You may have noticed a few whale questions—ones with a ton of answers—getting bumped to the front page and subsequently closed as "not constructive." This is part of a cleanup based on some new guidance we've received about questions that have accrued way too many answers to be helpful.

If you look at the close reason for "not constructive", it says:

closed as not constructive by Mark Trapp♦ 8 mins ago

This question does not meet enough of our six guidelines for constructive subjective questions. All questions should be practical, answerable, and of some educational value to the greater community. Chatty, open-ended discussion questions diminish the usefulness of our site and push other questions off the front page.

When a question has dozens of answers, they stop being practical: if everyone and anyone can have an opinion about the content of the question, it's hard to learn anything other than what a few dozen people think about the subject. While surveys are fine in some contexts, that's not what Stack Exchange is about.

And the system is designed to facilitate collaborating on a few answers instead of providing dozens of separate ones. Once a question gets 16 answers, it will automatically convert to community wiki: this stops reputation accrual for answers and substantially lowers the threshold to edit answers without approval.

Once a question gets converted to community wiki, it's meant to be a not-so-subtle warning that the question is becoming unwieldy and requires the community to regulate the answers its getting. Questions getting more than a dozen or so answers should be treated like a page on Wikipedia: existing answers should be edited to make them better rather than new ones added.

So, per the guidance we've received from Stack Exchange, we'll now be closing questions that get more than 50 answers. Existing questions (~40 right now) will remain where they are (but closed), and if we can find a way to prune back the answers to get them below the threshold, we'll do it. There are a few questions with some really stellar, canonical answers that should not go away merely because they got too many mediocre answers.

You can help clean these questions up by going through the answers, consolidating similar answers, and flagging for deletion the answers that add no additional value. If we can get some of these questions back down to a manageable number of answers, they'll be reopened.

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to be precise, a question with 40-50 answers is running afoul of "chatty, open-ended discussion". –  Jeff Atwood Sep 26 '11 at 9:19
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also, how do you feel about this suggestion: Put the "Answer" button only on the last page of answers? –  Jeff Atwood Sep 26 '11 at 9:26
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Even 16 sounds a bit high. –  Steve Evers Sep 26 '11 at 12:54
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In general, I agree with your reasoning - but really, how could you close this question? It, and the checked answer, are Epic. –  Cyclops Sep 26 '11 at 13:47
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The problem with autoconversion to community wiki on Programmers is that it, at least to me, affects the sharing of individual experiences. I don't want to add my personal experiences to someone else's post because I want it explicitly clear that I'm sharing my experiences/research/education/knowledge. I don't want people putting words in my mouth in parts of my posts that express opinions or experiences, although they can edit factual contributions to correct an errors or expand all they want. –  Thomas Owens Sep 26 '11 at 13:59
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@Cyclops That question is not going anywhere (that is, it's not getting deleted), but it also clearly doesn't need more answers. –  Anna Lear Sep 26 '11 at 14:23
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@JeffAtwood I think that'd help: for the people who would never read past the first page of answers anyway, it's like a pseudo-lock. –  user8 Sep 26 '11 at 17:40
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@Cyclops That question is a perfect example of one I would hope we can save by consolidating and cleaning up the answers, as the majority of the answers have been subsumed into the top-voted one. –  user8 Sep 26 '11 at 17:41
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I wish community wiki kicked in at 10 answers. After about 8 answers, I rarely see any meaningful contributions added. The answers at the end tend to be nothing but 1 line nonsense-answers or repeat "me too"'s. –  Morgan Herlocker Oct 14 '11 at 19:59

5 Answers 5

up vote 7 down vote accepted

As a reminder, we already suppress the answer box and nag people when there are more than {threshold} answers:

It is my very strong belief that any "question" which gets 40+ answers is fundamentally a discussion (or worse, a poll) and not an answerable question, as noted in the Not Constructive close reason:

Chatty, open-ended discussion questions diminish the usefulness of our site and push other questions off the front page.

We of course support the idea that "there's more than one way to do it", because there always is. But there should not be an infinite number of ways to do it, either.

I like to use the "Peanut Butter Sandwich" rule here:

  • "how do YOU backup??"
  • "how do YOU store passwords??"
  • "how do YOU like your peanut butter sandwiches??"

If the thing you are talking about in the question can be replaced by a Peanut Butter Sandwich, the question isn't making meaningful distinctions about what it is soliciting, and therefore either needs to be closed, or whipped into shape via editing to be far more specific.

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If you replace "peanut butter" with "grilled cheese", we've had at least 5 or 6 attempts at it... –  Aaronaught Sep 26 '11 at 21:17

One of the measures of a good subjective questions is that it invites "sharing experiences over opinions". A question that solicits experiences that many people have had can be a good question, and could have an infinite number of good answers.

On a site like Stack Overflow where it's more factual, there should be significantly fewer answers - there might be a lot of ways to solve a problem, but of those, some are Just Plain Bad while a smaller number of others are a Good Answer. I'm of the opinion that if you have a Good Answer on a site like Stack Overflow, you should post it, since the accepted solution might not work for someone else for any number of reasons.

However, on a site where experiences matter more and there are far fewer questions with The One Right Answer, there are going to be more answers. Having an excessive number of answers (I'm not sure how to define excessive, but I'd think of as a function of the total number of users on the site, among other things) is a red flag to look at the question and make sure it's valuable and constructive, but it doesn't necessarily mean the question is bad.

Perhaps a tool could be added to easily view questions that have recently passed different thresholds for large numbers of answers. As an example, view questions that have had their 10th, 15th, and 25th answers posted within the specified time frame. This would give the mods and high-rep users a chance to see the question and decide what to do (flag, close, edit, protect). Honestly, editing is going to be hard since there are already so many answers - my biggest concern (and has been for a number of questions) is "breaking" the existing answers. If you break existing answers and the answerer doesn't realize this and come back fairly quickly to update or delete the answer, then it's more likely to be downvoted since it doesn't apply. Perhaps a tool to "protect" an answer (after a major edit to the question, notify all people who answered the question so they can deal with it, also let diamond mods explicitly "hide" answers and notify a user that their answer is good but not longer appropriate and let the user explicitly choose to unhide with or without edits).

You explicitly mention that "existing answers should be edited to make them better rather than new ones added". I'm extremely hesitant to edit any post on Programmers to do things other than fixing spelling and grammar, cleaning up links, and just generally improving readability. My reason is that many answers share experiences, and I'm not comfortable editing other people's experiences or putting words into their mouths. Personally, I'm fine with people editing my posts for the same reasons I edit other posts, and fixing minor factual mistakes, but the moment that I start sharing my experiences on a subject, the only changes made to that section should be spelling and grammar - you weren't there, you don't know what I saw/did/heard, and if you have a question to me, ask it in a comment and I'll personally improve that section.

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"Experiences over opinions" is meant to encourage people to frame their answers and advice based on experience. It's not a free pass for a question to gather a lot of "I do X and sometimes Y" answers which can (and often do) overlap with other answers. The idea is that the answers instead should be "You should do X in situation Y because of Z." Z are the things that the answer's author learned based on their experience with situation Y, proving they did not just made X up cause it sounds good. –  Anna Lear Sep 26 '11 at 13:18
    
@Anna That's very true, but when considering experiences, there's a lot of variability in "X happened to me in situation Y and I did Z to fix it". Event X and situation Y should be defined and constrained by the question (although not constrained too much or it becomes too localized), but there are a lot of Zs out there. Before answering, one must read other people's posts to prevent duplicate Zs, but if my Z is similar to (but had different results or outcomes than someone else's Z), I'm going to post my own experiences as an answer - it's my Z and I want attribution for my experience. –  Thomas Owens Sep 26 '11 at 13:24
    
The purpose of converting a question and its answers to community wiki after 15 answers is to turn it over to the community: the answerer's intent stops mattering as much as the value the question has to the community. When there are only a few answers, it's probably worth it to leave the intent of the author alone, but when there are a ton of them, the value for the community to have a question that's actually useful and answers a question instead of catalogue of everyone's opinions. To put it another way, if 50 or 100 people can answer the question, the question is too broad of a scope. –  user8 Sep 26 '11 at 17:44
    
@MarkTrapp I agree that it might be too broad. In fact, I'd even estimate that by 15 posts, 90% of questions are too broad and by 20, 99% are too broad. But there are two problems: (1) There's no way to detect these questions early, so having a tool to see questions that just recently had their 10th and 15th posts might help. But it doesn't address the problem of what to do about breaking answers. (2) Community wiki makes me want to not share my experiences since I no longer own the post. I feel that my experiences should imply that I own the post. I don't want people stomping on, well, me. –  Thomas Owens Sep 26 '11 at 17:55
    
@ThomasOwens (2) is very much intended. We want the existing answers improved when there are a dozen of them. If a good answer just can't be found in any of the existing answers, the question needs to be substantially revised so it invites good answers. To (1): if 99 out of 100 high-answer questions should be closed for having too broad of a scope, that's a good ratio. For the one that doesn't, we as a community can intervene and whip it into shape. –  user8 Sep 26 '11 at 18:06
    
@MarkTrapp I don't understand how 2 is intended. It makes sense on Stack Overflow, Server Fault, Super User, Mathematics, CS Theory, Physics, and sites that deal with facts, but not here or any other site where we back those up with personal experiences. I've actively edited (to remove experiences) or deleted posts I've made that have gone Community Wiki because I lose all control and attribution for it, and I will continue to do so. If I'm to share experiences, I also fully intend to remain author of those posts with full attribution. –  Thomas Owens Sep 26 '11 at 18:36
    
@MarkTrapp As for 1, I just wonder if there's a way to detect some kind of trend early. Are there words or phrases that might be used to flag a question for review and throw it into /tools automatically and very early? Or perhaps a warning on the page that says "this answer might be too broad/bad/whatever, please answer with caution as it might be edited or closed". The biggest problem with waiting until you start getting answers, it becomes infinitely harder to edit a question without destoying existing answers. –  Thomas Owens Sep 26 '11 at 18:41
    
@ThomasOwens Answers are, and have always been, collaborative. The conversion to community wiki is intended to be the cue to the community to say, "Okay, we don't need any more answers. Let's work with what we have now." Editing or removing answers after they get converted is a shame and counterproductive: you're still attributed, and you still get all the rep up to the point of conversion. Neither happens when you delete your answer. –  user8 Sep 26 '11 at 18:52
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To detecting a question on its way to a ton of answers: there are a ton of warnings, filters, and documentation thrown at people every step of the way to explain what types of questions we're looking for. Most people get it, and that's demonstrated by the fact that only 38, out of 14,000, questions are affected by this policy. The ones that haven't read anything up to this point aren't going to be helped by more warnings. –  user8 Sep 26 '11 at 18:53
    
@MarkTrapp I don't mind people editing my posts, as long as they don't actively change my message or put words into my mouth. In fact, I appredicate it when people fix spelling, grammar, or add links. However, the attribution isn't the same on CW posts. It doesn't clearly identify who the original author is, only the last person to make an edit. There's nothing that says "Thomas Owens wrote this post, this represents his experiences and opinions. And he was last helped by Bob to make it a clear, readable, and valuable post." It just says "Bob last touched this." –  Thomas Owens Sep 26 '11 at 19:45
    
@ThomasOwens Consolidating answers is about improving them to make them better, not about putting words into your mouth or changing your original meaning. It's taking an answer that's essentially "I agree with everything Thomas Owens said, but here's this tiny big of clarification or additional link" and merging that feedback into the answer that already covers the same ground, or in certain cases, deleting answers that are duplicates of previous answers because the answerer couldn't be bothered to see if one of the 50 other answers duplicates his. –  user8 Sep 26 '11 at 19:58
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@ThomasOwens And how you're characterizing Community Wiki is not how it works. Take a look at this question. It's community wiki, I've edited it twice, but the original author's name is still there. CW always reports who has had the most contribution to the post, not who edited it last. –  user8 Sep 26 '11 at 19:59
    
@MarkTrapp I was unaware that it counted most contribution. That's better than I originally thought, but the diminished level of attribution along with the reduced restrictions on editing of the post unacceptable for posts where I share personal experiences or express opinions on a subject in addition to providing factual, cited information. Until a post goes CW, there's a 100% chance of my name being attached to it. Once it goes CW and becomes fair game for editing and my name isn't guaranteed to be attached to it, I will remove all personally contributed knowledge from it or delete the post. –  Thomas Owens Sep 26 '11 at 20:12
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A question that only attracts posts full of descriptions of personal experiences and leaves working out conclusions as an exercise for the reader is not what this site is about. It's basically just a poll where every post is valid and cannot be judged via voting. Instead each answer should be framed/backed by experience, but ultimately it still needs to distill that experience into tangible advice. Experience is what gives you the "why" to complement the "what" and then there's no need to add multiple answers giving the same advice based on slightly different experiences. –  Anna Lear Sep 27 '11 at 2:19
    
Further to my previous comment, questions that don't attract answers that explain the "what" are possibly too discussion-oriented for Stack Exchange. In other words, from the FAQ: 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. –  Anna Lear Sep 27 '11 at 2:20

Sometimes i visit the stack exchange sites not only for a single answer but for a fresh outlook on a problem where many answers out-weight the accepted one! Sometimes i just read these 'whale' threads for fun and/or education.

I see nothing wrong with large answer lists, the community preferred answer is always at the top but sometimes education is lurking beneath the surface!

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Well said, Gary. Thank you for being a voice of reason. –  mindcrime Oct 22 '11 at 2:16

Too many answers is the sign of a bad question?

Not 100% true for example:-

Question: How to optimize my asp.net application?

Answer: possible answers maybe endless, but all could be valid answers

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It's unlikely that there would be endless answers. Most common approaches would be best consolidated into a single answer instead of being spread over multiple answers. –  Anna Lear Sep 27 '11 at 5:06
    
@Anna Lear: By the way, who does the consolidated works? –  user774411 Sep 27 '11 at 5:19
    
It depends. Sometimes someone will come along and provide a comprehensive answer. Sometimes (when a question attracts so many answers that it is automatically converted into a community wiki) someone from the community or a moderator comes in to consolidate answers. It's a community process. –  Anna Lear Sep 27 '11 at 5:20
    
how to optimize my app is a bad question though from the start regardless of how many or the quality of the answers given. –  Ryathal Dec 2 '11 at 16:46

When a question has dozens of answers, they stop being practical:

That's a perfectly fine opinion... but I see no actual evidence to back up the assertion. Of course you'll have to define "practical" first...

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Downvoting me, because you disagree, is weak sauce. If you have an actual response that contributes something to the discusssion then, by all means, share it. –  mindcrime Oct 22 '11 at 21:46
    
    
That doesn't change the fact that downvoting something without posting any substantive reply is weak sauce. If people have some actual, ya know, evidence, to support the assertion that "When a question has dozens of answers, they stop being practical" then why not just post it? –  mindcrime Oct 24 '11 at 14:09
    
When there are dozens of answers you're really no better off than before you asked the question. In some ways you're worse off. You now have to decide which answer applies to you. How do you do that? Ask another question? –  ChrisF Oct 27 '11 at 16:13
    
That depends on the dozens of answers, doesn't it? If, by some amazing bit of happenstance, there are two diametrically opposed positions, and almost exactly equal number of answers on both sides, then I might grant that you have a point. But how often does that happen? Otherwise, the "preponderance of the evidence" gives you a pretty good idea. Additionally, one should be applying critical judgment to the assertions and claims that are made in any answer, anyway. After, of course, following links, reading citations, analyzing the arguments, etc. This is no different than everyday life. –  mindcrime Oct 27 '11 at 20:59

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