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I try to answer questions tagged since I'm a developer on that project. Like most open source projects, we also have a mailinglist, an IRC channel, a wiki, a book, etc online where people can get support, find tutorials, etc.

So when I first started here, I often felt that it would have been better overall if the question had been asked on our mailinglist instead: there is a large number of Mercurial users there and the question is seen by the core Mercurial developers. A typical example is this question about a feature — the developer who last worked on this would have read the question on the mailinglist.

Though I use and like Stack Overflow a lot, and though it does provide our users with lots of good answers, I still feel that SO splits the Mercurial community somewhat. In that way SO can be seen a harmful and counter-productive to the efforts of the people on the mailinglist. My questions are:

  • How have other projects dealt with this?

  • Can we do anything on SO to better tell users about the official support channels? I've already written something about it on the tag wiki, but I don't think it's seen by most people.

Maybe this is just a natural consequence of becoming a big project and so I should stop worrying :-)


From the discussion below, I've extracted the following great ideas on how to work towards integrating the two communities:

  • Add links to Stack Overflow in the project documentation

  • Make sure the Stack Overflow tag wiki point back to the project documentation

  • Create a script that periodically sends out an email with a list of unanswered questions

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I think extending the tag-wiki would be a good step. Especially with instructions on how to handle bugs and feature-requests. –  Time Traveling Bobby Jan 11 '12 at 12:07
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I think we could do more to show tag-specific knowledge - you are right that the tag-wiki at the moment could be more visible. Aside: for a number of tools (Xamarin, Facebook, Google (chrome dev-tools, etc)) stackoverflow is the official support channel. We are devs; we love development; we want to actively support devs! For example, you say you have an IRC channel - well, if you wanted you could just as easily have a mercurial room on chat.stackoverflow, with the advantages of being able to use from a simple web client, and searchability, etc... –  Marc Gravell Jan 11 '12 at 13:08
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Let me put that another way: is there anything specific that SE inc could do to help here, by bringing together any pieces of the jigsaw? –  Marc Gravell Jan 11 '12 at 13:09
    
    
@MarcGravell: thanks! I don't think there's anything specific I'm missing, I'm more curious about how people handle this (potential) conflict between SO and the official support channels. –  Martin Geisler Jan 11 '12 at 13:29
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Maybe tags could be extended with "resources" which are shown separately underneath the tag-line when asking a question. You know, something like "To report bugs please go to x". Pretty similar to what Jorge Castro showed in his screenshot. –  Time Traveling Bobby Jan 11 '12 at 13:30
    
I like the idea of having a way of adding project resources! Today, posts with a similar title are shown when the user begins entering his question. Perhaps this could be extended with a "Please report bugs to ..." line the moment the user picks the projects tag. So trying to post a question in the mercurial tag would immediatedly point them to our mailinglist. I'm not 100% sold on this myself since it's quite invasive. –  Martin Geisler Jan 12 '12 at 12:51
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4 Answers

I don't think I can answer your question in full, but we do some things in Ubuntu to integrate with Ask Ubuntu (same engine but the principle is the same), so hopefully some of the work we've done in this area will help or at least give you some ideas to think about.

What I've been doing is figuring out better ways to utilize AU as a community resource that complements existing resources, interlinking between your existing documentation is relatively easy:

  • We started mentioning it on pages where users look for community involvement and asked developers to keep an eye on their respective tag.

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  • We've started using the FAQ feature and ability to link to asking a question and made them convenient buttons for people.

  • The community moderators and myself have been championing it's use. Marco Ceppi did a lightning talk about how the site worked at our developer conference, and outlined some ideas on how the site can save them time due to things that you can't get on mailing list, simple things like duplicate detection, etc.

As far as the mailing list issue this can get into a kind of grey area. We started a new oss project called juju and initially people were annoyed that I had asked them to keep an eye on a tag on top of their existing mailing list, but in the end they saw value of having it being exposed on the web instead of buried in a mailing list.

As such we use the juju mailing list for development discussion, and try to have the questions and answers on a place that is engineered for that sort of thing. It can be extremely difficult to propose to an established project that mailing lists suck for questions, it was easy for me to do it in a new one though. It would probably be impossible to suggest that the entire Ubuntu project shut down all the user-support mailing lists and have everyone go on Ask Ubuntu, for example. What I did do is take questions that were valuable but buried in things like IRC logs or a mailing list, form them into questions and answers and then post them on the site.

So basically I had to prove based on the amount of activity in a certain tag that it really is a better way to do this and then people started to realize that the majority of our users don't use mailing lists. And at the end of the day, peer reviewed posts that are easy to update will live on and not be a signpost that is out of date in the future.

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Thanks for the input. I'll try starting an internal debate about this on the Mercurial mailinglist to see if we should integrate SO more in our documentation. I'm a big fan of mailinglists myself, so I know it'll be hard to convince people to switch — and despite the advantages of a web forum, I'm not convinced that it's a good idea to switch. Especially a user forum where people ask vague questions that call for discussion — the opposite of what SO tries to do. –  Martin Geisler Jan 11 '12 at 13:26
    
Do not forget to mention that Ask Ubuntu is mentioned in the installer of Ubuntu as you pointed out yourself in meta.askubuntu.com/questions/1832/… –  N.N. Jan 12 '12 at 12:51
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Interesting question.

My take on it: people asking questions about your product on SO is natural, and it's a development that you will be unable to prevent. It's not really a problem, either, IMO: for canonical information, the mailing list will remain the main source of wisdom.

I agree that the example you show should absolutely have been asked on the mailing list instead of on SO, because only the developers building the extension can provide a good answer. I'm also not sure whether the accepted answer is really that great, as it's not really providing any proof for the claims made. However, as said, I don't think you will be able to stop this from happening. Continuing to comment on questions like that is the only way to go - exactly the way you did in the linked example.

But there are many, many questions about your product that are a good fit on SO. I think for those, SO could complement a mailing list rather than dilute it. Mailing lists are massively inferior to the SO concept in terms of building and organizing a knowledge base. And so much easier to use, as well! I can really understand people trying to get support on SO instead... Maybe embracing it as a complementary support channel is the way to go? If you are part of the product's dev team and competent to answer in some sort of official capacity, why not do that on Stack Overflow as well.

If you see a question that is half-way a good fit on SO and was not asked on the mailing list before, consider asking it yourself: "Somebody on Stack Overflow just asked...." once the issue is answered, you can go to SO and post a summary and a link to the mailing list discussion as an answer.

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Thanks for your comments. I agree that having good answers is an overall positive thing — except when I come across an old unanswered Mercurial question that could have been answered within 10 minuttes on our mailinglist. That's why I feel that a concentration of knowledge is valuable too. This is rare, though, especially after Ry4an, myself, and others have started patrolling the Mercurial tag. –  Martin Geisler Jan 11 '12 at 13:22
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Ultimately I agree with Pekka that this can be a good thing for your project. It can help bring attention to it (if you have a properly documented tag wiki) and it can actually take some of the noise out of your mailing list, because questions about how to write code with your project will end up here, whereas questions about bugs, feature requests or code within your project will remain on the mailing list.

Two great examples I can think of right off the top of my head would be jQuery and Prototype. Both of these have their own forum / mailing list, however both have thousands of StackOverflow questions about how to use them / write code with them. In these cases, the system works.

However, it does mean that the community is fractured and for a smaller project. jQuery and Prototype have massive user bases, and the questions naturally go to the right places because the communities are so well established. It might take some time for a smaller project to establish two successful communities (one on the mailing list and on StackOverflow)

Your question reminds me of two others which I linked to in a comment:

It was a similar situation in which a project's maintainer was trying to send the StackOverflow emails for questions relating to his project to his mailing list. Ultimately what he was asking for was downvoted (by myself included) and , but I had a suggestion for him which might work for you as well:

Have you thought of having[the StackOverflow tag activity emails] sent to a script which strips out the link and forwards to your list, possibly with an explanation of what it is and where it came from? I hear there's a great site for asking questions about programming, maybe someone on there could give you some advice? ;-)

UPDATE: (now with more seriousness, less snarkyness)

Here's some questions generally related to what I speak of:

So basically what you could do would be subscribe to the emails for your tag and have those emails go to a script which parses out the question titles and links and then sends a separate email to your mailing list, something like Most recent questions about this project posted on StackOverflow. That way, the mailing list users who want to answer these questions can hop over to SO and do so.

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Yeah, I've thought of this too — I would probably make the script parse the RSS feed for the Mercurial tag but the result would be the same. –  Martin Geisler Jan 11 '12 at 20:05
    
@MartinGeisler That's a better option, I agree! –  The Unhandled Exception Jan 11 '12 at 20:06
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Ten years ago I used to participate in a Linux forum in my country, that was the largest one. I helped with what I could, and whenever I answered a question, I answered to help the poster solve his/her problem and in a form that the solution would be crawled by search engines and stayed accessible for people with the same problem. In other words, I looked after making that knowledge disseminated and archived to posterity. After several months dedicated to that forum, that thing was simply gone. And the forum posts, too.

I know that Stack Exchange is here to stay and they export the posts via XML to people "archive" that, but IMHO, project mailing lists are more reliable to archiving knowledge that a single website. If the mailing list get cut, there will be lots of services that archive it, members would have copies of the information in their e-mail, etc, thus the information is not lost.

After that bad experience, I tend now to think about "decentralizing" knowledge, like Mercurial does with code, and the project Mailing List should be the central point of help and supporting about the project.

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