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So I think all of us experienced overflowers and exchangers of stacks have learned that list questions are not considered good for the Q&A system the network is trying to achieve.

But when I want to clarify this point to new users, or on a new site, I can't seem to find a definitive place with clarification of arguments against them.

Is there somewhere in an FAQ, meta topic, blog, postcast, or statement from Joel or Jeff, etc, a "canonical" explanation of why list questions are bad?

(I wished to add some constructive violence on the linguistics.SE question "Which languages are used for purposes other than facilitating communication?")

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Put these together in a room with oysters and whipped cream: blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/09/good-subjective-bad-subjective blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/11/qa-is-hard-lets-go-shopping –  random Sep 24 '12 at 3:30
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I'm familiar with both of those posts but they really do seem to deal just with other kinds of known bad questions: subjective ones and shopping ones. I can't find a lot in them against lists directly. –  hippietrail Sep 24 '12 at 3:33
    
Depends on what you mean by list question meta.stackexchange.com/questions/57226/… –  random Sep 24 '12 at 3:37
    
This question seems to be related and recent: Are list questions off topic? –  hippietrail Sep 24 '12 at 3:42
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I've started a related topic on travel.SE too: Why are we so hard on list questions? –  hippietrail Sep 24 '12 at 6:26
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This question, contrary to its title, has actually attracted a canonical-level answer rather than simply a pointer to that answer. It's quite a bit better than the second-best example I could find, Are list questions off topic?. Linking to this as the canonical source is a bit awkward because of the title, though. How would you feel, @hippietrail, about changing the title to indicate that this question is itself the source, rather than a search for it? –  Josh Caswell Apr 9 '13 at 19:27
    
@JoshCaswell: I just changed it to 'Is there a canonical response to back up that "list questions are bad"?' - what do you think? –  hippietrail Apr 9 '13 at 22:20
    
Great, thanks. I hope you don't mind my adding two words for grammar's sake. –  Josh Caswell Apr 10 '13 at 0:10

2 Answers 2

up vote 14 down vote accepted

For that specific question I'd go with the FAQ:

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

  • every answer is equally valid: “What’s your favorite __?”

But:

  • “What’s your favorite ______?” is silly.

    Although the first part of that sentence, "every answer is equally valid", is the important one, (almost) every time I quote that part of the FAQ people rage that their question is not asking about what's everyone's favourite (It's just an example, people!). It's the most relevant documentation to quote (imho), it's not the most helpful, unfortunately.

    The question in question does invite equally valid answers, and when that happens it's usually the popular and not the actually useful answer that floats at the top. Furthermore answers keep appearing ad nauseum, and the whole Q&A thread quickly degenerates into an unmaintainable pile of repetitive crap.

  • None of the above seems to be happening, though.

    The question has generated three answers, and it was asked more than a month ago. Granted, I lack the expertise to judge whether the answers are actually useful, but they seem thorough enough, don't seem to be of the "what's your favourite" variety, and there isn't any information repetition.

My advice would be:

  • Add a post notice to the question

    Moderators have a small set of canned official(ish) looking post notices they can add to any question or answer. The "insufficient explanation" one provides warning to future answerers of the type of answers the community expects:

    We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer: please explain why you're recommending it as a solution. Answers that don't explain anything will be deleted. See Good Subjective, Bad Subjective for more information.

    Typically we'd add a post notice after the first sign of trouble, not pro-actively, however sometimes it might help protect / salvage a good question that sits right on the fence of what works with the Q&A format and what doesn't. It's up to the linguistic mods to decide whether a post notice is justified or not, this is just a suggestion.

  • Forget about canonical sources.

    The only canonical sources for the scope of Linguistics is the site's FAQ and Meta Linguistics. Yes, Stack Exchange in general doesn't like list questions. Stack Overflow closes them on sight and we kinda hate them on Programmers as well. But neither the Stack Overflow crowd nor our crowd are linguists, we have absolutely no idea about the subject matter. And I don't think anyone involved in writing the "subjective" blog posts in the Stack Exchange blog is a linguist either.

    Who knows, list questions on linguistics might just work! If you feel they are detrimental to the site, make a case against them on Meta Linguistics and let the community decide. If you feel they could work with some extra protection, again Meta Linguistics would be the appropriate venue for the discussion. If you do decide to raise the issue on Meta, feel free to back up your arguments with any MSO discussion you can find or any SE blog post, I'm not saying that you or the Linguistics community should dismiss the collective experience, but you should decide if our past troubles apply to your subject matter on your own.

    Most sites I'm active on seem to follow the general guidelines, and it might seem a waste of time to have a discussion that had been had countless times before only to reach the same conclusion. Well, there are a couple of sites that go completely against the flow and are doing just fine, Linguistics might just be one of the exceptions. Evaluate your questions that seem to go against the generic guidelines, and see for yourself if they have turn into a crapfest or not.

Lastly, and since no one has mentioned it yet, I find the Real Questions Have Answers blog post to be the more comprehensive on the matter, and I think the more useful quote is Aarobot conclusion:

real questions have answers, not items or ideas or opinions

The question in questions seems to have answers, and that's good enough for me.

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Actually I didn't consider it scope, but guidelines. On travel.SE we've had it instilled in us that list questions are inherently bad here. But now I'm wondering where we got that idea from! –  hippietrail Sep 24 '12 at 6:00
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@hippietrail I called the infamous "6SG" scope because they are engraved in every SE FAQ, but yes, guidelines might be more appropriate. Perhaps I've opened a big can of worms here, and I'll dread the moment this answer will be quoted on Programmers Meta on a discussion about a subjective question I closed seconds after it was asked, so I think I should point out that Programmers is a mature site, we have seen those questions fail again and again. Travel and Linguistics are still betas, you haven't seen them fail again and again for your subject matter. –  Yannis Sep 24 '12 at 6:17
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@hippietrail (cont...) The collective experience and the general guidelines are extremely important, and should not be dismissed. That said, your own subject matter and community are more important, and you shouldn't be held back by dogma. Do learn from everyone else, but don't follow blindly. –  Yannis Sep 24 '12 at 6:19
    
Yes I'm just wondering if on travel we might have shifted the focus too much. I'm sure we thought we were following a rule followed on all sites whereas now it looks like we have almost invented our own private twin of the "bad subjective question" rule. In fact at travel we're about to graduate so it's a good time for us to look at our policies to see if anything is wrong that might need to be fixed. –  hippietrail Sep 24 '12 at 6:21
    
Yes very true. I'm just becoming wary of the possibility that we might have been unknowingly creating some dogma of our own too. With the help of the collective consciousness of all the SE sites we should be able to find the right balance. Maybe we already are balanced but it's worth some introspection. –  hippietrail Sep 24 '12 at 6:23
    
Also I don't want to misapply travel.SE dogmas to linguistics.SE which is younger, now that I know that our rules differ from the "network-wide" rules. –  hippietrail Sep 24 '12 at 6:24
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One last thing that I think is very important for the bad rep list questions have: Bad list questions are amongst the crappiest questions one could ask, only a tiny bit better than the canonical crap "How is babby formed?". Furthermore on most sites bad list questions appear far more often than good list questions (good in the sense that there's evident prior research / effort). We can certainly afford losing a few good questions to protect ourselves from a ton of bad ones, but the ratio may differ per subject matter. –  Yannis Sep 24 '12 at 6:34
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I think we're lucky on travel.SE that we have so far had more good list questions than bad ones, and we do have some guidelines and principles such as "small closed lists are ok, open-ended lists are bad". But maybe we can hone it even better now. –  hippietrail Sep 24 '12 at 6:35

I see two problems that can occur with list questions.

  1. primarily opinion based
  2. too many possible answers

Questions that involve a list can overcome those problems when

  1. The question can be answered with a finite and complete list that is compiled from facts or references.
  2. OR The question clearly requires an overarching "How" or "Why" explanation beyond merely itemizing a list.

I am not a professional linguist, but it looks like the question linked to may have too many possible answers. Consider what could happen.

First answer contains items ABCDE
Second answer contains items FGHIJ
Third answer ... ACDFHI
Fourth answer ... ABEFIJKL
Fifth answer ... CDGHIJMNO

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