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Short version: Is this the same as a question "without a definitive answer"?

Long version: Personally, I understood "subjective" to mean, "without a definitive answer", yet I keep seeing questions on this subjective question site closed because they lack definitive answers. I understand the requirement that not all answers be equally valid to mean that there should be some reasonably obvious criteria for determining if a certain answer is "more valid" than another answer. This could be "correctness", but since subjective questions often defy correct / incorrect assessments, I would think it could also be some other reasonable criteria, such as "thought-provoking", which maybe should be specified in the question. I think a good litmus test for this is, "Could you downvote something for being less valid, and support your claim based on the question?" E.g., "Down-voted because this is common sense and not thought-provoking." Does this seem like a correct understanding? Can you provide me with a better interpretation, so I don't run afoul of this rule again? Should this be clarified in the FAQ?

Commentary: I suspect a non-official reason people understand this requirement as "needs a definitive answer" is that it stops threads where everyone has something to contribute that can easily grow very large. People enjoy these questions, perhaps partly because everyone can contribute meaningfully, so more people read and respond and they get a lot of votes. While I understand frustration when this is blatant "rep-farming", I think there is at least one class of questions which are best answered by accumulating a lot of answers and letting the cream rise to the top. This becomes a sort of process of "community inference", and lets the community explore topics that maybe aren't yet understood well enough to have a "right answer" yet, or maybe are too complex to ever be fully answered. While I agree that the reputation system has an undesirable result for these questions, I feel like the problem is with the SE system and not with the questions.

I am especially frustrated because I find that many software test questions fall into this category, and right now programmers.se seems to be the best site available for these questions (I've voted for the QA Area 51 proposal, but it's stuck in the "commit" phase). Lots of the work that testers do requires inferential analysis, and being able to draw from wider ranges of experiences with questions like these is a big help!

Disclaimer: I did post a question that falls into this category. My goal wasn't to farm rep, and I considered if it was appropriate to mark 'community wiki', but decided against it based on this meta thread on the purpose of 'community wiki'. I was frustrated when it was closed but glad to see discussion over the closure (followed by it being re-opened), and thought the discussion was really good and the general topic deserved a full thread on meta.

  • By the way, I'm pretty sure your question was never actually closed. A couple people just called for it to be closed in comments and there's a single close vote at the moment. – Adam Lear Feb 9 '11 at 5:05
  • Joel and I strongly support the QA proposal, and will be promoting it in our network soon. – Jeff Atwood Feb 9 '11 at 5:07
  • @Anna, thanks for mentioning that, I might have been confused. @Jeff, hearing that is very encouraging. I love programmers.se and SO for the "D" in SDET, but the "T" in SDET is getting rather frustrated :) – Ethel Evans Feb 9 '11 at 17:40
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It's a common misconception that subjective means "without a definitive answer": in reality, subjective means "valid based on one perspective". This is in contrast to objective, which is "valid for all perspectives".

So a subjective question that's interesting and useful for others is one that gets answers that are based on people's experiences: it's useful to hear how other programmers have handled certain problems because their experience is useful knowledge. That is, for any one problem a programmer might face, other programmers have likely had to deal with the same problem and can share their perspective on how they handled it.

Again, this is in contrast to a site like Stack Overflow, where there's very likely one real way to solve a problem, and it's likely any competent programmer will give you the same answer.

The key factor in both a site like Programmers.SE and Stack Overflow is that questions solve real problems: whether the answer to the problem is an objective answer or a subjective answer based on one person's experience.

To this end, the Stack Exchange network is not a discussion board: it's not your role, as question-asker, to ask thought-provoking questions. Your role, as question-asker, is to ask a question you personally need the answer to.

It's nice that you want to contribute to the community, but questions that just create lists of things because that's a question you think would be a nice, chatty question to ask is filler: it takes up the space of some other question that a person asked because they actually need some help with a problem they're having. Creating those types of questions actually hinders the community and makes the site a less useful place for people needing help.

If you want to have a place where you can just shoot the sh— with other programmers and do community-building activities like asking thought-provoking questions, I humbly suggest setting up a PHPBB instance or seeking out the numerous existing programming communities on the web and in your area.

  • Thanks, this makes more sense to me. However, I don't think these questions are necessarily about shooting the shi--. I'm looking for experiences people have had that could lead me to change my work practices, so I can learn from their experience as well as my own. I really do have a need for anecdotes, and not just straight advice. Stack exchange sites seem to be the closest fit, largely because they do not devolve into discussion (except in comments) and float cream to the top. Existing communities and local meetings lack these qualities. – Ethel Evans Feb 9 '11 at 1:17
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    @Ethel if you have a specific problem you need help with, Stack Exchange is the place to ask it. Otherwise, it's not a fit: the question you've highlighted is open-ended and doesn't mention a specific issue you need help with. I really can't help you find a place to ask questions that don't fit this mold; as the saying goes, "you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here." – user8 Feb 9 '11 at 1:22
  • @Ethel to further elaborate on why your question is open-ended, I can't—as an answerer—provide a complete answer by myself. I can't draw from my experience, write something, and honestly say, "yeah, I nailed that." If you were to ask, "This is the specific problem I'm having, given that how do I do X?" or "This is what happened, why did this person say Y?", it'd be a question that a person can say, "I've been through that exact same thing: I got this" and answer. – user8 Feb 9 '11 at 1:31
  • I get what you are saying; I guess I'm wondering (a) where open-ended questions are disallowed in the FAQs (i.e., is it the line referenced in the question?), and (b) why open-ended questions are disallowed, if they even really are. I'm still not convinced this rule is actually intended by the FAQ line I quoted; "all answers are equally valid" is different than "multiple valid answers are needed to answer this fully". – Ethel Evans Feb 9 '11 at 1:52
  • And to clarify, I think you answered "why" very well. So now, I'm just trying to clarify IF they are actually excluded - is that actually the intent, or is the goal to exclude questions where no criteria exists for evaluating more or less valid answers? – Ethel Evans Feb 9 '11 at 1:53
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    @Ethel The FAQ section What questions should I not ask here?, as you've already pointed out in your question, covers these questions: " You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face. Chatty, open-ended questions diminish the usefulness of our site and push other questions off the front page." It is the intent to exclude questions like the one you've asked, for the reasons I've outlined in my answer and the blog posts I've linked therein. – user8 Feb 9 '11 at 1:55
  • I didn't apply that line when I read it because I didn't (and don't) consider my question 'chatty' (it has very clear, well-defined guidelines for answering and doesn't ask for a discussion), and I wouldn't have considered it open-ended without your explanation for why you thought it was open-ended. When I read it, I thought open-ended meant "your answer is never really done", sort of like, "What makes a good programming language?" It's hard to imagine a list of features so exhaustive that you can't come up with one more. But a person could give a concise yet thorough answer to my question. – Ethel Evans Feb 9 '11 at 4:27
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    Anyways, I think I get the point you are getting at - posts should be answerable in a single post, so there can be a real 'best answer'. It's frustrating for me, as a tester, because testers often like to learn from inference (drawing conclusions from a set of data) as well as conference (learning from others). This site apparently really only supports learning from conference. Which is fine, everything has its limitations, and there are reasons for these . . . thanks again for taking so much time to walk through this with me. – Ethel Evans Feb 9 '11 at 4:34
  • Based on these answers stackoverflow and programmers.se are redundant platforms. I see no real reason to use programmers.se if the view of it is "You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face". If it is that stringent, then it sounds just like SO. It's cool though, it's your barbecue... I'll just avoid programmers.se and ask/answer/read code snippet questions on SO... – jmq Feb 16 '11 at 8:52
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Not having a definitive answer and not having an answer at all are two different things. One type of question that is discouraged at this site are "poll" questions. If I remember correctly the first rendition of your question was something along the lines of, "What is the most outrageous bug you have ever encountered?" There is no answer to this question, subjective or objective; it is just a survey so to speak. One criteria that might help you to evaluate the legitimacy of question is: Does the question ask how to solve a problem? Or, is the question asking for advice that applies to a wide audience?

I would personally argue that your question even in it's final rendition could use some editing. I know what you are trying to ask, but I still think that it is incomplete. I think the more appropriate question would be, "How has/does discovering and fixing bugs increased your skills as a developer?"

  • I get that surveys are discouraged, but is there any good reason for this beyond concerns about rep farming? – Ethel Evans Feb 9 '11 at 0:56
  • because surveys do not provided any constructive feedback other than some metric of popularity. – Pemdas Feb 9 '11 at 1:19
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    I don't get that answer. They give lots of constructive feedback, from my experiences reading survey-style questions on SO and SE. I've found the best answers do tend to rise to the top; about 1/3rd to 1/2 of the way through a long list of answers on a good question, I generally find I no longer consider the posts worth reading. But I can get 4 to 5 pages of quality information from some of those threads, and generally the best stuff is at the top. Am I misunderstanding you, or is your experience different? – Ethel Evans Feb 9 '11 at 1:37
  • And . . . back to the original question, does the line I cited actually exclude survey questions? – Ethel Evans Feb 9 '11 at 1:51
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    Voting on the most correct answer is not really a survey. It is affirmation that answer is valid. A survey like question does not provide any other feedback beside some sort of popularity metric. – Pemdas Feb 9 '11 at 2:16
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    yes it does exclude survey questions, because in a survey question no answer is really valid because there is no real answer. Like I said not having a definitive answer is not the same as not having an answer. – Pemdas Feb 9 '11 at 2:18
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In addition to what Mark and Pemdas have said, I'd like to add that another important distinction (far as belonging on P.SE or not goes) is whether or not reading a question's answers would help one become a better programmer.

In that sense, I liked the twist you put on your question: how did you learn from your bug and how did it help you later vs the other incarnations of the same question that simply asked for a list of "fun" bugs. The former might help someone by exposing a vulnerability they never thought of. The latter is just fun to read, but has little substance behind it.

The difference there is subtle and others might disagree, but in my mind placing extra criteria in the question (such as requests to elaborate on the answer or restricting answers to bugs that people were personally involved in fixing) helps guide upvotes/downvotes on good/bad answers. A question like that has a better chance of being useful. That alone isn't always enough to "save" a question from being closed, but it certainly helps.

I think I summed up the issue with questions that just ask for a "list of X" here. Directions to restrict answers to one item per answer (to simulate a survey) are almost never followed and the whole thread degenerates pretty quickly more often than not.

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