Allowed: How do I make dish X have lower sodium.

Not Allowed: Name a dish of type Y that has low sodium.

I realize that's in our printed rules, but it does feel very arbitrary to me; you can ask for help modifying a dish, but you can't ask for suggestions of a dish that fits your criteria in the first place.

As an example.

Can someone explain the harm we're preventing by not allowing that type of request? It's an old rule, I'm sure there's a reason for it, but I don't quite get it. Thanks!

2 Answers 2


I think this really depends on what "type Y" is. If it's at all a broad category, naming low-sodium dishes of type Y becomes a bunch of answers listing different things and voting breaks down in multiple ways. Most of the time the categories for questions like that are indeed broad, and even if they aren't obviously broad, they often turn out to be. Maybe people think there's only one or two low-sodium Thai dishes and there turn out to be 100, so a question gets left open and rapidly devolves, or maybe they think there are 100 dishes and there are actually only a couple, so the question gets incorrectly closed, or maybe it's borderline and there's a big debate. Rather than trying to deal with that, the community long ago decided to just not take that category of question at all.

Modifying a specific recipe/dish to reduce sodium, on the other hand, is a very different question. It's a specific problem to solve, and people are able to vote on answers based on how well they think the answer will work.

It definitely doesn't help that the "recipe recommendations" close reason actually covers two things: recommending actual recipes given a dish, or recommending dishes given some criteria. Your particular example is the latter, not the former.

My personal view at this point, for what it's worth, is that this is more about a weakness of the SE Q&A format and the way we use it than the questions themselves, and the inability to handle questions like this is a cost that SE has paid in exchange for the benefits of the Q&A format in other areas. I can imagine a different format working much better, e.g. suppose people were asked to write a dish per answer and the site automatically made sure each answer got shown to plenty of people to vote on it, and ranked by something closer to the fraction of "I agree this is a good suggestion" votes rather than just popularity. But... that's not what we have, and so even long ago when these rules were made, there was ample history of this type of questions working quite poorly on SE.

  • Thanks. I have to admit I'm disappointed partly because SA was really my last resort to answer the question short of borrowing 5 Thai cookbooks from the library and going through them recipe-by-recipe. There really is no other place I know to get that kind of question answered, either.
    – FuzzyChef
    Dec 15, 2020 at 1:57
  • @FuzzyChef Yeah. I would really like to be able to take that kind of question, and I do think that SE has overall almost certainly broadly erred too far on the side of strict adherence to a particular format and set of ideas, and that Seasoned Advice has to some extent taken a snapshot of a much older version of SO/SE, so there is likely some room for change. I'm not sure whether broad/list of recommendations questions are the place with the most room, though.
    – Cascabel Mod
    Dec 15, 2020 at 2:01
  • Cascabel: yeah, here's another example, of the kind of question that ought to be allowable: cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/113139/…
    – FuzzyChef
    Dec 16, 2020 at 1:11
  • Also: I'd argue that the inability to crowdsource votes on the best set of recommendations isn't a real blocker. For the types of questions we do allow, we have tons of accepted, but objectively wrong, answers in the system.
    – FuzzyChef
    Dec 16, 2020 at 1:13
  • @FuzzyChef The argument isn't that the system needs to be perfect in order to allow something. For the more direct questions that are in-scope, I think that voting (and even accepting) result in decent rankings a decent fraction of the time, even though as you say there are plenty of examples of failures. On the other hand, for open-ended many-options list questions, voting essentially never results in good rankings, and instead tends to just put the first few good answers that get posted at the top, and leaves the rest as a jumble below - often including better answers.
    – Cascabel Mod
    Dec 16, 2020 at 1:39
  • Might it be accepted to pose the question as being about "What are some common ingredients in Thai cuisine that I can work around to lower sodium intake?" Rather than devolving into a recipe index, that could arguably net you more usable answers like "avoid fish sauce" or "make your own curry paste". Dec 17, 2020 at 22:50

I admit, our site (and its parent network) is quite structured, we have a lot of rules, and if you don't know all of them, the result of applying them might look strange.

One important thing to know: we are not trying to accommodate all possible questions, but only these at which we are good (description of "good" follows below). And for this, each question has to fit, roughly, two types of rules:

  • it has to meet the topic constraints, and
  • it has to result in a certain type of answer, which, for lack of better word, I will call the structure constraints.

Importantly, each question has to meet both sets of criteria, else it is closed.

For the topic constraints, we are broadly about the preparation of food (and there are pages on the Help center and questions on this Meta which define where exactly we draw the border on that).

For the structure constraints, it is helpful to understand the history/purpose of the network.

The network started when our founder Jeff Atwood was tired of searching for answers to programming problems in forums, wading through pages of unnecessary chatter, only to see that nobody on the thread offered a solution. So he decided to build a new system: A kind of repository of answers to programming problems, where each new asker stumbling over the same problem would see the correct answer right away. His startup not only built a sytsem suited for that, but also created and fine-tuned a set of moderation principles to create exactly this outcome.

At first, they allowed all kinds of questions, but soon they noticed several types of questions for which the system does not work. They decided that they cannot be everything to everybody, so they decided to stop accepting these types of questions. One of these not-accepted types of questions came to be known as big-list questions.

Big-list questions are defined as questions whose correct answer is a list of items. They define some kind of criteria, and there are multiple items in the world which meet these criteria. There is no way to postulate that somehow one of these items constitutes the "correct" or at least the "best" answer, they are all equally qualified.

At first, these questions were accepted on SO, and they created the following problems:

  • Many people reading the question can come up with at least one answer. So these questions trigger a kind of "me too" instinct and people click on them to post their item, without thinking whether they should do so.
  • This results in a question with too many answers. The idea behind the SO system is that you see 4-5 answers which represent 4-5 ideas or viewpoints, and take your pick - or if you are in a hurry, you only look at the top one (by votes or by checkmark). These questions got dozens of answers, sometimes over a hundred.
  • People in the thrall of "me too" who saw the question late didn't care to read through two pages of answers, they just posted their idea. So there were tons of duplicate answers within the questions. When you consider that a) SO allows for duplicate answers, b) some people posted multiple items per answer and others only one, and c) each new answer bumps up the question, it spiraled out of hand.
  • It is per definition impossible to accept an answer on these questions. The intended semantic behind the checkmark is that the OP tries all suggested solutions, or at least the ones which voting tells them are worth trying, and accepts the one which produces good results. While we are aware that it doesn't always happen (and for some kinds of question, it is impossible to happen), the problem with these list questions is that they don't have one correct, or at least one best answer! All items that can be listed are equally good. So picking one over all others and thereby declaring to all new readers "this is the one you should use, forget about the rest" is terribly misleading.
  • Voting also breaks down on these questions. People would usually open the question, read the first 3-4 answers, note that they are correct, vote for them, and stop reading. This means that there tended to be a huge difference between the highest-voted and lowest-voted items, and the difference was determined mostly by time posted - the earliest answers got a few votes, got noticed, and gathered more votes, while the later ones got nothing.

For these reasons, it was decided that this type of question is actively harming the system, and it was forbidden. Most sites on the network also implement this rule, with very few exceptions (I am only aware of maths).

It is of course known that this state of affairs is annoying to users who have this type of question and want it answered. However, you shouldn't forget that

  • the foremost user is not the individual asker, but the millions of anonymous readers which come and rely on the existing information to solve their own problem (thus the word "repository" I used above). SO and later SE rules always have the tendency of solving conflicts of interest such that the anonymous readers get the most utility.
  • the interest of the asker is also frequently not served with this kind of question. For example, the earliest popular big-list questions on SO were "please recommend a book to learn <some programming language>, and the askers said that while they can easily discover a lot of such books in a bookstore, they want to know which is the best one, recommended by the SO community (whose expertise they trust). But instead of getting that, after a few weeks, they got the same huge list as when searching a book catalog, and while the results were apparently ordered by quality, they were actually ordered by random timing events.

There is another type of question which, before answered, cannot be distinguished from a big-list question. It is a question which also defines some criteria, but it is so precise, that it turns out there is no single item in the world which fits these criteria. Then you don't get tons of answers, you get none.

While this question doesn't produce the same problems as a big-list question, it also creates no benefit for the repository:

  • as it doesn't get answers, it is quite superfluous. It does create some extra work though, e.g. when new users register just to post "I also wondered that". But neither the asker nor the new readers can get their problem solved.
  • at the beginning, it is impossible to distinguish big-list from empty-list questions. So if empty-list ones are allowed, it becomes very difficult to close big-list questions in time.

To return to your own example, I think you can now recognize why it is a big-list (or possibly a zero-list) question. You had even recognized the impossibility of a correct answer, so you offered an acceptance to the earliest good answer - which is another sign how this breaks the system.

I hope this makes it easier to understand why sometimes question get closed even when they seem on topic - in fact, I would argue that frequently the topicness rules are made as a second thought to the structure rules. But in any case, both must be met for a question to be allowed.

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