In the spirit of being bold, I created a tag parallelling TeX.se's big-list, where there are 85 questions tagged that way, some with over 100K views.

The clone I created on Emacs.SE is here: , although I would suggest to peruse the TeX.SE version which is more developed and will show the kind of questions that are suitable for this tag, as well as some that were posted with that tag and then closed.

See also:

In making the case for, one thing I would point out is that Area 51 asks for our "answer ratio" to be above 2.5, and it is currently (as of June 16, 2015) only 1.7. This suggests that however we go about it, we should find ways to create multiple answers to more questions. This goal will be more challenging to reach if every question is constrained to have one definitive "right answer".

To give fair play to the case against, I note this recent exchange in chat:

"So, I wrote What are all the prepackaged Emacs configurations and what are their advantages [dead link] and apparently it's "opinion-based". I basically wanted to ask "Hey, what's the point of using one of those". Many similar questions are very valuable on stackoverflow, so why can't we have them on emacs.se?"

"Many similar questions fall through the cracks on SO, because there aren't enough people voting to close. That doesn't mean that they're useful questions. These list questions always end up being badly curated, grossly incomplete, and generally useless."

tl;dr I do think the case of TeX.SE shows that such questions can play a valuable place on some StackExchange sites -- what about Emacs.SE?

  • This comes up a lot here. I think it's because this community is a mix of two other communities with sharply different opinions on the subject, tex and SO. I'm featuring this because it needs attention. Hopefully we can settle this with a vote.
    – Malabarba
    Jun 16, 2015 at 16:17
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    I like big list questions (it was one of them that got me into emacs :-), but I think we lack the dedication to maintain them. As an example of that, the mail question you linked only has one answer.
    – Malabarba
    Jun 16, 2015 at 16:22
  • @Malabarba Not TeX vs SO, but TeX/Math/Apple vs the rest of the network. And Math is coming down from it. And the way TeX is doing it lacks actual benefits other than “we've been doing it that way and it isn't fundamentally broken” (the way Math and Apple do it is broken). Jun 16, 2015 at 16:37
  • Another example that uses "big list" formats is English Language & Usage. There, these just arise naturally when there are lots of different options -- usually "what's a word for..." questions. Jun 16, 2015 at 17:20
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    Just to be clear, my vision of the org mode question was to have something like one of the TeX.SE big list questions with lots of beautiful or interesting examples. There is really no shortage of cool ideas about how to use Org mode! You're right that available energy may limit the size or quality of the lists of answers that would accumulate here, though. Maybe we should call them "lazy lists" rather than big lists. Jun 16, 2015 at 17:30
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    The fact that the Org Mode question has been put "on hold" and answers cannot be given there seems to predetermine the outcome of that particular experiment. More broadly, if big list questions are seen as "bad", or simply unsuitable for StackExchange, that will likely to predetermine the outcome of any future attempt to ask this sort of question in the same way. In the case of the mail question, a second answer has been added and life goes on. The org mode question is more open-ended than the mail question: but it is only a bias that says that that is a problem. Jun 18, 2015 at 10:36
  • @JoeCorneli I have voted to reopen that question to see how this experiment goes. Jun 18, 2015 at 12:52
  • @kaushalmodi thank you kindly. I also took some time to begin developing a candidate answer, which I've put here for now: gist.github.com/holtzermann17/cb5d507435bed9026686 - if the question opens I'll add a screenshot as well. Jun 18, 2015 at 13:47
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    @Gilles TeX.SX likes to distance itself from SO/etc. I fear that the decision will be made not because big-list is right for Emacs.SE, but because potential proponents (from TeX.SX) are 'too nice' (for lack of a better, less pretentious phrase) to say anything sharply to their opinion. SO can be a very hostile place and Emacs.SE has inherited some of that -- TeX.SX folks really just don't care. We don't feel the need to be exactly like SO or to follow their rules. As long as everyone follows the same rules on TeX.SX, we're happy. Jun 25, 2015 at 18:06
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    That said, I don't think the 'experimental question' is a good example at all. It is closed as too broad and should stay that way, IMO. Jun 25, 2015 at 18:09
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    A good example from TeX.SX would be What are the most common mistakes that beginners of (La)TeX and Friends make?. Multiple valid answers as a compiled source of information on a well-defined topic. Jun 25, 2015 at 18:14

4 Answers 4


I'm for big-list sort of questions

First, to answer some nay-sayers. In something as complex as a site community, guidelines should be interpreted in terms of best effort, not as a legally binding document, whereas failure to comply must be punishable by the law. So, SO guidelines insist that questions be posed in a certain way, alright. But there are other questions, which cannot be posed in the format proscribed by the guidelines. Now, are such questions valuable?--From my experience, yes. So, if we cannot recast these questions into the proscribed format, then we cannot ask them at all, hence, we'll lose something valuable.

There are indeed other sites providing information about Emacs, but of course this doesn't mean that this site cannot do it (as long as it is technically feasible). To reuse an old joke: it would be like telling a poet that there already is a verse about love,--probably won't stop her from writing yet another one.

Other counter-arguments such as "it doesn't bode well for the statistical model of some site parameter"--well, obviously, you get it wrong :) The model should be adjusted to the content, if there's a mismatch. Trying to do it the other way is bound to bring up dispute and disappointment.

On the side note, my life's goal (for a very distant future) is to write a better search engine :) My disappointment with current state of search engines (not necessary Google, it's an overall trend) is that they are, essentially question answering programs, but they are too picky about the kinds of questions you can ask. Picky to the point where whoever asks the question learns to ask only those questions the program can answer. But there is no reason why only those should be the good questions! Those are just the limitations of the approach, and of the technical side of things.

"Big list" questions are the kind of questions that don't exactly fit the SO format, but they have a merit for the site, so, maybe a proper way to go about it is to think how to make the format match, rather than to avoid the topic and to pretend that the problem will go away, as long as nobody talks about it :)

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    The SO rules are there for a reason, and furthermore they're not just SO rules, they're the rules of many SE sites, which tried big-list question and failed. There is no site that did anything useful out of big-list questions. There's no point in repeating these failures here. Jun 21, 2015 at 16:07
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    @Gilles is there any quantifiable way you can support that claim (what did the failure amount to? How do you calculate usefulness?) All I can see so far is that "big list" questions receive a fair amount of attention (and upvotes). Sites which tried this practice doing fine, nobody died. Finally, I answered your "rules are rules" in the first paragraph of my post.
    – wvxvw
    Jun 21, 2015 at 17:58
  • Why don't you read my answer? Jun 21, 2015 at 19:32
  • @Gilles well, this isn't going anywhere. I wrote this as a response to the answers already given here...
    – wvxvw
    Jun 21, 2015 at 20:20
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    Well, you seem to be confident there is or there should be a correct answer (notice singular), and that other answers are just worse approximations (to the point of being completely irrelevant). This is what I call a "naive platonic" view of the world (another term for "idealism"). But I think that only occasionally there are unique answers to a question, and that any format is helpful as long as at least one person finds it helpful.
    – wvxvw
    Jun 21, 2015 at 20:26

Stack Exchange is not a good format for “big list” questions

Stack Exchange works best with questions that solve a problem. The problem can be of various types but they usually fall under one or both or two broad categories “how do I do this?” or “why is it done this way?”.¹ This second class of “why” questions is also about solving a problem, the problem of understanding a concept.

Answers to such questions generally aim at solving the problem. The best answers aim at being definitive: each answer should stand on its own and would be valuable even in the absence of other answers. Not all problems have definitive solutions — not only for “why” questions, for which multiple points of view are often a good thing, but even for “how” questions, there can be more than one good way to skin a cat. Still, definitiveness is a goal to strive for.

“Big list” questions, where anybody could add their own answer, don't fit in the Stack Exchange model. The problem with these questions is that by definition, each answer is not particularly valuable, it's only the collection of all the answers that is valuable. Stack Exchange is not good at organizing such threads with one item per answer. In particular, voting ends up reflecting primarily who posted first, secondarily the popularity of the proposed item or of the author, and only slightly how well the answer addresses the question.

https://emacs.stackexchange.com/questions/13197/big-list-what-do-you-use-org-mode-for is an example of the bad kind of big-list question. If you give it time, it will either sink into oblivion with many good items missing, or it will end up having multiple redundant answers and totally useless voting.

What are all the ways of launching a shell from inside emacs and what are their various properties? is a different kind of question. It isn't one where everybody can add their own item and all items are equally valid (if not necessarily all equally useful). Rather, it calls for an answer that not only lists the possibilities but also compares them. It doesn't just call for “eshell”, “shell” and “term” but also when you would use each of them. There is currently a single answer, not a big list of answers.

Inasmuch as “big list” questions can work on Stack Exchange, they must be structured not as polls, with one item per answer, but as wikis, with a single answer that people are encouraged to edit to add an item in relevant places inside the existing structure.

[big-list] is not a good tag

“big-list” is a meta tag: it's a tag that doesn't characterize what a question is about, but the form of a question or of its expected answers. This isn't useful: it doesn't help when searching for questions, it isn't a tag that someone might subscribe to (nobody is an expert in “big list”) or a tag that someone might ignore because they don't care about the subject (if people ignore “big-list” because it's a repository for bad questions, these questions should go).

Either a question is unsuitable for Stack Exchange, in which case tagging it is irrelevant, or it is suitable, in which case it just needs to be tagged to indicate what the question is about.

If there are “reference” questions on a topic, that you want to highlight because they are of general interest to anyone with interest in that topic, link them from the topic's tag wiki.

Other remarks

In making the case for, one thing I would point out is that Area 51 asks for our "answer ratio" to be above 2.5, and it is currently (as of June 16, 2015) only 1.7. This suggests that however we go about it, we should find ways to create multiple answers to more questions. This goal will be more challenging to reach if every question is constrained to have one definitive "right answer".

You're working for the metrics instead of working for the goal. Artificially making up questions with lots of useless answers defeats the purpose since it doesn't improve the site. Don't pay much attention to the Area 51 metrics, they aren't all that relevant; this has been officially recognized and new metrics may be provided in 6–8 years.²

Emacs has a relatively low answer/question ratio, but it has a lot of pretty good answers that evaluate the pros and cons of different solutions. That's better than having solutions spread over multiple answers and no way to tell which is appropriate when. This kind of quality is impossible to measure objectively (the best you can do is average the subjective opinion of suitably-selected people), so you won't find it in metrics.

¹ A third category is “what” questions, as in “what is this thing”; these are best answered by reference works such as dictionaries, encyclopedia, reference manuals and so on, but Stack Exchange can serve as a fallback when not exists.
² The official time for something to change on Stack Exchange is 6–8 weeks but this one is taking far more time than it should.

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    Your answer here does not deal with the example of TeX.SE. In the comment above, you say the way TeX is doing it lacks actual benefits other than “we've been doing it that way and it isn't fundamentally broken”. Can you substantiate that opinion? It seems to me that the 100K views and numerous upvotes on the TeX examples can't be entirely wrong. Jun 18, 2015 at 10:25
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    @JoeCorneli There is a thread, now deleted, on Stack Overflow, asking for the “single most influential book every programmer should read”. It had >700k views and >1.4k upvotes. Answers (running 22 pages) posted multiple times include not only K&R and The Pragmatic Programmer but also Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and the Tao Te Ching. So no, views and votes can definitely be wrong. Jun 18, 2015 at 12:55
  • But you're still not addressing the actual set of examples that I'm talking about, which is the TeX.SE questions. Jun 18, 2015 at 13:27
  • @JoeCorneli Which examples are you talking about? I'm not going to review all 85 individually. Jun 18, 2015 at 13:30
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    My point is, they seem to have a valued place in that community. It is useful to think about the collection as a whole as a sort of crowdsourced FAQ. Here are a couple that seem similar to the sorts of question we might ask here: tex.stackexchange.com/questions/553/… tex.stackexchange.com/questions/11/… And here's one that could (in theory) belong on this site directly. tex.stackexchange.com/questions/52179/… Jun 18, 2015 at 13:42
  • I think it is perhaps the role of moderators and the users to close or vote to close the inconvenient big-list questions and to keep the good big-list question on.
    – Name
    Jun 29, 2015 at 13:31
  • @Name Close only if the question is not salvageable, improve by all means necessary otherwise. Some of the big-list questions on tex.se are actively curated by the community.
    – T. Verron
    Jul 27, 2015 at 11:46

No, we should not have "big list" questions

As @Gilles's answer explains, "big list" questions are not well-suited to SE sites. Here's what the site says about itself:

Guidelines from the tour

Let's have a look at what the site tour has to say about questions and answers (all emphases from the site, not me):

This site is all about getting answers. It's not a discussion forum. There's no chit-chat.

Focus on questions about an actual problem you have faced. Include details about what you have tried and exactly what you are trying to do.

Not all questions work well in our format. Avoid questions that are primarily opinion-based, or that are likely to generate discussion rather than answers.

These are all pretty clear guidelines. We're not a discussion forum. We're not asking opinion-based questions, and we're not asking questions to generate discussion.

Criteria for closing questions

Two of the options listed for voting to close questions are:

too broad

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format.

primarily opinion-based

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.

These are pretty clear criteria. "Big list" questions would almost invariably run afoul of one, the other, or both of them. If we do not apply these criteria to the questions posted, we are not doing our jobs.

"Big list" questions have a place, but that place is not here

I am not suggesting that there is no value in "big list" questions. I am saying that they do not fit into the Emacs.SE model. There are other sites to go if you want to do "big list" questions: reddit and the EmacsWiki come immediately to mind, as do various mailing lists.

Emacs.SE is not, and was never intended to be, a one-stop-shopping site for all things Emacs. It does not seek to supplant other sites. It has a discrete mandate: Q&A about Emacs.

Why can't we change the model?

We have some limited flexibility in the norms of how we use the site. However, the criteria listed in the tour and in the close-question options are pretty clear. It seems silly to adopt norms that countermand some pretty explicit criteria.

"But other site kittens.SE allows 'big list' questions"

"But mom, all the other kids are doing it" is not a valid justification for us to do it as well.

We're still in beta, so we still have the ability to set norms that avoid mission creep. In light of the site's stated description of itself, "big list" questions are mission creep.


SO is a perfect home for big lists. What else can be more natural for a discussion group to include responses that take a list form? Otherwise we are just talking about the format of a response and not the real content (or relevance) of the response. Furthermore, big lists are already happening and it is okay to find accommodation instead of finding yet another way to penalize questions. Big lists will only make SO more attractive.

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    My guess is that the big list question "advertised as such" is what the moderators didn't approve of. If it had not been advertised it would have been more likely have fallen through the cracks, as in the quote from chat. As you say, big lists are already happening, and, moreover, I think people generally like the ones that are allowed to thrive. Jun 24, 2015 at 10:29
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    Well, no, we're not a discussion group. The very beginning of the tour states explicitly that: This site is all about getting answers. It's not a discussion forum. There's no chit-chat.
    – Dan Mod
    Jun 24, 2015 at 14:01
  • @Dan, then why are you chit-chatting here? This whole page is one long chit-chat. If you think Q&As are not chit-chats, then you have a gross misunderstanding of how knowledge gets transmitted.
    – Emacs User
    Jun 24, 2015 at 14:47
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    This is the meta site. Click on "Help", and you'll see the description of "Meta" as Discuss the workings and policies of this site. I realize that you have a strong opinion about the policy under discussion, but please be more temperate in your tone. "A gross misunderstanding of how knowledge gets transmitted" is counterproductive language and runs contrary to the Stack Exchange "Be Nice" Policy, particularly Rudeness and belittling language are not okay.
    – Dan Mod
    Jun 24, 2015 at 14:58
  • @Dan telling me in bold text or where to click is also not being polite or constructive. You got the response equal to your claims. When I claimed you are grossly misjudging how Q&As lead to advancements in thought -- I was especially thinking about Western Socratic method of give and take that leads to accumulation of knowledge. Not having lists is curtailing that accumulation.
    – Emacs User
    Jun 24, 2015 at 15:16
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    @EmacsUser, chill. Jun 25, 2015 at 17:42
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    I'm personally for big-list -- I often find myself browsing big-list questions on TeX.SX to see if I have a solution to add or something to learn. I find them useful. But, even on TeX.SX, we discourage big-list questions. They're way too easy to abuse to get opinion-based answers. (For that, reddit suffices. Maybe even pop your head into chat every now and then.) That said, I've already given my support of such questions, but under a very tight rein. The community needs to be very disciplined for it to work -- something I'm not 100% sure Emacs.SE qualifies for. Jun 25, 2015 at 17:44
  • @SeanAllred, all good points you make. The concern you make is that the community may not keep lists under tight control and it could quickly get out of hand. Those roles have to evolve, not just in style and temperament but also the topics that make good lists. Like the rest of SX questions, this capacity will also evolve. But should we reject lists because we are not capable of handling them now? No, is my point.
    – Emacs User
    Jun 25, 2015 at 18:16
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    We're caught between a rock and a hard place: If we allow big-list questions, we will knowingly be inviting poor questions (or at least upping our own moderation effort). If we prohibit big-list questions, we will never become disciplined enough to support them. It comes down to the common denominator for the askers of these types of questions on either site. Emacs has a much larger user base than TeX -- the opportunities for asking such questions increases, but the valid opportunities don't grow proportionally. Jun 25, 2015 at 18:21
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    Keep in mind that most of the big-list questions on TeX.SX are closed. They're very easy to ask, but very hard to ask well. Jun 25, 2015 at 18:21

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