This question came out of a discussion in reply to a subjective question I put on superuser. Some people said I should not ask a subjective question there.

But I've seen subjective questions do quite well on SO - and I've even asked some myself (albeit, excluding the above question, always on meta).

So - can we ask subjective questions on these four sites - or only on meta?

Yes, the FAQ says clearly: "Avoid asking questions that are subjective, argumentative, or require extended discussion." but in practice it seems different.

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  • Is "what is the single most influential book every programmer should read" really subjective? Presumably people upvote books that have influenced them, so the books with most votes are the most influential. We're essentially measuring the answer through an opinion poll. "What good technology podcasts are out there" is similar, if by "good" we mean that listeners find them useful and upvote them. – MarkJ Jul 6 '10 at 19:59
  • @MarkJ - well, you can use that argument for every question, since every answer has a measurable result based on votes! – Reinstate Monica - Goodbye SE Jul 6 '10 at 20:40
  • @Mark R No, in fact you can't. Those questions are unusual in that an opinion poll is an objective measurent to find the answer. That does not apply to the typical "why doesn't my code compile" SO question. – MarkJ Jul 8 '10 at 18:33
  • @MarkJ - sorry, I don't get what you are trying to say. I think you are saying that whether something is subjetive depends on what the ommunity says. Did I misunderstand? If you meant that then I think it can apply to any question. – Reinstate Monica - Goodbye SE Jul 8 '10 at 20:39
  • @Mark R I will try just once more. Which book is most influential? The one that influenced the most programmers. A great way to find out is to systematically ask many programmers which books influenced them. This is totally objective. The books that get the most votes are books that have influenced the most programmers, that's the definition of most influential book. Here's an analogy. Which political party should govern the country? That's subjective. Which party has a democratic mandate to rule? That's totally objective: hold an election, count the votes, use rules to determine winner. – MarkJ Jul 9 '10 at 5:40
  • @Mark R: just a little more as an aside (I realise I've probably said too much already!). Is the question useful? Is it worthwhile to know which are the most influential books? Heck yes! The "most influential books" won't necessarily be ideal for every individual programmer. That'll depend on experience and work area (embedded? web? enterprise? shrinkwrap?). In StackOverflow terms it's what we call [subjective]. But I would strongly assert that any programmer who reads would find some of the highly-voted books very useful. – MarkJ Jul 9 '10 at 12:59

In theory, "in theory" and "in practice" are the same. In practice, they're different.

Some subjective questions manage to slip through the checks and balances provided for by the army of monkeys (that is, users with abilities to vote-to-close or vote-to-delete), but the FAQ says what the FAQ says. IMHO, pointing to examples of questions that managed to slip by is not enough justification to allow more of them.

I substantially agree with what was said on reddit today:

I think obnoxious race-to-be-the-most-clever posts are what is killing StackOverflow. Like so many forums before it.

..and I would like to remain vigilant against this threat.

  • That said, I enjoy the occasional clever post as much as anyone (and that regex answer in particular), but the subject should still be reasonably on topic. :) – Ether Jul 5 '10 at 21:35

StackOverflow was built (at least partially) as a reaction against forums and other sites which had large discussion components.
The reason being that discussion ends up diluting the purpose of those forums:

I have question, The internet has answer.

Essentially, when a clear question generated a discussion-board answer, it meant that no one was sure what the actual answer was. So StackOverflow was built initially to be specifically geared towards questions which have a discrete concrete answer. The OP could theoretically implement exactly what was written in the response, and if it worked, they could give the checkmark. Because of the way that it bubbled to the top, reading the entire page (which could be quite long) became unnecessary.

That format simply does not work in a [subjective] sense. There will be many answers, strong/weak/reasonable/ridiculous, but there can be no answer which is "right". And you can have many answers which are equally plausible. This means that the votes are no longer based on the merits of the answer (whether it worked or not) but rather whether it is generally good, which is significantly harder to be consistent about.

Additionally, subjective questions are more likely to include situational variables, which makes them (surprisingly) less useful in the general sense. "What is the best tool for logging" is a subjective question which has many perfectly valid answers, but most of them won't be useful, because they will be on other platforms/frameworks/hardware requirements.

This isn't to say that subjective questions aren't very useful and thought provoking. But they don't belong on StackOverflow because the system is designed for something different. The goal for StackOverflow is that every programming problem you search for will yield a direct and specifically applicable answer. Subjective questions get in the way of that.

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    Thanks devinb, clear and well argued. – Reinstate Monica - Goodbye SE Jul 5 '10 at 21:27
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    Yeah, it's unfortunate but my strength lies in answering subjective questions. – devinb Jul 5 '10 at 21:30
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    This is an amazingly lucid answer (explanation about the strategy/vision/intent for SO, and why it's incompatible with sbjective questions). If it's true, then perhaps this Q&A should become part of the FAQ. – ChrisW Jul 5 '10 at 22:55
  • @ChrisW - thanks. I have no idea how that could be achieved, but I think that would be useful. – Reinstate Monica - Goodbye SE Jul 6 '10 at 7:05
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    @Mark Robinson - there's an explanation of how to add something to the FAQ, in the section titled "How should a question be added to this FAQ?" at the end of The official FAQ. For example, here is an example of where I'm trying to follow that process (though I'm a newbie at it myself). – ChrisW Jul 6 '10 at 8:22
  • @ChrisW Thanks - do I just go ahead and add it or does there need to be some kind of consensus? – Reinstate Monica - Goodbye SE Jul 6 '10 at 9:15
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    @Mark Robinson - I don't know, but my guess is that you create a topic with appropriate tags e.g. {faq-proposed} (or edit an existing topic to give it the right tags and format, and to clean up any language as necessary e.g. to make it less context-dependent and more timeless), and after that (but I don't know when) someone may promote it from {faq-proposed} to {faq}. – ChrisW Jul 6 '10 at 10:07
  • The correct response to "what is the best tool for logging" is to ask for more details. If the OP says "oh no, I meant in general", that's when you close the question as "subjective". Although personally I'd rather say "it depends" than "subjective" – MarkJ Jul 6 '10 at 19:51

Not to answer Mark's questions exactly, but what we have here appears to be a perfect example of what I talked about in a previous answer: here we have a user acting in obvious good faith who is unclear on the whole point of what we're doing here (as describe quite well by Ether and devinb) because we are allowing subjective, bike-shed type questions to be retained.

If we want to remain a Q&A site (or cluster of Q&A sites) we have to retain the focus.

Unfortunately I don't see an easy way to fix it. We have a great many users who believe that discussions are helpful and do contribute the same kind of value that hard answers do. Nor are they wrong per se, they simply don't understand or believe in the value of having a separate site place to get answers. On top of which discussion in social interaction is community is fun. Whereas hard answers are only fun when you're intrigued by the questions or you're learning something, or---of course---when people are heaping praise and honor on you for being definitively right.

  • you've raised a good point: some subjective discussion is necessary when debating the direction of these sites. And that's why meta exists, of course. And, yes, subjective questions are more "fun" - particularly on a Friday afternoon... =:-) – Reinstate Monica - Goodbye SE Jul 6 '10 at 7:08

Try daniweb.com or pick from a list of other programming sites.


Can we ask subjective questions - and if so where?

Yes you can (@ StackOverflowOverflow). Seriously.

EDIT: StackOverflowOverflow is closed, but an Area 51 proposal exists for a similar site.


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