First of all, I would like to point everyone to the seminal blog post "Real Questions Have Answers"; I know I've linked to it a few times in the past, but I think plenty of people here really could stand to read it again.
Go ahead, I'll wait.
Okay, now that that's out of the way, on to the meat of this post: The importance of writing complete answers.
Over the years of this site, users have been asking — encouraging, even — unscoped questions. I've strongly considered implementing some sort of question scope rules a la Christianity.SE (since they've actually managed to make a highly-flammable religious community work under the Stack Exchange model) but honestly I just don't feel that that is really in our best interests as a community.
For whatever reasons, we as a community want questions of general scope which provide answers across multiple schools/sects. This has been the case since the earliest days of the site, and honestly I would love to see it continue going forward.
However, it is again important to note that real questions have answers, not items or ideas or opinions.
Many users use general-scope questions as an excuse to post an answer in their own preferred viewpoint; to be fair, this behaviour had also been encouraged in the early days of the site. However, three-ish years into site development, it is rather clear that this really isn't working; such answers still instigate arguments and attract votes based on agreement rather than quality.
For questions that aren't scoped to a particular opinion, having these opinion-based answers breaks the system in three very significant ways:
- Answers tend to get sorted based on popularity rather than usefulness
- Voting can easily be abused based on agreement/disagreement to bring ones "preferred" opinion to the fore, regardless of quality.
- Even when voting is done properly based on quality, users are still more likely to recognize quality in opinions they hold than in those they don't.
- Either way, a poorly-upvoted post is just as likely to mean an opinion is unpopular than that it isn't well-stated and accurate.
- "Answered" questions no longer get auto-bumped to the front-page
- Community randomly bumps unanswered questions to the front-page to improve visibility; more eyes = more chance of getting good answers.
- When a question has one or more highly-voted answers, it is considered "answered" (regardless of if the questioner has accepted one).
- Individual opinions rarely make good duplicate targets
- Closing questions as duplicate is an important feature, as it prevents users from just asking the same question over and over again: Why reinvent the wheel?
- When a question is answered by a number of discrete opinions, there is no way to know which (if any) of those opinions are actually the answer the questioner is looking for; pointing them to the "duplicate" is just as likely to confuse them as answer their question
- If a questioner's preferred opinion isn't included, they'll need to ask the same question again (appropriately scoped) which sorta defeats the whole point of having the general-scope question in the first place.
The system has mechanisms in place not only to encourage answers to questions, but to ensure that those answers are easy to find. Allowing general-scope questions to attract opinions rather than answers just bypasses these mechanisms to no real advantage.
I've said it before. I'll say it again. I'll probably be repeating this until the proverbial cows come home to roost: Real questions have answers, not items or ideas or opinions.
By that definition, many of these general-scope questions are, in my opinion, "real questions": They can effectively be answered fully and completely by a single post.
The problem is, the users answering them aren't actually writing answers: They're posting opinions. An answer would be something that answers the question asked, for everybody who may possibly ask it. Otherwise, future visitors asking the exact same question are just as likely to…
- …find their answer at the top of the list,
- …have their answer somewhere further down the list, where they actually have to work to find it,
- …be more confused than ever due to multiple conflicting answers, or
- …not get what they wanted at all.
Under the Stack Exchange philosophy, the first (and possibly the second) group is what's important: We want people who have questions to find the answers they're looking for. If we, as a site, are not aiding in that, then there is something fundamentally wrong.
As a site, we need to be encouraging actual answers: complete answers that apply to everybody who will ask that exact question. If a question is asking for more than one thing, it is important that the answer provides everything that's being asked for. Otherwise, it is at best an item, not an answer.
Any questions which can't reasonably be answered in a single post need to be closed as "Too Broad": I can't tell you where that line is, it really needs to be handled on a case-by-case basis. I can, however, tell you that taking a "Too Broad" question as an excuse to post an incomplete answer is not the way to go, as that just encourages (a) questioners to keep posting too-broad questions so (b) answerers can keep posting incomplete answers.
So, going forward, I would like to recommend the following guidelines when answering any question on this site:
- Posted answers must be comprehensive within the scope of the question as-asked:
- If the question is asking for an answer according to Sunni jurisprudence, it must cover all (significant) differences of opinion within "Sunni jurisprudence".
- If the question is asking for both a Sunni and Shi'ite perspective, it must cover both Sunni and Shi'ite perspectives.
- If the question is just asking for what "Islam" says (remembering that for the purposes of this site, "Islam" covers each and every group that self-identifies as Muslim), it should probably just be closed as "Unclear what you're asking" unless it's a matter which has little to no actual difference of opinion across every possible Islamic perspective.
- In cases where an answer covers a significant difference of opinion, posted answers must be free of obvious bias
- Under the principle of writing an answer for everyone who would ask that exact question, any posts which present any side of an opinionated debate as "more correct" should not be tolerated
- In cases where a general-scope question has already attracted opinions rather than answers, the pertinent sections of those opinions (if they're worth saving) should be combined into a community-wiki post and the originals deleted.
- If the resultant CW post would be uncomfortably long, the question should probably be closed as "Too Broad"
- If a general-scope question has already attracted opinions, and one of these has been accepted, the question should be edited to meet the scope of the accepted answer and differing opinions deleted.