Concept: a new Mastodon UX for asking questions

Posted by Matt Birchler
β€” 4 min read
Close up photo of an iPhone running Ivory for Mastodon with a new question mark icon as a post type

So you know how sometimes you can't figure something out so you ask a question on social media to see if anyone can help? And then do you know how you get the answer you need, but people keep replying to you with suggestions even after you got the answer you need? This happens to me basically every time I ask a question, and don't get me wrong, I very much appreciate the help, but I do feel bad whenever I have to tell people, "we actually sorted this out," especially when they had to do some work to give me an answer.

Current solutions

I've tried a few things in the past:

  1. Do nothing and hope people see the answers they were going to give in the replies and just favorite the post they agree with. This isn't super effective as I find people don't often look at other replies, especially when the post was boosted into their feed and Mastodon may not show them all the replies due to federation quirks.
  2. Edit the post with a link to the answer. This can work pretty well, but I've found many Mastodon apps cache posts in your feed locally, and don't update them when edits are made, so people not on the web interface might be seeing the pre-edit post and not know I had the question answered.
  3. Delete the post. It does stop people from replying to the question, but it also removes the question from the web, meaning other people can't see the Q&A if they have a similar question.

I think editing is probably the best current solution, but it's definitely imperfect.

Also, we're talking about Mastodon here, Threads makes this solution even less viable since they stop letting you edit posts 5 minutes after you post them.

Something similar

Looking at other things you can post on Mastodon, polls are pretty similar in that they have:

  1. A prompt
  2. Specific sorts of feedback requested
  3. An end time when the poll locks down
  4. After this time, no more votes can be submitted, but people can see the results

When I think about when I post a question, the steps are quite similar:

  1. A prompt (aka the question)
  2. Specific sorts of feedback requested (answers to the question)
  3. An end state when the question is answered
  4. After answered, no more answers are needed, and the best answer should be viewable

Building off this workflow

Showing the question mark icon in the post actions

We could implement a new option when creating a post specifically for "asking a question." The button to do this would appear next to the current "poll" option, and like the poll button. I don't know how much it would need to change the UI, but simply flagging the post as a question might be enough.

Once it's posted, here's what it might look like in the feed.

Showing a question mark icon in the top right of the post as well as a drop zone where the best answer will be when the answer is given

Many tweaks to be made, but I'd hope for some indication that this was a "question" format post and that it is awaiting someone to provide the best answer. Again, I'm doing this quickly so you're getting a first draft only πŸ˜‰

People could reply to this post like normal, and the original poster would see a button on each reply allowing them to choose that as the best answer to the question.

A standard Mastodon post UI with a checkmark icon added to mark this as the best answer

When the original poster found an answer they liked, they could hit the checkmark button to mark this as the best answer. Optionally, it would be nice if they could also specify that further replies should be muted so that the question asker isn't getting pestered with more replies after they got what they needed. You could argue a full on block of further replies could be done here too, but I do like the idea of a conversation being allowed to happen in the replies if people disagree with the chosen answer and want to share their opinions as well for the benefit of other people seeing this post.

Selecting a best answer would behave like an "edit" action on the post, and would add the chosen answer underneath the question. Although just like the local cache issue we have today with edits not appearing consistently in apps, this could still be an issue in some cases.

Showing the selected answer as a sort of quote post below the question. it's marked clearly as the best answer

Now anyone seeing this question in their feed could see the question, see the chosen answer, and favorite the answer if they agree with it or reply with something else if they think they have something better. If the question asker said to mute further replies, then they would be blissfully ignorant to these additional comments.

Let's be realistic

Let's be real, this isn't the top priority for Mastodon, and I'm sure there are technical and user experience reasons why some parts of this concept are imperfect (I did say it was a first draft, after all). But I wanted to put something together because I thought it would be fun.

This is also a rabbit hole one could get sucked into, with tons of features that could be added. Maybe other people could vote on which answer was best. Maybe people could vote the chosen best answer up or down. Maybe someone could see the question and subscribe to get a notification when the best answer was chosen so they can learn the answer as well. At that point we've built a mini Stack Overflow and not just a different post type.

Anyway, I think it would be cool if i could mark a question as "answered" but I'm open to the idea that this is a really niche situation that most people don't need.