Right, my basic opinion is this:
Polls are fine, as long as they are on-topic, clearly formulated and a couple of simple rules are in place.
Those simple rules would be something like:
- One item (application, plugin, whatever) per answer
- No duplicates
- Uniform formatting (not as important, but it can make the whole thing more useful)
There's overwhelming evidence (e.g. in the form of hundreds of upvotes) that people often find such poll questions useful, and they obviously help bringing in more users and attention (especially relevant to these beta sites).
That said, let me offer some critical commentary on a couple of the "Cons" you mentioned. (These are things that people, starting from Jeff Atwood, seem to keep repeating even though what I've seen in practice at several SE sites doesn't necessarily support them at all...)
Some truth to it, but not quite so. The fact is that SE software is not optimal for polls with hundreds of answers, but it still works. Nothing crashes; new answers can be added; good stuff still is at the top; bad stuff gets down to the bottom. How exactly does it not scale?
Sure, no-one reads all of the 157 answers to a poll about OS X programs at one sitting. So what? It can still very useful, for example to a person new to OS X who goes through the first 2-3 pages and find plenty of great ideas of what to install!
"Noise" - detract from more serious
This is probably the strongest argument of those four. Big polls keep popping up on the front page with new answers and edits. Still: it is quite easy to ignore questions you don't like (but others like very much) and move on with your life. If a tag such as
[poll] is used, those who want can even hide them completely.
Even then polls would affect how newcomers perceive the site, right? Well yes, but not in any untruthful way. Don't worry about it too much. People are generally smart and benevolent enough (which is why Stack Overflow works, by the way).
Often are time restricted (become stale quickly)
Some people love to repeat this, but fortunately it is not true at all. Community wiki polls on SE can stay perfectly dynamic, alive and up-to-date. This can be achieved with some active pruning and a couple of key features in the software platform. These features are:
- The voting system. Good stuff goes up, bad stuff (including duplicates and other worthless posts) goes down.
- Ability to add new answers.
- Ability to edit answers (by any trusted users)
- Ability to delete answers
- People who posted duplicates usually did it unwittingly, and can often be persuaded to remove such zero-value-adding posts
- Not as crucial, but still useful: moderators can prune away downvoted duplicates and other crap from the bottom, if they want to.
- Ability to sort answers by votes and by date
A couple of use cases, with the Mac application poll as an example.
1) Let's say a new OS X app is released, 2 years after the poll was created. The app is absolutely fantastic. Someone goes on and adds an answer about it. Ok, it now has 0 votes and sits at the bottom. Does it get buried behind all the mediocre stuff? No. (Unless it deserves to.) Many knowledgeable users use the "newest" ordering when returning to look a poll question, and if they see good new stuff, they vote it up. If the new app truly is great, it will reach the first page in a few days or weeks, even if the poll has 6 to 8 pages of answers!
If you don't believe me on that one, I can dig up evidence e.g. from some gigantic Stack Overflow poll; I've seen it happen often enough.
It's sort of sad to see those useful questions (some of the community's most-liked questions, actually!) on Super User locked because that is exactly what kills them and makes them stale (no new answers can be added).
2) Let's say a relatively highly-voted app (e.g. Google Chrome) gets a slew of new features, transforming the key essence of that app (say, Google engineers pushed the limits further and it does your laundry now). This affects people's opinions about the app, and our poll is suddenly all stale and obsolete, right? Well, no. Someone goes and edits the CW answer to mention this key fact. It gets votes from new users and moves higher in the list. Those who don't like the new version of the app can change their former upvote to downvote. (Ok, this Chrome example is suboptimal; maybe I'll come up with a better one later.)
Such adaptation to changed world will always take some time, but in the bigger scheme of things it doesn't matter. Like Wikipedia, these things can mostly be self-healing and self-updating if you just let them (i.e. don't lock them!) and if you do just a little bit of curating every now and then.
Examples of great poll questions
Finally, for reference and as examples, below are links to some good polls.
That last one boasts a new (to me, at least) feature:
protected by Will♦ Jul 16 at 2:54
This question is protected to prevent
"thanks!", "me too!", or spam answers
by new users. To answer it, you must
have more than 10 reputation.
The "protected" status seems like a great compromise. It can help in keeping dupes/spam at bay, but, unlike locking, lets the question stay "alive".