I am a casual user of stack overflow and frequently end up here from Google searches. Recently it seems that most of the questions I stumble upon have been 'closed as not constructive' by moderators despite protesting users who have heavily up-voted a 'this question helped me allot' comment. (See here and here for examples).

I think I speak for a large part of the SO user community when I say that 'opinion' questions like:

  1. What is the best library for doing FOO
  2. What are things to avoid when coding in language BAR
  3. What are some good reference materials to learn library FOOBAR

are very helpful, perhaps the most helpful questions on stack overflow. Choosing a technology/library happens early in the development pipeline and is expensive to fix if you get it wrong.

I would love to see SO change it's policy on this type of question, because I deeply appreciate the advice the wisdom of the intelligent user community. It has personally saved me countless hours and I hope that this can continue in the future.

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    Those upvotes are mostly from Ye Olden Days. The newish policies are that opinion-based "shopping questions" (what's the best foo for the bar") aren't allowed. Not constructive is what we had in Ye Olden Days instead of Primarily Opinion-based. – Undo Feb 14 '14 at 4:07
  • In addition, questions asking for recommendations for books, tools, libraries, software, that sort of things, are considered off-topic for Stack Overflow, which is a newish policy, but still applies to older posts. References here and here – Anil Natha Feb 14 '14 at 4:10
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    If those listed examples are the most helpful questions this site can offer, we've failed – random Feb 14 '14 at 4:11
  • @Undo The point of this question is that these types of questions are helpfull and I like to see the answers. What if in the last 4-6 years there is a better OCR library or a better CUDA tutorial? Why shouldn't the SO user base provide helpful guidance? – PeterM Feb 14 '14 at 4:32
  • @Random I read both of these questions this week and found them to be helpfull. Why, specifically, do you find them to be 'failing' – PeterM Feb 14 '14 at 4:34
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    This discussion has been had before hundreds and hundreds of times, and every possible viewpoint has been expressed as many times. Check out the history here on Meta – Pekka Feb 14 '14 at 4:39
  • @Pëkka there are tons and tons of posts just like this one questioning this seemingly weird policy. But, I am not able to find any thread with actual answers / debate on the issue. Why are opinions / disagreement etc bad? Do you know of an answer somewhere? – PeterM Feb 14 '14 at 4:45

The two questions you have mentioned are 6 and 4 years old. At the time they were posted they got some attention and rules were a bit loose so they were left, anyway things have changed as SO evolved and more questions are being posted every second or so.

To be honest, both questions contain words such as (does anyone know of a good ...) or (I am looking for some good ...), both are purely subjective. Plus, they are an open-ended list question. This kind of questions (regardless of them being useful or not) can never have a decisive answer (which violates the main purpose of SE), and users will keep bringing these questions every now and then either by adding new answers or by commenting on the many answers there, in time this question will have many answers and most of these answers will be outdated, and so on, a never ending headache.

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    They weren't my questions. I read both of these questions this week and found the answers to be useful. – PeterM Feb 14 '14 at 4:30
  • @PeterM sorry, I missed that ;) – Nean Der Thal Feb 14 '14 at 4:35
  • why is it a headache for users to update questions as they become outdated? – PeterM Feb 14 '14 at 4:48
  • @PeterM they will not be updating the answer, they will be adding more answers to the list – Nean Der Thal Feb 14 '14 at 4:49
  • @PeterM in the tour page, it clearly says: don't ask about: Requests for lists of things... – Nean Der Thal Feb 14 '14 at 4:52
  • I realize the policy is in place and thoroughly documented. My questions is why have the policy in the first place? Why is it a never ending headache to have users post additional answers to relevant questions as the current answers become dated? Why is it so bad to have a list of opinions as an answer? – PeterM Feb 14 '14 at 4:59
  • Because list requests involves discussions, chit-chats, opinions etc. They are not (questions) the way SE defines questions. Such requests can be asked in chat, where people can list as much as they want and discuss about their preferences and so... but in the questions page it is extremely a bad idea to have such questions, what would be the difference between SE and any other forum? – Nean Der Thal Feb 14 '14 at 5:03
  • The difference is that SE has a nice rep system, clean interface, good voting system, and very large and helpfull user community. What other forum on the internet are you going to find talented, experienced programmers, helping you find an OCR library suitable for your needs? – PeterM Feb 14 '14 at 5:09
  • @PeterM if the criteria in the question was more precise, then the question would have been left open (IMO), for example, instead of saying (good), the OP should have explained what is good for him/her, for example (I want an OCR library that does this and that), and instead of saying (cheap), he/she should have mentioned a price range, a $50 in USA is considered cheap, while in India or Indonesia is considered expensive... – Nean Der Thal Feb 14 '14 at 5:11

I personally think Stack Overflow could stand to relax, just a little when it comes to questions that seek a library that fits a problem. For the most part, Google does a very good job of turning up candidates for common needs; I think we could excel in the land of caveats.

I also don't understand why people insist on writing 'good' and 'best' - as those words instantly trigger a subjective viewpoint. It's not as if we're going to tell you about a bad or worse library, just state your need.

If you're looking for an XML parser for Python, Google is your friend. If you want to compare and contrast libraries, your time is probably better spent in a lab than writing a question in most cases where just trying both yourself is something easily done.

Where Google fails you is where we could probably be a bit more helpful, if not excel. You need an XML parser for Python that can handle documents that are gigabytes in size with an alphabet soup of encodings and odd characters. To compound that, you have memory constraints, and need to be able to accomplish parsing in a certain amount of time.

That kind of question:

  • Isn't going to attract very many valid answers
  • Isn't going to overrun the site
  • Is going to be helpful by filling a knowledge gap, however small
  • Might just attract answers like "I don't know of anything, but this is what the code would look like .."
  • Doesn't suck, like "What's the best jQuery image gallery plugin?" where the number of valid answers are the number of plugins that exist

We didn't get enough good examples of these types of questions early on to be able to identify ways in which they could work. Perhaps we can reconsider our definition of undesirable when it comes to these at some point in the future.

Still, the majority of these questions that you'll find on the site are not much more than lists, sorted by popularity as it was within a week or two of the question being asked. They aren't useless, but they're not great examples of the gaps we're trying to fill.

You've been sent in comments to dig into meta a bit more, I was one of the elected moderators that finally said enough is enough with these because they were becoming a constant source of work. Problems were:

  • They attract answers that are barely more than a link, links break, the author is long since gone
  • They attract barely more than link answers that are, at best, tangentially related to the question. People would seek out and try to answer these questions since they were seen as an easy way to get enough rep to lift new user restrictions
  • They are chronic spam magnets
  • They diminish the value of some of our harder to earn badges, at least in the eyes of some. Why did user1234 get a Good Answer badge for 120 characters that was mostly a link, where user2345 spent a half hour writing code that solved an interesting problem?

These could work in certain cases, provided that the questions scoped the number of possible answers to not much more than a few and ensured that answers would need to contain a reasonable amount of depth.

I don't think it's impossible, but It's not something we can easily just decide to allow one day and leave it at that. Until (and if) we work out a better way to ask library recommendation questions more freely - you can still do it - just state the objectives of your endeavor along with whatever relevant code you've got - if a library exists that is well suited, someone's bound to let you know.

  • IMO, a site similar to Software Recommendations.SE will solve this dilemma. – Nean Der Thal Feb 14 '14 at 8:52
  • @MeNoTalk I think it could go a long way toward causing some sites to reexamine their policies about how far they can go into this realm, Software Recommendations is (broadly) killing it in quality so far, and will open up soon. I'm proud of what they've come up with. – Tim Post Feb 14 '14 at 12:37

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