Six Lines

Responding to Opinion-oriented Questions on Stack Exchange Sites

Posted by Aaron Massey on 09 Dec 2016.

Stack Overflow and the many Stack Exchange sites it spawned have become a staple for anyone looking to answer questions about how to do something. Part of the reason for this is their policy on closing questions with no definitive answer. This policy separates Stack Exchange from the many discussion-oriented Q&A sites that came before it, and there are many benefits resulting from this policy

Asking good questions is a skill. I can personally attest to this from my years as a Site Admin for the Gentoo Linux forums. Helping people answer opinion-oriented questions is not easy for a variety of reasons. Many plausible solutions exist. Anyone who took the time to write a detailed response only to find that many other community members disagree with them could be upset or insulted. As these discussions grow, the chance that they devolve into pointless bickering increases. Worse, when someone else stumbles onto the discussion later on, the “best” answer is hard to discern and may require reading pages and pages of old forum posts. In fact, these are many of the reasons Stack Overflow was created to begin with.

Unfortunately, Stack Exchange’s policy on opinion-oriented questions also comes with disadvantages. It requires continual policing of questions. It limits the scope of possible questions on the site. Discerning a bright line differentiation between “opinion” and “best practice” is sometimes extremely challenging. It can be off-putting to new users who are unaware of the reason for the policy.

Wikipedia’s policy on Verifiability has similar tradeoffs. Wikipedia is not interested in content that is “true;” they are interested in content that is verifiable. It has a history that is simultaneously unintuitive and critical to the success of the site. And it is similarly off-putting to new users. There are many valid reasons for this outlined in their page on the policy, but new users may simply find the concept to be obtuse and unwelcoming.

One clear difference between Wikipedia and Stack Exchange sites1 is the fragmented communities on Stack Exchange sites. Contributors and editors on Wikipedia are all working on the same site. Many different communities exist on Stack Exchange. Even if they are using the same general principles, what may be “best practice” in one site could be viewed as “opinion” on another, leading for greater potential confusion and frustration.

Stack Exchange sites do have one clear advantage over Wikipedia that could allow them to soften the blow, particularly for new users: they can recommend other places to ask opinion-oriented questions. Wikipedia, on the other hand, has essentially no recourse to offer anyone attempting to post something that’s not verifiable.

Stack Exchange moderators could either convert opinion-oriented questions to a list of places where they can be discussed or to curate such a list and provide it directly in the comment when putting questions on hold. A list is not subjective. Either the individual elements on the list support that opinion-oriented discussion or they don’t. More importantly, list-oriented questions are common on Stack Exchange sites. Here are a few of my favorites:

The benefit is clear: “We don’t answer subjective questions, but these places do” is far more welcoming than “We don’t answer subjective questions.” If Stack Exchange is neither interested nor well-positioned for this type of discussion, then a curated list of places where these discussions take place could be used in virtually every response to a subjective question of this nature.

Having said that, the Stack Exchange community is not consistent in their application of their general policies regarding opinion-oriented questions. Some sites, include Theoretical Computer Science and TeX, support big-list tags and some don’t. Some sites even support a soft-question tags that allows for some relaxing of the opinion-oriented question policy. Others don’t. Mathoverflow is even internally inconsistent about this. A question asking for recommendations for a popular math book was closed, but a similar question seeking a recommendation for a probability book remains open.

Stack Exchange encourages cross-site posting. Users can use the same account credentials on all Stack Exchange sites. Users even get bonus starter reputation when “joining” a new site if they are an established member elsewhere. Thus, when someone starts a new hobby, like photography or woodworking, they can easily transition to asking questions in other Stack Exchange sites. Inconsistent or flatly different applications of the opinion-oriented question policy can lead to unnecessary frustration, particularly for users coming from sites with a lenient applications to those with stringent applications.

If Stack Exchange sites care about their users, they should take steps to improve responses to opinion-oriented questions. The messages that are automatically posted when questions are closed are critical. That’s why the defaults were updated in the most recent round of changes. There’s no reason not to include a short list of alternative places where opinion-oriented discussions can take place, even for sites that don’t typically support big-list or soft-question tags. The last resort of every Q&A site should be to provide a list of other places that could help.

  1. Other than non-profit status…