Real Questions Have Answers

by Jeff Atwood

on January 17, 2011

In Good Subjective, Bad Subjective, we made a pretty solid first stab at defining a constructive subjective question, one that I've been happy with so far.

Constructive subjective questions:

  1. inspire answers that explain “why” and “how”.

  2. tend to have long, not short, answers.

  3. have a constructive, fair, and impartial tone.

  4. invite sharing experiences over opinions.

  5. insist that opinion be backed up with facts and references.

  6. are more than just mindless social fun.

But the six guidelines above depend partly on the questions, and partly on the answers. They're a fine starting point for determining what a good subjective question generally looks like -- but I couldn't fully explain what makes a bad subjective question.

That was before I saw Aarobot's epic meta answer on poll questions:

Should all poll questions be closed? That is where it starts to get dicey. For you see, the term "poll" is itself subjective, and whether or not a given question is in fact a poll is often open to debate.

For me, and I think I speak for many others, the only time you really know you're looking at a poll is when you see those one-line answers. But we can only close questions. Is it always the fault of the questioner that the answers suck? Do they deserve all the blame for the fact that people with nothing useful to say want to participate anyway and bring their reddit-style "tweets" into the answers?

Sometimes the questions really are bad. When someone asks, Which programming language do you really hate?, and doesn't bother to elaborate at all, that is just screaming for crap answers. It's hard for me to begrudge any of those participants their answers (okay, maybe I begrudge them a little) because the question itself was so ridiculously open-ended that any answer would technically be a "correct" one.

Then again, some questions that are worded as very obvious polls actually get reasonably good, well-written answers. See Best practices that you disagree with for an example. On Seasoned Advice (Cooking.SE), I can point to several examples of weak questions or even joke questions that, given an early, comprehensive answer, did not devolve into pointless blathering. On the flip side, I've seen questions that were definitively not phrased as polls that were still greeted by dozens of poor-quality answers; take, for example, one of Stack Overflow's oldest: Practical non-image based CAPTCHA approaches?

Recently I've actually taken to using Metafilter's guidelines as a rule of thumb.

Yes, yes, it's a long post, almost TL;DR, but it's gold. Read it anyway. You may remember Aarobot from his previous discovery about meta-tags.

It should come as no surprise that MetaFilter, which has been doing high quality Q&A; since 2004, figured this stuff out years ago. They're a huge influence -- up there with Wikipedia in my estimation. That's why we had Josh Millard, a MetaFilter admin, on an early podcast.

I'm just kicking myself for not discovering the particular page Aarobot referenced until now. Effective immediately, the FAQ for all sites now includes specific guidance on what a bad subjective question looks like.

What kind of questions should I not ask here?

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. To prevent your question from being flagged and possibly removed, avoid asking subjective questions where … * every answer is equally valid: "What's your favorite ______?"

  • your answer is provided along with the question, and you expect more answers: "I use ______ for ______, what do you use?"

  • there is no actual problem to be solved: "I'm curious if other people feel like I do."

  • we are being asked an open-ended, hypothetical question: "What if ______ happened?"

  • it is a rant disguised as a question: "______ sucks, am I right?"

If your motivation for asking the question is "I would like to participate in a discussion about ___", then you should not be asking here. If your motivation is "I would like others to explain ___ to me", then you are probably OK.

All based on the MetaFilter FAQ entry My Ask Metafilter question was removed as chatfilter. What does that mean?, with their explicit permission and proper attribution.

I realize this is a lot of rules, a lot of guidelines, a lot of thinking. But it's simpler than it looks. As Aarobot said in his post: real questions have answers, not items or ideas or opinions.