When I google for an answer, and one of the top hits is a stack overflow topic, it almost always (>90%) has been closed as being "non-constructive". I know there is a policy against topics that lead to debates, but my observation indicates that there must be value to aggregating "debates". When studying a new aspect of programming, these debates can quickly catch someone up on major views and pros/cons, even when there is no definite answer (which is also useful information!!! scientist speaking here).

Has there been any testing to see if there is actually any significant downside to keeping these open? Especially if there has been a large number of incoming referrals (like from Google) to certain topics?

Update: A common trigger is when looking for a good tool(s) to do a job. SO topics often come up in these types of searches and are hugely helpful... which is sort of funny when you notice it's been closed... then you wonder if the information is no longer up-to-date.

marked as duplicate by gnat, Tobias Kienzler, Danubian Sailor, Martijn Pieters, Servy Aug 29 '13 at 13:48

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    What are some examples? – doppelgreener Aug 28 '13 at 23:20
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    This is a Q&A site. It is meant for questions that can get a specific answer. If you want debates, find a forum, this isn't the place for it. – Daedalus Aug 28 '13 at 23:21
  • I haven't been keeping track, but I can start. here's one: stackoverflow.com/questions/9339560/… – Cyclone Aug 28 '13 at 23:22
  • @Daedalus But is that a good decision? I can see two good reasons for SO to keep some of these open: 1) to aggregate the discussion 2) to allow updates as conditions or developments are made – Cyclone Aug 28 '13 at 23:25
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  • @Obtuse The site used to be much more lax than it is now, but this has already been discussed. I haven't been here long, but I've seen these particular questions come up often. As Robert has said below, the site evolved into what it is today. Nothing good, in my opinion, can come from users arguing with each other. It is needless drama, and I don't believe it has a place here. – Daedalus Aug 28 '13 at 23:29
  • @CodyGray Yes yes. I think his analogy is a straw man (he even admits as much), and as a result, I think the reasons he gives for avoiding these question aren't likely to be right in many circumstances. Actually the comment by Rhys is almost exactly my view. – Cyclone Aug 28 '13 at 23:50
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    The only one that I think is wrong is #1. There are lots of subjective questions that people do need to know the answer to. But the other 3 problems are still there. You have to remember, these are the kinds of things that everyone likes to talk about because everyone has an opinion. But that doesn't make their opinion useful, just leads to a lot of noisy discussion on the site (which it wasn't designed to accommodate), and it detracts from the other questions that need answers. – Cody Gray Aug 28 '13 at 23:53
  • @CodyGray I'd say only point #2 is likely to be right for many of these questions, but lots of topics get closed even when given fairly specific scopes. #3 It's not difficult to learn from people's opinions. #4 Trust me, it will not drive away experts as long as they feel they have something useful to add and the discourse is civil. – Cyclone Aug 28 '13 at 23:57
  • @Cody - you're of course right that these questions shouldn't be allowed, but come on, that Gorilla vs. Shark blog post of Jeff's was just asinine. – Adam Rackis Aug 29 '13 at 0:23
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    @Adam I think the blog post is 99% right. It was just choosing the Gorilla vs Shark "example" that was a mistake, it makes the whole thing seem like a joke. He should have just focused on the actual example he gave, Python vs Perl. Would have been a much better blog post, less likely to be misinterpreted. – Cody Gray Aug 29 '13 at 2:45
  • Someone decided that we should accept only questions that can be answered completely by a single person in a single answer... Even if it's NOT subjective. So if you want to ask for anything plural on the site: things, options, tips, links or resources, there is 90% chance that your question will be closed... Many users including me don't like this trend, since the best experts are here and not at the forums. Not having better option I returned to the good ol' forums, and ask a question here only if I want ONE answer NOW. – Calmarius Aug 29 '13 at 13:00
  • @Calmarius Keep in mind that in general the experts tend to be here, rather than on forums, specifically because of the rules/guidelines, and the fact that many types of questions are prohibited. If they were allowed then the quality of the site would devolve, and the experts would just leave. – Servy Aug 29 '13 at 13:51
  • @Servy I don't think there is much evidence for that. My hypothesis is that there are more experts here than on forums because of SO's nice features, implementation, and the tendency of people to want to congregate. If I'm right, allowing more open-ended "discussion" topics would increase expert involvement with the site, not decrease it. – Cyclone Aug 29 '13 at 16:45
  • @Obtuse There are lots of sites out there with similar UI features. If that were it's only real selling point then you'd see people flocking to the SE clones that didn't filter their content nearly as aggressively. There are also plenty of other sites out there that have good (but different) UIs. In fact, a lot of people have a bit of a hard time getting used to the SO UI because in a number of ways it brakes some standards. At the end of the day, it's most significant differentiating factor for other sites is that it filters it's content aggressively and only allows "quality questions". – Servy Aug 29 '13 at 16:48

Subjective questions were more prevalent (and acceptable) during the early days of Stack Overflow. We even had a mechanism to identify those: Community Wiki (OK, that's not what CW was supposed to be about, but that's what the community used it for). Over time, the site has gradually evolved to become more strict about what kinds of questions that it allows. So yes, it has been tested before.

I think it's fair to say that it was a failed experiment. Subjective questions are always a distraction. They are the most contentious; produce the most discussion, arguments and debate; and take time and attention away from the questions that are genuinely part of the site charter: solutions to programming problems. They distort the voting system, and serve as an attractor for others to justify asking their own similar questions.

  • distort the voting system: Yes, I could see how that might happen. Still these questions aren't "always" a distraction. Many important decisions to be made in programming involve choices without clear cut answers (which PL would be best for this type of work?, framework? etc.). There is no good reason why someone shouldn't be able to learn from the experiences of others when these questions come up. That said I can accept "it's just not what we do" – Cyclone Aug 28 '13 at 23:36
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    Well said. Distort the voting system especially. I wonder how many of the gold question and answer badges that were awarded went to subjective content. – Adam Rackis Aug 29 '13 at 0:25
  • @Obtuse We don't need to guess about this stuff. Once upon a time there were a lot of these questions. They were virtually all garbage with little to no value and lots and lots of distractions. The signal to noise ratio was much lower than other types of questions. We're not afraid that these problems might happen, these are the problems that we have observed when they were actually allowed. – Servy Aug 29 '13 at 13:48
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    @Obtuse - Jeff brings up another good point in his post "The Trouble With Popularity" that while these more subjective, open-ended discussion questions were fun for the community, this fun could become a distraction from more productive uses of the site. He uses Reddit as an example of this, with memes and jokes muscling out more serious discussion of topics there. – Brad Larson Aug 29 '13 at 14:50
  • @Servy You are making assertions that aren't very rigorous. I'm implying that the current policy HAS closed down topics that many people have found very useful and interesting, and that there do exist heuristics/metrics that could probably do a decent job of separating the wheat from the chaff. Unfortunately SO's dominant position pretty much precludes anyone else from doing something like a SO for open-ended topics. Hacker News and reddit take up this slack, but lets be honest, SO's infrastructure and features (voting, etc.) are better. – Cyclone Aug 29 '13 at 16:52
  • @BradLarson You know I'm not in disagreement about any of the downsides here. They are if fact quite obvious. I'm just making the point that the baby was thrown out with the bath water. – Cyclone Aug 29 '13 at 16:53
  • @Obtuse I've seen lots of these questions, both from before they were disallowed, and quite a few times where they get asked but don't get closed right away (which, unfortunately, happens more often than it should). There is a lot of actual data to support the claims that I've made, and they've been seen by quite a lot of members of this community. These types of questions just don't work well with the way the site is designed, they create lots of poor quality content, and very little valuable content. The consume huge amounts of time/effort of knowledgeable people as well. – Servy Aug 29 '13 at 16:55
  • @Servy Like I said, if that were true, then why do some of the most useful SO topics I get referred to from Google end up being closed ones? They also consume time that is being freely given... experts donate their time to SO... it's pretty insulting for you to judge how they choose to donate this time. Anyways, SO has plenty of ways to help efficiently separate good open-ended topics from bad ones. This is a subjective policy choice, which is OK. Just expect people to occasionally complain about it, similar to how they complain about some of Wikipedia's policy choices. – Cyclone Aug 29 '13 at 17:07
  • I would dispute the assertion that the SE platform has good ways to deal with subjective topics. Sites like Slant are much better equipped for this. – Robert Harvey Aug 29 '13 at 17:10
  • @Obtuse If people want to be able to ask and answer such questions they can go to other sites, where these questions are all over the place. The fact that most experts don't should tell you a lot. If they really did want to spend time on these types of questions then they wouldn't stay here precisely because these questions aren't welcome here. SO isn't the only site on the internet. If these questions are so important, ask them on another site. – Servy Aug 29 '13 at 17:10

On SE sites, the best topics are ones that are likely to lead to a definitive "expert," answer, not the ones that are most widely or hotly debated.

A certain amount of back-and-forth is necessary, and even desirable to get there. But in the end, we want answers that converge to one place, rather than diverging among several. "Not constructive" questions are those that have the latter (diverging) property.

Some sites have badges for "great debates." This site is not one of them. It was designed by and (probably) for computer programmers who are wary of "infinite loops."

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