Dealing with recommendations (scifi.stackexchange.com)

One of the problems that scifi.stackexchange.com faces that isn’t unique to that site is “recommendation” questions. These are a specific type of list question (which are generally ill-suited to the sites), where each answer offers one possible recommendation, and the votes cast are not just “that’s a good answer” or “that’s a bad answer”, but votes for (and less often, against) a suggestion. StackOverflow has a long history of problems with these sorts of questions (e.g. “favourite programming cartoon” and “great programming quotes“).  With few exceptions, these questions are closed, often not before they gather huge numbers of votes, answers, and answer votes.

I don’t really see a huge problem with these questions myself – if they are “community wiki” then they aren’t just a way to gather huge amounts of reputation, the voting has merit (if something is popular, it is likely for a reason), and the format does fit (unlike discussions, for example).  I can understand that a specific site might choose to disallow them (e.g. StackOverflow), but others (e.g. programmers.stackexchange.com) could allow them.  I don’t think that having the majority (or even just a non-small percentage) of a site’s questions be ones of this type would do much for the quality, but in moderation they seem ok.

I doubt this would ever be allowed by the powers that be at StackExchange, but I think the following would be a great system for scifi.stackexchange.com:

  • Once a month a new meta.scifi.stackexchange.com question is opened that asks what this month’s recommendation (or perhaps more generally, poll) question should be.  People make suggestions and up/down vote the ideas that they like (yes, a poll about a poll – however, poll questions seem to be acceptable on meta sites).
  • One a month, the most popular answer of the previous month’s meta question is created (e.g. by a moderator, ensuring that the question is community wiki).

I think this strikes a great middle-ground.  These types of questions are generally incredibly popular, and that would help get people coming to the site (something that scifi.stackexchange.com needs, but others, e.g. StackOverflow, do not, since it’s already at near saturation).  Since there would only be one of these each month (others would be close-voted, with comments pointing to the relevant meta discussion) they wouldn’t dominate the site (even one a week would presumably be only noise compared to the number of other questions).  Many more users would find themselves interacting with the meta site – hopefully some of these would explore more than just the one question they came for, and end up participating in community building, support, moderation, and so forth – perhaps these users would otherwise not have ever visited the meta site.

Other arguments against these types of questions tend to be: they age badly (this could still be true, but hopefully the pre-asking meta stage would assist with that, and there’s always down-votes), they provoke discussion (discussion answers/comments can be flagged, discussion in chat is a good thing), and they don’t provide interesting answers (I totally disagree – especially in the context of a Q&A site dedicated to fiction).

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