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tl;dr version: A lot of questions which would normally be closed as "Not Constructive" or NARQ have recently been getting a free pass because they say things at the end such as "please explain your answers" or "please answer with facts or experiences". I think that this has become a loophole for poor-quality questions and needs to be addressed somehow.


I happened upon this question today:

This question was originally closed as "not constructive". It was recently edited and reopened.

Now, not to pick on Anna, but I really don't think that the substance of the question has changed in any significant way. It's just written in a different style, with this big disclaimer of sorts:

Please be sure to include in your answers how the things you do affect your productivity.

Although I can't call up all of the specific instances to memory, this seems to be becoming a trend. Questions which are fundamentally not constructive are having phrases such as "Please explain your answers" or "Please back up your answers with facts or experiences" tacked onto the end, and this, apparently, is enough to make them constructive.

To me, this isn't any different from adding "...for programmers" to the end of a title and claiming that it validates the question as being on topic. It sounds like a cop-out; standard boilerplate copied-and-pasted to the end of a question in place of any real effort.

My take is that "good subjective" questions inherently do not need this kind of disclaimer. Take, for example, the question titled How do you write tests for code that depends on concrete external implementations that can't be mocked? You really cannot answer that with pure fluff.

Okay, maybe that's a bit of a technical example; here's one that's a little more open-ended: Under what conditions does it make sense to break code into many files, or merge them? That's a fairly soft question, but it's written in such a way that the "explanation" is the answer; you can't have an answer without an explanation, it would make no sense.

Perhaps I am in the minority here. Perhaps I am even wrong. But I am worried about the aforementioned trend; I think that people are starting to exploit a loophole.

Programmers.SE has a policy about questions that contain the phrase for programmers or variants:

  • If you can remove the phrase "for programmers" and the question and answers would still make sense, then the question is off-topic.

So my question here is, should we be applying a similar test to open-ended questions with the potential to be closed as "Not Constructive?" Specifically:

  • If removal of the phrase "explain your answers" would make thoughtless one-liners acceptable answers, then the question should be closed as Not Constructive.

Would this be a useful rule of thumb? If not, then why not - where have I gone wrong?

  • +1 - I think your rule of thumb is spot on. I also think your analysis is spot on... – Walter May 22 '11 at 22:25
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tl;dr: GTKY is Not a Real Question, no matter how much you qualify or restrict it. We want your experiences related to a solution to our problems, not just thrown out there for idle entertainment.

OT: I love the stuff you write, and your general attitude... But dude, I have the attention span of a gnat; it would be sooo much more soothing to my psyche if you could ever limit yourself to 2-3 paragraphs...

A GTKY question is a GTKY question, no matter how much you dress it up. That's why I was so happy when Real Questions Have Answers was posted and added to the FAQ. Because if any answer is valid, then no matter how good one answer might be, you're gonna have to live with the slow poison that is every other person who reads it potentially posting an EQUALLY VALID alternative to it. This isn't fair to the readers who actually want a solution to their problem. It's not fair to the authors of good answers who'll now eventually be deprived of reputation on the site when the number of answers rolls past 15. And it may not even be that useful to the original author, who quite possibly wanted to know "What can I do that will work?" even as he asked "What did you do and what was the outcome?"

The FAQ guidelines on subjective Q&A are meant to discourage questions that attract lazy, unhelpful answers. They are not a free pass for every question that happens to comply with them: a "good subjective" question can still be Off-Topic, Too Localized, or... simply Not a Real Question. That last one is my preferred reason for polls, GTKY and the like, although for this specific example it's arguable (especially given the answers) that there's simply nothing programmer-specific about it and therefore it's off-topic.

They can also be duplicates. I just closed that example as a duplicate of this, since that's pretty much how I'd re-write it if I were trying to make it less of a GTKY question and more programmer-focused. There are other probable duplicates in existence; you linked to one in the comments, and I merged another... Frankly, this whole topic strikes me as the sort that really doesn't need more than one thread on the site, even though (or perhaps because) the specific answer that works will be different for every person. It's the classic "how do I diagnose my computer?" question - myriad root problems, countless eventual solutions, best answered with a trouble-shooting guide if possible.

Would this be a useful rule of thumb?

Not really. If the question is getting good answers with it, fine. If it's getting good answers without it, that's fine too. And if the question allows me to ramble on about that time I tried to be more productive by gorging on ephedrine and red bull provided I go into detail about how it didn't really work but did produce 30 new ways to re-arrange my desk, including "disassembled" and "upside down", then burn it with fire.

  • I can limit myself to 2-3 paragraphs if you don't care how long the paragraphs are. – Aaronaught May 23 '11 at 2:08
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    @Aaronaught: that's fine - I only read the first line or two of each anyway. – Shog9 May 23 '11 at 2:14
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I don't feel picked on. Thanks for bringing this up. Your post speaks to something I've been trying to put into coherent words for the last few days.

Far as that question goes, my intent with saying "Please be sure to include in your answers how the things you do affect your productivity." was simply to remind people that one-liners aren't okay and that if they have something to suggest, they should substantiate it with something.

The main reason I added that in was that I felt (and still do, to a point) that there was merit to the question, but it fell into the trap of crappy phrasing and answers. I was hoping to tease out something better out of it without putting an explicit "moderator note" in it. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't. This time it doesn't look like it did much either way, although the question that was chosen as the duplicate is, in my mind, actually worse.

Now that aside, let's talk about your idea. I like the spirit of it, but I wonder if most of the questions here are such that if you remove the explanation from answers you end up with thoughtless one-liners.

Thoughtless one-liners are not acceptable and we have other parts of the FAQ that cover that -- usually questions that go for a list of one-liners are described somewhere in the "What kind of questions should I not ask here?" section. But out of all the guidelines for constructive subjective questions, short answers appear only once. I think it's possible for a question to contain short but meaningful answers.

Instead of trying to measure that level of meaning in an additional guideline, I think it may be better to agree on how we should enforce existing guidelines that cover the same ground.

Do we delete short/thoughtless answers? Do we allow their posters a chance to edit more information in? Does the community accept direct moderator intervention in those cases or are we just going to end up with an endless fight? Sure, moderators are given their power for a reason and all that, but if we don't have the community backing us up and performing some part of the moderation as well, this is gonna be a full-time job, nevermind the resentment that's going to build up until everyone takes their toys and goes home.

So in the end, I think your suggestion is a useful rule of thumb, but I'd prefer a clear/unified way to enforce existing guidelines instead of writing it into the FAQ as it might open a very subjective can of worms.

  • I think we might have crossed wires somewhere; I wasn't suggesting that there's anything wrong with an answer if removing the explanation would turn it into crap; I also wasn't suggesting that this would imply that there's anything wrong with the question. It's all in the question itself; if there's a phrase in the question that says something like "please explain your answers", and that is the only thing in the question that gives any indication that answers should be more than statements of opinion, then that imperative shouldn't really count against a "Not Constructive" vote. – Aaronaught May 23 '11 at 2:05
  • @Aaronaught Ahhh, that makes more sense. Yeah, I think I read your post wrong. The way it read to me was that you were suggesting that a question containing "please explain your answers" was automatically or at least more likely to be not constructive. I agree that the phrase shouldn't count against a "not constructive" vote in an otherwise not constructive question. – Adam Lear May 23 '11 at 2:13
  • Right. Phrases like that are probably a red flag (just as "for programmers" or "as a programmer" are), but at best it's just noise, something to be ignored when fondling the close button. – Aaronaught May 23 '11 at 2:19
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    @Aaronaught I think you have a much closer relationship with the close button than I do. :) – Adam Lear May 23 '11 at 2:21

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