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Codidact Meta is the meta-discussion site for the Codidact community network and the Codidact software. Whether you have bug reports or feature requests, support questions or rule discussions that touch the whole network – this is the site for you.

Giving a fish vs. teaching how to fish

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On any Q/A site, or even analogous media like support forums, there is a dichotomy between "asking for a fish"[1] questions and "learning to fish"[2] questions.

Teaching how to fish is usually more exciting for fishing experts. Many people consider it a more "pure" knowledge. The answers to this type of questions evolve slower, so they are more durable. In some cases, I've seen moderators and regulars of sites (not necessarily just this one) push back heavily on people asking for a fish.

It's easy to point out the problems with asking for a fish: There are potentially infinitely many variants. Answering all of them is not feasible. If you attempt it, your coverage (answered questions / all possible questions) will always be tiny, so it is unlikely users will ever find that their question has been answered - they will almost always have to ask a new one. Meanwhile, for answerers, many questions are just reskins of each other, they're boring to answer over and over, so the whole business is demotivating. You will never feed the world by giving a fish to everyone who is hungry.

My claim here is that it is a mistake to ban asking for a fish entirely. However, by answering such questions we should not aim to be a comprehensive catalog or encyclopedia of every possible specific question that could come up. Instead, the "asking for a fish" questions should be treated as illustrative examples or selected case studies. After the fish has been handed out, the ball is in the experts' court to extract some general lesson from it about how to fish, and write it up as a learning to fish question (likely with a self-answer).

But meanwhile, the fishes should continue to be handed out, for two reasons:

  • It grows the community. Newbies coming to ask for a fish drives traffic to the site. Many an expert is a newbie who was given one fish too many, and ended up connecting the dots. (i.e. topics are often mastered inductively, rather than deductively)
  • It helps the experts. General principles about how to fish are easier to establish if you examine concrete examples rather than always staying abstract. (i.e. knowledge is often acquired inductively, rather than deductively)

To restate in sum, IMO the following are the elements of "best policy" for a QA site on the topic of "fishing":

  1. Questions asking for a fish are okay. People asking them should not be scolded. Experts should make an effort to answer them.
  2. When you give someone a fish, you are not done. You should always do a follow up step: Consider whether you can contribute to a "learning to fish" question with what you learned from the fish you just gave out.
  3. Fish go stale. Asking for a fish questions are unlikely to maintain relevance years into the future, especially if you follow 2 and link back to your "how to fish" question from the original ask for a fish. The community need not worry about what % of asking for a fish questions are covered, and the "reusability" of such questions. This means that low quality is acceptable when asking for a fish, so long as it clear what is being asked. The "real" answer will be preserved in a new "learning to fish" question anyway. In other words, diversity and quality of "how to fish" questions are KPIs for a QA site. Quality of questions asking for a fish is not a KPI. Diversity of past answered asking for a fish questions is also not a KPI. But number of asking for a fish questions answered per month is a KPI, because it supports the "how to fish" KPIs.

That said, for organization's sake, it seems like it would make sense for every Codidact site to have at least two sections: One for questions about how to fish, with stringent rules on content quality. And a second for questions asking for a fish, where quality is not too important, and the section mainly exists to feed the first one, and is otherwise ignored. As an important example, closing a question for being "too localized" would be very normal in the first section, and not applicable in the second.

When you are trying to build a healthy community of experts sharing knowledge with non-experts, the interesting activity is "learning to fish". However, there must be a second, parallel activity of "handing out fish", because without it the community is stymied. (I am deliberately glossing over the reasons for this).


I'm putting this at the end because I think it will be obvious to most, but for clarity:


  1. "Asking for a fish" refers to questions that ask for help for a very specific thing. For example, a certain bug that happens in a certain program, a specific issue that shows up when trying to run a program on a certain configuration, asking for a solution that applies to a specific problem. At face value, these questions are such that it seems unlikely anyone will encounter the same exact problem again. I've heard some people call these "helpdesk questions". ↩︎

  2. "Learning to fish" refers to questions about general problem solving skills. For example, general principles, debugging strategies, common Linux troubleshooting advice, best practices for a type of project. These questions are such that when you learn the answer to one of them, you can apply it to solve any one of infinitely many variants of an "asking for a fish" question from a certain class. ↩︎

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Case in point: Self-help/DIY books (1 comment)

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+6
−0

There are things I like here, but I don't think all of it will work.

I like the following:

  • Welcoming specific questions rather than only general questions.
  • Including hints at more general solutions when giving a specific answer.

However, I can't see a way to make separate categories work for the 2 types of question - I would expect this to be impossible in practice.

Where to draw the line?

The idea of 2 categories, one for specific questions and one for general questions, is very appealing. We already have the ability to easily add a new category to a community, and this would keep both types of question within a single community for ease of progressing from specific to general.

The problem becomes apparent when trying to assign individual questions to categories.

  • The abstract concept of a specific-style question belongs in the specific questions category.
  • The abstract concept of a general-style question belongs in the general questions category.

However, a real question is not an abstract concept, and will be difficult to assign solely to one category or another.

Different people are likely to have different opinions about where to draw the line between specific and general. Wherever the line is drawn, it will be an uncomfortable compromise leading not only to objections, but also to genuine confusion. This confusion will be elevated by the fact that the person choosing which category to ask in is the question asker, who is likely to have insufficient insight into the problem to make an informed decision.

The help spectrum

The difficulty of where to draw the line between specific and general can be highlighted by considering that the step from "how do I do this?" to "how do I work this out for myself?" can be repeated many times. During learning, the progression from asking for a concrete fix to asking for a technique happens repeatedly, leading to gradually more abstract approaches:

  • "How do I solve this problem?"
    "Do this"
  • "How do I decide how to solve this problem?"
    "Run this command and decide based on the output"
  • "How do I determine which command will help me solve this problem?"
    "Consult this documentation"
  • "How do I decide which documentation to consult?"
    ...

A similar progression can be imagined by stretching the fishing metaphor:

  • "I feel weak and light headed"
    "You're hungry"
  • "I'm hungry"
    "Here, have a fish"
  • "How do I get more fish?"
    "Here's how to catch them yourself"
  • "How do I avoid driving them to extinction?"
    "Here's how to monitor the various species and decide which size fish to catch"

Just as giving someone a fish leaves them with none the next day, teaching someone to catch fish leaves them with an empty lake on some future day. The general version of a specific question is not inherently general, it's just more general than the previous question. It's also more specific than questions that will arise later. This makes categorisation arbitrary and impracticable.

At each step in this progression, the previous step seems like a specific question, even though it may be the general version of a step further back. For this reason I can't imagine 2 categories working, and adding more categories for the extra layers of abstraction is likely to only make the problem worse.

Encouraging specific questions and general answers

Although I can't see categories being the solution here, I would like to see people encouraged to ask specific questions, and encouraged to add general advice to their answers to such questions. The same argument that I have used to suggest that categories wouldn't work also suggests that excluding specific questions would be very difficult. How do you agree on which questions are to be excluded?

I also agree that specific questions are a vital route towards later more general questions. If we want general questions, we need to make sure people feel welcome to post specific questions.

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Varying utility

I think you and I have tossed around ideas like this quite a bit already - if not between the two of us, then separately to the crowd. And I think my viewpoint hasn't changed.

Personally, my sense is that this idea only makes sense for the most technical sites, where there's pressure to produce a clear FAQ on fishing for reference purposes (and where newbies are likely to re-frame the same questions over and over, in the long run). Taking an outside view, I feel strongly that each site should retain sovereignty over the decision to use categories this way.

That said, I will continue to advocate for the Software site doing something like this, and I appreciate that this Meta post draws attention to the idea, so that individual communities may consider it.

The dichotomy seems sound to me

Contra trichoplax, I don't feel that there are serious difficulties with classifying questions according to your dichotomy. To keep going with the analogy: a failure to recognize hunger is most likely a sign that OP is not actually ready to ask a question. "How can I stop being hungry?" may represent a valid question, and "here, have a fish" may represent a valid answer (among many)

But further questions about fishing don't, in my view, lie on a spectrum; they're all independently worthwhile questions that would all belong in the main Q&A and which should be held to high quality standards (on a site that adopted this approach). The thing that makes the basic questions still Q&A-section-type questions is the fact that they strive to identify the archetype of the problem: "how can I ensure that I don't go hungry again?", rather than "how can I stop being hungry right now?". The thing that makes pleading for a meal not suitable for main Q&A is the fact that it doesn't do that work: if you're hungry, you can feed yourself by fishing (and cleaning and cooking), but not by watching someone else get a fish.

If overfishing is a real risk, dealing with that is still fundamentally about avoiding future hunger - it's just a more advanced concern.

And in the long run, even if there are many interesting logistical questions to ask about setting up a fishing industry, I would still expect them to be greatly outnumbered by simple meal requests in a separate category - simply because of how many people are hungry.

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