I'll start off with the irony of this question being tagged with a discussion and point out that meta is different.

Why don't discussion questions work in Stack Exchange? What is it about the software and the format that leads to people closing these questions as primarily opinion? or rejecting edits that invite discussion on the subject?

  • I don't think it's the software; I think the software could actually be suited well to it. It's the type of network StackExchange is. – Justin Krejcha Jul 12 '14 at 20:41
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    It could, but there are things done to intentionally make discussions hard via comments or in the answers. That is done to discourage that aspect of social software. A good read on this subject is A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy which goes into a number of the patterns of social software. Incidentally, Clay Shirky is on the board of Stack Exchange. – user40980 Jul 12 '14 at 21:55
  • I agree the software was intentionally done this way (kind of why the Meta sites could benefit for a more 'forum'-esque area), but I think that subjective questions that are good if done correctly (see Good Subjective, Bad Subjective). – Justin Krejcha Jul 12 '14 at 23:06
  • @justcool393 The answer has a quote from Good Subjective, Bad Subjective in it specifically about discussions. Subjective questions can be good, but also all discussion questions fall into the 'bad' side of the subjective scale. – user40980 Jul 14 '14 at 17:47
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    The problem in general is that MOST software questions are up for discussion; there are very few "2+2=4" type of questions. – Wayne Molina Jul 16 '14 at 22:54
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    @WayneM while it is the case that the set of discussion and opinion questions for software is larger than the set of non-discussion questions, it doesn't mean that the way the software works, or the way the site is marketed is one that allows and facilitates discussions. There are many other places where discussions can be had - a site designed for Q&A is one of the poorer choices for such. – user40980 Jul 16 '14 at 23:42
  • It seems to be mostly a question of taste. Moderators here want it to be this way, so it is. Have a look at quora.com. It looks very similar in terms of function, but just about all questions there are asking for something subjective, and inviting long essays about personal experience. – Carlos Aug 5 '14 at 21:07

Why we're not a forum

The first thing to realize is that Stack Exchange brands itself as a Q&A site. This is the very top of the content when you go to http://stackexchange.com. It calls out that this is something different than forums, that there are right answers.

When one goes to the tour page, note the wording of the text there:

This site is all about getting answers. It's not a discussion forum. There's no chit-chat. Just questions... and answers.

Going further into the help center, one finds What topics can I ask about here? which links to three other pages that goes into more about what isn't allowed on the site:

  • What types of questions should I avoid asking?

    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.

    If your motivation for asking the question is “I would like to participate in a discussion about ______”, then you should not be asking here. However, if your motivation is “I would like others to explain ______ to me”, then you are probably OK. (Discussions are of course welcome in our real time web chat.)

  • Good Subjective, Bad Subjective

    Thus, questions that are not answerable — discussions, debates, opinions — should be closed as subjective. It seems simple enough: Fact good; opinion and discussion bad. But why?

    Most forums and chat rooms have a scale problem. As in, they don’t. The more people that join the discussion, the more noise each of those connections bring. So the forums get progressively noisier and noisier, and suddenly one day … you stop learning.

On the nature of discussions

The nature of a discussion is back and forth. Lines of communication. Look at sites that are intended for discussion and you will find threads and nested comments and a system that isn't designed around getting answers but rather to make connections with people.

Stack Exchange is different. As stated in the tour and time and time again in other documents, this is a Q&A site. As such it has intentionally made having these discussions difficult. Things such as limited sizes of comments, limited markdown in comments, the automatic move comment to chat feature.

Discussions make it harder to find the answer - you have to wade through all the other stuff.

As an aside, there is nothing worse than trying to go from reading a post, to reading the comments to going back to the post to see the reply, and back to the comments to see the next reply and back to the post... Don't do that. Remove the 'Edit:' and 'Update:' from your edit, make the entire thing a cohesive whole and leave a comment saying that the post has been updated to take this into account - people can read the revision history if they want to see what changed.</rant>

There are sites that do discussions very well... or, as well as discussions can be done. Jeff Atwood even went off to make another site model designed precisely for discussions (http://www.discourse.org)... and it's not a Q&A site.

It's not to say that one can't try to mix Q&A and discussions. But it's very hard to do both right. It's hard enough to do one of them right. Stack Exchange chose to get Q&A right.

Where else can discussions be had?

If you do want to have a discussion there are some options:

  • Visit chat. The Whiteboard chat room is one such place within the Stack Exchange network where discussions are allowed (and encouraged).
  • Ask somewhere else. There are numerous other sites out there that are designed for discussions. Reddit, Hacker News, Slashdot, Quora to name a few. These are sites that are specifically designed with discussions in mind - the voting system on them, the moderation, the community formed around them - all about discussions.

So why is it a big deal?

The problem with discussions is that discussions can easily overwhelm the rest of the site. Unlike objective questions that have answers (and if asked again can be directed to the previous one asked that will answer this one too), discussions of the same topic are infinite in their variety based on the participants.

Stack Exchange is based on the premise that good questions and answers attract and retain the experts that answer them and that people come to find answers. The quality that Stack Exchange provides is unique within the Internet so far (quite a few clones, but none as compelling).

Furthermore, discussions tend to drive away experts. Not always, but it's the trend. This has been seen many times since the days of Usenet news... experts really don't want to spend their time arguing with someone who doesn't understand the topic at hand when they want to just answer a question... and if they do, there are ways to have that discussion via other channels.

This is not to say that there are experts who do enjoy discussions... and that Stack Exchange isn't exactly working for them. This is unfortunate, but it does not mean that discussions need to be allowed or that Stack Exchange needs to change.

Related reading and links from above:

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    The issue I find regarding chat is it isn't very useful. For instance, take a peak at the javascript chat room. I don't know what it is but every time I enter that chat room it's usually off topic and just seems like little kids poking fun at one another. There seems to be some sort of group that clicks in that room and basically no one else is welcome. Just my 2 cents. – JonH Jul 8 '14 at 19:02
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    @JonH each chat is a different place and a different community. The Whiteboard (P.SE's main room) tends to remain very professional and welcoming. That said, I'd certainly agree with your sentiments regarding some of the larger SO chat rooms. – user40980 Jul 8 '14 at 19:37
  • I am posting so that the devs look into this. It is really lousy to try to get the "Take this discussion to chat..." only to be sent to a room full of kiddies. I know you mentioned that the level of professionalism is good here (in the chat), but really this should be across the board...and it really isn't. When I hear someone say "Take that to chat..." I cringe, cause the chat on SO sucks - not the development of it - but how it is used. – JonH Jul 8 '14 at 20:50
  • The problem that I see with programmers.se is that many moderators hurry to close good questions which may look subjective but in fact aren't. Let me give an example: some time ago I asked on which books to learn about the internals of the JVM. This would be open for discussion if there were plenty of such books with different merits. But it turns out there are essentially none, apart from the spec and few books that touch on bytecode. So that question would have attracted at most a couple of answers, pointing to the only resources available. But it was in fact closed in a matter of minutes... – Andrea Jul 17 '14 at 10:36
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    @Andrea there is a lot of history to book suggestion questions, both here and on Stack Overflow (and across the network). Are book recommendations on-topic?, Why asking for books recommendation is OffTopic and be closed instead?, proposal: a community powered index on programming resources (books, blog posts, etc). It is very difficult to do both book suggestions and Q&A with a definite answer. – user40980 Jul 17 '14 at 14:11
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    @MichaelT Well, my point was not so much about book question, rather on applying rules blindly (books questions are forbidden) vs applying rules with some judgement (we know that often questions about books have these shortcomings, now let me read this question...). In any case, this is far from being the only case. – Andrea Jul 18 '14 at 8:57
  • Please, do not let closed questions to rot. Either remove them or keep them open in other site or with a we-do-not-like-this-question tag or similar. – Eduardo Jan 31 '17 at 17:59

I like the answer entitled "Why We're not a Forum". Having said that, I want to call attention to a particular kind of question that is somewhere between objective and subjective. I'm referring to design questions. There are numerous design questions that come up, concerning the design of object oriented systems, or the design of software packages, or the design of relational databases.

These questions are somewhere in the twilight zone. At first glance, they seem like the kind of straightforward Q&A that SE seems to handle well. And the asker usually wants an answer he or she can use, not an extended discussion.

Here's the problem. For every non trivial design case, there is more than one satisfactory answer. And which answer is "best" depends on the particular use case, and on what criterion is being used for "goodness". It's usually some kind of trade-off. So what ought to be a straight up Q&A turns into a discussion. Or the question gets closed before that can happen.

But most of us don't want to declare design questions out of bounds, even including those of us who very much want to avoid turning SE into just another forum community. This is not a simple problem, IMO.

  • there is a related discussion: Design Review: on-topic or not? "My concern for this type of question is that most of them may be more suited to a discussion environment. I do think that there are good design review questions, but they need to be clear and specific and not soliciting general feedback..." – gnat Jul 29 '14 at 11:44
  • point taken. I tend not to answer general design review questions myself. The reason is that over all evaluation of a design typically depends on features of the specific requirement that are usually omitted from the question. If I can distinguish between design review requests and design questions, I think my comment is more apropos of the latter. – Walter Mitty Jul 29 '14 at 18:28

The site likes questions whose answers are "definitive." That is to avoid questions that will likely solicit opinion, debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion And the reason is that such a quesion cannot be answered clearly and definitively using facts, references, or specific expertise."

One thing site is consciously trying to avoid is questions that could attract many "pretty good" possible answers but no one that stands out from all the rest.

The site's preference for a handful of answers that "converge" to a single, definitive, and presumably correct answer, is like preferring an infinite series that has a single, rather than "divergent," limit points.

It's quite easy to answer if one reflects about what one wants when a question arises right in the middle of daily programming work.

Regularly, one would just want a concise and correct how-to, best with a small, and down-to-the-point code snippet attached, and carry on with on own coding, and not open up for opinion, sentiment and other noise that "discussions" carry with them.

And imnsho delivering answers free of such noise is what SO excels in.

Got to laugh at the questions that have been upvoted a thousand times, favourited a few hundred, have a really popular and upvoted answer... and the mods have locked the thing because it doesn't conform to their view of what the Stack should be. They probably downvoted it too, a couple of times, out of spite. :P

So to answer your question, it is a mindset; not anything to do with software limitations. The entire concept of deliberately blocking others from answering questions is one without merit in the first place, of course.

  • what you laugh at is long known as The Trouble With Popularity – gnat Dec 5 '14 at 11:46
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    If you believe that a given question should be unlocked, post a question about it on meta. Back it up with how it can be answered. Address issues of if it already has too many answers or is attracting low quality answers and how you plan on changing the question so it can get better content (note that you may not be able to see many of the deleted answers). I would urge you to look at Reopen request - Will java be relevant in 5 years? and consider that. – user40980 Dec 5 '14 at 20:41
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    As to software limitations, it is hard to hold discussions on the site, by design. Not that it can't be done, its just that its hard. Its also noisy in that it makes it harder to find the actual content. Stack Exchange chose to do the Q&A part right at the expense of making discussions difficult and, yes, culturally inappropriate. This isn't a problem because there are other places where discussions can be had with much better software support and culture for it. Reddit and Quora are two that go for discussions (but woe to those trying to find an answer there). – user40980 Dec 5 '14 at 20:44
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    The philosophy is flawed. It doesn't mean that the different Stack Exchanges are not useful (Programmers isn't really, as it has too much overlap with Stack Overflow, but that's not the point). Even the fact that this answer was downvoted, as it doesn't fit with the ethos of what one is supposed to say, is characteristic of this. While to an extent it is true that people who tend towards being modders would be less attracted to a different system, and that these people tend to be, on the whole, good, this does not mean that the system is itself flawless. – Stumbler Dec 6 '14 at 1:29
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    On Programmers.SE, that philosophy has been in place for several years. I would encourage you to read How can I encourage Stack Overflow to rein in the 'subjective' vigilantes?. We tried that when this site started - a place for discussions. It didn't work. It failed spectacularly and lacked participation or community. It was only after it became a site for Q&A and moderated that it started growing. The philosophy of "no discussions on the main site" is a necessary part of how the site works and remains open and not a water cooler conversation. – user40980 Dec 6 '14 at 3:36
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    @Duncan: Thanks for being right. :) – Jim G. Dec 6 '14 at 17:52

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