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Some Issues with the Pets SE Culture

I've recently begun participating in Pets SE, and noticed a few key areas where the culture of Pets SE doesn't seem to fit into the general Stack Exchange culture. Specifically:

  1. The site seems to tolerate vague, unresearched questions that show no (or minimal) effort from the OP. For example: Why do neutered dogs still show sexual signs?
  2. The site seems to tolerate broad questions about future hypotheticals that can't be answered canonically. For example: How can I train my puppy to ignore wildlife at night while camping?
  3. While most Stack Exchange sites are designed for experts and enthusiasts, a comment from one of the moderators implies that Pets SE should be aiming for the lowest common denominator. It currently says:

    "Train a bomb-proof recall" may be less than clear to most readers, and arguably beyond the skills of anyone for whom this Q&A would be valuable to.

    This not only ignores the rest of the answer, which offers more concrete advice, but seems to assume the OP is incapable of understanding common terms from the knowledge domain.

  4. The site seems to encourage questions that lack sufficient detail for canonical answers, but also expects exhaustive answers outside the scope of what the OP is asking. Every answer has to balance answering the OP's actual question with applicability to future visitors, but this dichotomy seems wider than it should be on Pets SE.

The Goal of This Question

This is not a rant. This question is intended to allow Pets SE participants and moderators to consider whether they are in line with the rest of Stack Exchange. Consider this relevant extract from Joel Spolsky's blog:

“The power of the Stack Exchange platform is detailed, expert answers to extremely rare, ‘long-tail,’ highly technical questions. To get expert answers, you need experts. To attract experts, you need a site where people are asking very interesting and hard questions, not the basic questions, so that it’s clear that this is a PRO site, not a consumer/enthusiast site.... and remember, the pro sites WILL attract the enthusiasts, but not the other way around."

In other words, rewarding low-quality questions, encouraging the writing of answers solely for the non-expert, and discouraging technical answers to technical questions is probably not healthy for the site. Higher-quality questions and higher-quality answers will eventually lead to more traffic for the site; isn't that what the Pets SE community wants?

The Question, Restated

Is the current culture of Pets SE in line with the Stack Exchange philosophy? Is it designed to attract the right type of questions and answers for a Q&A site? If not, how can the Pets SE community improve the status quo?

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    Oddly enough, I'm not entirely sure if I care if it is or not. I may have a care about where it might be heading, but whether or not it looks like any of the other SE sites is of little interest to me as long as it serves the primary purpose of helping people with their pets. – John Cavan Oct 12 '14 at 15:58
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    Have you read the related post How do we keep “Not quite help vampires” from becoming a hindrance? most of the same points are discussed. – James Jenkins Oct 12 '14 at 20:46
  • @JohnCavan And you plan to measure the success of that purpose...how? If you're rejecting the standard Stack Exchange approach, please cite a reference to an alternative methodology or framework that you believe would serve that purpose better and include it as an answer for community voting. – CodeGnome Oct 12 '14 at 21:51
  • @JamesJenkins It's not the same question, nor is it a duplicate. The applicability of some points in some of the answers doesn't change the fact that it's actually a different question with a different intent. The post isn't about help vampires; it's about question quality and who the site is attracting. It's certainly worth linking to as a related question, as you have done. Thanks for doing that. – CodeGnome Oct 12 '14 at 22:22
  • @CodeGnome - I think you're reading into my response. I didn't say I was rejecting the "standard" as it were, whatever that really is given that each site is different, I'm just not sure I see that we need to be aiming for it as a means of success. Nevertheless, I agree with the responses from Matt and Zaralynda below, this is a site about topics where people have strong emotional bonds, it's going to be a little different. – John Cavan Oct 13 '14 at 6:20
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I don't agree with your basic premise here.

In other words, rewarding low-quality questions, encouraging the writing of answers solely for the non-expert, and discouraging technical answers to technical questions is probably not healthy for the site. Higher-quality questions and higher-quality answers will eventually lead to more traffic for the site; isn't that what the Pets SE community wants?

I'm going to leave the question of low-quality questions aside for a moment, and address the answering part (I suspect that the core visitors of this site spend more time answering than questioning).

I have on multiple occasions written detailed, technical answers to technical questions. I'm not sure how well I'm translating the science language to non-expert, but that is part of my actual, paid job, and I've been told I'm pretty good at it for engineer (for whatever that's worth). Some examples:

You'll note in the comments of these answers no one is chiding me to write for a less technical audience, even though I do discuss some technical stuff (the Whiskas question in particular has some interesting modeling). The key in my writing is that I make sure to explain terms that may be unfamiliar to the lay audience while still using the more technical terms for the majority of my explanation. I think that's the balance that we should strive for.

To address your points in particular:

1. Vague, Unresearched questions.

Yes, we tolerate unresearched questions. We are a beta site and still figuring out what works well in this format. We're establishing the lines for when to close vague medical questions for not enough information, and that is really the low hanging fruit in the "this is really vague" category. We'll get there, but I'm not particularly worried about it because some vague questions don't benefit from extra effort/research.

Also, your linked question is literally from the first days of the site, when folks were just throwing darts at the wall to see what stuck. I wouldn't consider anything from 2013 to be a particularly good example of the culture of this site.

2. No canonical answer possible

While there are not canonical examples for how to train a specific behavior, it does meet the criteria for good subjective.

Let me talk about a situation I'm more familiar with, my answer for "How do I stop my cat from peeing on rugs and linens?" I've had 3 cats not use the litter box. It doesn't matter how much detail someone gives, there is no way to recite the cat's situation and then definitively say "if you change X, she will use the litter box again".

Specifically, it took me 2 years to get Ginger to reliably use the litter box, and that was after the rescue had worked with her original family for months to try to get her to use it again (they eventually decided it must have been the presence of the new baby, but we discovered when she arrived at our house (no kids) that they were wrong).

Ginger's litter box issues illustrates one of the basic principles of working with animals. Unlike computer programs, or cooking recipes, or just about every other subject covered on this site, animals have their own unique personalities and they are not able to verbally communicate their needs to us.

Sometimes we have to lay out 6 trays of different types of litter (did that) to see if the cat has a preference. Sometimes we have to put another dozen boxes in random locations to see if the cat has a preference. Sometimes we have to do literally years of detective work (trying everything you can possibly think of) to figure out what is going on and find the proper setup for the animal.

That work has to be done by the owner, not by someone typing into a text box on the internet. We can give them ideas, but Ginger's particular circumstances stumped a LOT of people (and me for a long time). There's no way people on the internet can think of every possible combination of events to put in their answers, but we try to write as completely as we can, and help each other to add things in when we see places where an answer can be improved.

3. Aiming for Lowest Common Denominator

Unequivocally, I disagree with you here. I spoke above about how I try to balance the technical jargon/language with lay person level explanations of what those ideas mean. I think that's what the moderator comment was aiming for (not write for the lowest common denominator, but provide some context or directions about what/how to train that "bomb proof recall").

It is a balance that we have to be aware of, and it helps for folks to remind each other. When I've been researching an answer for 2 hours I might forget that not everyone knows what strabismus or pica (conditions I've had in my cats), so if I write an answer I might need to be reminded to explain it. We ask for added information in answers to make the answers better and applicable to a wider audience.

4. Expecting answers outside the scope of question

For myself, answering every medical question is an ethical balance. One thing I've learned in the last year of this site is to not underestimate the level of inadequate care that people are willing to subject their pets to. After some of the questions that we've had I feel that I can't assume any level of knowledge on the part of the questioner unless it's someone who has also been around for a while and I have an idea from their questions/answers/chat what their views are.

If I have any concerns about any advice I see on the site, I will point them out because even though I know that cat needs to see the vet, someone's first thought was to post on the internet.

I don't think it's really expecting answers to cover everything, but we're looking out for each other because no one wants an animal to come to harm over something one of us said. That's culture I'm not interested in changing.

  • The cat litter is a very good example to use. It sums up the problems with getting canonical answers to some of the questions perfectly. – Spidercat Oct 13 '14 at 0:46
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I'm not sure I'm seeing the problem you're seeing, but the question I have is what direction do you want the culture to go in?

I think there's a problem with sites being compared with Stack Overflow simply because it's the largest site on the network. More importantly, non-programming sites cannot be compared with programming sites because they face different problems.

For example: It's easy to find reasons to close programming questions. They can close questions because the person didn't do enough research before asking their question. We can't. If you look at our closed questions, the only close reason we really use is when questions are too broad to be answered.

To your points:

  1. Sure that answer was pretty mediocre, but I wouldn't tear my hair out because of it. It's old so there's no attention being given to it, so put a bounty on it and it will be brought back to the top of the question list.

  2. I retracted my close vote after the question was edited, and I removed the breed poll. They're asking how to train their dog to remain quiet, and inside the tent while camping. I don't see why there couldn't be a canonical answer to that.

  3. I have no idea what a bomb-proof recall is, so if I'm the lowest denominator then that's pretty good in my opinion. But I digress, the summary is for people who are looking for answers to the question, and they might not know what a bomb-proof recall is.

    At the very least you should give a one-sentence summary to what that is, or where to go to look it up. It's not helpful by itself, any more than a link to a google search of that term. My thoughts on one-line answers covers this.

  4. I agree with you on the vitamins. The question was about how to deliver the vitamins, while dosage is a concern and could be mentioned, it should be safe to assume they've already covered that. I have no idea what you're seeing on the other question.

    While it would be nice, I don't think it's a reasonable requirement to have a canonical answer on every question. Again, this is not programming, there are so many ways to train animals, that we can have several answer that are all correct. This is how a lot of non-programming sites work. Don't think of it as only one correct answer, think of it as multiple ways to accomplish a goal, but one best way.

Don't be afraid of listing a bunch of questions you think are poor. It's hard for us to see what you're seeing when you only show us one or two examples. And feel free to voice your opinion of questions and answers using the voting system. You're free to downvote any questions/answers you feel deserve it.

I will say though, that it works a lot better to change the quality of answers by providing your own answers with the quality that you want to see. Once people see your answers being upvoted, they will follow your lead in the hopes of gaining the same amount of attention.

It's also great to do this, because it's easier to make your answer look better when there's a mediocre answer next to it for comparison. Better looking answers means more internet points.

And at this point, I wouldn't worry about site traffic. While it's nothing dramatic, our site traffic has been growing pretty steadily. Here's the graph for the number of unique visits we've had since the beginning of 2014:

Site traffic on pets.se
(Source)


Previous discussions that I think are similar:

Poor quality advice in answers and comments

Improving the quality of our answers to attract experts

What kind of quality do we expect from people asking questions?

What is the minimal amount of research we expect from our users?

Who are the experts?

  • Thanks for a thoughtful answer. I wasn't comparing it just to Stack Overflow; we face a lot of soft-skills questions on Project Management SE, too. I do believe that opinion polls and questions where almost any answer would be equally valid are a poor fit for Q&A, though. If any site (not just Pets) wants to attract "experts and enthusiasts" to a topic, I just think a bit more rigor and consistency is required. I'll digest some of your other points, and respond in more detail once I've given it more thought. – CodeGnome Oct 13 '14 at 0:35

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