I think that the "unclear what you're asking" close reason is being overused for questions people dislike, or which don't explain themselves well, even when the question isn't unclear.

Going through all of the "unclear what you're asking" close votes, I think this is the full list for the past month (from the closed votes queue, so excluding reopened posts and posts closed by a moderator):

  1. Comment on kashrus (deleted)

  2. Why did Shabbos exist when there was no electricity? Isn't Shabbos all about not doing מלאכה which is basically electronics?

  3. Is an employee obligated to leave in the middle of the day to honor his father (deleted)

  4. The service of G-d (deleted)

  5. Parents of old age and children of 'disability'

  6. If a jewish man "marries" a non-jewish woman in a goyish court, can zealots attack him?

  7. Is a Jew allowed to marry a non-observant Jew?

  8. Can a woman divorce her husband and then convert to Judaism?

I think this is a problem because

  • 6/8 of these questions weren't unclear to me, subjectively. (The first and fourth question in the list would, in my opinion, fall under the old "not a real question" close reason.)

  • 2/8 (6, 8) of these questions were received positively (score of +1 or more). More people thought that the question "shows research effort; it is useful and clear" than who thought "this question does not show any research effort; it is unclear or not useful."

  • 5/8 (2, 4, 6, 7, 8) of these questions received at least one answer (now scoring +8, +0, +4, +0, +6). Evidently the question wasn't unclear, if someone understood it.

  • 4/6 (1, 2, 3, 4) of these questions were answered, or their assumption was challenged, in the comments (often in the very comment that declared it "unclear," which makes it seem as if the question was considered so stupid that it had to be closed). Those should have been answers, not comments. If the question has a wrong assumption, it just means the person who asked didn't know something that could have been given to answer the question.

  • 5/8 (1, 2, 4, 7, 8) questions were by someone with <50 reputation who doesn't necessarily know what peoples' standards are for questions. Anecdotally, I see a lot of new users saying that they don't understand why people are "playing dumb" and not understanding the question. Ideally, a question should be self-contained and not require outside knowledge in order to answer it. But lacking that, it's still answerable.

  • Looking through the top questions, I think many would have been closed by the standards people are applying to "unclear what you're asking" these days. I don't think such questions should be discouraged.

  • Regardless of site policy, people don't like having their questions closed. The Stack Overflow blog agrees with this (with regard to the "closed" terminology):

    Having your question closed feels lousy; there’s no doubt about it. Now, we don’t care as much about nice as we do about quality – but that’s not a real dichotomy. We can be more constructive in conveying our standards without lowering them one bit. And we need to, because whether we liked it or not:
    Having your question closed feels like a personal attack.

    "Closing" has now been changed to "putting on hold," but I still think that this is potentially true. Closing will, no doubt, remain part of the site, but I think we should exercise more caution when doing something that can be construed as a personal attack.

I think that this close reason (among others) is being used as a super downvote (mentioned here in this post), and that we should have a little more restraint before voting to close a question as unclear when it can be answered. Does anyone else think this is or isn't problematic?

  • I agree wholeheartedly! – רבות מחשבות Jul 9 at 19:38
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    Personally, this is why I stopped actively participating on this site. – BSteinhurst Jul 11 at 21:00
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    This site is very dogmatic and is run by a very biased (in one direction) staff. It is so serious I doubt this site can be called "Judaism", maybe "American Litaism" or "Avrechism", but it certainly does not speak in the name of "Judaism" of all the (even Haredi) branches. In the name of "the Truth", of course. – Al Berko Jul 12 at 18:26
  • @AlBerko This site is not run by a staff. The rules are decided by the community, and are enforced by members of the community with a certain amount of reputation. Anyone with > 3,000 reputation can vote to close questions, and by my count there are 113 users that fall into that category. That means that there are 113 different people who can be involved in closing and reopening questions. (If some of them choose to not get involved that is their prerogative.) – Alex Jul 12 at 18:52
  • I would like to see the distribution of their profiles... How can I get the names? – Al Berko Jul 12 at 20:08
  • @AlBerko judaism.stackexchange.com/users?tab=moderators – b a Jul 12 at 20:18
  • @AlBerko judaism.meta.stackexchange.com/q/4051/9682 – DonielF Jul 15 at 14:25

I can only speak for myself, but as I think I voted to close all eight of the questions here I imagine this post is directed specifically to me and a few others.

I agree with the premise that it is certainly plausible that questions get closed as "unclear" for the wrong reasons, and it may even be sometimes because the voters are "abusing" their votes to close questions they don't like.

That said, I don't think the problem is as great as you describe.

First of all (and I say this despite the Meta post that you linked), I think having a question put on hold is made into a bigger deal than it actually is.

Putting a question on hold is not something negative. It is simply a way of letting the questioner know that he should attempt to clarify certain points in the question. On-hold does not mean "closed". It is relatively easy to "fix" a post that was placed on hold. More often than not there are comments pointing out the unclear part, or it is relatively obvious what is unclear (once the questioner is informed that there is something unclear).

As an example, I asked a question yesterday that was pretty quickly closed by Double AA. The question was not a basic two sentence question; I had actually invested a lot of time and effort into writing it. However, Double AA left a comment explaining what he thought was unclear. I left a comment explaining why I thought it was clear, plus I edited the question to make it even more clear. The question was reopened shortly thereafter, with no harm to anyone.

I think the problem might be that new users don't understand the process of putting questions on hold. Perhaps the notice needs to have a better explanation of what it means, and explain how the situation can be rectified. For example, maybe it should explicitly state something along the lines of:

Please do not be discouraged that your question was placed on hold. Placing a question on hold does not mean that it is a bad question. It just means that as it is currently written there may be some ambiguities. In order for us to be able to provide you with the best possible answer, please edit the question to clarify precisely what you are asking. As soon as you edit the question, it will automatically be sent to a queue to be reviewed for reopening.

I may be wrong on this, but it seems to me that most new users who have questions placed on hold do not come back to fix them. I think if we emphasize that placing a question on hold is not a punishment, and it is very easy to resolve, they will stick around to fix it and everything will be fine.

In lieu of a revised notice, perhaps someone can leave a comment explaining how the system works. I know that in general when I vote-to-close as unclear I leave a comment explaining what is unclear to me (unless someone else already did or it is very obvious), as you can see in several of the examples here, and I would encourage all voters to do the same.

Additionally, if someone is dissatisfied with a particular vote on a particular question they can always challenge/discuss it, either in Chat or Meta.

Another important point is that your point that some of these questions have answers (or comments that are answers), even highly voted answers, is not necessarily relevant to the question of whether the question was unclear. I would guess that people often post answers even if they are not entirely sure what the question is, because they have a general idea of the topic, and they feel they have useful information to share (and they might earn reputation). Others might upvote the answer because it contains interesting or useful information, but that doesn't mean that it actually addressed what the questioner was really asking. (A better metric, perhaps, would be how many "unclear" questions have accepted answers.) I think the entire point of placing questions on hold is to prevent answers before we are sure exactly what the question is.

A final point is that many of the questions mentioned here have been edited after people voted to close them. So while looking at the question as it currently stands might make it seem as though the question is fine, it is possible that it was actually unclear when it was voted on and has since been improved (which is the whole point). I myself have voted to reopen questions that I had voted to close, either because they were improved or because a comment caused me to rethink my position.

So in sum, I don't think this is such a big issue. What I think should be done to make things better is that people should try to always leave comments explaining what was unclear, and we should have a better explanation for the process of placing a question on hold (either in the notice, in comments, or both). Also, perhaps there should be an inbox notification that a questioner receives stating that the question was put on hold. As it stands now, someone might not even be aware that his question was put on hold. (In fact this just happened to me on another site. I was looking at my profile and I saw that one of my questions was on hold. As no one had left a comment, I had not even been informed.) And of course if you disagree with the vote on a specific question by all means bring it up in Chat or Meta; remember, almost any action can be reversed.

(I realize that this is very similar to my other answer, but it is not quite the same, and it is entirely rewritten with the points expressed better (in my opinion). I don't want to radically edit the other one, as it already has votes.)

I don't think this is a problem. In fact, to go to the extreme, I don't think it would be a(n inherent) problem if every single question posted was put on hold. This is because a question being on hold just means that we want more clarification as to what the precise question is. It is nothing bad, it is not a punishment, it is not revenge.

The actual problem here, in my opinion, is that too many questions that are put on hold end up getting closed. I believe this is a problem because in theory 0% of questions put on hold (for the reason of "unclear"; other reasons will be different) should end up getting closed. This is because it is eminently reasonable that, given five days to do so, someone should be able to clarify his question enough that < 5 people feel it is unclear. It does not take much effort to do this. There are three different platforms in which one can discuss with others what the ambiguities in the question are. He can leave a comment to the post itself, ask about it in Chat, or bring it up as a specific question in Meta. It should not take more than a few comments back and forth to clarify what people think is unclear, and once that is done it is a matter of a simple edit to add the needed clarity to the post.

As soon as the questioner makes an edit to the question, the question is automatically sent to the review queue to be nominated for reopening. That means that if the questioner actually edited in clarification, there is no reason why the question wouldn't be reopened in a timely fashion. It is not even necessary for the original voters to reverse their opinion. Any five voters (or any one moderator) can overturn the previous vote.

Considering that it is so easy to fix an unclear question (assuming that the underlying question itself is otherwise a fit for Mi Yodeya), why is it that there are questions that end up getting closed? I assume that this is for one of three reasons:

  • The questioners, especially new users, do not understand how the system works. When they see that their questions have been put on hold they simply give up on the question.
  • It is hard for the questioners to clarify their questions because they are not receiving feedback as to what is unclear about their questions.
  • The questioners don't know that there questions have been put on hold.

Resolving these three problems should be very simple. Someone voting that a question is unclear should leave a comment explaining what is unclear (if there is no such comment already). Additionally, there should be a good explanation of the on-hold system provided to the questioner, either in the official notice or in a comment. If a comment is left, the questioner will also be notified that the question is on hold.

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    When a question is put on hold, it is closed in all but name, and has to be reopened again with five votes. If people always voted to reopen when the problems were fixed, then maybe you would be right about that, but they don't. Reopen votes are heavily biased towards the status quo - 70 of the last 100 reopen votes are for leaving the question closed, – b a Jul 12 at 19:33
  • and that's not counting the many questions that don't make it into the queue at all because no one took the initiative to cast the first reopen vote (though also not including votes not from the reopen page). Maybe that's how you vote, and how everyone should vote, but most "on hold" questions get permanently closed, even for users who do edit the question. Not only that, sometimes they also continue to accumulate close votes even after being edited for clarity. I don't know why, but it happens. – b a Jul 12 at 19:33
  • And I think your view of "on hold" is too harsh. I think close votes are supposed to mean this question doesn't belong on the site. You think it should mean this question needs improvement. I think questions should be improved by asking for clarification in the comments, not through totally closing the question. Even if theoretically it shouldn't be, close votes are functionally a punishment (namely, not having your question answerable), whether that is the intention in closing the question or not. – b a Jul 12 at 19:38
  • @ba If a question is actually closed then that means that it doesn't belong on this site. When a question is put on hold it means that we're not sure what exactly the question is asking. If it is clarified and shown to be a real question then it does belong on this site. If it cannot be clarified in five days, then it does not belong on this site. The problem, I think, is not with questions that can't be clarified. The problem is that the questions that can be clarified are not getting clarified. – Alex Jul 12 at 19:42
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    and that's not counting the many questions that don't make it into the queue at all because no one took the initiative to cast the first reopen vote If the question is edited (within the five day hold period) it automatically enters the queue. If it was not edited, why would you expect someone to tale the initiative to cast the first reopen vote? – Alex Jul 12 at 19:45
  • I think "unclear what you're asking" should be used only when a question is so unclear as to be unanswerable. Apparently you don't. I'm not aware of a canonical answer to this. Not everyone has the knowledge, time and patience to make their question perfect, but an imperfect question isn't unclear by my own standards. It's every individual's choice what to mark as unclear, but I still think that it would be better if people relaxed what they saw as unclear. – b a Jul 12 at 20:16
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    @ba See here: If a question should be put on hold, then it's still better in my opinion to do it than to wait and let more answers accumulate (possibly based on faulty assumptions, if the question is unclear). – Alex Jul 12 at 20:23
  • @ba As an example, see here. the questioner asked: why does one get kareit for eating an olive's volume of leavened bread on Passover? I answered: Because God said so. and I cited a verse. The answer got three upvotes. In my opinion that is not a very good/useful answer. But the problem was that the question was unclear. >cont. – Alex Jul 12 at 20:30
  • <cont. The question should have been put on hold until the questioner explained what he was really asking (see my comment there), which would have prevented my useless answer (and 30 arguably undeserved reputation). Indeed, it was eventually put on hold and closed. – Alex Jul 12 at 20:30
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. – b a Jul 12 at 20:59

Both the question as well as Alex's answers convey valid points. But, here's my brief thoughts regarding this.

"Being nice" is a nice and noble action. But, I think novices as well as experienced M.Y. members are getting to sensitive about some things that occur here. They think a downvote or a question put on hold or closed (and, BTW, most of the time, closing is based on votes. Occasionally, a moderator will close a question, immediately.) is a personal attack or insult.

My general advice - this is a web site just as others are. Most people, here are nice. Some are not nice and some are .. well, let's say, "worse than that". You can't help or control that. Even, if for some reason someone really does attack you personally, whether in actuality or perception, calm down.

In short, if your question is closed, on hold or downvoted, think it over and analyze why. If you're not sure why, ask. If you disagree with the decision, say so. And, if you still don't get the answer you like, really ... live with it, don't sit and stew over it. Just ask or answer the next question. But, seriously, a few closed question on a web site shouldn't ruin your day or your life! Remember ... it's a web site, not a person!

  • I don't think you're addressing the problem, because I think that most people who vote to close aren't not nice about it. But if the niceness were a problem, it is a person, not a website, on both sides. This is good advice for a person who is traumatized by his questions being closed, but it doesn't address whether the actual voting to close is a good idea or not. – b a Jul 14 at 19:30
  • Fair enough point, b a. I was focusing on the bolded part that said that "Having your question closed feels like a personal attack". But, in re-reading that, you were citing SE's phrasing, so, it may not reflect your own thinking on this. – DanF Jul 15 at 20:17

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