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Why is it that, almost unilaterally, the highest voted questions and my favorite questions are entirely subjective questions aimed at discussions? To a T, the questions that got me interested in stack overflow and the ones that I find myself carefully reading for solid chunks of time are purely subjective and entirely discussion.

When I first came to this site, it was because I found a whole bunch of developers pooling together opinions on these really interesting questions. This site was better than any others I knew because the general prevailing opinions were immediately apparent through the well-worded highly-voted answers, with gems of insight spread throughout the discussion and brought to the first few pages by other intelligent programming people.

Honestly, if I wanted to know how to access API X in language L$, I would go find a reference book or online source; it's what I did before stack overflow and it didn't work half bad.

I see exactly two reasons why one would visit stack overflow:

1. Someone has a question that is 'strange' for some reason. Either it doesn't fit with any standard kind of documentation or the real problem is not figuring out the solution, it is figuring out how to word the question. These questions are tough, and stack overflow is great for this. There are pages of these questions, rated around +3 to +10 by the 10 people whose lives were saved by this helpful answer existing on this helpful site.

2. Someone has a question that is so fascinating and controversial it can't be answered by one person. Previously if someone wanted to know what was the best text editor in the world, there was no way to figure it out. If your question was a popular enough one you might be able to google it or discuss it in a forum, but you never would know if you weren't missing whole segments of the discussion because you picked up on the vocal authors X and Y. I sincerely doubt I ever would have gotten into stack overflow if not for the "favorite cartoon" question: one that is now closed and if it were to be asked now would be shut down within 5 minutes for being subjective and open to discussion.

Stack overflow's biggest strength in my opinion is that it has the pulse of a hundred thousand interested parties flowing through it. I personally would rather channel that into a better understanding of the enigmatic and important questions with no good answers than merely into a better understanding of why my code doesn't work. Just because a question cannot possibly have a canonical answer doesn't mean it can't hold value, and I would argue that stack overflow's unique system and user base means that it is the single best place in the world for those questions. Do you agree? Discuss!

EDIT: I suppose when I said "discussions" I didn't really mean the kind that go "Hey, I thought of something." "But did you think of this other point?" "Oh no, I didn't! Good thinking." which definitely do belong elsewhere. When I said discussions I think I meant a collection of opinions. On stack overflow these collections of opinions can be vetted and widely held views can be curried to the top. This is what I feel makes stack overflow "subjectivity" work so well.

  • Interesting. Are you suggesting changing Stack Overflow into a discussion site, or utilising the pre-existing community for a 2nd 'discussions' site? – Mark Henderson Jan 6 '10 at 1:20
  • I do like the notion. I agree that I find most of the useful information to be the long threads that have been viewed/editted/answered hundreds to thousands of times. – Tyler Carter Jan 6 '10 at 1:24
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    The problems with those huge answer pools on subjective, discussion questions is that there's a lot of rough separating the diamonds. The SO engine really doesn't work for getting concise, useful answers to discussion-type questions -- there's too much repetition and cruft. A "real" wiki is better at distilling consensus wisdom down to what is important. – womble Jan 6 '10 at 1:30
  • There is no wiki that I have ever seen that will let an answer like "VIM is the best, here is why:" exist. You give me a guy with "VIM is the best" and a guy with "Three reasons I love Eclipse IDE" and they both have 30-60 upvotes and suddenly I am aware of a whole argument I didn't know existed and I am curious to discover more. – user141115 Jan 6 '10 at 1:42
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    Clueless: c2.com/cgi/wiki?GreatVimFeatures (warning: If you have never read the original wiki before and you are a programmer, I have just sucked your productivity to zero for the next few days or weeks. You'll thank me later.) – Gnome Jan 6 '10 at 5:08
  • Both times that I asked questions, SO warned me they were subjective, but the answers were useful. – rleir Jan 13 '10 at 18:42
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I love a good discussion. Arguments, counter-arguments, deep threads packed full of insight... I've spent plenty of time on forums and newsgroups reading such things and learning much in the process.

Of course, they're terrible if you're just trying to search for an answer to a specific problem, since the question and its answer tend to get separated by other responses, clarifications, etc.

That's what I like about SO: when a SO question comes up in response to a search, chances are it'll have an answer on the first page.

The other stuff? It's fun, but only for a little while. At this point, it's painful for me to even load some of the more popular questions on SO, with Firefox groaning under the strain as scripts written to handle a handful of replies try to deal with dozens. And there are pages of them... The closer a given question comes to a PHPBB thread, the more it starts to look and act like one. And the thoughtful, insightful answers don't always float to the top either; on controversial questions, the first guy to post an answer representing his "side" can win out over later versions of the same, as each reader rushes to vote for his party and/or post another response duplicating the first.

Forum topics are fun, but SO makes a lousy forum.

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I see exactly two reasons why one would visit stack overflow:

I think you missed the most important use case for Stack Overflow:

To get answers to programming questions ("strange" or not) which have been vetted by a large community of programmers. You have a much better idea that the "top" answers to a question are correct, accurate, complete, and current. That is contrary to other sources of information returned by the search engines.

3

Maybe it's the Bikeshed effect?

1

I've found the quasi-subjective and 'best practices' kind of information very good here as well. I enjoy reading and thinking about them. I don't know offhand a better place to find a nexus of intelligent discussion regarding programming that is so well visited.

The quick answer questions are the strength of the site, however.

Perhaps what would fit would be a forum attached to the Trilogy, where solid subjective questions could be discussed. (E.g., I saw a rant today about 'evil software patents' relating to tux2. What makes patents evil? What makes them good?)

I don't know the technical solution. But I know I would appreciate a well-informed place to discuss software development questions and concept with the broader developer community at large.

0

There's a whole lot of programming questions that aren't answered by documentation or online sources. StackOverflow was put together to fill that void, by allowing specific programming questions to be asked, answered by other knowledgeable programmers and then put in a format that Google loves, so that they're easy to find in the future.

It does that job great, it doesn't work so well for subjective questions.

I've saved countless hours by being able to ask questions and get quick answers, and don't want the site to be bogged down by subjective questions adding noise, even if I sometimes get good information out of those also.

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As for "I would argue that stack overflow's unique system and user base means that it is the single best place in the world for those questions.", my position is: I think some system mechanism works well for discussion but others don't. Besides, I completely agree that the huge user base makes it a good place for discussion..

Firstly, I wanna focus on two of the "unique system" behaviors:

  • Up-vote: Basically, if you are looking at a question and the answers provided by many others, you are supposed to up-vote the one you think the best.
  • Accept one (and only one): Being the question owner, you are supposed to verify the answers and accept the one and only one that solves your question.

Secondly, when I'm writing this reply, the kind of "discussion" questions in my mind is like "I wanna solve problem X, and here is my initial thoughts of the solution. What are the pros and cons do you see? Do you have an alternative solution?" I don't think they are that subjective because a technical solution usually has objective pros and cons. Choosing a solution depends on the question owner's project requirements of such as performance, availability and so on. However, sometimes the project requirements are either not that clear initially or have room for negotiation. In these "flexible" cases, it's hard to say one answer is the best. The question owner probably prefers to see a broader range of choices and their pros-and-cons analysis before making the decision.

This is why I agree and disagree: I think the "up-vote" mechanism works very well for discussion because people can view the replies and support them by up-voting and leaving more comments to add details. However, the "accept one and the only one" makes it not suitable for such a discussion because the acceptance completely depends on the question owner's own circumstances. For one person, the answer #1 might be the best; however, another person may choose the answer #2 for the same question because he/she is dealing with difference requirements. Simply choosing the first answer seems unfair to the second answer.

Therefore, I think, for a discussion forum, people should be able to up-vote good answers and leave comments, but the owner should not be forced to accept one. However, in SO, the owner is supposed to accept exactly one answer, and this makes it not completely suitable for discussion.

(In fact, I came here today because I am having a discussion question to ask for opinions but I don't think SO will like it.)

  • Note that this question (discussion?) is 6 years old. Apart from on meta (slightly), Stack Exchange (not just Stack Overflow) is not really the place for discussions (it certainly isn't a discussion forum). Questions & Answers is what it's all about, nothing more, nothing less. – Cai Oct 20 '16 at 16:22
  • @Cai Yeah. I did notice that the question was asked 6 years ago. But my reply didn't say SO should become a discussion forum. In fact, my reply ended up with the point that SO is "...not completely suitable for discussion". Besides, this question was not closed or marked with anything like "Please do not add more replies", so I think I still can reply. – yaobin Oct 20 '16 at 18:10
  • Of course, I'm not saying you can't answer the question. Your answer reads like you want SO to be a discussion forum, I'm simply disagreeing with that. – Cai Oct 20 '16 at 20:45
  • @Cai Oh, no, I didn't mean that. I was trying to use my observations to analyze whether SO is suitable for "discussion", and the point is "some SO features are good for that but some are not". I don't think my reply, if read as a whole, shows that I lean towards either side. If it reads like I want SO to be a discussion forum, which part specifically, paragraphs or sentences, made you think so? – yaobin Oct 20 '16 at 21:17

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