After an extensive discussion in chat I've come to the conclusion there are some unclarities relating to list questions. In an attempt to tackle this problem in a more constructive format I first want to address a seamingly "simple" issue.

What is a list question?

I'm not interested in discussing whether a list question should be closed or not, whether it is good or bad (unless that is part of the definition of course). I am very well aware of various arguments for and against them and have discussed the subject oft times before. I just want to point out we need a clear unambiguous definition of when a question can be called a "list question" or alternatively why we shouldn't use it as a definition.

Why do we need a definition?

It came to my attention not everybody interprets this the same, but a lot of discussions about them exist nonetheless. To ensure everybody is talking about the same thing I'd like to create a permanent resource clarifying what constitutes a list question.

All too much discussion is going on about this very subject, opinions are formulated around them and moderators even act upon their very interpretation of it. So let's start by coining a proper definition.

From this definition it should be possible to easily state whether a given question is a list question or not. If no consensus can be found, I argue we should stop using the definition in discussions altogether or try to formulate a new definition which is unambiguous.


As an example of what kind of definition I am after, here is a possible definition of a unicorn:

The unicorn is a legendary animal from European folklore that resembles a white horse with a large, pointed, spiraling horn projecting from its forehead, and sometimes a goat's beard.

There no longer is a discussion whether a horse is a unicorn, as it doesn't have "a large, pointed, spiraling horn".

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List question: Non question that needs to be deleted asap. How's that for a definition? –  Yannis Mar 3 '12 at 23:48
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@YannisRizos Nice of you to point out the problem which I'm trying to address. :) –  Steven Jeuris Mar 3 '12 at 23:50
    
Happy to help ;P –  Yannis Mar 3 '12 at 23:51
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The question you really should've asked is: "Hidden features of list questions"... –  Lorem Ipsum Mar 3 '12 at 23:53
    
@yoda: I'm sorry ... I don't understand, hidden features of what? –  Steven Jeuris Mar 3 '12 at 23:55
    
@StevenJeuris meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/57363/… –  Yannis Mar 4 '12 at 0:13
    
@YannisRizos That was meant to be rhetorical. As I hope your first comment was as well coming to think of it. I'm very well aware of the "Hidden features ..." questions. –  Steven Jeuris Mar 4 '12 at 0:15
    
@StevenJeuris Well, my first comment was obviously tongue in cheek, however you know that I'd prefer list questions ousted. –  Yannis Mar 4 '12 at 0:21
    
Out of curiosity, are people down voting this because they feel there is no need for a definition? If so, could you please also leave an answer stating why you feel there is no need for it? Thanks. –  Steven Jeuris Mar 4 '12 at 1:01
    
this question seems to be an example of the list question –  gnat Mar 4 '12 at 7:54
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7 Answers

up vote 15 down vote accepted

I just want to point out we need a clear unambiguous definition of when a question can be called a "list question" or alternatively why we shouldn't use it as a definition.

It's not a definition, a condemnation, or even really a classification.

It's... Shorthand. For straw-polls, GTKYs, discussion threads and the like. Questions that are geared toward creating responses, not answers... It arose before we had these nifty Meta-filter-derived bullets in our FAQs:

To prevent your question from being flagged and possibly removed, avoid asking subjective questions where …

  • every answer is equally valid: “What’s your favorite __?”
  • your answer is provided along with the question, and you expect more answers: “I use _ for _, what do you use?”
  • there is no actual problem to be solved: “I’m curious if other people feel like I do.”
  • we are being asked an open-ended, hypothetical question: “What if __ happened?”
  • it is a rant disguised as a question: “__ sucks, am I right?”

So if you need a quick reference for which questions should and should not be encouraged, or if you need to explain to someone why their question is being closed as "Not Constructive", linking to the FAQ is preferable to using the term "list question" as a pejorative, since it can also be applied to questions where the answer happens to be a list and questions that simply happen to have multiple (finite, objective) correct answers.

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Thank you! Although I seem to be the only one who finds it necessary to form an unambiguous definition, this answer at least states currently "list question", is not a definition, and highly subjective. Very well played going into "or alternatively why we shouldn't use it as a definition" instead of claiming the FAQ is a definition of a list question. –  Steven Jeuris Mar 4 '12 at 13:14
    
But please do note, if there is no definition of what are list questions, just as you say using the term "list question" as a pejorative isn't preferred when closing questions, it shouldn't be preferred when discussing them. –  Steven Jeuris Mar 4 '12 at 13:25
    
Finally don't forget the faq states "equally valid", not just "valid" or "correct" answers. That's what a big part of the discussion is usually about. –  Steven Jeuris Mar 4 '12 at 13:33
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Folks say things all the time out of habit and convenience that aren't, strictly speaking, correct. Using "list question" to discuss these is now a couple of years old, and old habits are hard to break - and in casual conversation, it is much more convenient than layout out a proper definition for the question. However, it has led to some very unfortunate mistakes, especially on newer sites, so I'm glad you brought this up. –  Shog9 Mar 4 '12 at 16:37
    
every question is equally valid: "How do you _ ?" –  Sam Dec 13 '13 at 12:47
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A "list" or "poll" question is a question that cannot be answered definitively. List/poll questions are asking for a list, not a single answer.

The FAQ illustrates this concept nicely:

To prevent your question from being flagged and possibly removed, avoid asking subjective questions where …

  • every answer is equally valid: “What’s your favorite __?”
  • your answer is provided along with the question, and you expect more answers: “I use _ for _, what do you use?”
  • there is no actual problem to be solved: “I’m curious if other people feel like I do.”
  • we are being asked an open-ended, hypothetical question: “What if __ happened?”
  • it is a rant disguised as a question: “__ sucks, am I right?”
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So, a question which asks for a limited list of items which can be objectively rated in value, and asks for a summary of each item isn't a list question? –  Steven Jeuris Mar 4 '12 at 1:08
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Such questions are sometimes allowed if their scope is narrow enough that they can be reasonably expected to produce a definitive answer. –  Robert Harvey Mar 4 '12 at 1:13
    
@StevenJeuris Depends on who you ask. I've had questions like that get closed before answers could be made. I'm still not sure how the mods know how definitive an answer is before it's even posted! –  Pubby Mar 4 '12 at 1:15
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@Pubby: We don't, not always anyway. But we don't really have the luxury of waiting... if it is clear that your question is a list or poll, you take your chances. –  Robert Harvey Mar 4 '12 at 1:16
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@RobertHarvey The problem with this 'faq' definition is a) It doesn't mention 'list' in any way. b) It seems to imply 'list question' is a synonym for 'question which should be closed'. c) As stated in my comment, and your subsequent answer, there are questions which people could interpret as list questions which some people allow. How do you label those and how do you differentiate between them? –  Steven Jeuris Mar 4 '12 at 1:20
    
The scope of the "list question" doesn't extend beyond the passages which I've quoted in the FAQ here. If you have a definition you've found somewhere else, I'd be very glad to see it. –  Robert Harvey Mar 4 '12 at 1:23
    
It seems to imply 'list question' is a synonym for 'question which should be closed' -- No, it doesn't. There are other reasons one might close a question; they are enumerated in the "Close Reasons," the bullets you see when you vote to close a question. –  Robert Harvey Mar 4 '12 at 1:23
    
how do you differentiate between them? -- I already explained that: some "list" questions are allowed if their scope is narrow enough that they can be reasonably expected to produce a definitive answer. –  Robert Harvey Mar 4 '12 at 1:25
    
@RobertHarvey The luxury of waiting is called 'letting the users close it'. I'll spend 30 minutes on a good question only to have the mods insta-close it and write out their 10 second idea of how it should be. –  Pubby Mar 4 '12 at 1:25
    
@Pubby: If you could rely on users to always close questions when they should be closed, you wouldn't need moderators. Why are you spending 30 minutes writing questions that are borderline off-topic? Nobody does that. On my worst day, it might take me 10 minutes to write up a question that's actually on-topic. –  Robert Harvey Mar 4 '12 at 1:27
    
@RobertHarvey Unfortunately, 'when they should be closed' is the opinion of the moderators, not the community. The 30 minutes is perhaps an overstatement, although I do spend a long time rewriting and researching to fit the site. –  Pubby Mar 4 '12 at 1:35
    
@Pubby: If you're spending that much time composing a question only for it to get closed, you need to rethink your approach. It is not just the opinion of the moderators. You should read this: meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/124439/… A –  Robert Harvey Mar 4 '12 at 1:37
    
If, "The scope of the "list question" doesn't extend beyond the passages which I've quoted in the FAQ here.", then you aren't defining whether a list question is what the faq describes, or the exact opposite, or you leave it entirely open to interpretation, which is what I'm trying to prevent. Judging from your reply: "some "list" questions are allowed if their scope is narrow enough that they can be reasonably expected to produce a definitive answer." linking to the faq as a definition of 'list question' is highly inappropriate. It only mentions what could constitute a bad question. –  Steven Jeuris Mar 4 '12 at 1:45
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@StevenJeuris: It is a limited exception, a judgement call. If a question, in spite of it being in one of the verboten categories, is still focused enough to have a reasonable probability of producing one or maybe two "right" answers, sometimes the community will allow it. –  Robert Harvey Mar 4 '12 at 2:10
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@StevenJeuris You seem to be derailing your own question. Lists/polls are sufficiently defined as Robert explained. The issue of whether a list question should be closed on sight it's an entirely different one - albeit one with a definitive answer: yes, unless for very specific questions that "are narrow enough that they can be reasonably expected to produce a definitive answer". We can't really expand the FAQ to explain every weird edge case in painstaking detail, can we? –  Yannis Mar 4 '12 at 2:10
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List questions are generally just recommendations in a bad disguise (though not always), generally taking the form "What are some X?" or "What is a good resource for Y?"

List questions are so-called because they result in the answers being an itemized list. Often they'll receive 10 or more one-line answers that have no explanation. For example:

What are some good beginner programming books? One post per answer please!


Book X! - answerer1


Book Y! - answerer2


Book Z! - answerer3

On the other hand, it's possible for single answers to contain lists without resulting in a itemized list. For example:

When I try to compile this short program:

<code>

I get this error: "Blibbidi blah in the bloobiddi blorp". I Googled it but found no results. What do I do?


  1. Cast your pointer to a Frooble* before using it.
  2. Call erase(), not remove().
  3. Do a clean build.

        - answerer1

This answer stands on its own; it's a complete collection of the steps needed to fix the problem. In contrast, the "goood books" question can never have a complete collection of books the community considers good — not everyone will answer the question. Even if they did, the list would become unmanageable.

Questions resulting in itemized lists are discouraged for several reasons:

  • They usually end up incomplete or growing out of control.

  • They don't solve a real problem. If you have a specific issue with something, it's unlikely that a list of 200 books is an effective way to solve it! The FAQ says:

    You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Chatty, open-ended questions diminish the usefulness of our site and push other questions off the front page. [A]void asking subjective questions where ... every answer is equally valid: "What's your favorite _______?"

  • They devolve into popularity contests. People start voting on whether the like or are familiar with a particular item instead of whether the answer solves a problem or explains an issue correctly and well.

  • As noted at the top of this post, they're often shopping questions, which are discouraged for their own reasons.

Edit: It's important to note that many sets of answers can be viewed as a list of items. A question's answers are indicative of the question's nature, but they don't determine it; you need to look at what the question is actually asking. "How can I record gameplay?" is looking for a method of doing something, a solution. "What apps can I use to record gamplay?" is looking for a list of things. The "singular form "What app should I use to record gameplay?" is really no different. Most itemized list questions won't involve a clear problem, implied or otherwise, and that's a major cue.

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So every question which results in an itemized list with short descriptions per answer is a 'list question'? So this gaming question isn't a list question because the answers are more extensive? Or it's just "a question with a separate possible answer per post"? –  Steven Jeuris Mar 4 '12 at 1:31
    
@StevenJeuris Answers tend to be indicative of a question's nature, but they don't determine it. "How can I record demos of my gameplay?" is very different from "What programs can record gameplay?", for example. "How" questions are (barring any strange wordings) about problems and solutions, and you'll note that he's interested in formats and whether he needs special software. Per the FAQ: "if your motivation is 'I would like others to explain ______ to me', then you are probably OK." –  Matthew Read Mar 4 '12 at 1:42
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On the Android site we've often rewritten the latter type into the former -- "What are some X?" becomes "How can I solve my problem?". A distinct advantage of this for the answerer is that they may now get solutions that didn't fit into the "X" category but are still perfectly acceptable to them, as well as receiving answers explaining how the solution fits their particular need and how to apply it. –  Matthew Read Mar 4 '12 at 1:49
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From the above answers, I'll try a possible definition:

A list question is a question which has a large, if not unbounded, number of substantially different correct answers.

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Somebody just didn't agree with your definition. Thanks for the effort though, I feel you made a better attempt at writing down a definition than the other answers. –  Steven Jeuris Mar 4 '12 at 2:39
    
@StevenJeuris: Well, I had hoped to learn why he doesn't agree with my definition. –  celtschk Mar 4 '12 at 2:40
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List questions look for search result answers rather than expert answers.

Generally, the items listed in the FAQ are problematic because they are seeking answers from a community of experts that could be found just as easily with a search engine query. Book recommendations tend to get closed, for instance, because you can often type the same question into Google and get a long list of books. Search results have the advantage of being sorted by an objective algorithm as opposed to our voting system with all it's quirks. Even better, if a new book comes along, the search engine answer will find it fairly quickly. But the answers on Stack Exchange will only be updated if someone makes the effort. We have better things to do with our time than try to manually replicate the results of an industrial strength search engine.

Sometimes we get into trouble because we falsely equate the usual attributes of a list question to what makes them generally a waste of time. We see that questions of the pattern "Where can I find X online?" are almost always list questions better asked of Google. On the other hand "Where can I find Targum Neofiti online?" turns out to be a great question since search engines fail to turn up any useful results, but an expert was able to track it down. Eventually, this question and answer will be picked up by search engines making the internet just a little bit better.

Since the difference between a list question that should be closed and a list question that is a perfect fit can turn on trivial details, it might actually be better to avoid a concrete definition of the phrase and leave the question of whether to close such questions to the judgement of the community.

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After a discussion here: Should I ask a question on StackExchange sites if and only if I can expect someone to know the complete answer?

I would define list questions like this:

Any question that cannot be completely answered by a single person.

So if multiple answers contribute to the whole picture that's bad. All answers must be complete so the asker can accept the best one.

By this logic the following question would be valid:

What kind control statements exist in C?

Despite I asking for a list, there is likely someone out there, who knows all of them.

But the following is not:

What compiler optimization techniques exist?

I cannot expect anyone to know them all. So it's not allowed...


My personal notes:

Note these are not polls, I'm not asking for your favorite, recommendation and comparison. But still this kind of stuff is not allowed.

In my opinion this attitude is quite bad because these collection questions once were great resources to learn from. Now moderators retroactively close them, and closed questions will be autodeleted after a set period of time. Destroying knowledge.

So if you see one that's closed and you find it useful, archive it, because chances you won't find it anymore tomorrow.

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We only delete the ones that are not useful. For example, the answers are old and out-of-date. Or there were never any good answers to begin with. The rest of them, we leave closed but not deleted. –  Cody Gray Aug 16 '13 at 7:54
    
@CodyGray So there are no autodeletion? I remember something that closed questions got deleted after 6 months. –  Calmarius Aug 16 '13 at 9:08
    
Not of highly upvoted questions. Those are the ones people have indicated are useful. Those must be deleted manually. –  Cody Gray Aug 20 '13 at 11:06
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How I interpret the term list question:

List questions expect or result in a list of items, as opposed to a question where any given correct item (answer) fully answers the question.

Example of a regular question:

  • Q: I have a problem with X. What should I do to get it to work?
  • A: Have you tried doing Y? It should fix the problem.

List questions can exist in two forms:

One item per answer:

  • Q: I am looking for different alternatives to solve X.
  • A: One way to approach this is Y. It is a bit slow, but it's easy to do.
  • A: You could do Z, it's really fast, but insanely difficult.
  • A: You could do P. It's easy, and really fast as well!

Multiple items per answer:

  • Q: I am looking for different alternatives to solve X.
  • A: I know about Y, Z and P. I'd recommend P.
  • A: I know about Y and Z. It's up to you.
  • A: I've always used P, no reason in using anything else.

I explicitly don't want to incorporate any positive or negative feelings towards these type of questions. I just feel using this as a starting point for discussions is more constructive than any other definition listed in other answers here.

Perhaps given the ambiguous definition (at least in my opinion) of the term list question as is, we should use a different terminology altogether for the above described type of questions.

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Thank you for the down votes. This makes it abundantly clear the definition has long lost its more natural meaning and incorporates a whole load of subjective weight with it. –  Steven Jeuris Mar 4 '12 at 5:17
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