Gorilla vs. Shark? Not so fast…

(This post represents my best understanding of SF&F consensus policy on “Gorilla vs. Shark” questions. Special thanks to everyone who reviewed it for me to make sure it really represents a consensus!)

For a very long time, it has been a nearly global Stack Exchange policy to close “which is better?” questions as off-topic. To my knowledge, there isn’t a site on the Stack network that doesn’t follow this rule. It was even the subject of a famous blog post by Jeff Atwood, one of the Stack Exchange founders, that discusses these questions under their more popular name: Gorilla vs. Shark.

On most Stack sites, the “vs.” portion of that name is figurative. The policy is targeted at questions asking for subjective opinions about which hardware product or application or programming language is “better” than the other. Obviously, the answer to these questions is almost always “it depends on your situation”, making them unsuitable for being part of Stack Exchange’s Q&A format.

On SF&F, though, we have a somewhat unique take on these question: when someone asks “Who would win, a gorilla or a shark?”, they really want to know who would win that fight. But that means we have to tweak the standard policy on these questions a bit, to make sure it really applies to the questions being asked. So, what makes a “Gorilla vs. Shark?” question on SF&F? Lets find out!

The Community Consensus

The first, and by far most important thing to take away from this post is this:

Not every question with “vs” in the title is Gorilla vs Shark!

Rather, we need to examine each “versus” question on its merits, and figure out whether the question really is off-topic. A good place to start is to look at the reasons Jeff Atwood gives in his original blog post, detailing why these questions are bad. He gives four reasons:

  1. Nobody needs to know the answer to this question
  2. It’s not nearly specific enough.
  3. It is difficult to learn from these questions.
  4. It drives away experts

If you look at these problems, it should be immediately obvious that #1 doesn’t apply here. If we’re being honest with ourselves, nobody needs to know the answer to anything on SF&F. Unlike most other Stack sites, questions on SF&F rarely solve real problems. Rather, people ask and answer questions here purely because the topic interests them, and they want to know things. That also knocks out #3 –  we learn from any question that gets an answer – and #4 – experts come here specifically because they enjoy sharing their science fiction/fantasy knowledge.

That leaves us with #2: most of these questions are not specific enough. What does this mean, though? According to Jeff’s post, the problem with non-specificity is that it leaves the question too open for interpretation. As he puts it:

Where will the fight be, in what location? Underwater, or on land? What are the rules of the fight so we can determine a victor? Will it be to the death, or under some type of points system? Can they be trained specifically to fight by trainers, or are they completely on their own? Without any kind of scope, every answer can make any assumptions they like — and there will assuredly be hundreds, all different.

As it turns out, we can take some guidance from this bit, and apply it to questions asked here. The goal, then is to find a way to determine if a question is “specific” enough to be answered.  There have been several meta discussions about this topic, and the consensus has been that these kind of questions are on topic and answerable if they meet the one basic guideline:

Can we answer this question objectively, based solely on in-canon information?

In other words, if we have to guess what would happen, or speculate what would happen – even if we think we have enough information to do so – the question is off-topic. In particular, it’s not good enough to have all of the “stats” available for a fantasy match up, because we’re talking about fantasy universes. Anything could happen in such a universe, up to and including the laws of physics being different, so we can never assume anything to be true unless we’ve seen evidence of it. In the majority of cases, that means that the determination about potential Gorilla vs. Shark questions boils down to this:

Has this fight/race/confrontation/etc actually happened, and what was the outcome.

(This is not a hard and fast rule — there are cases where we can predict the outcome with very high confidence — but they are rare.)

What Makes A Bad Question?

So, we have a good rule, but it sounds like the only way to know if a question is on-topic is to either know the answer, or even worse, to know for a fact that there is no answer. That’s obviously sub-optimal, as it rules out a huge fraction of the community from being able to moderate those questions. Fortunately, there are a couple of rules of thumb that will help weed out the worst such questions, with pretty good accuracy. (There will always be mistakes, of course, but that’s why we have meta.) The following types of questions almost always turn out to be off-topic:

Totally Different Universes

Does the question ask for a match-up between fictional characters from two completely different universes? (This includes a match-up in the “Real world.”) If the match up cannot possibly happen because the characters never coexist, the question is off-topic. Sure, it seems trivial to ask “Could The Hulk beat up Floyd Mayweather?”, but as far as we know, Earth-616 has no Floyd Mayweather, so who knows?

This is probably the biggest category of real Gorilla vs Shark questions in SF&F. For example, A fight between Dr Manhattan and Electro from spiderman [closed] was closed, properly, because those two characters will never meet. Similarly, Can a lightsaber be stopped by captain America’s shield? [on hold] asks about a confrontation that can’t really happen. Note that we can probably make a really good guess what would happen in the latter case, based on other things that have happened in the respective universes. But that’s not enough — there is no canon answer to this question, so it’s off topic. And note that it doesn’t just apply to fight between fictional charactersIs a warp drive better than a hyperdrive? [closed] is also closed, because Star Trek and Star Wars just do not coexist.

Known Never to Have Happened

These are a bit trickier, but in some cases, the amount of canon information is small enough that we know an in-universe confrontation is impossible. A good example is Who would win a fight between Tom Bombadil and a Nazgul? [closed]. This one was a bit contentious, because it doesn’t fit our first criteria — both of these characters are from the Lord of the Rings universe and could have met. But we know that they didn’t, and it’s unclear what other information we have that could help predict the outcome of such a confrontation. We also know that no new canon information is forthcoming to change that situation. So, this one remained closed.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that just because a particular match-up hasn’t happened in-canon does not automatically make the question off-topic, though it’s definitely a huge red flag. Ultimately, what we need to determine is:  do we have enough information to accurately determine what would happen, without resorting to speculation. For example, the seemingly silly question Could the Earth-2149 Squirrel Girl destroy Colonel America’s shield? asks about something that hasn’t happened, and isn’t likely to happen (given the two characters’ personalities); nonetheless, the question is specific enough that we can use in-canon information (in this case, what we know about Earth-2149 squirrels and vibranium) to give a concrete answer.

(This question does delve into another contentious topic — what exactly we mean when we say “no scientific explanations”, or “no assumptions unless we have evidence” — but we’ll save that for a different blog post.)

Too Vague / No Clear Answer

Does the question leave so much open to interpretation that the question becomes meaningless? Does the question asks for a match up that depends on too many factors to know the answer? For example, numenor vs. gondolin [closed] asks about a confrontation that definitely could have happened in the Lord of the Rings. But there are any number of things that would sway such a battle — luck, natural events, competency of leadership, etc. There’s just no “one good answer” to this question.

Another problematic type of question are those that could, in theory, happen in more than one fictional universe. Many fantasy or urban fantasy settings have very similar types of creatures in them: vampires, zombies, werewolves, dragons, etc. Asking who would win such a fight in general isn’t answerable. For example, if you were to ask “Could a Werewolf beat a Vampire”, the answer would be very different in The Dresden Files (probably not) vs. The Vampire Diaries (depends on the day).

When In Doubt?

Sometimes, the decision is easy. A question like Spider-Man Vs The Hulk is probably not “Gorilla vs. Shark” — these are two characters that interact with each other on a regular basis, so it’s pretty likely they’ve fought at some point.

Unfortunately, it’s not always going to be that easy to identify good questions — questions that don’t clearly fall into one of our “Bad” categories. In most cases, you’ll have to look at the body of the question and try to determine if there’s a good chance the question has an answer. A good example of this would be a question like Vampires Vs. Werewolf. Based on the title alone, as we’ve already seen, this question should be off-topic. However, the body of question makes it clear: we’re talking about the Twilight universe. That makes this a good question: even without having read the novels, you can probably guess that this type of fight is likely to have happend (which is has), and thus the question has an answer.

Similarly, some questions may be off-topic at first, but can be salvaged. Take, for example,  Hulk vs. Superman – did they ever fight? Who won?. This question was originally closed as G vs. S, because it focused too much on some subjective questions. However, Marvel and DC have done such crossovers, so this fight has happened. Once the question was edited to focus on that aspect, it was reopened and answered. If possible, we should try to fix these questions, or at least solicit some feedback from the OP to get it fixed.

Lastly, there are a ton of fictional crossover that you would never expect, and sometimes it’s a judgement call if two characters really have shared the same setting. For example Doctor Who has crossed over with Star Trek, and Marvel Comics has crossed over with both Star Trek and Star Wars. On one hand, it seems like there wouldn’t be any comparisons that are completely impossible. On the other hand, these are typically one-off, gimmick, or “What if…?” style events, that most fans would not consider “canon”. In general, if you think a particular comparison between two fictional universes is “highly unlikely”, you should go with your gut; just be prepared to be corrected 🙂

Overall, in cases where things are not clear-cut, just try to use some good judgement — and maybe a bit of Googling — to see if such a match-up is even possible. Feel free to leave a comment directing the OP to meta if they disagree with your close. Or, you can always come ask ahead of time in chat — we’re happy to help.

 

 

 

Avengers vs. X-Men results! Winners announced!

The dust hasn’t settled on Marvel’s Avengers vs. X-Men mini-series just yet (in fact, it’s just now getting kicked up; #2 came out on Wednesday), but the rumble hosted on Stack Exchange has come to a decisive end. After two weeks of competition, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Stack Exchange has declared the X-Men the winner of the AvX Stack Showdown. Now take it easy, Avengers fans; we’re not saying that Colossus could best the Hulk or that Cyclops is a better tactician than Captain America. The X-Men defeated the Avengers in a basic numbers game; the questions asked on our site in the past two weeks with the tag “x-men” simply got more views than those tagged “avengers.”

The Avengers were off to a strong start initially, with questions like Is Thor the only Avenger that can’t die? getting attention from many users. But once the X-Men pulled ahead in the number of questions asked, there was no stopping them. More questions asked meant more views total, and with questions generating thousands of views on their own, the X-Men had no problem taking and keeping the lead. In the end, the X-Men trounced the Avengers in page views, coming in with 15,642 compared to the Avengers’ 5,315.

Users old and new created a lot of great content about these two teams, but only a few exemplary questions and answers can be awarded with prizes. They are:

And since the X-Men emerged as the victor, one user was drawn randomly from the pool of everyone who participated in that tag, and will be rewarded with their choice of one of three grand prizes.

  • Grand Prize Winner: chcuk

Thanks to everyone who participated in the event. Marvel Comics’ Avengers vs. X-Men is in stores both physical and digital now. It’s an event years in the making and the comic book event of the summer. You cannot miss it! You can also check out all of the AvX videos we made for the event. They’re timeless classics. Just because our event is over doesn’t mean you should stop reading the series and asking questions. The battle still continues!

Topic of the Week Contest: The Legend of Korra

The Legend of Korra logo
The Legend of Korra

It’s simple, each question you ask about The Legend of Korra between Monday April 16, 2012 at 16:00 UTC and Monday April 30, 2012 at 3:00 UTC will get you one entry into a random drawing to win a sci-fi/fantasy item of your choice from your local Amazon (under $50).

To be eligible, the question must:

Others details, along with the list of our past Topic of the Week Contest winners, could be found here .

So don’t be shy, we want you to ask a question now!

Avengers vs. X-Men is here!

If you’ve taken a gander at the Sci-Fi & Fantasy site today, odds are you’ve noticed a lot of questions about the Avengers or X-Men. Why is that? Well, it’s because the site is in the throes of its first big event!

AVX.STACKSHOWDOWN.COM

This event is closely modeled on the Skyrim vs. MW3 event that Gaming held last Fall, but modified for maximized, ultimate comic book goodness. Thanks to designer Jin Yang, developer Emmett Nicholas for getting the site up, and Tim Dillon and Ryan Penagos from Marvel for providing us with awesome art.

The event was inspired by Marvel Comics’ own Avengers vs. X-Men event, which just launched today. Avengers vs. X-Men is a 12 issue mini-series, coming out biweekly, pitting two of Marvel’s premier superteams in battle over an Earth-changing event. With the biggest names in comics on the creative team, this is shaping up to be 2012’s big blockbuster for comics. Be sure to check out the event by hopping by your local comic book shop, or checking out the issue on the Marvel App or at ComiXology.

So how does this translate to the Sci-Fi & Fantasy Stack Exchange site? Glad you asked that, me. We’re putting our Avengers questions against our X-Men questions, in a battle for views! Fans are encouraged to ask the questions that have been burning up inside them ever since they first held a comic, and then share that question so they can both get an awesome answer, and ALSO ensure that their side (Avengers or X-Men) gets the views they need to pull ahead. So far today, the X-Men’s early lead has given way to the Avengers, who are now winning. Come on, X-Men!

What kind of questions are welcome? You are really full of questions, me, but I’ll answer them. Any questions about anything X-Men or Avengers are welcome. All of the activity is being measured through the use of tags, so as long as your question falls within the scope of the Avengers or X-Men tag, it’s fair game! So far today, some of the leading questions are:

Like those questions? Upvote and share them! Have a better answer? Post it! Get involved because there are prizes to be won.

Oh, did I forget to mention prizes?

At the end of the contest’s run (April 19th, specifics here), the winning side will be chosen and one lucky participant from that side will win our grand prize! On top of that, the users that have the top question and answer for both sides will win prizes. Lots to win!

So what are you waiting for? Avengers assemble! X-Men…x-trapolate? X-travaganza? The X-Men don’t have a rallying cry, but rally X-Men fans, rally! For more info on the contest, please check out the official rules and prizes page, as well as the Meta post!

Stack Exchange is giving away sets of Game of Thrones: Season 1 on Blu-Ray and DVD!

Stack Exchange is giving away 2 Blu-Ray sets and 3 DVD sets of Game of Thrones: Season 1. Huzzah! They say that in Game of Thrones, right? Of course they do. Here’s what you have to do to enter the giveaway:

Handy Twitter sharing icon!
  1. Find your favorite Game of Thrones question at SciFi.SE and share it using the site’s handy sharing tools (see right). And if you get inspired to ask your own Game of Thrones question, do it! And share it! When you share a question, make sure to…
  2. Use the hashtag #SEthronesDVD or #SEthronesBlu, depending on whether or not you want to be eligible to receive a Blu-Ray or DVD of Game of Thrones: Season 1. Only questions shared via Twitter with either the hashtag #SEthronesDVD or #SEthronesBlu are valid entries into the giveaway. You may tweet as many questions as you like; each tweet acts as an entry to the contest BUT only 1 set will be awarded per user.
  3. The names of 2 people using the hashtag #SEthronesBlu, and 3 people using the hashtag #SEthronesDVD will be drawn at random. So yes, the more questions you tweet the higher your chances, but you cannot win more than 1 set.
  4. The winners will be notified via StackHQ and will have to provide a mailing address via direct message that we can send the set to. Winners will have 48 hours from being contacted to provide a mailing address before a new winner is drawn.

The deadline for entry is Wednesday, March 14th at 3:00 PM EST.

Also, due to the regional limitations of the sets as well as shipping costs, only applicants in the United States are eligible. 

And that’s it! We hope everyone has fun checking out the awesome Game of Thrones content on SciFi.SE and  tweeting their questions. Just make sure you aren’t spamming your followers with a bunch of questions (ultimately, you know what your followers want; operate under the “be cool about it” rule).

Stack Exchange is only responsible for the sets and are not providing Blu-Ray players or DVD players along with the sets.

UPDATE: The contest has concluded and winners have been announced via @StackHQ. Thanks to all who participated, and be sure to ask questions about Game of Thrones here on SciFi.SE when season 2 starts up in April!

The Last Question

Jeff Atwood, one of the founders of the StackExchange network, chose to mark his last (day-to-day) day at the company with a post disparaging identification questions.  As Jeff pointed out in his post, the [tag]story-identification[/tag] tag is the second most common on our site right now, so I’d like to point out why our community feels that these are a valuable part of the site, where we disagree with Jeff’s viewpoint, and hopefully give you a bit better understanding of how decisions about what’s on-topic are made (and then re-made, and re-made, and …).

The community consensus gets hashed out on “meta” – there have been quite a few discussions about story identification questions (starting way back at the launch of the site, up to and including during the recent moderation elections), so you should head over there if you’d like to make your opinion heard, or read in more depth (good places to start are here and here) – what’s below is heavily based on the content from there (I’ve borrowed some sentences verbatim).

This is my personal opinion as a user of the site, not an official statement.

Read more

Moderator Elections

The first moderator elections for scifi.stackoverflow.com are now underway!  Back in February 2011 we gained “pro tempore” moderators, whose task was to guide the site through the beta phase (before then the Stack Exchange staff filled this role).  Now that the site is fully launched, the community gets to elect its own moderators.

Moderators are the patient, respectful, and fair folk that lead the site and get access to the most powerful moderation tools and a few special resources.  There’s not much in the way of reward, but there’s plenty of work, so we should be thankful to all of those that have put their name forward, and especially those that end up with the job.

Once elected, the moderators hold their office permanently, so you need to make sure that you get the mods that you want. Likewise, if you want to be a moderator, then this will be your last chance for likely a long time.

The election process is composed of two stages (or three if we get more than 10 nominees, which looks unlikely).  The first, which ends in three days, is nominations.  Any community member with at least 300 reputation may nominate themselves (you cannot nominate someone else – encourage them to nominate themselves instead).  Each nominee writes a brief outline explaining why they are a good candidate, and anyone can comment on these – indeed you are encouraged to do so: ask the candidates anything that will help you make up your mind as to where your votes go.

We’re about to enter the election phase, when all members with at least 150 reputation can cast three votes: 1st choice, 2nd choice, and 3rd choice. All votes are private until the election is complete, at which point the election data file (the vote totals for all the candidates; no identification of who voted for whom) will be freely and permanently downloadable by anyone. The winners are determined using the Meek STV method.

There’s going to be a chat event where you can ask the candidates questions to better inform your vote.  See this meta post for details about when it’s scheduled, or just keep an eye on the chat room calendar.  You can also post questions on meta, if you find that better than chat.

Democracy is a highly imperfect process, but it is a participatory imperfect process. Please participate in our community elections. Your vote is your voice, so use it!

Launch!

After almost a year in beta, we now have over 3000 users and an active community of science fiction fans (as well as a few users that are actively working in this area) providing input, answers, moderation, blog posts and their own time to make the site a global success.

Congratulations to all the members – your effort has paid off, and today scifi.stackexchange.com has graduated from a beta Stack Exchange website to a full-fledged member of the Stack Exchange family.

What does this mean?

New design.


Be sure to check out the errorCAPTCHA (human verification), about, and 404 (page not found) pages, and check out the different look of meta (and, while you’re there, take a look at some of the hot meta questions).

Privileges have changed.

Now that we’re not a beta site, the privileges required to do certain things have increased. That means there are fewer people to do them, and you might not be able to do everything that you could yesterday.

If you see something problematic, please comment and flag. Your moderators will be happy to close, reopen, migrate, protect or delete questions or answers that need it, especially if there’s comments and/or flags from multiple users saying that’s what needs to happen.

Remember that anyone can edit.  Even if you lost the edit privilege, you can still edit any answer or question – it’ll just go into a moderation queue to be verified first.  Again, there are fewer people to work through these suggested edits now, too, so it might take a little longer for the suggestions to be processed, but generally our moderators are super fast, so you probably won’t wait long.  If your edit is approved, you get reputation, so it’s another way to build up to the privilege level that you used to enjoy.

Vote Early, Vote Often, and Vote Some More. Voting builds reputation, which will help more users earn the privileges that let the site be more user-run than moderator-run.  When you’ve run out of votes, find an unanswered or poorly answered question and answer it, to gather more reputation for yourself.

We’re linked in the footer of regular Stack Exchange sites

Hopefully we’ll get some new visitors as a result.  Please take care to be even more friendly and helpful than you already are to help out our new members.  In particular, if you down-vote or vote to close, please make sure that you leave a comment (or upvote an existing comment) explaining what’s wrong with the question/answer, so that we encourage better participation by these new users, rather than scare them away.

Let your friends and fellow fans know about the site (and the blog!) – we get around 1500 visits a day, but the more people who come, the wider the pool of expertise we can bring in.  This is just one giant leap towards becoming the authoritative site for science fiction and fantasy questions – we still need to work hard to get the rest of the way.

@stackscifi improvements

Not everyone is interested in manually heading to a website each day to check out what’s new  – we’d rather get pushed any interesting new content when it arrives. Thankfully, there are a number of ways that you can get notified about new scifi.stackexchange.com content:

One of the most convenient ways to get notification of interesting content on the site is via Twitter.  The @stackscifi account has tweeted links to interesting new questions for a while now, but it’s recently had some significant improvements, and if you follow it, you’ll now find out about:
  • Great answers to questions (note that “great” here isn’t the same as in badges).  I find this more useful than even the questions (which I’m likely to notice just browsing the site), since it’s easy to miss a great answer, especially if it gets added after you’ve already read a question.
  • Requests for help (“can you answer”).  If there’s a question that no-one has been able to answer, @stackscifi will put out a call for help.
  • Notification of new blog posts, like this one.
  • Upcoming chat events, like the fortnightly recommendation chat.
Not only is this a great way to keep track of anything interesting appearing on the site, it’s also the easiest way to share this information – all you need to do is tap a retweet button to pass along a link to a great question or answer (note that there are FaceBook, Twitter, and LinkedIn sharing buttons on each question if you prefer to do this the longer way).

Literature Sister Site Launches

The Literature StackExchange site is now available to the public.  If you’ve got questions that need answering by a literature expert, then this is a good place to ask – note that their current definition of “literature” is quite wide (it includes popular fiction, not just “those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit”).

The site actually has quite a large proportion of questions that are about science fiction and fantasy literature, so if you’ve got some expertise there, you might be interested in answering some questions for them (if you’ve got an account on our site with at least 200 reputation, then if you associate the two accounts – you’ll be prompted to do this if you use the same OpenID – then you’ll start off there with 101 reputation).

If you’ve got a question about science fiction or fantasy literature, where do you ask that question, now that there’s both sites?  Consider who you would like an answer from: an expert in science fiction / fantasy, or an expert in literature in general; different types of questions will suit each site.  Some questions will be perfectly acceptable on both sites, and in those cases it’s up to the asker to decide where they’d like to ask (in general questions won’t be migrated between the sites, and duplicates may exist on both sites, as long as they are not exact duplicates).  You should definitely not post the same question on both sites, however.

If you’ve got questions about writing science fiction or fantasy, then you’re still probably best off asking over at Writers rather than Literature or our site.  Note that the Literature site currently accepts recommendation questions, which are off-topic at our site, so if you’re after a science fiction or fantasy recommendation, then you can ask there (we continue to welcome these questions in chat, as well).