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It seems that during the 2022 moderator election, this meta site has some more eyes on it, so it might be a good time to think about how to encourage new users to become experienced users and valued contributors to StackExchange Chemistry.

What do new users know when they ask their first question?

Most questions are posed by new users. Most questions asked by new users are closed, and not as duplicate. Everyone on this site was a new user once. When I was a new user, I did not take the tour, I did not read the FAQs, I just answered a question. I did not pay attention to when it was asked, or research other questions on the site.

In 2022, new users probably are on their phone (so no useful sidebar with related questions), they probably came here googling their question, they probably click impatiently through the steps to ask their question (as a guest or as a newly signed-up user), and expect an answer in the next couple of minutes. [I did not collect any data about the plausibility of this scenario, but this is certainly my behavior on sites that are new to me. I have a bit of an attention span, but am not committed and move on quickly to another site if this one does not help me with the task at hand.]

Comments give feedback to new users

I think comments are a great way to encourage new users to improve their questions so they get a satisfying answer (or learn what this site does not offer, e.g. quick answers to homework exercises or exam questions). You can help them do their research by pointing out similar questions that have answers. You can tutor them a bit on asking question that fit our format. You can paste from a set of pre-written comments that address typical ways to improve first-time questions.

In this post, I am wondering what kind of comments (and hopefully they are all kind) would be effective to help new users with their first question, and to help the site to attract users who will stay and add value to the site.

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Warning, dropping a bombshell here. Expect subjective and niche opinion. I do not intend to offend or humiliate anyone, but prepare dry ice for applying to burned areas.

From my personal experience these welcoming correction comments don't matter. If anything, they create more work for mods because they either:

  1. are ignored and are left hanging for years (typical for "unregistered" users who log in once to post the question and vanish);
  2. provoke extended discussion which could be avoided if the new user decided to take the tour or simply peeked at a couple of related Q&A pairs;
  3. generate flags and conflict situations.

You don't have to look far for an example: a one has just been posted by the new user:

enter image description here

A person thanks for correction, doesn't improve the question at all or promises they get it right next time, and eventually someone else (here, Mithoron) edits the question so that it becomes more adequate.

You need to realize that the new users whose questions need serious improvement en masse do not care about improvements, they want an answer, and preferably now.

Neither a "safe space", let alone an illusion of one, is helpful in any shape or form. You empower the users by making them think and be independent, not by virtue signaling via calming comments and blind approval of whatever they post.

Further, I tried different comment styles before, and the spectrum of reactions I received in over 95 % of all cases were:

  • ignore;
  • display gratitude and ignore;
  • flag the comment suggesting improvements as rude or abusive "bcoz its cHemstre not inglisch class" or "gimme a break, will ya".

Quantity over quality is the new motto, and keeping populations barely educated is beneficial for the majority of governments. The bar is dropped pretty low these days. We, however, cannot afford dropping it further down in the community where relatively high-quality answers are fueled by the ideas of enlightenment and enthusiasm. Those who devote their time — a non-renewable value — to improve the site and provide answers have the right to participate in literate written communication.

So, we have two non-collinear vectors:

  1. a new user who only cares about getting an answer ASAP (or any response);
  2. a selected pool of users who can and want to answer a clearly and literate on-topic question.

I only managed to find one way to combine these vectors so that the resulting vector points towards mutual development: if the question is on-topic and can be salvaged, roll up your sleeves and fix it as quickly and as completely as possible in a single edit.

And by "completely" I mean exactly this. Not an edit for the sake of edit that changes a couple or prepositions and tweaks some tags — this bumps the question to the top and frustrates the users, and such edited question is likely to receive even more downvotes. I mean real edits including conversion of images to text, redrawing chemical structures, cropping and scaling images, formatting data in readable tables, rewriting entire paragraphs for clarity using academic style, finding sources for quoted parts, adding readable references and much more. This is hard and demanding and is essentially "plumbing"-grade work, but is the ultimate solution for creating an environment pleasant to work in.

Once the cleanup is done and the community has a new question that is pleasant to read and to simply look at, optionally suggest the new user to have a look at your edit and provide concrete details as to how they could do this themselves.

Unless the new user is pea-brained, the curiosity usually takes over, and they naturally and gradually start to integrate into the community and adopt the rules. The beauty in doing this fast edit for the user is that it allows them to feel more welcomed than if they received a canned "welcome to Chem.SE" comment with approving empty words. An edit is personal, caring, and creates an exemplary behavior. Also, in the end of the day monkey see — monkey do. Sounds rough but works.

One should probably develop a habit of taking such editorial care of the question they answer. Rephrasing

When you've finished washing and dressing each morning, you must tend your planet.
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

When answering a question, spend a little extra time and effort in order to bring it to an exemplary form — after all, with your answer you show that you perceived the question as worthwhile, and therefore leaving it in an indecent form was negligence on your part.

A few notes on problem statement:


Most questions asked by new users are closed, and not as duplicate.

Closing is not a final act, and can easily be undone once the post is fixed. Closing should not be an issue for the new users, rather a motivation to improve upon.


When I was a new user, I did not take the tour, I did not read the FAQs, I just answered a question. I did not pay attention to when it was asked, or research other questions on the site.

I would count this as a survivorship bias. I also don't like reading rules, but I spent a good couple of weeks reading Q&As and got a basic understanding by thinking and doing my homework on behaviorism studies. In the meantime I got a warning for target upvoting (the poor soul was orthocresol, long story with a good end:) )

As the result I pretty much never got unexplained downvotes or got involved in serious miscommunication (and I'm not a native English speaker), so personally I wouldn't recommend a cold dive (i.e. posting anything spontaneously) for the new users: at least look around first and see how the site works.


In 2022, new users probably are on their phone

This is a conscious choice, and the person is supposed to hold responsible for their choices. Smartphones these days are still not meant for any serious content creation, only consumption. Sorry, but if you are using a phone for making posts which are supposed to be formatted properly and you fail to do so, it's a glaring sign that you are using the wrong tool for the job.

If you are still doing so and you are proud of it, or constantly complain how unfair norms of typography are, you are likely either a hypocrite, or a masochist. There is virtually no excuse not to use a refurbished and rock-solid Dell/ThinkPad laptop from 2012–2015 era which would cost \$50 to \$100 which is cheaper than any entry-level smartphone.


they probably click impatiently through the steps to ask their question (as a guest or as a newly signed-up user), and expect an answer in the next couple of minutes.

I completely agree. At this stage if you want to keep user around, it's more important to shift the focus from improvement to asking refining questions in the comments or suggest crude solution or post a DOI to the related work. A new user expects a reaction, and, in many cases, reaction time matters more than the response itself.

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    $\begingroup$ I wish I could upvote this more than once, because I really agree on the central message - I think editing is the answer, and I know you are one of the few people around who still do substantial edits. I only disagree on one point: I do think comments saying hi/welcome are still 'nice', and although deleting them takes up more work, it's not really all that much effort. One might argue that it's not in line with SE philosophy, and I'd be inclined to agree, but well. Also, funny how the story about targeted upvoting resurfaces every now and then. ;) $\endgroup$ Aug 11 at 22:45
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    $\begingroup$ (cont.) I'm really, really, busy with my thesis now, but this is the sort of thing which makes me want to come back in a couple of months after it's done, and contribute more edits of the kind I used to do in years past. I can't promise it, but ... $\endgroup$ Aug 11 at 22:48
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    $\begingroup$ @orthocresol Ah, I'm afraid this is a cultural thing. As you are probably aware of, I'm from the society where any sign of niceness from a stranger is treated with great distrust, and a smile is at the very least suspicious. That's just how I look at things. So, yeah, as I said, there is a good portion of subjectivity in this answer. $\endgroup$
    – andselisk Mod
    Aug 11 at 22:49
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, I think we've chatted about that before too. And that's fine, tbh. I don't think you are not nice in any way. Maybe the distinction is between 'superficially nice' and 'actually being kind' -- one takes more effort, and I respect it more, but it doesn't exclude the other. $\endgroup$ Aug 11 at 22:49
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    $\begingroup$ @andselisk Thanks for writing this. I don't think it is a niche opinion. I also have to say that I have always felt your expertise in every single comment, and that is welcoming as well. Just to make sure, $\mathrm{p}K_\mathrm{a} \mathrm{p}K_\mathrm{a} \mathrm{p}K_\mathrm{a} \mathrm{p}K_\mathrm{a} \mathrm{p}K_\mathrm{a} \mathrm{p}K_\mathrm{a} \mathrm{p}K_\mathrm{a} \mathrm{p}K_\mathrm{a} \mathrm{p}K_\mathrm{a} \mathrm{p}K_\mathrm{a}$ $\endgroup$
    – Karsten Mod
    Aug 12 at 0:29
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    $\begingroup$ Wish I could upvote this twice. You’ve definitely made me thing about some things. $\endgroup$ Aug 12 at 1:59
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Comments that encourage to edit

Here is a sample comment that points out how the post could be improved, and how you would go about it:

Your questions looks like a homework exercise or an exam question. Could you edit your question, adding which part of this exercise you were able to do, and where you got stuck? This will improve the question, and it will make it more likely that you get a good answer.

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    $\begingroup$ I think this "template" is a nice welcoming way to new users esp. students. My criterion is that if were that young, which becomes obvious from the Q, did I know these things or not? $\endgroup$
    – AChem
    Aug 11 at 17:32
  • $\begingroup$ I really like how nicely this reads. Not antagonist or accusatory in any way. $\endgroup$ Aug 12 at 1:59
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    $\begingroup$ @MelanieShebel Trying to be moderate ... $\endgroup$
    – Karsten Mod
    Aug 12 at 3:24
  • $\begingroup$ There were lots of such templates and pretty much only new mod-helpers bother with them. Only a matter of time to find out that they are mostly a waste of time. $\endgroup$
    – Mithoron
    Aug 13 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Mithoron What are the metrics that show this does or does not work? $\endgroup$
    – Karsten Mod
    Aug 13 at 19:54
  • $\begingroup$ I am not sure how you would even measure whether they are working or not. I don't think there is proof that they work, but equivalently, neither is there proof that they don't work. $\endgroup$ Aug 14 at 1:45
  • $\begingroup$ @KarstenTheis Well, I'm talking from experience, but you could probably dig up some numbers of questions edited by OP after being commented upon. $\endgroup$
    – Mithoron
    Aug 14 at 17:40
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You shouldn't. This doesn't work. It just results in more noise, which drives away the experts and quality-minded users that you are trying to attract. Take it from the moderator team who has been cleaning up this noise for the past decade on Stack Overflow.

There's nothing "welcoming" about noisy comments. This is a Q&A site, not an in-person interaction. Do not try to make fit what would be natural if you were greeting someone in person.

If you want to encourage new users to become better contributors, then focus on (A) improving your Help Center and/or Meta advice, and (B) making the site a better place with higher-quality posts and no broken windows.

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    $\begingroup$ This is not StackOverflow $\endgroup$ Aug 13 at 11:06
  • $\begingroup$ I will comment, which cracks me up. The Chemistry site has the following on their help page: When should I comment? You should submit a comment if you want to: Request clarification from the author; Leave constructive criticism that guides the author in improving the post; Add relevant but minor or transient information to a post (e.g. a link to a related question, or an alert to the author that the question has been updated). $\endgroup$
    – Karsten Mod
    Aug 13 at 11:21
  • $\begingroup$ Could you clarify whether moderator intervention is the only way to get rid of comments. Why don't they just expire automatically? Although I would be sad to lose the "Related:" links in the comments. $\endgroup$
    – Karsten Mod
    Aug 13 at 11:24
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    $\begingroup$ Well, you pretty much wrote what andselisk said better. $\endgroup$
    – Mithoron
    Aug 13 at 19:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Mithoron did andselisk say it better or did Cody say it better? Your sentence could be interpreted both ways. $\endgroup$ Aug 14 at 1:44
  • $\begingroup$ @KarstenTheis they don't expire automatically. Diamond mods can delete comments, and if the flags to upvotes ratio becomes too high, then regular users can also get them deleted via flagging. For some comments, only one flag is necessary. I think this is all way off topic though for a comment on an answer. I'd answer in more detail if you asked on Meta.SE but you would need to check for a duplicate before asking there. $\endgroup$ Aug 14 at 1:47
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    $\begingroup$ "There are almost always more useful things to do than to stress about comments." Meta.SE $\endgroup$
    – Karsten Mod
    Aug 14 at 2:25
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    $\begingroup$ I mean this answer is redundant. $\endgroup$
    – Mithoron
    Aug 14 at 17:41
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(Throwing my own thoughts into the hat just because I believe in a middle ground between Andselisk's and Karsten's opinions)

People, who were active on the site a year or so ago, would remember me as one of the more prolific editors wherein I tried to fix any question that I felt deserved merit and was from someone I believed would return to the site. I was ready to go above and beyond in order to clear up old questions (which in turn gave me the copy editor badge, thanks for the added bonus SE :D ).

However I didn't start this way. In fact my first question here (>10k rep needed) was downvoted to -2 before I voted to delete it. It was even closed for being too vague by others.

enter image description here

This didn't make me quit. It just got me to look around the place more.

10 days later, still a 1 rep user I posted my next post. (It was meant to be a comment, but as a 1 rep user I had nothing to go on). An answer with upvotes and that started to give me some confidence. Emboldened by this, I answered my next question. This was the result.

enter image description here

So yes, being a new user is rough. However, all we can do is guide the newer members by telling them and showing them how it is done here. It isn't on us to keep the place alive by catering to them. As long as someone comes here with the desire to learn, they won't leave because somebody closed their question with a -3 score. Teach them what their limits are in terms of how well a post can be made with the right research. Show them ways to do it. In the end, worst case scenario, we end up with less cluttered questions.

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime"


Possible comments that can be used

As orthocresol (our resident otter) pointed out in the comments, there is a tool you can use to send comments without needing to copy paste. Auto Review Comments

Here are a few examples of what I used to use.

Welcome to Chemistry! What have you attempted to do with regards to the answer to this question? We need to make sure we aren't doing your homework for you.

Welcome to Chemistry! What efforts have you made to get the answer to your question? Effort is the imaginary currency you use in chem SE to gain answers.

We have a policy which states that ‎you should show your thoughts, effort and attempts to understand underlying principles and solve the question. It'll make us certain that ‎we aren't doing your homework for you. ( As homework is considered literal homework, self-study questions, puzzles, worked examples etc.) Please provide your full reasoning or thoughts on this, otherwise, the question may get closed.‎ See Homework

Welcome to Chemistry! For formatting, See here and here. For a more detailed MathJax guide, look here, minor other details

Finitum

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    $\begingroup$ Hehe, resident otter. I never thought of orthocresol that way. But I wonder if you got that from his avatar picture? I think that one is a cub seal. Great post in any case. Would be good to see more you here. $\endgroup$
    – Buck Thorn Mod
    Aug 20 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ @BuckThorn. his profile picture and his farewell post were the two reasons (ignorance is bliss :P ). I can't promise to answer more nowadays, but i'll be around with the edits. :D $\endgroup$ Aug 21 at 9:24

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