Greeting, fellow lovers of wisdom!
I apologize for the length, but this is an important topic that has come up repeatedly, one that has never been completely addressed, and I feel the site has come to a point where it needs to before we can progress further (i.e. out of Beta). On that note, the good news — this site is very steadily growing in activity. It has been a long Beta for us, but it's understandable given the topic of the site and the format we are trying our best to adhere to. Despite these challenges, we have seen increasing growth over the years (esp. in the last year):
Most of this growth comes from traffic from search engines (only 5% is direct traffic); people are finding this site and creating new accounts in order to participate in our discussions. With this, however, we have had an increase in the amount of "subjective" questions, which don't fully align with what we have historically been trying to achieve (a more academic-style Q&A site).
The Way Things Are Now
Currently, we try to keep questions on this site academic-style while being as liberal (generous, as least restrictive as possible) with regard to borderline questions. For answers we will tend to ask for citations/references for things which are not clearly established lines of thought in philosophy. This tends to be more difficult for novice users of the site, and thus may in turn explain why our growth is not as explosive as other sites on the network.
However, we do allow subjective questions when they are posed as more of a "What do major philosophical schools think about X?" For example, the title of this question asked recently, Ought we respect the privacy of the deceased? to me falls into the very subjective category. Indeed, the answers (as of now) are all also very opinion-based (or locality-based) and do not reference specific philosophical expertise. However, the body poses the question in a format we have come to allow as an acceptable compromise: asking specifically for what established philosophers and schools of thought would say about the issue (i.e., what the reference-request tag is for). This still isn't the "one question, one real answer" scenario we'd like to aim for on this site, but at least the multiple answers should all be referencing specific expertise and not simply people's own personal rants on the matter. It also falls questionably close to polling. However, I think it would be somewhat tedious to force users to post multiple questions to get the same broad understanding, for example:
- What does Kant think with regard to respecting the privacy of the deceased?
- What does Hegel think with regard to respecting the privacy of the deceased?
- What does Aristotle think with regard to respecting the privacy of the deceased?
- What do the Stoics think with regard to respecting the privacy of the deceased?
- What does Buddhist philosophy think with regard to respecting the privacy of the deceased?
... and so on and so forth. I think most of us accept that asking people to do that would be unreasonable, so we allow it. We can decide to ban those reference-request/"survey the field"-type questions completely and stay as true as possible to the Q&A vision, but most of us agree that there is some value in those questions, especially for newcomers to particular topics.
Unfortunately, what it often comes down to then for any particular question is how skilled in philosophy/writing someone is; are they skilled enough to pose their question in an objective manner with a relatively narrow scope? New users may not always have this skill, so they seem to get hurt by our restrictions the most, curbing potential growth as we close their questions continually.
The Way Things Can Be In The Future
The goal in the end is building a database of knowledge and wisdom in as clear a manner as possible. On the one hand, a large group of users prefer well-defined questions with a single, specific answer (indeed, like the Q&A format was intended) and not a huge collection of random opinions where no one of them is truly "correct". Another subset desires the freedom to ask questions perhaps not fully grounded in existing literature, more as a survey of people opinions on the matter.
We have to decide how we want to proceed.
We can be stricter with regard to the subjectivity/specificity of the question. No more reference requests. All questions must reference specific literature and answers must cite literature to remain on the site.
We can continue down our path now, skirting this hazy line of what's too subjective and what's not, and not really being able to provide a precise definition in our FAQ with regard to what we are looking for and having to constantly go through review queues to edit, delete, and close questions which do not meet our unclear guidelines.
We can figure out a way to allow subjective questions as long as they are well defined and don't overwhelm the users who don't want to see them.
I think #1 would drive away a lot of our traffic (which may prevent us from ever leaving beta). Also, some of our most popular questions are very subjective, just well-posed and clearly defined. The point is thus that they can work, when done right. I think #2 (the status-quo) is not really working. We do need more people reviewing questions, another moderator or two would be helpful since I'm the only one really active lately. But as traffic grows, option #2 becomes increasingly unfeasible as our only solution is then to fight fires as they come and add more reviewers. I think we need to think of how we can do #3.
Making Better Use of The Tags
Personally, I think we can take advantage of the tag system more than we have. Did you know you can select specific tags to hide from the front page, or add favorite tags to filter only what you want? We could come up with a tag for subjective questions, which could then be filtered by those who like those types of questions and those who do not. A lot of people don't realize this nifty feature of the site:
Would developing a system like this be a reasonable compromise? The advantage is that this would remove all our problems with closing and editing questions which are on the subjective side, and leave the moderators and reviewers to do what they were meant to do in the first place: improve for clarity. It would also foster growth in an area where we have historically pushed people away from. Lastly, it will help users out tremendously with regard to their preference for subjective vs non-subjective questions, because those who don't want to see subjective questions currently do see them (and vice versa). The tag filters allow users to choose exactly what they want to see. But I'm sure this is not the only way we could do it:... What other things could we do to solve these issues?
I really want to make this a community for all to enjoy, although being an INTJ programmer/philosopher, I am super logical and detest a lack of clarity. I don't want this site to be like any of the dozens of philosophy forums where people drone on about their opinions and all the good answers get lost in the muck. We need a way to moderate and control it. But I think we can find a solid middle ground, a place for people here who do want to do a bit of philosophy that can be of benefit to the thousands of people who come to this site each day. A lot of people do not use Philosophy.SE because of our format, despite them being interested in philosophy. I think that's a great shame; I would really like to be able to welcome those people back and make this place the premier place on the web to get answers to philosophical questions anyone might have, regardless of whether or not they are skilled enough to frame them objectively.
Let me know what you guys and gals think about all this. I think we can make this work for everyone if we come together. :)
Nathan // Stoicfury