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In the recent question Where can I ask a question about advice for my job?, the OP asks where the following question would be appropriate:

What would be the best way to approach someone that works for me about bad odor?

CHAOS team member Abby Miller responded by suggesting the proposal The Workplace — which is in commitment as I'm writing this — because

One of the up voted example questions there is about dealing with an irritating coworker. This question will be perfectly on topic for that site.

In my opinion, that example question qualifies for the not constructive close reason*, which applies to all sites in the network, and therefore, the question shouldn't be allowed, no matter how much it has to do with workplaces.

I know Abby isn't the only one who disagrees with me about this. I once had a talk with a mod of some beta about the presence of poll/GTKY questions on his site. His position, in short, was that his community had different rules from SO and its members enjoyed such questions. I don't remember which site it was, it might even be graduated now, but I never did end up participating there.

Anecdotal examples are nice and all, but here's the real question: to what extent can individual communities/sites override network policies? To what extend should they be able to do so?

*: not constructive comes with the description "This question is not a good fit to our Q&A format. We expect answers to generally involve facts, references, or specific expertise; this question will likely solicit opinion, debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion."

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Sort of side to the actual question, but CHAOS doesn't have any say in question policy stuff. That's in community team's domain. – Kevin Montrose Mar 7 '12 at 18:56
I guess this is an issue for pretty much every SE site to some extent. It would be interesting to hear from mods of mature SE sites how they handled this, especially from domains that aren't as geared towards defined, clearly answerable questions as SO & co. are – Pëkka Mar 7 '12 at 19:01
Those who do not understand network policies are doomed to repeat them. If they want to keep popular but unconstructive questions, let their members accumulate rep off them for a few years, then realize these questions should not remain on their site after all, delete them en masse and raise hell with their users by doing so *cough*, I say let them. – Frédéric Hamidi Mar 7 '12 at 19:05
@FrédéricHamidi Part of the discussion is whether they can be made constructive. Starting by assuming they are unconstructive isn't exactly a constructive argument. I'm not claiming often they are problem questions, but I personally find it interesting whether some of those can turn into great content. – Steven Jeuris Mar 8 '12 at 1:05
Also be wary of overusing that argument from authority, that other people 'simply do not understand the network'. Some might do. – Steven Jeuris Mar 8 '12 at 1:08
Excellent question! If you can read past my grandiloquent introduction, you might be interested in some of the answers here... :) – Benjol Mar 8 '12 at 5:58

Anecdotal examples are nice and all, but here's the real question: to what extent can individual communities/sites override network policies? To what extend should they be able to do so?

Well, they can override them to a fairly large extent, because the entire system is designed around community enforcement of these standards. And they should: if the community doesn't establish their own standards and buy into ours, they won't enforce any of them. As Robert notes, we provide plenty of guidance, but each community must make it their own - and during that process, each site develops a bit of local flavor. Some sites are extremely strict as to form and topic, others are considerably more flexible. And that's ok...

Ignoring the rules

One of our primary strategies for building Stack Exchange has always been to learn from those who have gone before us, borrowing what has worked elsewhere while trying to avoid the mistakes we’ve observed there. USENET, wikiHow, Experts Exchange and countless flat forums all have something for us to learn from. Out of these forebears, I find myself more and more frequently looking to Wikipedia for inspiration (and cautionary tales); after all, this venerable community has been dealing with the trials and tribulations of serving a large and disparate userbase for a long time now. Among their myriad rules and policies, can be found this meta-policy:

If a rule prevents you from improving or maintaining Wikipedia, ignore it.

What a wonderfully subversive bit of guidance, eh? Kinda turns all the rest of the rules into sort of an idiot test, right?

Well, no. Rather than granting the reader carte blanche, it serves as a reminder that these rules exist for a purpose - and that it is wise to keep focused on this purpose rather than the rules themselves. In fine Wikipedia tradition, there exists another page to explain the rule (with a series of lists, of course), in which can be found these key points:

  • Don't follow written instructions mindlessly, but rather, consider how the encyclopedia is improved or damaged by each edit
  • Rules derive their power to compel not from being written down on a page labeled "guideline" or "policy", but from being a reflection of the shared opinions and practices of many editors
  • Most rules are ultimately descriptive, not prescriptive; they describe existing current practice. They sometimes lag behind the practices they describe

I think that sums up how most of the policies on Stack Exchange should be viewed: not as inscrutable edicts handed down from on high, but as advice based on experience - things folks have tried and found to work or... not work... and the policies we've observed these communities enforcing as a result. For instance,

  • Want a bunch of lists of recommendations? Be warned that they’ve led to the death of at least one site, and bitter arguments on many more. If you're trying to attract experts, then focus on questions that require some sort of expertise to answer.
  • Want help shopping for equipment? If that equipment has the lifespan of a mayfly, you’re just gonna end up with piles of rotting, useless, obsolete answers to clean up.
  • Want answers to very subjective questions? Demand that those answers are backed up with facts and experiences, or you’ll just end up with a bunch of flame-wars.
  • ...

A community expresses its preferences by their actions on the site: which questions get answered, which questions get closed / flagged / down-voted. Meta discussions are used to coordinate these actions and communicate consensus within the community and to outsiders - thus, a rule on Stack Exchange generally takes the form of a problem statement and a proposed solution which is then applied.

You can ignore the rules, but you can't ignore the problems that led to their creation; not if your goal is to produce great answers to real problems at least. Oh, yeah - and that does have to be your goal...

We're still not building a Ute

Obviously there are some invariables - we’re building Q&A sites here, not discussion forums or service directories; no matter how much you might want Aww.SE, we're just not building a truck here, and we're not gonna let you use our shoes to drive nails. That's why, even on sites with elected moderators, we'll occasionally step in to remind folks what the purpose of these sites are, and try to refocus them on that goal.

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So, you're saying Caturday won't be allowed on – Aarobot Mar 7 '12 at 19:18
It's always Caturday in Iceland. – Adam Lear Mar 7 '12 at 21:41
You misspelled Miceland, @AnnaLear. – Pops Mar 8 '12 at 3:40

Individual community preferences can bend SE network policy, but they cannot break it.

For example, Programmers.SE benefits from a (slightly) more liberal policy towards subjective questions than Stack Overflow does. This is a reasonable approach, given the subject matter: Programmers.SE is for conceptual questions about software development.

But there is a price that is paid for that subjectivity: Programmers.SE is more contentious about subjective questions, and has an overall higher degree of complexity when evaluating questions for constructiveness.

And simply stating that your community likes a particular category of questions is not sufficient justification for ignoring SE guidelines; that thinking will merely turn the site into another Yahoo Answers, a place where asking What should I name my pet? is on-topic.

See Also
Let's Play the Guessing Game
Gorilla Vs. Shark
Good Subjective, Bad Subjective
QA is Hard, Let's Go Shopping!

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Correct me if I am wrong and P.SE don't take offense but I thought P.SE was the bend of SO policy and now Workplace is the bend of P.SE policy. What happens when someone wants to bend the Workplace policy? I know Bubbles is a flexible person, but at some point she gotta break. – phwd Mar 7 '12 at 19:10
@phwd: I'm not sure I see the problem here. Each successive "bend" is generally based on a thoughtful long-term analysis of what kind of worked vs. what never worked, and then they build up some policies and guidelines around the kind of in the hope of turning that into most of the time. Eventually, yes, at some point the answer may be "actually, there were never any good parts, so we're not gonna turn that into its own garbage-dump site". Makes sense to me. – Aarobot Mar 7 '12 at 19:16
@Aarobot yes each step was thoughtful, I am just hinting at the fact that at some point if someone does not step in as Shog said we may reach that "dump site" and not even realize it. – phwd Mar 7 '12 at 19:25
@phwd: Oh I think we'll realize it if it happens. The team and community are generally not shy about criticizing and if necessary shutting down a beta site if it's not working out. c.f. and If people think they can make The Workplace not suck, let them try. If some of those people think they can make The Shower Before Work not suck, let them try... they'll probably fail, but they can try. – Aarobot Mar 7 '12 at 19:30
@phwd The Workplace isn't so much a bend of P.SE as it is a recognition of the fact that programmers aren't special and that general workplace/office issues can make for good Q&A on their own. It's not all "let's move our crap to a new site" (that'd be mighty ironic :)); Programmers gets office-related questions that are good questions but have little-to-nothing to do with software development. There's little reason to shoehorn general office questions into Programmers when there's a possibility that more professions can contribute to/benefit from a site of their own. – Adam Lear Mar 7 '12 at 20:00
@Robert Re: your edit... (10k+ on Prog.SE link, but the URL slug is 100% accurate)… :( – Adam Lear Mar 7 '12 at 20:26
@phwd Workplace.SE is not a "bend" of Programmers.SE policy. Workplace is an entirely different topic, it just happens to share a topic with a lot of off-topic Workplace questions from P.SE – Ben Brocka Aug 2 '12 at 14:52
@BenBrocka sí, entiendo – phwd Aug 2 '12 at 18:05

In the case of MartialArts.SE, there is some thought that perhaps we do need to be a little less stringent about what is considered off topic or not constructive.

The site is still in early beta, and is struggling - not because of lack of expertise or answer quality, but mainly due to lack of traffic and questions. Now we face the problem: when potential new members arrive via Google or Bing and ask the question they always wanted to ask, are we going to give them the smack down and close their question because it doesn't meet the (reasonably rigorous) standards used by StackOverflow?

The simple answer is that we cannot afford (at this stage) to be scaring off members with our niggly question quality semantics. These people are martial artists, not programmers, and they are new - they don't understand the site yet, and they can be quite incapable of determining if their question meets certain quality standards.

Don't get me wrong, we don't want masses of crap questions. But personally I would be quite happy to relax the standards now and clean up the mess later if it means the site survives the beta period and grows into a healthy and self sustaining little entity. Long term I would expect the site to become stricter with question/answer quality once it has a solid membership. As a site grows and matures, so should the questions and answers on it.

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Ahh, so that's why your user name is "slugster" – Adam Rackis Mar 8 '12 at 5:27
@Adam, Yep, "smackdown" is my middle name, still working on a last name :) – slugster Mar 8 '12 at 5:32
hehe, good luck with that. It's the kind of argument which goes down really well with the community team :) – Benjol Mar 8 '12 at 6:03

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