We've had a number of questions lately that, in my opinion, skirt the rules. They're not specific (per the new Help Center, THANKS! for that BTW).

Examples are:

These are just a few. Generally, this isn't a big problem because when you work through the question proper there's enough data to not quite be so open-ended, but generally speaking, they're all open-ended fishing-for-ideas questions. Some are much worse than others.

In some cases, the questions appear very much to be high concept questions. In other cases, the question is fundamentally unanswerable without something: be it more data or changes in what the author is asking for.

Question: What should be our default policy concerning open-ended fishing-for-ideas questions?

Note that one of the biggest problems with these questions is that they're almost always primarily opinion-based, both from the SE point of view and our own.

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    Once in a blue moon we had a VTC reason called 'Idea Generation' – dot_Sp0T Aug 31 at 8:50
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    The issue I see is that some of them are extremely popular. While being popular doesn't mean the same as on topic or shouldn't get closed, idea generation means it is easy to contribute = many do it. While I personally dislike the laziness or clickbaity character of many of them, the community seems to enjoy them a lot. I don't see why one should take away the fun just because – Raditz_35 Aug 31 at 14:30
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    @Raditz_35, The problem, perhaps, is that we're inside the SE network where specific questions lead to objective answers. I'm as guilty of having fun with questions like these as the next guy, but one of the prices we're paying is that some ask basically impossible-to-answer questions, then point at the others and say "see? I'm just like those... why are they open?" – JBH Aug 31 at 17:13
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    JBH makes a good point. Open ended, idea generation questions are perfect for long-form, discussion based forums (like CBB or Conworlds) but are really inappropriate within the SE model. Sure they're fun, and I'll bet all four of us have participated at time or another. I guess the question comes down to willingness to apply a basic tenet of the SE model equally and across the board. Or not, and allow WB.SE to devolve even more. – elemtilas Sep 2 at 4:58
  • What rules are they skirting around? Looking at the examples they have enough detail to guide answers. There is scope to improve them no doubt. A certain amount of fishing for ideas isn't a problem. That is at the heart of worldbuilding per se. It's only when a question is pure idea fishing that there can be a problem. – a4android Sep 6 at 5:07
  • @a4android open-ended questions are either too broad, POB, or both. My complaint isn't fishing for ideas. My complaint is asking a question that's so poorly scopped that answer quality drops. We've had a spate of recent users who appear to be looking for discussions, not answers to specific questions. – JBH Sep 6 at 5:10
  • Ah! Your clarification makes more sense. Your wording above appeared to be an objection to open-ended or idea-oriented questions. Poorly scoped or discussive questions are a perennial problem. That won't change. As for policy, that already exists in WB SE's scope & VTC criteria. There ain't no silver bullets. – a4android Sep 6 at 5:24
  • For an interesting view on open-ended questions, see worldbuilding.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/2785/… This is a generally healthy and productive approach to them. – a4android Sep 6 at 5:26
  • I'm not entirely sure what the main appeal of this site is to a new member if they're unfamiliar with SE's model--especially since without tone to convey the meaning of a message, some of us can come across as antagonistic, myself included--and it seems to be that once their question gets closed a lot of them leave anyway. So why do we not just redirect these people to forums if they're looking for more of a discussion? – Pleiades Sep 8 at 21:10

Distinguish between those that should be closed and those that shouldn't

I don't see anything fundamentally wrong with fishing for ideas. I have this cool idea X (elves do reverie, or generating energy from a fast spinning planet), but I don't know how to make it realistic. Give me some advice!

I like those questions they spawn creativity, which is the best part of this site. Boring old math answers and snarky joke answers are cool and all, but coming up with a justifiable but off-the-wall idea is the best.

Obviously, if the question asks you to write a story, then you close as 'story based.' If the question doesn't have any good criteria for selection, then it is opinion based. But I didn't vote to close any of those linked questions (but I'm a softie on close votes). I think they are all good and could potentially get nice answers.

EDIT: I changed my mind on the psychic question after re-reading it and voted to close, but the rest are still good.

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    And it's been mentioned before in Meta that pretty much all our questions have some element of fishing-for-ideas. My principle question is the open-endedness. No guidance. No direction. It's as if they're asking "I have writer's block, please help me through it...." – JBH Aug 31 at 17:15
  • I think JBH deals with this in the query: work through the question proper there's enough data to not quite be so open-ended. It's the ones where working through means you're left with an off-topic query where the OP is "fishing for ideas". These are certainly fun questions, they're entirely appropriate worldbuilding questions and thoughtful answers may help others. But we're back to dealing with the SE platform: the one-specific-question/one-best-answer model. This kind of query doesn't fit the model and I think the best policy is to apply the rules that already exist fairly and honestly. – elemtilas Sep 2 at 19:59

I'm probably a repeat offender on this and kinda see world-building in general as this. We typically have one of 2 stances when we ask a real question:

  • I have all the Legos. How should I put them together?
  • I'm building something. What Lego do I need to fill this hole?

And those are rather open-ended and opinion-based thoughts usually. Granted, not everything fits those two questions, and you can always reword a question enough that it fits the site policy. But generally I think there's a good measuring stick:

  • How snarkily can I answer the question while getting away with it?

For anti-psychic if they gave no extra info I could say "Wear tinfoil hats" For something like "Harness Planetary Energy" there's an actual limited list if you include hard-science tag. If you don't then more info may be required.

Most importantly:

Sometimes a question is open-ended without context. Sometimes it's completely locked down with context. But as a resource the site does better from easily digestible questions regardless of how open-ended. Being able to see that a question is related to why you came there at a glance is nice. Especially if the title isn't spot-on to the minutia of the question context. The abundance of opinion based answers in a TOO broad question will still have good answers bubble to the top with the voting system. It'll attract low-quality too. Which is one of the reasons I think these kind of answers get closed? Lack of critical thinking added to sheer volume?

....Which wraps back to the Snark Test. If I give you a question locked down entirely with context and tons of detail: a) I might not even be able to be snarky b) By imagining a snarky response I just might be ashamed of myself for walking over someone's effort. If I can feel absolutely certain I can get away with a snarky response... then maybe it isn't worth my effort to even respond. Just vote close and move on. At the most maybe help them improve.

While I'm here responding to comments, I'm going to preemptively defend my stance on the opinion-based potentially being a resource bit: If all questions were meant to be useful only in the specific context of the OP, then we'd be a forum. Nobody would ever need to see an answer again besides the OP. We're a resource, having some room for opinion or varied answers is a must. Not because it is in general required for Q&A format but because we're a site related to creativity. If our sets of answers are tailored too fundamentally to specific Qs then general answers aren't as clearly separated (assume they exist) for notice/consumption by an external visitor.

There is a limit to generalization as far as the site is concerned. Like I stated in my comments though, while you can measure this (I use my Snark Test) a check for a good Q isn't necessarily a check for a redeemable Q.

Ex: The "Creating a realistic world map" series by Tim B is more open-ended than most posts but has a clear use, you can't really be snarky. If he tried to generalize it all into one post it would've been easier to be snarky....

However while "How do I make a world" wouldn't have been as golden it's essentially the same as "Creating a realistic world map: Steps?" (yes "realistic" is a big context difference, but throw me that bone, that's something we fight in the comments all the time... or at least we used to >_>), an answer of "Landmass, Weather, Erosion, etc." could have been potentially useful and if it hit points most people wouldn't think about right away (Heat Map, etc.) then it probably would've been a redeeming answer for provoking thought.

Still voting to close but the reason might be instead of "too broad"... maybe it's become in a way "attracting low-quality" because all that could be said has been.

Alternatively, maybe there's a pretty amazing step-based way of doing unrealistic world maps. I would never be bold enough to ask "Creating a fantasy world map", it seems too open-ended. I don't really know, I haven't thought enough on it, but if an answer managed to convince me of a process I would be pleased. Granted we would still prefer these being 2 separate questions... but that's maybe a different meta.

Then again, maybe there is no redeeming answer. Then it's business as usual: Snark Test, flag.

  • TL;DR not just how much they're fishing. But how well they're doing it. – Black Aug 31 at 22:53
  • ...tempted to change my User Info to "Master Fisher" :3 – Black Aug 31 at 22:54
  • I don't understand how this answers the question @JBH posed. You did good job recapitulating the issue of open-ended question types, and gave examples; but I don't see a solution. Unless "answer snarkily" is your solution? I know well that can as easily backfire as work wonders. The issue isn't whether good answers can be written or will be voted to the top. The issue is more how to deal with the question in the first place! – elemtilas Sep 2 at 20:24
  • @elemtilas You misunderstood "A good measuring stick" paired with the closing paragraph. Granted I could have been more direct. What I meant was judge how much snark you could get away with. If it seems like a lot then the question is likely to be a waste of everyone's time. Close and move on. Otherwise keep it. These are the kind of questions that even the super-focused questions tend to be built on. – Black Sep 3 at 7:45
  • ...that said we have badges for not being snarky and giving it your all (Bad question gets good answers). Whether this was intended to promote self-cleaning of the site, I don't truly know. But I DO know that I've seen answers that were truly thought provoking. Answers promoting thinking on a seemingly garbage topic and providing related lines of thought to questions that may not have even been thought of yet, that seems very in-line with the intent of the site. ... – Black Sep 3 at 7:57
  • So I'd say A Question worth being snarky to can't save itself from being closed or edited, but a good Answer can save a Question. Typically this shows up when someone answers and uses some assumption that forces the OP to clarify and edit their Q but sometimes it's just a magical response (and the Question gets closed anyway if you can still clearly be snarky on it). – Black Sep 3 at 8:01

What should be our default policy concerning open-ended fishing-for-ideas questions?

Via comment, inform the OP, and ask for clarifications to narrow down the answers. If they are not forthcoming, flag the question or VTC. Or do those in reverse order.

To me it depends on the idea they are fishing for. If it is a whole plot-generating idea dealing with a central story element, I consider that the wrong kind of fishing. If they are trying to patch a hole in their story, I am okay with providing a creative element to help do that.

For examples of the later, I have talked about generating oxygen on a planet without plants; or how ancient humans might have produced a stable matriarchy, or ways an all female alien species might reproduce with mixed DNA. Those are questions about how to make a world work; and that kind of fishing for engineering ideas is what we are here to answer. e.g. I need an idea for why my lush farmland has a sharp line border on barren desert.

But to me those are not creative elements directly related to the plot, they are just patches needed to make the setting or circumstances sound more plausible. They are an assist that probably would not even be mentioned more than once.

On the other hand, big questions that are basically "give me a plot" or "What's my finale" are not something I answer; and I may VTC.

Obviously, world building strongly influences story building, that's why it is important. So my advice is to look at the balance between these; and if too much of the answer is about the characters, plots, events in the story then I consider it off-topic here.

These questions are directly discouraged by the terms of the site, they should by the rules be closed as either "too-broad" or "primarily opinion based" but there's a number of issues with these questions that mean they A. keep occurring and B. don't get closed when they should be:

  • mainly these questions don't get closed as fast as they should because they grab people's attention in a way that means a lot of people, and I'm at least as guilty of this as anyone, answer them instead of voting to close them immediately the way they should. I often see question I've answered on the review queue and, looking at them in that, different, light realise that I shouldn't have done that but too late.

They keep happening because:

  1. a lot of the OPs of these questions don't realise what they've done and/or don't see the question as fishing/idea generation. For example I asked what I thought was a simple question about R&D but it turns out there's actually a science that people do doctorates in that attempt, and fail, to answer said question. I knew there was a science, what I didn't realise was that said science actually attempted to cover my question.

  2. if an OP doesn't see any answers at all to the issue they're asking about then while the question is absolutely idea generation it doesn't look like it to the OP, they're looking for a single answer to a question they feel may have none at all not the broad array of ideas they are suddenly offered.

  3. some people don't care how many times you tell them not to they keep the off colour coming anyway.

So yes these questions are a problem and yes they are going to keep happening, the default policy to date, as I understand it and have seen it operating, is to close them either as "too-broad" or as "primarily opinion based" depending where exactly the community feels they lie, since most can be seen as both. I think this is the appropriate response.

We might improve our outcomes if we remember to give people direct and particular feedback about individual questions, that point out exactly where/why a question is getting a close vote, as well as and/or instead of the stock comments from review but otherwise I don't think there are any real changes to be made.

  • So far, I find Ash's answer fits the bill the best. It actually addresses the issues and the realities of working within the SE format. As I see it, we either accept that this community is part of SE, and we abide by SE principles; or we pretend like this coommunity is on one of the phpBBs and we pretend like we can just leave them alone. It took a while, but one reason why I do actually like SE is the more structured model. People can ask for specific worldbuilding help and get specific and targeted answers. I'm active on other forums, too, and often times, (con.t) – elemtilas Sep 2 at 20:09
  • am annoyed by the chat, the fluff, spam, trolling questions, and the like. Thread drift is normal, but it would be helpful to the OP if the question could actually be addressed. That's the one true benefit of SE as I see it. To that end, it seems clear that some amount of policing is needed. There's been quite a lot of discussion here on Meta about problem questions & types. This is a sign that at least some members notice an issue. Closing the problematic questions seems to the best application of already existing policy and is the best fit with SE principles. – elemtilas Sep 2 at 20:14

As long as there is enough context or data, and that the open-minded part is not too broad, I think these question are valid. These question often try to solve the "I want this to happen in my story, how can I justify it". It helps a lot when you try to write a story and building the world around it.

Leave them alone.

Most of these questions have enough boundaries built into the question itself to give comprehensible answers. We're far too quick to close posts that can be fruitful for the posters, because they are largely speculative.

The problem is two-fold:

The "Use a metric" rule is shoddy, at best. It assumes there's some sort of objective judgement by which an answer can always be deemed better, even if both meet the needs of the poster.

Secondly, it's unevenly/unfairly applied. One of the answers above seems to be about arbitrarily closing some while leaving others open, when the fact is that none of them adhere to the rules. If we're being sticklers, then all of these would be shut down, and doing so would just heighten the problematic elements of the culture here.

If a question can generate useful answers for the poster: leave it alone. If people don't like the question, or don't feel that they can properly answer it, they won't. And/or they can help the OP tighten up what they are trying to ask so that the feedback they receive is the most useful it can be. I can't see how stepping in and nuking all these threads adds anything of value to WB.SE.

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    My problem with this answer is that we live in the Stack Exchange universe and are expected to behave by its rules, which include its one-specific-question/one-best-answer model. We are not entirely free to ignore that model and the various rules that support it. It's bad enough that we must modify the interpretation of "primarily opinion-based" to accomodate a creative and more subjective theme (all the while being unable to modify the text of that VTC reason), but to entirely throw it all out the window? We might as well answer every quesiton regardless of quality. – JBH Sep 1 at 15:02
  • I wouldn't say that. For example, I think the writing stack fits a near-perfect balance. There, i almost never see posts put on hold or closed. And never for being POB. The only things that get shut down there are very clearly outside of the scope of the stack, or are literally unanswerable. And it makes for a much more enjoyable experience. You know what happens to sucky questions? Nothing. People answer them, or they don't. There's a natural equilibrium that comes about simply depending on the question and whether folks want to engage. It doesn't actually need significant tinkering. – user49466 Sep 1 at 18:13
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    I'm glad it works well for them at Writing, but here we have, over the years, experienced problems. If you take the time to review our history via meta posts, you'll discover that the more open we are, the more questions not about worldbuilding we get and the usefuleness of those questions to others drops. – JBH Sep 1 at 18:18
  • We aren't discussing questions that aren't about worldbuilding though. If that's what you're focusing on, that's a seperate conversation. Those sort of questions are closed at W.SE. I'm referring to worldbuilding questions that are a bit more open than what one would normally like. And TBH, opening the floor to more broad questions actually increases the usefulness of WB.SE. [cont] – user49466 Sep 1 at 23:01
  • For example: I've found this site to be only marginally useful, at best. In the pure time, effort, and frustration, I've gotten infinitely better results from just working on my own. And the more interesting questions that I might want feedback on, I know better than to bother posting here. The entire point is to help users with WB questions, and I feel like that has been drastically sublimated to proceduralism. I don't think that broad questions take anything from the site. I feel that allowing more expansive explorations drastically increases the helpfulness of the space. – user49466 Sep 1 at 23:09
  • Hmmm... Like it or not, SE is not a discussion forum, which is about all open-ended questions are good for. – JBH Sep 2 at 0:16
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    @JBH true, but that sort of feedback is what I'm critiquing here. We both know that this isn't a discussion forum. And focusing on that, IMO obscures some deeper things. Here's what I mean: Let's take a step back. Let's avoid issues of procedure and consider what the basic purpose of the space is: to help people with worldbuilding questions. Underneath all the rules and our differing interpretations, that's what we're here for, right? Ok, so given that...is this basic goal helped, or hindered, by someone going through and closing the posts in the OP? [Cont] – user49466 Sep 2 at 2:41
  • [Cont] I understand your concerns with adhering to the guidance of the space, but when I go back to this fundamental question, it seems pretty obvious that the correct pathway to helping people worldbuild isn't to just nuke those posts. It stretches the bounds of credulity to argue that the existence of those handful of posts is actively harmful to helping people worldbuild. Especially not to be worthy of removal and especially not if it requires labor hours and oversight that could be spent doing far more productive things. [Cont] – user49466 Sep 2 at 2:45
  • [Cont] I'm not going to pretend that I have all the answers, but nobody here seems to be served by that pathway, and there have got to be better ways to manage that. What I've seen work, is what I've expressed here: give attention to better questions, help people improve questions, by all means, keep closing things that are off topic, but getting bogged down in minutiae about question and answer criteria seems to actively hinder, rather than aid, the goal of helping users worldbuild. – user49466 Sep 2 at 2:48
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    @user49466 --- actually, the purpose of WB.SE is "to help people with worldbuilding questions in a very specific way, as outlined in the Stack Exchange manifesto". (Or whatever. Rules.) If you just want to "help people with worldbuilding questions", then there are plenty of other forums out there that can handle those kinds of idea-bouncing, brain-storming questions. I know too that WB.SE is not the best worldbuilding forum in existence. The underlying machinery is not best suited for out kind of creative work. But, we have a presence here, and that means we have to work within the rules. – elemtilas Sep 2 at 5:09
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    @elemtilas We don't have to do anything. That's precisely why this question was posted. It's literally asking what we should do, and what the rules should be. If you feel that we should follow specific rules a specific way, that's not a foregone conclusion, its something you should post as a new answer and advocate for. – user49466 Sep 2 at 12:19
  • @user49466 -- that is a valid option. Given the popularity of these questions, the fact that even those of us who are concerned about the community itself participate, is indicative that "do nothing" is probably the worst option. Whether or not I offer my own solution is not your concern, and we'll cross that bridge when it's built; right now, I am offering comments on your response, in light of what SE is and isn't. – elemtilas Sep 2 at 17:11
  • @elemtilas It's not about you offering a solution, its about the fact that your comment doesn't make sense. "We have to follow the rules" is irrelevant when we're discussing what the rules should be in the first place. – user49466 Sep 2 at 17:35
  • @user49466 -- I think you misunderstand! Take a look at JBH's first comment. My comment simply follows from that. And, to be honest, we're not discussing "what the rule should be" as that is laid down by SE itself. This question as I understand it is about implementation. Given the nature of Stack Exchange, how do we deal with questions that are entirely normal on other worldbuilding discussion forums. – elemtilas Sep 2 at 17:57
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    @elemtilas is correct. By definition these qusitons are too broad, primarily opinion-based, and inviting discussion, all of which is contrary to established rules. I'm looking for input about how to apply those rules to this specific type of question. I'll be honest with you, I'm not looking to change the culture and nature of Stack Exchange. If you wish to do so, you need to bring this issue up on meta.stackexchange.com. – JBH Sep 3 at 17:01

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