replacing Codex that consideration couldn't be further from my mind. Codex could be 10x better, and SE can easily be better than Codex; why not let it? –  MikeSchinkel Dec 31 '10 at 9:15
    
@Mike: I'm playing with the idea of writing a good guide to the rewrite system, but I still don't know whether to place it on the Codex, or as a "fake" question here on WPSE (community wiki or not? I like rep too, and it might be more coherent if there is only one author/editor). And indeed, the tag wiki system is currently a second-class citizen, also because re-tagging is a ongoing process (wp_rewrite? rewrite? .htaccess? permalinks?). –  Jan Fabry Dec 31 '10 at 10:14
    
@Jan Fabry - Just FYI: One of my pending projects is to replace the Rewrite system with something I'm calling Routes. My goal is to banish the rewrite system forever. FWIW. –  MikeSchinkel Dec 31 '10 at 10:58
    
I hadn't seen the tag wiki pages before, thanks... I don't have nearly the reputation needed to edit them, but that is a good solution. I can see how that could be a useful resource. –  goldenapples Dec 31 '10 at 16:23
    
@goldenapples - (I think) nobody edits them because they are not obvious and they give no reputation (that I am aware of.) –  MikeSchinkel Dec 31 '10 at 18:27
    
@Mike: The tag-based views probably are used more on Stack Overflow because it is so huge, that you have to focus on specific tags. WPSE has about 15 new questions per day, there is no need to limit yourself to only one tag. –  Jan Fabry Jan 1 '11 at 15:05
    
@Jan Fabry - I don't understand the relevance of limiting oneself to only one tag? –  MikeSchinkel Jan 4 '11 at 2:35
    
@Mike: On Stack Overflow that can make sense. I sometimes browse only the [wordpress] tag, since don't know enough about [.net] to answer questions on it. –  Jan Fabry Jan 4 '11 at 8:06
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I think all of your options are already available.

  1. It is not always possible for someone else to say whether a question is a duplicate of another, so I think linking to another question should not be done by editing the question, but by giving an answer (like I did). If someone does not agree with this, they can downvote and comment why this question differs from the original question. This is the reason I did not choose to click the "close" link but gave an answer instead: so I could give some more context, and get a response.
  2. There is a reciprocal link system, but it's a bit hidden. Look in the sidebar, below the "Visit Meta" and "Visit Chat" widgets: if the question, any answer or comment links to another question, it will be displayed here (and back). This could be made more visible, maybe by displaying it under the question maybe?
  3. If you found a related question, but the accepted answer does not solve your problem, there is no problem asking the question again, stating that you already tried the proposed solutions, and they they did not work for you. Then it becomes a new question.

If the question is still a duplicate, but both versions contain interesting answers (like the example you gave), an editor can also merge the questions, preserving the interesting answers and removing the duplicates.

Jeff Atwood, creator of these sites, also wrote some interesting blog posts about dealing with duplicate content.

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Thanks for addressing my suggestions. I hadn't noticed a lot of those features, and I'm glad to see that this issue has been thought through so thoroughly. –  goldenapples Dec 31 '10 at 16:28
    
Jeff's points are all good (true duplicates are rare, it helps to have questions stated in many different ways...) My concern was mainly to avoid some of the negative answers that have been popping up here, by dealing with the causes of people's frustration. But I guess that can be done just by counselling patience and downvoting snarky answers. –  goldenapples Dec 31 '10 at 16:35
    
@goldenapples: And of course, one might think a user gave a rude answer, but maybe that user didn't have much time and at least gave some pointers to possibly helpful information. I try to assume that everyone has good intentions, and that we can't always communicate all nuances. –  Jan Fabry Jan 1 '11 at 1:31
    
True, I'll keep that in mind. And just so you know, I wasn't thinking your answer on the question I linked was rude or unhelpful... just that it got me thinking... –  goldenapples Jan 3 '11 at 17:31
    
@goldenapples: And I wasn't thinking you were thinking that. Not that I think that you were not thinking at all, just that you were not thinking that I was thinking bad things when I was expressing my thoughts in the post that made you think about the thought-process of other users we are thinking about in this exchange of thoughts. Tonk! –  Jan Fabry Jan 3 '11 at 18:01
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As a fairly new member of the site, I am still learning. I am not really a coder, but am a good researcher, yet I still do not know all the terminology before asking a question.

For someone who is not as good a researcher, their questions will sound even more like a poor question.

Many, if not most, of the time, people find themselves using forums, help sites and Q&A sites out of a last resort desperation and are often extremely frustrated themselves... And even more frustrated because they do not know how to communicate their question or problem to others.

The bigger problem, in my opinion, is the people who get frustrated and are rude to new/uneducated users. I would expect the people with the most knowledge to be able to help deduct the true meaning of the problem/question because they know more about the software/code than the newcomer... Everyone begins out knowing nothing. Simply because one has already gained the knowledge, does not make them superior.

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The thing is that if there was a way to create an answer that some how can cover similar questions and use it as a reference for not only the person that ask the question also for the person that answer the question.

Here for example: How to remove help tabs?

http://wordpress.stackexchange.com/questions/50787/how-to-remove-contextual-help-on-wp-3-3-2

http://wordpress.stackexchange.com/questions/25034/how-to-remove-screen-options-and-help-links-in-the-admin-area

These 3 can be closed and merged onto one that will cover all the aspects, like hide the help tab (with options like based on user roles or pages) and hide the screen options (with options like based on user roles or pages).

The questions aren't exact duplicate, since they point to specific "flavors" of a same problem.

Making an answer that will cover all options or possibilities is not a small task, but is possible. The other tree questions can be closed and a link to the new question can be added to refer users before they post a new question.

Just a small thought.

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