Yes, other sites have them and have fun with them. Programmers.SE community tends to have a bit of drama around these questions with them getting a bunch of answers, closed and reopened at least once, and some lingering delete votes.

Why is this and why are these questions so contentious?


I think the key here is differentiating between metaphors and examples.

If I am describing object composition in OOAD, I may use a car analogy. A car contains many components which I identify as classes in the OO design. However, I am describing the car problem in terms of object design. Anyone familiar with OO can easily follow along and understand the problem. The car analogy is an example: the vast majority of people who understand software development will be familiar with cars, and it can be a useful abstraction.

If I start by talking about cars, and maybe pulling in programming concepts later on, this is a domain-first approach that may not be as easy to follow. Why is this jerk nice person wasting our time talking about cars instead of computers? The asker is caught up in the metaphor and losing sight of the important end goal of writing software.

Consider the following examples (seewhatididthere?):

  • An alien civilization uses glyphs instead of words, similar to some Asian languages: however, they have billions of glyphs instead of millions. Aliens love croissants, for example, and have glyphs for each type of food (especially croissants, they have thousands of types of pastry). Now I am going to give a few other boring examples that have nothing to do with the problem. Finally, these aliens want to merge their glyphs into our Unicode: is there an unused Unicode plane large enough to hold all of their glyphs?

  • What is the size of the largest unused Unicode plane? For example, assume we made contact with a yet-unknown alien civilization with three billion glyphs, and we want to communicate with them using Unicode. Would their glyphs fit in Unicode?

One of these examples goes off on a tangent so long I would just close vote it as off-topic and move on. The other focuses on technology, and pulls in a (brief) example to illustrate why the question is important to the person asking.

even the second version of the question is off-topic at Programmers, but at least it is clear and concise.


Metaphors work poorly for design questions. Asking about aliens when you are really asking about the size of Unicode, or asking about unicorns and horses when you are really asking about a property on the base type that some elements of the collection may have and others not... these nice stories confuse the core question.

What's more, when people try to write too much in the metaphor, they obscure the actual question they are really trying to find out more about and start getting people speculating about alien languages (could be a fun world building question - has nothing to do with programming) or the nature of a unicorn (is it a horse? is the base type MyLittlePony?).

And so, we get poor answers to questions because the real question is hidden in metaphor.

We get poor questions because as the question isn't tacked down with any rigidity, it morphs adding little bits of the story to disqualify certain answers.

And we get crap that isn't searchable and isn't useful to other people. No one is going to think to search for aliens on Programmers.SE if they are interested on the size of the Unicode space. No one is going to search for unicorns when trying to deal with polymorphic objects in a functional manner.

And even assuming that someone does find these questions, the question and answers are too wrapped up in metaphor for them to be able to generalize the solution or apply it to their problem and will have to ask it again (hopefully this time with programming terms). And even if question is essentially a duplicate of the other question no one should reasonably cast a duplicate vote for "What is the size of the largest unallocated unicode block?" to "Can unicode support an alien language with millions of glyphs?"

The clickbait titles are a knowledge black hole. Some have dismayed that knowledge is locked up in chat because it is hard to search for. However, I contend that it is easier to find knowledge in chat and reference it again than it is to find a useful pattern or other information that can be applied to an answer in another question.

The clickbait questions themselves are very draining on community moderation and curating of the material. On a site with as little community moderation and curation as we experience here, having a new user post another (poor) answer to the question... from my personal preference I would probably down vote, shake my head and walk away. I don't want to have anything to do with those questions or their answers - they have already taken up too much of my time as I write this. I do not have the energy to explain to another user why this is not a good question and why other poor answers have gotten up votes that they are expecting too. Unfortunately, as I write this, it is rare for other people to try themselves, and even rarer for the advocates of having the question be there and open to help in explaining how to write a good answer to the question to other users.

Thus, in my opinion, clickbait questions should be closed promptly until the user can format the question in such a way that it doesn't depend on metaphor and allegory to ask a sensible programming question.

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    You had me right up until "clickbait questions should be closed" - edited, yes. But I'm not sure that they should be closed. I'd have to think about it more, though. – Thomas Owens Jan 9 '16 at 17:18
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    @ThomasOwens I point you to earlier "should be edited" efforts in the past. Those attempts were reverted with the essence of "the OP has final say on the content of the question." Just look at how many revisions rollbacks there were in the alien question. These questions are a drain on the already sparse resources of the community that attempts to curate the material. The proper state of the question is closed - so that new users are not tempted to waste their efforts on a question that will lead them to a poor experience on the site or be a further drain for people providing guidance. – user40980 Jan 9 '16 at 17:23
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    @ThomasOwens per my reading, part you quoted looks quite incomplete, "clickbait questions should be closed promptly until the user can format the question in such a way that it..." etc (given how many pointless upvotes catchy titles get from users looking for entertainment, closing looks like a reasonable way to make a point of the need for editing - unless you prefer site users to engage in rollback wars) – gnat Jan 9 '16 at 20:03
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    I for one see nothing wrong with the "Could Unicode support an alien language with millions of glyphs?" Example. If you wish to educate/convince those of us who enjoy these kinds of questions, you'll need to link to some damaging examples. – RubberDuck Jan 10 '16 at 1:57
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    @RubberDuck I see the debate about what a language is. Things like "how would you encode the be dance" distracts from the question. You also dont see the multiple rounds of comments being moved from the main question because people were going off on tangents about it. I dont deny that they can be enjoyable to read, but they are nightmarish when it comes to trying to keep them on track and explaining to new users why their answers are being down voted. As someone who tries to provide the guidance to new users on how to ask good questions and write good answers, these questions very distracting. – user40980 Jan 10 '16 at 2:12
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    I know that pain in a different context, but that doesn't necessarily make them bad questions. If it's a bad question because it's not well defined, or because it's simply off topic here, that's fine. Edit/close them because they're bad questions. Not because someone took the time & effort to create a clever title. – RubberDuck Jan 10 '16 at 2:16
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    @RubberDuck the title alone isn't the problem. The title along with a question post that encourages the answers to speculate on the nature of language, or if unicorns are horses are distracting - in the answer, they amount to noise and their popularity makes it harder to find the good answers. There is often a good question in there - but when the question is encouraging answers that have nothing to do with computing or software design it is a poorly written question that needs to be changed. Ideally, this should be done before it gets those answers. – user40980 Jan 10 '16 at 2:20
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    @RubberDuck is the title better now? The answer here is still very much about the content of the question posts. – user40980 Jan 10 '16 at 2:40
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    Could one of the downvoters please post an alternative answer? I don't really see what's wrong with MichaelT's answer, and I never will if no one else ever posts their opinion. I get that closing a question with a "fun title" may seem harsh, but he's not talking about titles; he's talking about questions where the body is so focused on the metaphor instead of the programming problem that none of the answers focus on the programming problem. The aliens Q we're alluding to was a tremendous pain that could've gone much better if it was simply closed before people mis-answered it in droves. – Ixrec Jan 10 '16 at 18:00
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    @Ixrec upon further thinking, this somewhat lacks explaining why editing prior to close might be not a viable option (note how first comment points to that). For example, it is typically difficult to split the irrelevant metaphor from underlying searchable design question, it may take a lot of time and effort. And answers that tend to pile on (due to clickbait title) make it even harder, editor needs to keep an eye on what answers get invalidated and if it's ok or not. And if it's not closed, it becomes even harder, "how dare you invalidate legitimate answer to legitimate (open) question?" – gnat Jan 10 '16 at 21:35
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    (Author of the unicorns question) FWIW, my intention was not to grab entertainment upvotes. I was attempting to present a problem in an abstract manner so that instead of providing a solution, answers might include an analysis of the problem and if it should be solved a certain way, a case for why.The question itself is inherently open-ended; I understand "too broad" criticisms. But I don't think the metaphor invited off-topic comments as much as you claim. I noted 2, my little pony and "a unicorn is not a horse", which is the same number of clickbait accusations in the comments as well. – moarboilerplate Jan 11 '16 at 22:05
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    @moarboilerplate Thank you for commenting here. The thing I wonder is if there could have been a slightly more concrete and accessible and descriptive way to ask the question. When reading answers to the three questions I mentioned I get the distinct feeling that people are answering the story the problem is embedded in rather than the problem itself; and if extracting the story from the problem more would lead to questions that are easier to find and less distracting to answer. – user40980 Jan 12 '16 at 15:45
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    @MichaelT it cuts both ways--"What is the size of the largest unallocated unicode block?" could be considered less accessible to the average developer versus "Would UTF-8 be able to support the inclusion of a vast alien language with millions of new characters?" A good analogy facilitates terser discussion which in turn keeps conversations from devolving into hand-wringing over semantics. When the analogy fails to represent a problem accurately, or is incomplete, then it's problematic. But I don't see that with the unicorns question, which is ultimately what this question is referring to. – moarboilerplate Jan 12 '16 at 21:47
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    @moarboilerplate Consider the core problem of your question. Now try searching for that problem on SE's search or Google. If you can't find it, then that is knowledge that disappears - the next person asking about the same problem will ask it again. And with the story aspect of the question, it makes it difficult for there to be a good linkage between the new question and yours - either by duplicate or related question that can help guide people to a more complete understanding of the question. – user40980 Jan 12 '16 at 22:13
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    @ThomasOwens after considering this for a while, I think you're right that a title edit is the way to go - after all, the metaphor might be useful, but its the "clickbait-ness" of the title that is the problem, trying to game views at the least. So, deal with the gamification by editing the title to something boring - job done! – gbjbaanb Jan 18 '16 at 14:08

Let's handle this case-by-case using existing tools versus establishing another informal meta-rule. Things I've considered:

  • Deciding what's clickbait or not is a subjective call best handled case-by-case.
  • Deciding which metaphors are productive or not is subjective.
  • This meta-rule would be easily misinterpreted as a "no metaphors" rule.
  • "No metaphors" then spreads to answers.
  • Metaphor is an incredible tool.
  • Some ideas can only be expressed through metaphor.
  • Metaphor offers unique insights into new and difficult ideas.
  • The assertion that there's plenty of room for creativity without metaphor is kind of strange. Creative acts in communication can only be a few things: unusual word choice, unusual structure, abstraction (simile, metaphor, allegory, puns, humor...)
  • If our criteria for strong content is "easily indexed by machines", we're going to end up sounding like machines.
  • If metaphor is out-of-bounds, this suggests other abstractions and unusual word choice are candidates for elimination.
  • If someone goes over-the-top with their metaphor, "unclear what you're asking" is a legitimate response that doesn't require a new rule.
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    So, what is your stance on croissants rather than a scheduling algorithm, aliens (and the dancing of bees) rather than 'how many code points are in Unicode', and horses and unicorns rather than a question about subtypes? How easy is it to identify the 'what this is about' from the title and summary? How easy is it to search? How relevant are the answers? – user40980 Jan 11 '16 at 19:12
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    I don't mind the metaphors, if that's what you mean. Croissants as a cross-posted "experiment" from a high-rep user is weird. Dancing bees seems like an intentional attempt to misunderstand the alien language question, following the lead of the first question comment. Horses and unicorns seems like a way to ask a subtype question when you don't know the right words. Answers seem as relevant as any busy question -- a couple nice, a few meh, and the rest just piling on. Busy, non-metaphor with a similar range: programmers.stackexchange.com/q/303242/9302 – Corbin March Jan 11 '16 at 19:58
  • Looking at the revision history of the aliens an Unicode question, would revision 6 have been better - judging 'better' as: has a more accessible title, question post, and less likelihood of misinterpreting the question while still asking for the same information? Is the bit about aliens at all needed? – user40980 Jan 11 '16 at 20:03
  • ... as for understanding the question from its title, I don't know that it happens often with non-metaphor questions. Programmers' content isn't always straightforward, so it might take a little more to understand the question. I am more likely to read a question than piques my curiosity. Searching: ultimately I'm more interested in what's in front of me. Again, Programmers' content is likely harder to index. Still, search engines seem to do a pretty good job. If an answer mentions an industry phrase, the Q&A are likely to show up. Unique ideas/names are easier to find after the fact. – Corbin March Jan 11 '16 at 20:07
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    Can the metaphor be removed from those three questions while leaving the essential question intact while removing the possibility of misunderstanding the question, going off in tangents in answers and comments, and making the question itself more accessible to a wider audience by making it easier to find and easier to understand (especially for people with English not being the primary language)? – user40980 Jan 11 '16 at 20:07
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    The metaphors make them human. ;) – Corbin March Jan 11 '16 at 20:08
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    Programming IS metaphors. It is nothing else. I had an Art History prof who said that Art is about Art, it builds entirely on previous artwork. Trying to take metaphor out of programming is like trying to take the sound out of music: there would be nothing left. That said, "too many notes" still applies. – user186205 Jan 12 '16 at 16:45
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    @nocomprende but can one ask a question about OOP without needing to tell a story about their car? or try to classify their pet house cats and lions in a cage meant for animals in a generic arraylist? Telling a story may make for interesting reading, but if aliens take over the world and add their character set to Unicode is largely immaterial to the question of how large the unallocated block of characters or the nature of combinational glyphs - its just a story and distracts from the actual question. – user40980 Jan 12 '16 at 16:52
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    @MichaelT I guess it depends on what you think the "actual question" IS. For some people, it is establishing the metaphor, for others, it is answering a specific situation. Both are valid. People who design systems have to begin with metaphors. People who code have to answer specific questions (which devolve out of the metaphor elaboration). These might be the same person. People who think in specific terms seem to be very unaccepting of people who think in more abstract or "poetic" terms, but without the latter, the former would not have computers to be working at. Think of Alan Turing. – user186205 Jan 12 '16 at 16:57
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    @MichaelT that logic is a slippery slope--by that line of reasoning, abstract questions with objects whose names go beyond Class and IInterface are out of bounds. – moarboilerplate Jan 12 '16 at 22:02

Let's say I want to draw a picture of an alien and I'm given only two "colors": black and white. I could probably do an okay job of it. Black and white are enough to clearly delimit boundaries and shape. With a little creative shading, I can show how light falls on the alien. The simplicity of black and white is attractive. I'd be particularly successful if the alien was somehow familiar. If the alien looked like, say, an otter, the viewer could look at my drawing, access what they know about otters, and draw sensible conclusions.

But what if the alien isn't at all familiar? Since we're talking about aliens, it might be there are no clear-cut boundaries. The alien may have fewer reference points, like an abstract painting. In that case, adding the rest of the colors from my palette might be useful. Additional color adds higher-order meaning. They call all of the machinery in our eyes into service. Even if our eyes can't see something natively, the creative use of color sometimes makes things understandable. Take the Crab Nebula. Much of what we see in pictures isn't truly visible to the naked eye, but with a little color shifting it leaps vividly into our imagination.

Sure, there are some downsides to using color. Object recognition algorithms tend to ignore color in favor of saturation/brightness. (Computers aren't good with "color" in my metaphor.) Some people don't experience all of the colors. Even if they do, phenomenology argues that it's possible different people have entirely different subjective color experiences so there's no objective "truth".

Even with the meager strikes against it, a fully colored picture is no less effective than black and white. A red/green colorblind person gracefully falls back to black and white where appropriate. An algorithm simply ignores what it doesn't need. If phenomenology is correct, black and white pictures are equally doomed.

[Related: Bulletpoints EVERYWHERE (Community pressure to edit to a creative norm.)]

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    What does any of this have to do with the issue of how to handle clickbait-y titles and/or metaphor-centric questions on Programmers.SE? – Ixrec Jan 10 '16 at 18:15
  • @lxrec Everything, I imagine. Your refusal to engage the metaphor will likely be deemed a vote against some types of creative expression. – Corbin March Jan 10 '16 at 18:20
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    I attempted to "engage the metaphor" but I'm failing to glean anything from this post other than what I assume is an extremely circuitous or perhaps passive-aggressive way of claiming that "we" see things as too black and white. If there is something else buried in here, the fact that it's so hard to pick out merely proves that MichaelT is right about these posts being problematic. – Ixrec Jan 10 '16 at 18:24
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    After reading the non-obfuscated MSO post you linked to, I think I see what you're getting at. But unfortunately that point is completely irrelevant here. We're not talking about questions with slightly unconventional formatting or phrasing. We're talking about questions where no one could agree on what the OP was trying to ask. – Ixrec Jan 10 '16 at 18:29
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    The value of the Q&A format lies in the ability to search for something, find that thing (and not something else), read it, understand the answer, and have that solve your problem. Questions that delve too far into metaphor make it harder to search for the material, harder to find out if it is asking the same question, harder to read it, a good chance at not understanding the answer and ultimately not having it solve your problem. There is plenty of room for creative writing in questions and answers without needing to ask about aliens, croissants and unicorns and get non programming answers. – user40980 Jan 10 '16 at 18:36
  • Stack Overflow makes a much better home for unconventially phrased questions, because of the trick that pulls them off the HNQ after 7 hours. If it was so at Programmers, I'd probably stick on your side – gnat Jan 10 '16 at 19:40

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