6

"List" questions can be bad if they generate an endless list of answers, with no answer better than another. Such a question might be, "Who is the best general of all time?"

But could a "list" question be acceptable if it is a factual, "short-list question?" Example: Which generals were senior to Robert E. Lee in the Confederate army, and were they as famous? (List) answer: 1) Samuel Cooper, based on age, but he was an overaged "figurehead" who was given make-work duties like inspecting forts. 2) Albert Sydney Johnston. Promoted earier, and considered by some historians to be better than Lee, but we'll never know, since he was killed early at Shiloh.

Is one kind of list question better than the other?

3

I find list questions to be accepted on most SE sites if:

  • There is a limited number of items in that list
  • The parameters are clearly defined
  • The list is unlikely to change over time
  • An answer is posted that contains every one of these items

The last part is really the key to a list question's success on SE. Unfortunately as the question asker, this isn't something you can usually provide.

My best suggestion for if you'd like to try asking a list question on a SE site would be to visit either the chat room or meta site, and ask if your "list" question would be appropriate/useful for the site, and see if there is support in the community for members coming together and writing a complete and canonical answer to the question that can be posted right after the question posts so it doesn't start attracting a lot of answers containing one item in the list each.

I've had some success working with members of The Workplace at making some canonical list questions, and I think they provide a great resource for the community if done right.

5

I wouldn't have a problem with the second example in your question (at least the first part of it). It has a definitive answer, and that short list is never going to change. This is rarely the case for technology "list of X" questions on Stack Overflow and several related SE sites.

Note: If you removed the second part of the question ("and were they as famous?") it would probably be perfectly fine on the History SE site. (Although I suppose references from the time could be used to support a claim that someone was more famous than or as famous as Lee, it still seems a bit subjective. I think you'd have to lay out fame criteria in the question in order for that part of the question to be valid.)

4

The problem with your examples aren't that they're list questions, it's that their answers are primarily someone's opinion.

That's the problem that list questions produce: From an objective standpoint, all answers are equally valid. More over, each answer is filled with a subjective answer that is supported primarily by opinion.

Example of objectively valid answers:

Q: What Editor can I use to program in Java?

A: (You could use Vi, Emacs, Sublime, Eclipse, Visual Studio, Notepad++, etc)

example of subjective opinion answers:

Q: Why is the libertarian party less mainstream than the republican or democrat party?

A: You could have hundreds of answers, each with a valid reason, but all of those reasons are opinion, and not provable fact. Moreover, because there's so many, you've just generated a discussion.

Your Robert E. Lee question is an example of the latter. It's 'better' than the former, but (at least on Stack Overflow), it'd fall into the trap of producing opinion, which would make it not constructive.

  • And if you change the second part of the Robert E. Lee question, to "were they as famous?" then you would remove the issue of opinion, right? – Tom Au May 15 '13 at 14:15
  • 1
    @TomAu Yes. At the question level. I'd also ask it in such a way to make sure I only get answers that are supported by references. This is more than 'Please only post answers that are supported by references' -- it goes back to the entire framing of a question (which is never an easy task). – George Stocker May 15 '13 at 14:20
3

The example you have given isn't exactly a "list question". A list question is a question that prompts a seemingly never ending list of answers from various users, not a question that can be succinctly answered with a list.

Questions that keep spawning answers periodically, yet are never definitively answered, are always Bad. So in that sense there are no good list questions.

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