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Over the past few days, there's been a lot of discussion in Meta and chat about "conventional answers." Leaving the definition of "conventional" aside, for the moment, I'd like to explore an issue that I believe is central to the discussion at hand.

Some users propose that if we were to allow "conventional" answers to questions, that would destroy the site, rendering it a "catch-all site." Others counter that the site will not be useful if we do not allow for conventional answers to be posted as answers, the site will not be a very useful one, both for question-askers as well as for Googlers, because the only answers allowed on this site, per the first side's definition of this site, would be those that are not "conventional." The first side then counters that this site would then become a "catch-all site," which, apparently, is a big no-no on the SE network.
As far as I could tell, all conversation around here recently has been this, going around endlessly in circles, adding a few more ad hominem attacks and accusations of "you're not listening," "but you're not listening more!" every new time the conversation cycles. (see the chat transcript from the Junk Drawer if you don't believe me)

For this conversation to recover from where it's stalled, we need to know two things from SE staff:

  1. If we allow "conventional solutions" or "non-Lifehack answers" on this site, does this site become a "catch-all site," or is there a way to prevent that from happening (perhaps invoking some set of rules, similar to Skeptics)*?
  2. If this site does become a "catch-all" site, is that all that bad? If that should happen, would that be reason enough to discontinue this exchange? (IOW, is the idea of a "catch-all" so antithetical to the Stack Exchange network, so that it should never be allowed to occur, or is really not all that bad?)

* Which has been, more or less, what we've been trying to do until this point, with debatable amounts of success.

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    There's no reason to limit the answers to just SE staff. If we can't decide how this site will work by ourselves then there's no reason why Lifehacks should remain – Zach Saucier Jan 2 '15 at 5:18
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    Your argument "no reason" is based on the assumption that a "catch-all" never should and never will exist on the SE network, @ZachSaucier. I'd like to find out if that's fact – Shokhet Jan 2 '15 at 5:19
  • Robert has made it quite clear that if this site becomes a catch-all site then it will be shutdown. See here and here – Zach Saucier Jan 2 '15 at 5:24
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    @ZachSaucier you linked to the same post twice. – apaul Jan 2 '15 at 5:54
  • fwiw, I agree with Zach. Any reason you only want answers from a staffer? Because the answer is 1. yes 2. yes. – J. Musser Jan 2 '15 at 11:42
  • Would love to see @shog9 weigh in since his meta post and comments kind of kicked this all off. – Sterno Jan 2 '15 at 12:30
  • @apaul34208 Sorry, here is the other post – Zach Saucier Jan 2 '15 at 14:16
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I'll focus on part 1, which is up to this community (while part 2 is more up to Stack Exchange community managers). I'll grant the assumption that we do want to avoid the site being “catch-all”.

The primary way to restrict the scope of a site is to restrict the questions that are asked there. Now there's been so much debate on this site about what a lifehack is, with no consensus, that I'm going to use a well-established reference: Wikipedia.

Life hacking refers to any trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method that increases productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life. It is arguably a modern appropriation of a gordian knot - in other words, anything that solves an everyday problem in an inspired, ingenious manner.

1. Can any subject be the topic of a lifehack question?

No. A lifehack applies to everyday life. Topics involving highly specialized knowledge, such as only a professional might be expected to know, are off-topic.

2. Within permissible topics, what kinds of questions are lifehack questions?

A lifehack question is one that is looking for a hack-type answer. This means that the question must describe a problem which is susceptible of being solved by a hack. Questions that do not describe a problem to be solved are off-topic. A typical lifehack question asks how to perform an everyday task more efficiently or cheaply.

3. Is any everyday-problem-solving question a lifehack question?

No: the problem must be susceptible to be solved by a hack. This excludes questions that call for a solid, highly reliable solution. A hack is cheap: it doesn't require a lot of time to execute, or expensive or rare tools. If the requirements intrinsically call for a lot of money, time or equipment, it isn't a lifehack question.

Ok, so what about answers?

Answers need to be lifehacks. That means that they must solve the problem, and they must do so in an efficient, but not necessarily robust way. Answers must meet the requirements of the question, including that of being a lifehack — so answers that, for example, require expensive equipment or rare tools are bad answers.

Conclusion

The very definition of a lifehack sets several restrictions on questions and answers. If the site sticks to being about lifehacks, and not generalizing to every single problem that people face outside their professional life, it won't be a catch-all site.

Note that creativity or unconventionality of answers is not required — there are already plenty of restrictions that do not make the site a catch-all.

  • This is not an attempt to argue with you, but to better understand. You seem to be saying we should restrict non-lifehack answers. You also seem to say unconventional answers are not required. These seem contradictory to me and makes me think maybe we're all using different definitions of conventional. To me, a lifehack answer is by definition unconventional. – Sterno Jan 2 '15 at 12:33
  • It's possible we all want the same thing but are using words differently and think we want different things. Maybe we should discuss some concrete examples. – Sterno Jan 2 '15 at 12:34
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    @Sterno In my answer, I explain what a lifehack is. Non-conventionality is a common characteristic of a lifehack, it is not a requirement. Conventionality is not an objective property anyway. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Jan 2 '15 at 12:38
  • in other words, anything that solves an everyday problem in an inspired, ingenious manner I guess to me, that definition still doesn't line up with just about any definition of "conventional". Once it's conventional, it's hard to continue to consider it "inspired and ingenious". But I am willing to concede "conventional" might be the wrong word to argue over here. You also seem to rule out "creativity" though. Wouldn't "creative" fit with the idea that a lifehack is "inspired, ingenius"? Do you have an example from the site of what you'd consider a non-hack answer? – Sterno Jan 2 '15 at 12:46
  • This meta has quite a few examples – Sterno Jan 2 '15 at 12:47
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    @Sterno Does an idea stop being inspired or ingenious when many people know about it? If an idea becomes conventional because it's been publicized on Lifehacks.SE, does that imply the corresponding answer has become out of scope? I've given examples of kinds of bad answers: requiring expensive or rare equipment; what else are you after? – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Jan 2 '15 at 12:54
  • The requirement that questions must not ask for a "solid, highly reliable solution" means that the OP must already know all of these solutions in order to ask for something other than them. It's the same type of thing that we've tried to enforce with "what have you tried" but has been turned down. It also implies that lifehack answers are never reliable, which I don't believe is true – Zach Saucier Jan 2 '15 at 14:27
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    @ZachSaucier 1. No, the asker doesn't need to know about solutions. What they need to know is their requirements — if it needs to be cheap and quick (and it fits the other criteria) it's a lifehack, if it needs to be robust and generalizable it isn't a lifehack. 2. It doesn't imply that lifehack answers are never reliable, but that they don't have to be reliable. Different modality. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Jan 2 '15 at 14:32
  • In that case if any solution that isn't a lifehack can be given then the question itself should be closed, no? – Zach Saucier Jan 2 '15 at 14:34
  • @Gilles What if the asker asks questions that should only be solved by buying equipment? Example – QuyNguyen2013 Jan 2 '15 at 18:29
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    @QuyNguyen2013 That problem could be solved by jury-rigging something, maybe something that could damage the charger in the long run but would be ok to charge three batteries one time when you're in a hurry. So it is susceptible to a hack solution. Of course the “proper”, robust way is to buy the right equipment — but that's not what this site is about. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Jan 2 '15 at 23:04
  • @Gilles So a lifehack that could explode your batteries when you're using them is okay. So a lifehack that could burn your house down- "How do I connect electricity without a fuse in the fuse box?"- is "on-topic"? – QuyNguyen2013 Jan 2 '15 at 23:09
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    @QuyNguyen2013 Pennying fuses is a lifehack with a lot of uses under its belt… Lifehacks don't have to be safe, though unsafe answers had better be very upfront about the risks. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Jan 2 '15 at 23:16
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The answer to the first question is unambiguously no.

Answers never determine the scope of a site. That's also why answers can't be closed. This has also been stated in the discussions around scope:

This is the definition of a good answer for this site. Unfortunately, this doesn't help define a question. Do we closer any question that has an easy answer even if it may also have some outside the box answers?liebs19 on "What is a lifehack?", emphasis mine

Or even more bluntly put by fbueckert on the same question:

[...] However its decided, though, keep in mind that questions need to be able to be judged without answers. [...]

Having to know the answer to a question in order to judge whether its on or off topic is very problematic. The point of closure is to prevent answers, because the question doesn't meet the current standards of the site.

Judging by that, we can't determine the scope of this site by the answers that are given. The "real" problem lies somewhere different:

Do we want "conventional" (whatever that means) answers?

I'd say the answer to that is no. Multiple meta questions reinforce this belief. Now to what we can do against answers we don't want:

As already stressed by Zach Saucier:

As such, if an answer fails to meet any of the requirements in this definition then it is a poor lifehack and therefore a poor answer on our site.

I alreeady put an answer to one of the meta-questions, and at the danger of repeating myself:

Downvote bad answers, only flag crap

This also matches what I hear from parent meta and other meta sites. Flags (and thus moderator action) is reserved for cases the community cannot handle (this includes points where you are missing the required privileges).

Judging from my experience over at codereview I can say, that "bad" answers which get downvoted lead to an improved site-quality. I have seen some answers that weren't good in my opinion and downvoted them.

What happened to these answers surprised me: They vanished from my sight. Remember, answers below a certain threshold in score are greyed out! This educates answerers as to what this site and community wants from answers. And this in turn helps with keeping answers on track and nicely lifehackish.

Now to the second part.


If this site becomes a catch-all site, is that bad?

The answer to this question is a definite yes.

Quoting from the posts, that Zach already linked in comments:

That's exactly what you have to protect against. If this site becomes a catch-all site where pretty much anything is on topic, this is going to be a non-starter.
Community Manager Robert Cartaino on "How much of an overlap can we have with other sites, and when do we migrate questions?"

or on "Saving "Lifehacks" - Can we make this a topic space instead of a vague buzzword?"

But if this community cannot define a clear purpose for having this site, it's going to be very difficult to launch it to the public. That means demonstrating a clear and consistent pattern of self- moderation to build a coherent community.

A catch-all site is close to impossible to consistently moderate and clean. Where everything goes nothing is forbidden, but if we still have some rules, users will walk away and the site will die. A catch all site is bound to fail, because there is nobody who can say what isn't allowed. And that leads to a broken and scattered commmunity.

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