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I guess it's appropriate to start with the elephant in the room - story identification questions. Should they be on-topic here?

In particular, what can we learn from the previous iteration of the Matrix? What can we learn from Anime & Manga banning identification questions?

If we decide to accept such questions, what are the basic requirements for them?

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    Oh, goody... Now you get to read the epic tale, Why did Literature fail? (spoiler: we tried this whole thing once before...) – Shog9 Jan 18 '17 at 18:05
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    There's also Arquade which has banned almost all identification questions. – b_jonas Jan 19 '17 at 11:35
  • @ZsbánAmbrus - didn't they require a screenshot for identification? – Gallifreyan Jan 19 '17 at 11:36
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    @Gallifreian that is correct: gaming.stackexchange.com/tags/game-identification/info says "These questions are allowed only if you have an actual *screenshot, video(, etc. of the game you want to identify" – b_jonas Jan 19 '17 at 11:58
32

Identification questions are like... The cabbage, radishes and shredded carrots that some sushi shops put on the platter before stacking up the meat & rice. They make the plate look nice and full, and they're something to chew on once you've eaten all the meat...

...But no one goes to a sushi restaurant for shredded carrots. I've never heard a group of friends walking out while patting their bellies and saying to one another, "boy howdy, the salmon was ok but those radishes - what a sublime delight!" And going through the stack of menus in my drawer, I cannot find a single one that advertises the quality or quantity of shredded carrots.

We tried this Literature thing once before. It's not as easy as you might think: everyone reads, but fewer people study and fewer still have the combination of encyclopedic knowledge and analytic skill to answer the sorts of questions that are not trivially answered by a Google search - and fewer still know how to ask such questions well. Literature as an collective noun is as common as mud; literature as a discipline, as a pursuit, much less so. The topic for this site is both extremely broad and extremely deep, and there's a very real danger that we won't be able to attract a large enough or diverse enough membership to do it justice...

...which is where ID questions can be useful: something for folks to chew on while they're waiting for the next question about the set of obscure authors to which they've dedicated their study. Like those slivers of carrot, such questions can potentially give answerers something to chew on while they're waiting for the meat...

...But you still gotta have plenty of meat.

The last time we tried this, we ended up with mostly bland vegetables: ID questions, reading lists, etc. Folks enthusiastically defended them, until they realized that they were bored and so was everyone else; the site was shut down because pretty much everyone left. There was no traffic, no new thought-provoking questions or meaty topics... Just an increasingly dusty pile of limp trivia that had been chewed on and spat out.

If this site gets a tiny handful of ID questions, just enough to fill in the gaps between more interesting and useful questions, they'll probably be fine. But if a majority of questions fall into this category, it becomes quite unlikely that the site will survive.

And, let's be honest: if the site takes off, y'all will want to get rid of ID questions anyway simply because when there's plenty of meat they're a distraction, keeping them around doesn't help anyone, and the folks who ask them don't stick around to help anyone else.

But what about all those other site where ID questions are so popular?

You mean SciFi & Fantasy. Yeah, they do ID questions. Here's a graph of the percentage of questions asked each month that are ID questions, for the entire history of SFF:

it has never been over 30%

(This includes deleted questions)

Two things you should note there:

  1. For nearly the first two years of the site's life, they kept the percentage of ID questions below 20, and most months there would've been around 9 non-ID questions for every single ID question - even less during the first month.

  2. They've never had more than 30% ID questions in a given month. Not a single month in the history of the site.

Contrast this with sites like Anime or Movies, where ID questions quickly became the majority of questions being asked on the site, and you can start to understand why SFF can afford to take a more laissez faire approach here; their diet is still mostly meat, while the other sites dealing with these questions are looking over hungrily from their big heaping plates of napa cabbage.

So... what should y'all take away from this?

You don't have to go out of your way to shut down ID questions as soon as they spring up, as long as they're rare and well-written.

But if you're reading this, it's probably a bad idea for you to ask them yourself; if you want to help this site grow, give its members wholesome food to chew on.

And if, in a week or two, you survey the site and see an awful lot of ID questions... You should probably start getting worried about malnutrition.

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    Yes. I was rushed at the end of my answer (site launched quicker than I was expecting!), but I should have given more emphasis to the "as part of a healthy combination of topics" thing. – Rand al'Thor Jan 18 '17 at 19:05
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    Never saw carrots and cabbages with sushi. Cucumbers, broccoli, but not cabbages and carrots. But then, I'm not a frequent patron of sushi restaurants. – Gallifreyan Jan 18 '17 at 19:48
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    I think both of you guys go to the wrong places for sushi... – Kimball Jan 18 '17 at 19:53
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    “But no one goes to a sushi restaurant for shredded carrots.” [citation-needed] “I've never heard a group of friends walking out while patting their bellies and saying to one another, ‘boy howdy, the salmon was ok but those radishes - what a sublime delight!’” — I have (no these exact words, but the general idea. And the implied idea that nobody comes to a Q&A site for identification questions is total bullshit, since you are aware of a counterexample. – Gilles Jan 18 '17 at 20:02
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    I addressed the (solitary) counter-example at the end, @Gilles. And I'm tired of it being used to encourage self-harm on other sites. – Shog9 Jan 18 '17 at 20:04
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    Is it not better to don't give a chance to wildfire because calling fire-brigade later not work all the time. – Ankit Sharma Jan 19 '17 at 8:16
  • I live in brushfire country, @ankit. Xeriscaping is a good plan, but you can plant a lawn if you keep the dead grass cleaned up. Pretending you don't have to, thinking there's no danger 'cause grass fires were rare when you lived in Kentucky... That's when folks get into trouble. – Shog9 Jan 19 '17 at 15:35
17

You may want to sit down. This is going to be long.

Identification questions are helpful.

Unlike, say, literary analysis, or questions about plot points in specific works of literature, identification questions are almost always inspired by an actual problem someone needs to solve. In this sense, they fit the Stack Exchange model better than many other questions about literature are likely to! From the help centre:

You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face.

ID questions fit all of this to a tee: people usually post them because they actually want to find a book they've read before, perhaps so that they can reread it. By solving these questions, we're helping people in a bigger way than just satisfying their idle curiosity. OK, we're never going to be like Stack Overflow or Maths SE where people's jobs might depend on getting answers to the questions they post there, but any amount of practical help is better than none, right?

Plus, not only are they helpful to the OP, but believe it or not, they're helpful to other people too. I gathered some statistics on this a while back from the Science Fiction & Fantasy SE, which is probably the best existing analogue to Literature, being the only other SE site where questions about fictional books can be asked.

  • On SFF, two story ID questions are considered to be duplicates if and only if they have the same accepted answer, so we can get a good lower bound on the number of OPs helped by previous questions by searching for duplicate ID questions, of which there are currently 657, plus a further 39 which have been deleted. That makes about 700 people who had their problem solved by existing ID questions on the site despite not being the OP. (This is only a lower bound because we don't close as duplicate unless both answers are accepted, even if the two questions are obviously seeking the same story. The actual figure here could be in the thousands.)
  • Furthermore, we see a great many people posting answers along the lines of "I was looking for the same story!", which rapidly get deleted or converted to comments. I ran a search (mod-only, sorry) which yielded 190 such answers. There might be a few false positives here, but almost all of these results will be from someone who's not the OP but still found the question useful.

All of this shows that a significant proportion of the 8500 ID questions on SFF are useful enough that people actually post duplicates or non-answers to them. Of course there must be many more ID questions which people simply read, think "aha, that solved my problem", and don't post anything to that effect on the site.

Book ID questions tend to be higher quality.

Let me address head-on the complaint which many people from other SE sites are likely to have. On Movies & TV, for instance, most of the highly active users see ID questions as the bane of the site: that site gets multiple very bad ones posted every day, with so little detail that they're often impossible to answer uniquely. I believe a few other sites have banned identification questions altogether. SFF is one of the few Stack Exchange sites which gets generally good quality ID questions and thrives on them as part of a healthy combination of topics.

Why is this? As a reasonably active user on both SFF and M&TV, I've often pondered this question, and I think the answer is more to do with medium than genre. When reading a book, you usually need to exercise your imagination more: you can't see what the characters look like, so you have to give them faces and voices inside your head, and that makes the details more likely to stick there. Plus a book tends to be more of a long-term commitment: you can be done with a film in a few hours, or even just glimpse parts of it in a shop or on a plane or on the TV while you're doing something else, but to read a book you need to sit down and give it your full attention for a longer period, which again makes it more likely to stick in your head better. I think that on average, people are more likely to retain the details of a book they've read than a film they've seen.

Anecdotally, I've also discovered on SFF that book ID questions tend to be higher quality than film ID questions. This vague gut feeling is backed up by quantitative evidence. According to this Data.SE query, the average score of ID questions tagged with [movies] on SFF is 5.49 while the average score of those tagged with [short-stories] is 8.55. This isn't too great a statistic, since many story ID questions on SFF don't have any medium tag, but it's still quite a striking difference.

Let's give them a chance.

In summary, I think identification questions should be a very useful category for our site. Let's not ban them, at least not right away. Let's give it a couple of months and see what kind of questions we get. If we discover after a while that the questions we're getting tend to be low-quality, we can decide to impose stricter regulations on them, or even ban them altogether. But let's not ban what could be one of our strongest selling points without even giving them a try first!

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    Though, I think genre still has part in it too. I maintain that the genre of SF&F has a bigger chance to garner users that bring a certain "commitment" to the material. – Cahir Mawr Dyffryn æp Ceallach Jan 18 '17 at 18:02
  • @ChristianRau Is there any way for you to gather quantitative evidence for that by comparing the average scores of sci-fi and non-sci-fi ID questions on M&TV? Or does the tagging system there make such analysis much harder? – Rand al'Thor Jan 18 '17 at 18:05
  • No, it's entirely my subjective reasoning, without any backing. I might be totally wrong. I admittedly don't have much time to gather such statistics, though, but feel free to do so yourself. However, it is a little difficult, since by far not all fantasy or scifi ID questions are tagged with their genre there. – Cahir Mawr Dyffryn æp Ceallach Jan 18 '17 at 18:07
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    After a scarring experience on Anime, I'm pretty skittish about having id questions, but the idea that book id questions will be better makes sense to me. To go to the effort of reading a book at all already implies a higher level of literacy and dedication than that shown in most of the terrible id questions on Anime and Movies. – Torisuda Jan 20 '17 at 19:27
  • @Torisuda you'd be surprised at what we get at Science Fiction & Fantasy – Gallifreyan Feb 20 '17 at 20:39
  • @Gallifreyan I lurk a lot on SF&F, and I haven't seen many bad book ids, though I may have missed them since I don't read book ids that often. I have seen some of the same putrid, awful id questions for anime, manga, and film that used to smother Anime and Manga and still menace Movies and TV over there. Luckily, we don't seem to have many over here on Lit, so if they do turn to garbage, it won't be as hard to banish them as it was on A&M. – Torisuda Feb 21 '17 at 0:18
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IMHO, we should just start with them as Off-Topic. They're generally low quality, low effort, and get closed more often than answered on Movies. They also just don't help future users of the site.

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    Agreed. This and recommendations are part of what killed Literature the first time around -- they dominated everything else and didn't contribute anything to future readers, so the site just looked like a crappy time-waste to new visitors. – Matthew Read Jan 18 '17 at 17:48
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    "low quality" - by whose judgement? "low effort" - actually, no: some people put a great deal of effort into providing long and detailed ID questions. "closed more often than answered on Movies" - OK, so film ID questions tend to be bad; but this question here is about book ID questions, which are a whole different kettle of fish. "don't help future users of the site" - this is factually incorrect, as proved in my answer above. – Rand al'Thor Apr 7 '17 at 16:06
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In the interests of having all viewpoints represented here...

One of the biggest arguments made in favor of story-id questions is that they are "practical" questions, meaning that they are solutions to real world problems faced by the asker. I would say that this argument reveals a fundamental disconnect about the purpose of this site, as well as what literature should be about. To put it mildly, whether a question is "practical" is a terrible way to evaluate questions on a site about literature. The purpose of literature, and art in general, isn't "practical" in nature. If the only argument in favor of story-id questions is that they are practical, then they have no place on this site.

Let's try a different yardstick for measuring whether a question is a good question: does the question increase one's understanding or appreciation of literature? Obviously, this is in many ways a subjective judgement. But I would argue that no matter what way you look at it, story-id questions do not increase anyone's understanding or appreciation of literature.

Here's the structure of a typical story-id question:

Question: I can't remember the following story. Here are some relevant details: a, b, and c.

Answer: You are thinking of [story x].

What do we learn about literature from reading that question? That [story x] exists, and that it contains a, b, and c. That's it! Any other question on the site, you would learn something about literature: an explanation for a plot point, an explanation of the author's intent in a particular passage, etc. But with story-id questions, you can't learn anything.

Which is why I feel so strongly that all story-id questions should be closed as off-topic. They don't help this site become a resource to learn more about literature, because there is nothing to learn from story-id questions.

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    “I would argue that (…) story-id questions do not increase anyone's understanding or appreciation of literature” — well, where are your arguments? You only state one in your answer, and it's factually incorrect: a story-id question does not only teach that the story exists (which could be valuable in itself, mind), but also cites facts about that story and indicates what stuck into a reader's mind (often, what stuck into many readers' minds, through me-too reactions). I learn much more about literature than from most in-story questions (why did X do Y? Because A did B 42 pages before.). – Gilles Jun 27 '17 at 21:24
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    I've seen a great many comments on story-ID posts of the form "this sounds like a great story! now I'm going to go and read it too". I think I've even discovered books myself after getting them 'recommended' via a story-ID post. So if nothing else, story-ID increases people's appreciation of literature by encouraging them to read good books - which is basically what we're all here for. – Rand al'Thor Jun 28 '17 at 0:36
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    @Randal'Thor "which is basically what we're all here for." I would very strongly disagree with that statement. If the purpose of story id questions is to help people find new books, well, that's what recommendation questions are for. Of course, recommendation questions are off topic, because stack exchange is not a recommendation site, and the purpose of this site isn't to help people find new books. – user111 Jun 28 '17 at 1:37
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    @Hamlet I'm not saying that's their purpose, just one way in which they're useful to a broad audience and increase people's appreciation of literature. Isn't reading and appreciating good literature why we're all here? If your argument is that "ID questions don't increase anyone's appreciation of literature", then I'm afraid you're mistaken, as there are two counterexamples right here in this comment section and many more on this and other sites. – Rand al'Thor Jun 28 '17 at 1:41
  • @Gilles your comment is the first compelling argument I've seen in favor of story-id questions, so thank you. After reading your comment, I can now see how it can be valuable to read what it is that people remember after reading a particular story. That kind of information is much more valuable than a basic plot summary available on wikipedia. For example, if a story touched someone in a personal way and they forgot the title, hearing that person describe how the story touched them personally and why they want to read it again could be very powerful. – user111 Jun 28 '17 at 2:03
  • @Randal'Thor I think, after reading Gilles comment, that I could potentially be persuaded to support story-id questions if you could articulate what exactly story-id questions accomplish. I'm not convinced by the "practical questions" argument nor the "pseudo-recommendation-question" argument, for reasons that I've explained here. But if you could find me examples of things story-id questions accomplish that (a) can't be accomplished by reading a basic plot summary of a book or (b) wouldn't be considered a bad fit for the Stack Exchange model, I could be persuaded. – user111 Jun 28 '17 at 2:08
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    @Gilles However, if that is the purpose of story-id questions, then I'm not at all convinced that they are currently set up in a way that makes their value clear. For example, once a story-id question has been answered/identified, why isn't the name of the now identified story added to the question tag list? If I want to find a list of reasons why people want to reread a story, then it's hard to do that if the question isn't tagged with the story's title. – user111 Jun 28 '17 at 2:12
  • @Gilles I'm also not convinced that what story-id questions accomplish can't be better accomplished with a non-story-id question. For example, it is possible to incorporate personal reactions to a particular story in non-story-id answers. In fact, doing so is a surefire way to make a good answer better, and we need to find ways to encourage people to do more of that. – user111 Jun 28 '17 at 2:17
  • “recommendation questions are off topic, because stack exchange is not a recommendation site, and the purpose of this site isn't to help people find new books” No, no, no and no. Rec questions are not off-topic (if they're literature recs), they're forbidden because we aren't able to moderate them and keep the good ones (and their good answers) while rejecting the bad ones (&answers). “SE isn't a rec site” is irrelevant: it's a QA site and rec Q are Q. Not sure what the purpose of the site should be but I don't see why a purpose couldn't be to help people find new books. – Gilles Jun 28 '17 at 6:55
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    “I'm also not convinced that what story-id questions accomplish can't be better accomplished with a non-story-id question. For example, it is possible to incorporate personal reactions to a particular story in non-story-id answers.” Just because you can get from A to B in a car doesn't mean bicycles should be forbidden. Story-id questions are directly useful to people and can't be asked as non-story-id. You're arguing against them on the sole basis that other types of questions exist… It's getting pretty ridiculous. – Gilles Jun 28 '17 at 6:57
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    @Hamlet "once a story-id question has been answered/identified, why isn't the name of the now identified story added to the question tag list?" - because the name is part of the answer, not the question. If you want to find ID questions about a particular story, it's easy to search for just the name of the story together with is:a and the story-ID tag; I do this all the time on SFF when hunting for dupes. – Rand al'Thor Jun 28 '17 at 13:01
  • @Hamlet "if you could articulate what exactly story-id questions accomplish" - thanks, I'll try to come up with a properly compelling argument. (Gilles may be the best person to do this though; he's been a defender of ID for much longer, and is more strongly in favour of them, than I.) – Rand al'Thor Jun 28 '17 at 13:02
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The work well in SciFi story-identification with more them 7,000 posts. I think we should allow them here as well.

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    Having lots of questions doesn't necessarily mean they work well: Movies & TV also has thousands of ID questions, but hates them. However, I agree with your conclusion and have posted a more thorough analysis. – Rand al'Thor Jan 18 '17 at 17:43
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    I support the proposal, but I'm downvoting for your reasons. – user58 Jan 18 '17 at 18:43
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    I don't support your proposal but I am downvoting because of reason – Ankit Sharma Jan 19 '17 at 8:06

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