Often times I see a question that sparks my interest, and it looks like it's going to ask for the origins of a particular theme, but then I read the question to find "what is the oldest story of" or "what is the earliest example of".

This was sort of spawned by a conversation I had in chat based on this meta question: Something-Est Answers which was about cleaning up "clearly wrong" answers in "something-est" questions.

My current issue with this genre of questions is that I have trouble drawing the line. For example, this question: Earliest Walkers
The asker clarified that a walker would be some non-living vehicle that ambulates with more than two legs. Examples as ancient as the bulls of Hephaestus can be used to answer this. Eventually it was decided that Vernes steam-powered elephant best fit the bill.

It seems that every "earliest" example is precluded by an example that fits the bill somewhat less perfectly. Often times the asker is asked to produce a continual list of clarifications and restrictions on their question till they accept an answer. The counter-problem with this is that an over-specified question is somewhat useless. For (bad) example, if the asker is forced to sharpen their definition of "witch" to "a witch who is Hermione Granger", the answer is somewhat the question. Yes a severe example, but it at least points to where I'm trying to sling words at.

My default reaction is to "draw the line" with the term "earliest", and allow the askers definition to be bent. I treat them somewhat like an origin question. This is sometimes accepted, sometimes frowned upon.

For example: Earliest Harem Anime. This was once on SciFi, but was moved. There are two answers, mine where I decided to use a strict definition of "Harem Genre" and another where the possible origins of this Genre itself could be found. Unlike the "walkers" question, the asker decided on the origin-style answer.

Star Wars cemented "light sabres" into SciFi, and is/was the inspiration for most "beam blade" weapons, BUT there were precluding, somewhat less-bill-fitting light sabre examples spanning back to medieval times showing "swords of light". A question regarding the "earliest example of a light-sabre" may cause head trauma for me.

I find that when one of these questions appears, you get either people asking if the definition can be broadened ex: "will you accept foxes turning in to humans, or just wolves?". Or narrowed "do you mean specifically a vehicle you could ride IN or just a plain old vehicle?". Once, after I asked about 6 or 7 clarifying questions, the asker deleted their question, likely because I was being a pest.

On the flip-side, "origin" questions are very difficult to answer in entirety and thus may be equally frustrating to answer-ers. Mostly because every answer is likely to be partial, and future answers can borrow from existing ones, etc.

I find these questions difficult to answer, even with all the sources in the world because I don't know where to draw the line.

How answerable does everyone else feel these questions are? If "easily answerable", then how do you decide how to draw the line?

EDIT Some people feel that some of these are list questions in disguise. Does that imply harsher treatment of such questions?

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    "Once, after I asked about 6 or 7 clarifying questions, the asker deleted their question, likely because I was being a pest." - if you're talking about mine couple of days ago, that was because I realized it was a bad question unlikely to yield any answers useful to me, since 90% of people both asking and commenting didn't get even remotely what I wanted. It was easier to delete than to re-write completely. As in, you weren't being a pest, you were being a symptom. Oct 10 '12 at 18:38
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    Most of these I read as, "I want a list of stuff, what's the best way to keep it constructive.. Oh, I know! And 'earliest' question, and everyone will just keep one-upping the other answers!"
    – Izkata
    Oct 10 '12 at 23:11
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    @Izkata It is similar to a list, but with the bonus that items belonging in the list are allowed to deviate more with reference age. Of course, it's likely unintentional. Oct 11 '12 at 0:38
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    @DVK I spent a while trying to answer it, and I had 90% of the non-you comments. Same case with these questions, I can think of 5 different answers typically based on how far the asker is willing to stretch their definition from some ideal case in favor of an older reference. Oct 11 '12 at 0:45
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    I don't think this sort of questions is useful trough the "official" accepted answer but trough the proposed answers as a whole. I asked a similar question once, with genuine interest, and the answers I got not only helped me satisfy my curiosity, but most of all helped me discover some great books and will also help some other future visitors make the same discoveries. I think the only problem lies in the fact that you might ask an "earliest" question just for the rep
    – BBog
    Oct 14 '12 at 19:14
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    @BBog That implies that the real answer is all the answers proposed, so this becomes a list question, although perhaps bounded, where each list item requires some kind of elaboration. Correct? Oct 24 '12 at 15:16
  • Not really, the real answer is the earliest example. The list part is just the bonus
    – BBog
    Oct 24 '12 at 19:00

All of the ones I participated in - on Q or A side - were answered, frequently producing fresh and unexpected answers, majorily non-disputed at the end.

Does that address "how answerable"?

Those questions are one of the themes that epitomize the whole point of this site - they are aimed at SFF experts doing in-depth research and/or applying broad knowledge of a lot of works, sometimes obscure, and reference sources for the latter.

Are those questions sometimes a bit raw around the edges when asked? Yes.

Do they benefit from some clarifications because the OP didn't think about some obvious loophole that obviously doesn't fit the spirit in which the question was meant to be asked but that spirit isn't obvious to the rest of the people? Yes.

Does that mean they are inherently bad as question category? No. They - after some banging and fixitupping - are more likely than not end up good and useful questions.

  • I'm newer to this site than you, so my experiences weigh less, but I often see conflict in these questions. Finding out where the asker would like to draw the line is, I feel necessary. I'm from the school of thought that every story has been told already, just with different settings, characters, and scale. To me, the answer to these "earliest" questions is almost invariably going to be somewhere around the dawn of writing by region, and that's the direction I try to steer the question in. Sometimes it works. Oct 11 '12 at 0:33
  • FYI, I have also seen people reply with "both" when asked clarifying questions. Oct 11 '12 at 14:01
  • The way I see it, if asking for clarification is part of the typical process, that's a pretty good indication of a problematic question type. Oct 12 '12 at 19:29
  • @OrigamiRobot - ALL types of questions get clarifying comments. They aren't endemic to these ones. Oct 15 '12 at 2:49

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