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I don't usually go over to the meta side of things. but I was surprised at the comment my comment got. And when talking about comments on comments, meta seems to be the place to go.

I understand that subjective questions are discouraged. However, when subjective questions come up on other stack sites I use (which is pretty much just StackOverflow) a standard approach in answering is one 'item' per answer. Maybe that's must have webapps or best JavaScript books or even what domain should be used for food and cooking, but each time it's how the answers shape up and sometimes specifically requested in the question.

So when I suggested this for 'For what foods is a microwave a preferred method of cooking?', I was told that

The whole 1 per answer is actually discouraged. This site isn't meant for polls. In particular it doesn't scale well.

I checked the FAQ, and all I see is the standard 'subjective, argumentative, or require extended discussion' list. I get that the original question - being subjective - may fall under what's 'discouraged' but I don't get how answering the subjective questions that are allowed in a one per answer manner is (or should be) discouraged.

From what I can tell, it's a good model that has worked on other stack sites.

So Is food and cooking different in this regard? Is the 'one per' method actually discouraged? If so, where?

Update: Just a new thought - I wonder what the response would have been if I had synthesized the 'best' (in my view of course) answers into mine? Or taken another answer (it was already CW) and added to it? Would I have had another moderator telling me I was doing it wrong?

Related meta question: Should questions that have a list of answers be allowed?

  • Consolidating multiple answers into one (Community Wiki or not) has been encouraged by Jeff and Joel since day one and even recommended as a way to earn quick reputation. I can't speak for every moderator but I certainly would not have complained if you had done so. The trick, of course, is getting that answer accepted so it stays at the top, and keeping it up-to-date when other users inevitably don't understand what's going on and submit their own answers anyway. Unfortunately, the software just doesn't handle polls very well, which is the reason I prefer the NARQ school on mature sites. – Aaronut Sep 5 '10 at 5:22
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There tend to be three schools of thought on polls on these sites, which I'll outline briefly:

  1. The Not A Real Question school

    According to this school, a Q&A site should be strictly Q&A. Polls don't have objective answers and therefore aren't "real" questions.

    I am a card-carrying member of this school on Stack Overflow and think it should be mercilessly applied on any "mature" SE site, but that approach may not always be appropriate for new SE sites (especially beta sites) that are still actively trying to recruit members.

  2. The Community Wiki Answer school

    I also like to call this the "Joel" school because I think that it was his original vision for Community Wiki. This school says that polls and lists should be treated like a Wikipedia page, with the question itself being roughly equivalent to the preamble (but phrased in question form).

    Notice that "answer" isn't pluralized here. The "wiki" is a single answer that is collaboratively edited by the community. The lack of reputation earned is merely a side-effect of the fact that the answer is the combined effort of tens or potentially hundreds of members.

  3. The One Per Answer school, AKA the All About Reputation school

    This school believes that poll questions are potentially bad because they're a form of rep gaming (AKA rep farming or rep harvesting) - questions that people start not because they really care about the topic but because they think they'll be popular and earn the questioner lots of reputation.

    Non-wiki polls really are a form of rep farming because other members, eager to cash in on some quick rep, all upvote each other and the questions to keep the question "hot". This school, however, believes that rep farming is the one and only problem with polls, and aside from that, they're as good as any other question. Therefore, we should use SE's voting system to rank answers and utilize Community Wiki to prevent rep-farming.

I won't lie - OPA is clearly the de facto standard on every Stack Exchange site today. There are, however, a number of troubling issues inherent in this concept:

  • It unconsciously ascribes ulterior motives to the question author, which is unfair;
  • It does not prevent badge farming, which is still a problem;
  • It ignores more conventional incentives for over-participation - socializing and herding;
  • Voting patterns suffer from chronological bias (oldest answers are typically favoured);
  • Pagination makes a large number of answers incredibly difficult to read;
  • Once a certain momentum is reached, answers become heavily duplicated due to the above;
  • It casts Community Wiki as a feature intended to protect subjective/inappropriate questions.

In my personal opinion, OPA is a very misguided idea, conceptualized by some folks who didn't really understand the purpose of Community Wiki (or really the idea behind Stack Overflow/Stack Exchange) and subsequently used as a blunt instrument by the inclusionist crowd - people who believe that all content except spam is precious and should never be blocked or deleted.

People will always say that the system works great and has lead to some amazing, educational questions, but if you really start to pry, you'll usually find out that most of these people didn't read beyond the first page or two of answers, which isn't a good system at all - it suffers from the same problem that discussion forums suffer from, the problem that Stack Exchange was intended to solve, that being that important content is buried in noise and many if not most answers don't get a fair hearing.

So I agree that OPA is or should be discouraged. I would prefer that Community Wiki mode be used the way it is intended to be used, to collaborate on a single detailed answer. The system doesn't make that easy; there's no way to restrict the number of answers or to merge answers, so I never really expect the "list of X" questions to be handled properly by the community and I'm not going to attempt any ham-fisted moderation when OPA is used. But I do strongly disagree that OPA should be encouraged or demanded as it sometimes is (often under threat of closing, on other SE sites). That just communicates the false message that we're actively trying to support polls, when in reality they're merely tolerated in small quantities.

Essentially, to make a long story short, I'm not going to get upset when I see "one per answer" polls, but I would really prefer for people not to spread the message that it is the way to handle list/poll questions, because it really isn't.

  • Good presentation of all the points - and I support your right to discourage it. :-) I just was surprised that a highly ranked user (a moderator) told me that they're generally discouraged. I've actually contributed to a Wiki style answer (where multiple people tried to make a 'list' answer complete and accurate) and the question was closed because (and I'm paraphrasing from memory) 'it wasn't SO style, too much like wikipedia'. I get not wanting OPA questions, I just don't see it 'actively discouraged' anywhere - if moderators are going to tell people that, it should be someplace. – Tim Lytle Sep 5 '10 at 3:41
  • @Tim: I'm not sure where this happened, but I'd be mortified to see a Community Wiki question being closed as "too much like wikipedia" - that was the whole point of Community Wiki! MInor point: hobodave said "actually discouraged" not "actively discouraged" and I think on that he is correct; even though there's no official statement, if you hang about the metas (particularly MSO) you'll see a lot of support for this. – Aaronut Sep 5 '10 at 5:24
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    @Aaronut I tried to find the SO post that got closed - but I think it may have been deleted as well. Sure, there may be meta discussions, but coming from other stack sites where OPA isn't actively discouraged (even on this meta site it's been used), leaving a "we don't do it this way" really gives that elite vibe that may very well turn off other users who (like myself) believe they have a reasonable knowledge of how stack sites work (even if they don't hangout in meta sites). Especially since no alternative was suggested. – Tim Lytle Sep 5 '10 at 12:10
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    Wasn't my intention to misquote. Actively was my wording, because if it's 'actually discouraged' it follows that someone someplace should be discouraging it in an active way. Telling me that it's 'actually discouraged', give the impression that it's something I should have known. I guess it goes the 'elite' feel this site seems to be struggling with (or so I gather from various meta posts). Just a 'while other stack sites do this, we discourage it' and providing an alternate solution would have gone a long way in keeping me interested in this site. Not so much now. – Tim Lytle Sep 5 '10 at 12:17
  • @Tim: Your profile says that you have linked accounts on Gaming and Web Apps. You should pose this to the moderators there as well - you might be surprised at the answers. I do understand that OPA is how it's always been done on Stack Overflow, but the tone on Meta SO is quite different, and a number of the SE mods are frequent contributors there. Many SE sites (including ours) happen to allow OPA but struggle with how to manage them effectively. – Aaronut Sep 5 '10 at 14:50
  • Any @Tim, if you feel that it's some sort of elitism, that we think we're better than other sites, that's your call to make; for me and several others, polls have always been a problem on every SE site. You're still free to start them as you please (within reason), we aren't actually closing them unless they're off-topic or incredibly vague - but for the record, my preference for polls/lists a single community-edited answer. I wish I could offer a better alternative but that is really up to the development team, not me. – Aaronut Sep 5 '10 at 14:53
  • I'm sure there would be tons of opinion on the meta sites of those other stack sites. I understand that it may be discouraged by the meta community(s). I just think that reprimanding a user for suggesting it on a non-meta site is a bit off-putting unless you actually put it in the FAQ or someplace else that 'average' users would look too. Perhaps I'll update my question (or maybe add an answer) expanding on that thought. – Tim Lytle Sep 5 '10 at 17:26
  • @Tim: I didn't interpret it as a reprimand, but I can see why you might have. I wouldn't put this type of thing in the official FAQ (trying to cram everything in there would just make it unusable, and it already says avoid asking questions that are subjective, argumentative, or require extended discussion). I also don't think that we need or should have an official policy on how these questions should be asked (since, really, it's a little inconsistent with the FAQ to allow them at all). I think this post right here can serve as a reference - all three "schools" have valid arguments. – Aaronut Sep 5 '10 at 17:41
  • @Aaronut Since this was/is getting a bit long winded (although I've certainly found it informative), I put my extended thoughts in an answer (seemed like the best format). I appreciate your responses, and hope that the discussion itself will be useful to others. – Tim Lytle Sep 5 '10 at 18:27
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I'll give a shot at answering this the way I see it after a bit of enlightening back and forth with Aaronut - hope that doesn't ruffle any feathers.

So Is food and cooking different in this regard? Is the 'one per' method actually discouraged? If so, where?

The best answer as to where seems to be on the Meta sites. Which could be problematic, since the meta sites aren't necessarily (at least in my experience) frequented by the average user.

The two things here that I think make it problematic are the expectation of knowledge and the position of moderator.

I think it's important to note that the reprimand came from a moderator, because that has the 'feel' of a warning from a police officer. In the 'community' they are the 'authorities'. And at least how I read the comment, it seems to have a tone of "let me explain to you what should be obvious". Of course, I very well could be reading the tone incorrectly.

To create an (admittedly silly) analogy, it's like driving with your headlights on in the daytime, and a state trooper coming along and saying, "You know, we actually discourage that. That's not what headlights are for." You scratch your head because you've done it many time before, you've seen others do it, from your experience it works well, and you've never seen a sign saying not to do that. You later ask another state trooper about it and the response is, "Well, back at the barracks and in the diner we all frequent we talk about it a lot - even with the drivers that hang out with us - and the consensus is, it's a bad idea."

At that point you have to wonder, if it's bad enough to be pulled over and warned about, why isn't it posted someplace more public?

That, at least in my limited experience, it how food and cooking is different.

I had the expectation that what I've seen (and - gasp - even done) on other stack sites would be acceptable on this site. Perhaps I've just been lucky, and not 'pulled over' (or seen anyone 'pulled over') on the other sites.

It just seems - in my opinion - that if a moderator is going to correct a user for suggesting something that is common on other sites, it should be posted in the FAQ or something similar. To me, 'we talk about it on meta' doesn't cut it.

But as intimated in the comments of Aaronut's answer, if a moderator said, "We would rather list type questions were answered by a community edited single answer instead of OPA" - then I wouldn't have given it a second thought.

The problem, as I see it, is telling a user they did something wrong, when they would only know that if they hung out on Meta.

Just to be as clear as possible, I post this not to attack anyone, but in an honest effort to provide some feedback that could possibly be used by those setting the direction of this site. This made me feel immediately like an 'outsider', even though I'm familiar with other stack sites. I would think if this happens frequently, it will be detrimental to the site - which I hope to continue to use, just perhaps a bit more tentatively from now on.

Update: While this reflected my original understanding of the comment - a moderator telling me what a site policy was - hobodave's comment on this answer shows that was not his intention, he was just responding as to what he would prefer. Big difference there. I really don't think I'd be the only one to misread that. However, if it's not a site policy it certainly shouldn't be in any FAQ or similar.

  • @Tim: You did interpret my tone completely wrong. You weren't reprimanded, or warned, or slapped on the hand or anything similar. You didn't do anything wrong. You are actually free to go around suggesting OPA as far as I'm concerned. I'd simply prefer you didn't. The only reason I said anything was that the OP didn't put the OPA requirement in his question, but you came along and suggested that he should. As to why it isn't in a FAQ or something similar? It's simply not that big of a deal. We don't need a 5,000 word FAQ or rules document. The FAQ covers the important general things. – hobodave Sep 5 '10 at 18:41
  • Tim - my answer (at least the last few paragraphs) is my own opinion and not site policy. The reason hobodave didn't word it the way you suggest here is because we don't have or want to have an official policy, because the very existence of those questions is counter to official policy of maintaining a proper Q&A format. All we're really asking (not reprimanding) is that other people don't try to coerce users into their preferred methodology via comments and/or votes. Sort of like how we ask people not to leave "this should be CW" comments. – Aaronut Sep 5 '10 at 19:02
  • And I rather dislike the analogy you've given because the benefits of using low beams during the daytime are well-documented (so much so that it's automatic in every new car in the form of DRL). A better analogy would be if an officer "intercepted" a conversation in which one citizen said to another that it's always okay to drive 15 kph above the speed limit, and jumped in with, "Actually, that's not really true. Most of the time we're looking for worse offenders, but 15 over still isn't a safe speed and could still get you in trouble on a bad day." – Aaronut Sep 5 '10 at 19:09
  • Because neither hobodave nor any of us have ever reprimanded a user for creating an OPA-style question; all he did was politely ask a non-moderator not to tell other users that it's the recommended way to ask those types of questions. – Aaronut Sep 5 '10 at 19:12
  • @Aaronut I never told anyone that it was the recommended way to answer. I was told it wasn't. – Tim Lytle Sep 5 '10 at 20:32
  • @Aaronut I know the analogy was limiting - mine makes the driver in the right, yours make the driver in the wrong (legally speaking). I just couldn't find something ambiguous enough. I tried to find something non-legal. Because ** officially** it's the question that leads to 'list' (or multiple answer answers) that's potentially off-topic, not the method of answering. So feel free to replace my 'lights on' with something that's non-legal if you want. – Tim Lytle Sep 5 '10 at 20:36
  • And again, as mentioned on Aaronut's answer - I pursued this because other meta discussions suggest that this site may have somewhat of an 'elite only' feel, and that was the impression I got at first as well. No, it's not a big deal, no I'm not greatly offended and 'never coming back to this site again'. I brought it up because I thought it might be helpful to the direction/success of the site. That is all. – Tim Lytle Sep 5 '10 at 20:40
  • Ok - well just as you perhaps mistook hobodave's comment as a reprimand, we both seemed to have mistaken your original comment as a general recommendation, because similar advice is very often given as such. When he said "not recommended", that does not necessarily mean "recommended against" - just "not recommended." No need to read between the lines. I'm glad you're not offended and I'm not offended that you brought up this topic - just want to make sure that we clear up any misunderstandings. – Aaronut Sep 6 '10 at 14:46
  • Yes, I guess it's a misread all the way around. I saw the question about microwaving and though, "well, I'll bet no one is going to answer with a comprehensive list, I think I'd find it more informative as OPA, I'll suggest that". It was not my intention to make anyone think OPA is the official way to answer that style of question, just a way I thought would work for that one question. And honestly, I get all the badge gaming/etc about CW questions, it's just not something I think about. I just use the sites to get information/interact with people of similar interest. – Tim Lytle Sep 6 '10 at 15:43

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