# How to deal with list questions?

I've just came across this question which to me looks like a classic list question.

Generally, list questions are discouraged on stackexchange, however on some sites there seems to be an (informal?) convention to allow some, but have a community wiki answer for collecting list items in that case (I didn't find a reference just now, but I'm abolutely sure I've seen that).

So what should be the policy for such questions on this site?

A clarification about the community wiki answer: The idea is not that the question or all answers are community wiki, but that there's a single community wiki answer which collects all the good points from other answers, and is the accepted answer. That way you still can vote on individual answers, but someone just looking for an answer has not to go through all the individual answers (which might also have some overlap).

Let's take a moment here and realize something.

"List question" is basically a loaded buzzword. There is no proper construct, nor are these questions inherently a bad fit for our engine.

There's a very wide misconception spread by this term which causes any and every question which has multiple answers, especially that they may form a list of more than 2 items, to be condemned as this horrible thing called a "list question". It's partially rooted in the idea of there needing to be a single definitive answer to any question. Neither of these are actual things. Being a list isn't a problem in itself. And the realization of this fact is that while there are a specific kind of problematic list (itemized lists, which were the subject of a number of our blog posts), you can often transform these into a non-problematic sort of list with a little effort.

Let's look at the question that brought this up, "What are some ways mass changing of terrain in a short period of time could occur?" The asker clarifies that the time frame is a matter of weeks-to-months, that the terrain change is something along the lines of a brand new mountain or islands splitting off, and that natural phenomena rather than wizard-did-it solutions are being sought. This is like many things that just happen to ask for a list - the ultimate goal is to find a single solution to be used, and it solicits multiple solutions in order to find the best one.

I want to take a moment right here, to point out that asking about a problem to solicit multiple solutions in order to find the best one for my purposes is literally one of the major points of existence for Q&A sites like ours. That there are multiple valid answers is not a problem, and we naturally have the ability to support this kind of system. The way it plays out is simple, we'll first start off by accruing the most commonly known means of mass terrain reformation. Some users will post multiples of these within one answer - that makes for a stronger answer than someone who only proposed one, so that kind of answer probably gets more votes. But someone could suggest a rather esoteric means that not many people are familiar with, and fleshes it out with paragraphs of reasoning. That too would be pretty strong.

What makes this acceptable is the scope. And let's not confuse this for some kind of "Oh if there are fewer than 10 possible answers it is good", there's no such thing of numbers here. It's about what kind of scope makes logical sense for a question to contain enough information without being too broad or too narrow to be useful?, and I find that something like "Natural phenomena that would cause mass land reformation over a relatively short period of time" is actually pretty useful. This isn't a rare kind of construct to use in world-building, sometimes you just gotta have a new mountain, yanno? You can see this as a simple contained system that is being sought out. This isn't acceptable because "Oh there's only so many possible natural phenomena", even if that is a reality. It's acceptable because the problem space that is being asked about is very reasonable to us as world builders.

It's all about changing how you look at it. What is at surface phrasing "Give me a list of mass land reformations", is at heart "How could I go about causing a mass land reformation in a period of weeks to months?", that's a single problem. That's the key here, it's isolating what problem is being asked, and then you judge the validity of the question based on that problem. If the problem's scope is improperly sized or is otherwise unfit for the site, that makes it a poor question, not the fact that the question requests a list of items.

A problem's scope would be improperly sized if, for example, if I asked (probably on Chemistry more than here) for a list of how every chemical element reacted with water in its purest state - there may be a finite number of elements but the list is unwieldy. I'm either trying to find a specific kind of reaction (to which I should've asked what kinds of elements produce said reaction), trying to find what kind of reactions there are (to which I should've asked what common reactions there are) or I'm trying to scout for outliers in the mix (to which I should've asked about unusual reactions). And the latter case may be too speculative to be useful. In fact there's a lot of places in scope decision that are fraught with perils like that - too broad, too narrow, too speculative, too obscure, too contrived, too complex, too simple... there are degrees in many directions that can render the scope of a question not useful to actually helping people. And they're all a problem associated with the scope, not with the fact that there's a list being asked for.

If you see something that you'll instinctively call a List Question, think about what it's actually asking. Think to yourself what problem it's trying to solve, and whether you think it's a useful problem to solve, and that the scope of the problem is useful. It may sometimes need you to tinker with the question to make it more visibly appropriate, but remember that our best tool is our ability to work with each other as a community.

• I like this answer. I think it's fundamentally the same as mine, but where I would have created a tag specifically to corral these types of questions, the way you describe it that isn't even necessary. Could you weigh in on this related question? I'd be interested to get your take on it, vs this one. – Bobson Sep 19 '14 at 13:32
• This seems to be an abrupt departure from : meta.stackexchange.com/questions/158809/… and blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/11/qa-is-hard-lets-go-shopping – Chad Sep 19 '14 at 13:43
• @Chad - So is the entire Software Recommendations stack. Sometimes the general rules aren't applicable. – Bobson Sep 19 '14 at 13:50
• @Chad - Actually, look at your own links: the best shopping recommendations will be utterly obsolete within a year! Those aren't opposed to "list questions", they're opposed to "shopping list questions". Asking about things like "how can I make this happen?" are not going to go out of date. – Bobson Sep 19 '14 at 13:58
• @Chad It's not so much a departure, really. This is a point I've been pushing for about as long as that blog post has existed, and it wouldn't be the first blog post which didn't wholly reflect its inspiration - the entirety of Meta Tags was similar. That all said, there are reasons that itemized lists are problematic, as that post details, but there's a thing to understand, which is my point in this answer, is that not every question which demands a list is an itemized list. – Grace Note Sep 19 '14 at 13:59

I agree with DonyorM that these questions should be on topic. Many of the problems people face when they create a world is they have a great idea but don't know how to build the logic behind it. I think that by making these sort of questions off topic and banning them we would be seriously limiting the value of the site.

However where we disagree is on the use of community wiki.

I believe the appropriate way to answer these question is to encourage thoughts and opinions and voting should indicate the best ones. The selected answer is the one which is of most use to the OP.

My main reason for this is to encourage participation, community wikis require people to be far more selfless. One of the reasons I love the SE sites because of the challenge of rep and badges. I would like to earn reputation for posting an original and well thought out suggestion to someone's "How can I..." question!

• I decided I liked your idea better. I'm currently mourning the loss of some rep. :D – DonyorM Sep 18 '14 at 9:04
• @DonyorM you can't delete an upvoted answer can you? :-( If you want to repost I'm happy to change my vote – Liath Sep 18 '14 at 9:08
• It's not that big a deal. It's cool had people have added to it too. I just probably wont do it in the future. This is what beta is for. – DonyorM Sep 18 '14 at 9:11
• It is worth pointing out that there is no shame attached to improving your answer by stealing points from other answers, as long as you credit the original poster. Its all about making the best answer that you can. If the answer mostly exists, propose an edit; if it doesn't purloin the relevant points to make a greater whole. – Mourdos Sep 18 '14 at 12:10

I think list questions should be allowed, and the answer that gives the most valid /most useful reasons is the "correct" answer.

Here's why: Often when someone looks for how to create a world, they don't know about certain things and want realistic reasons why something could happen. So they ask here. Often times there are multiple ways this could happen, but the question is still helpful. I guess it would be "good" subjective. So you need a list question.

Maybe we should require list questions to be community wiki. (When you see one flag a mod). Or if you are typing a list answer, you need to mark it as community wiki.

• I'm not sure a community wiki is required (mostly because there's no rep incentive/pride involved) But I agree 100% with the argument for inclusion - there are too many "How can I?" type questions which fall into this scope. – Liath Sep 18 '14 at 7:44
• @Liath Community wiki questions produce no reputation. – DonyorM Sep 18 '14 at 7:46
• The way it worked elsewhere IIRC is that there was one answer marked community basically summarizing all upvoted answers, and marked as accepted answer. – celtschk Sep 18 '14 at 7:51
• that could work. – DonyorM Sep 18 '14 at 8:31
• The correct answer is the answer that the OP chooses. Often this is the first one they like reguardless of the quality of the answer or if it would fit the needs of most other users. – Chad Sep 18 '14 at 13:44
• "Good subjective" questions tend to invite answers discussing how and why (and I suppose to some extent what). List-type answers often don't discuss those things; why would one choose one alternative out of the list over another? By refocusing the question not along the lines of "which alternatives are there?" but rather something like "what would be the reasons for X happening?" specifically invites answers that go into more depth. I still liken list-style questions in the Stack Exchange Q&A format to walking a tightrope over a pit full of hungry alligators. It's hard, and stressful. – user Sep 18 '14 at 19:42

# Stack Exchange cannot handle list questions well

There’s just no good way to vote on them and answers are never complete or finished. There’s always more that you could list. The system simply fails when presented with them. There is no way to distinguish in any objective way which answer is “best” or even distinctly “good,” aside from which listed items happen to seem more important to you, personally.

List questions are basically by definition both Too Broad and Primarily Opinion-Based.

• Go tell that to the software recommendation SE? We had a long discussion about this in chat the other day. I believe the difference between List questions and Shopping List questions came up. – Mourdos Sep 18 '14 at 13:15
• @Mourdos Software Recommendation SE has extremely strict rules about what can be asked about and how to handle this, because it's an extremely unusual SE that deals almost exclusively with this. Software Recommendation's rules are all about avoiding list questions as much as possible within their topic, because of this exact reason. We are not a completely-list-oriented subject, and we do not want the extremely strict rules that they need to make that work. – KRyan Sep 18 '14 at 13:18
• There is also how many items are in the list... – user Sep 18 '14 at 19:30
• @MichaelKjörling Yes, but that’s still a terrible measure of the actual value of the answer. – KRyan Sep 18 '14 at 19:33
• @KRyan That's my point... :) It'd go at the end of your second paragraph, as another alternative for how to evaluate answers (and being just as bad). – user Sep 18 '14 at 19:38

I think a very specific type of list question can be on topic here. Specifically, "brainstorming" ones like the one the OP linked to. There should be a specific tag to indicate the type of question, and it should have to have a specific end goal that the OP wants to reach. (Such as "Large geographic changes in a short period of time".) All other list questions would be off topic.

Answers would, in fact, be lists of whatever ways to accomplish the end goal people can think of. Votes would be based on how well people think those answers work, and acceptance is based on whichever idea the OP decides to go with.

In other words, open-ended questions about accomplishing a specific result should be on-topic. This includes story building ideas as well as questions like the one in the OP.

Here's another example that would get the tag: How could a Dyson Sphere be destroyed through natural causes? - "I have this idea, how can I make it work?"

• Brainstorming questions are not suitable for the SE format. – Chad Sep 18 '14 at 19:06
• @Chad - Given the criteria I specified, I disagree. I think they would work out fairly well. But I appear to be an outlier in that respect. On the other hand, Grace Note's answer seems fundamentally the same to me, except without the tag... – Bobson Sep 19 '14 at 13:25