The "don't ask" page of the Help Center contains one sentence that I've always felt captures the essential ingredients for a truly great question on the network:
You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face.
I find myself quoting this line a lot on beta sites and when leaving comments in the First Posts queue.
But today it struck me that, although I feel like I understand what it means for a question to be "answerable," I don't know that I could sit down and explain what it means in simple English to someone who doesn't intuitively understand the concept.
What specific, explicit qualities distinguish questions that are answerable from questions that are not answerable?
...now comes the (possibly tedious) part where I go over my efforts to find an existing explanation and, in doing so, risk distracting from the focus of the question.
I'm going to link some questions and answers in this post, purely for illustration. Keep in mind that the ultimate goal in answering this post isn't to pass judgment on the examples or to rehash past discussions,1 but to pin down the concept of an "answerable" question in the context of SE, and provide some updated, explicit clarifying language.
The best I could dig up concerning "answerable" questions was the Real Questions Have Answers (RQHA) blog post. Jeff's point there boils down to:
real questions have answers, not items or ideas or opinions
Well... okay, while that's helpful for someone who can mind-meld with Jeff and intuit the distinction that he's expressing, it's not as clear or explicit a statement as the tone suggests. It's "X has Y, not Q or R or S" where sometimes Y contains Q or R or S, none of which is very narrowly-defined.
It's also more than 3 years old and seems to run counter to the following evidence of what questions and answers have been exceptionally well-received on the network sites.
Answers, not items
Legitimate questions can easily inspire fantastic answers (or sets of answers) constituting, or organized in terms of, items (and even outright lists, as Shog implies in this answer). This is particularly true for conceptual questions, practical questions that are particularly complex, and problems for which there's no known, singular solution. Here are a few examples:
- ways to quote a passage that contains "[sic]"
- duration of Groundhog's Day time loop
- something's burning in the server room
- many answers from @e-satis on SO
Answers, not ideas
I'm going to gloss over this one because the word "ideas" is semantically slippery, but I did poke around a bit, and this top Physics question was too fascinating not to mention.
Answers, not opinions
This one's easy; there are many examples of openly opinion-based questions that have been well-received in terms of having generated lots of views, favorites and illuminating answers. I know that's been a bit controversial, and Robert discussed this topic at length in an earlier blog post, Good Subjective, Bad Subjective (GSBS).
That being said, here are some examples I collected while trying to avoid sites known to be inherently subjective (e.g., Code Review):
- using math for good
- beautiful math
- short password vs. long passphrase
- fun features of an Apple OS
- spacing between sentences
Maybe these are the sorts of questions Robert had in mind in GSBS; maybe they're exceptions to the rule;2 maybe you think they're literally worse than Hitler. That's not important. As he points out in the blog post:
Even the definition of what is too subjective on Stack Exchange is somewhat … subjective.
What I love about Robert's post is that he immediately follows this admission with an in-depth explanation of six explicit guidelines (the same guidelines listed on the don't ask page) for distinguishing "good subjective" from "bad subjective" questions. That's what I think would be useful here -- a set of explicit guidelines that we can apply to determine whether a question is or is not answerable.3
Stack Trek III: The Search for Truth?
I recently came across an interpretation of Jeff's statement (quoted above) from RQHA:
Although this is compressing a twelve-hundred-and-some-odd-word long post into a single sentence, I think the message is rather clear: The difference between a question and a discussion or poll is that a real question is seeking to discover some particular truth. The other type of "question" is merely seeking to learn what other people think.
"Real questions" don't necessarily have practical answers, but they do have authoritative ones.
Is the expectation of one or more authoritative answers one useful metric for judging whether a post is answerable? (This is not a request for an ontological treatise.)
1 If this is a dupe, let my final words be recorded as, "I hate Mondays."
2 Zipping back to the previous section for a moment, there was some meta discussion about the "mass of a coin" question being one such lucky exception to a rule.
3 In the context of Stack Exchange, of course -- because if the internet has proved anything, it's that given enough time, Google will index "answers" to just about any question you can think of.