It seems that the word "expert" is used a lot in the descriptions Stack Exchange sites.

But in searching I can't really find anything canonical about this.

Is Stack Exchange supposed to be just for experts, or mainly for experts, or is that up to the individual sites and not something really set by the overall StackExchange?

Or is it intended that the majority of answerers are experts but that askers will be a mix of experts and non experts?

The page that seems to mention "experts" the most is the Stack Exchange about page.

I'm looking for an official Stack Exchange view on this point. In particular I'm thinking how much / how far a new site in beta should be going to pander to the needs of non experts. Obviously we don't want to be hostile to non experts but which group should we focus on more to the degree that it shapes the sites?

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Do you have a specific issue in mind here - is a site you frequent being flooded with noob questions, or are noobs being turned away and you don't agree? (This current question is perfectly valid, but if you are seeing a problem somewhere, pointing that out more specifically might be helpful) –  Pëkka Feb 5 '12 at 11:10
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Some insight here: meta.stackoverflow.com/a/118764/162704 –  Yannis Feb 5 '12 at 11:14
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For what it's worth, even if in theory these are supposed to be expert-level sites (which I think is the official view), in practice it doesn't turn out that way. Sometimes it's necessary to make a choice between having experts and having traffic. –  David Z Feb 5 '12 at 11:29
    
@Pekka'sOrganicRepFarm: I do have a specific issue, not the one you mention, but at this point I'd like to get the abstract or non-loaded official stance. I may open a more pointed question depending on what answers come in here. –  hippietrail Feb 5 '12 at 11:32
    
@DavidZaslavsky: Yes in part I'd like to know if choosing having traffic over having experts would be something Jeff and Joel encourage or discourage specifically. –  hippietrail Feb 5 '12 at 11:34
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@hippietrail IIRC, both have voiced their dislike of the level-based splitting of sites like Theoretical Physics, they strongly favor sites that are not exclusive to people holding a PhD in the area. Though as Mark notes in his answer, SE generally caters to experts. Traffic and experts are not mutually exclusive as you can see on SO, though a site that explicitly only allows research-level questions will be severely restricted in the amount of traffic it can achieve. –  Mad Scientist Feb 5 '12 at 13:22
    
Everybody is an expert at something. If you read a question that matches a problem you solved yourself a year ago then odds are good that you can post the most relevant and useful answer. An SE site will be successful when it can attract enough users with similar experiences to create a critical mass. A site that needs to survive on subject experts alone will struggle. –  Uphill Luge Feb 6 '12 at 13:52
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@UphillLuge: I've met plenty of people on the internet who seem to be experts at absolutely nothing whatsoever. –  Lightness Races in Orbit Feb 7 '12 at 18:15
    
Stack Overflow was designed to be a better version of expert sex change, so it could be. –  Andrew Grimm Apr 3 '12 at 8:21
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3 Answers

up vote 23 down vote accepted

Is Stack Exchange supposed to be just for experts, or mainly for experts, or is that up to the individual sites and not something really set by the overall StackExchange?

Well, here's a quote from Jeff from the launch of Stack Overflow back in 2008:

The idea that you have all these experts waiting in the wings to do stuff is an illusion in my experience. There's really just a bunch of amateurs muddling along trying to do things together. The people that are truly experts are too busy to even help, right? And if the experts are too busy to help, what difference does it really make if there are experts at all. Because the whole point of this endeavor is helping other developers, and whether you're an expert or not, if you have no time to help, you're not really contributing to the solution.

I think the frequent use of the word expert might imply "genius" but that's not what SE is about. SE is about contributing your expertise and helping out in things you know. It's a well known and understood concept that you cannot be an expert in everything and therefore sometimes need to ask - for example, I know my way around C, but give me a Ruby project and I'm lost at sea. Hence:

There's really just a bunch of amateurs

I think that's slightly tongue-in-cheek. It's less "we're all rubbish" and more "we all have a time in our life where we need to ask a question".

Taking that analogy out to all the SE sites, many sites look like they're getting a lot of expert advice left right and centre. That doesn't mean that only "experts" can participate - it means people with the experience and knowledge in domain of the question have answered. These same people may well be asking their own questions tomorrow, or the day after.

tl;dr Stack Exchange is for getting answers to questions about actual problems you face. Your expert-level "status" is, with a few notable exceptions, irrelevant if you can explain your problem or help somebody else solve theirs.


Edit, as I had to dig this up. One of my favourite blog entries anywhere on the internet is this: Does one have to be a genius to do Mathematics? - this is from Terry Tao, one of the few people in the world who could without a doubt be given the title of a genius. I'm going to quote his closing paragraph verbatim:

The objective in mathematics is not to obtain the highest ranking, the highest “score”, or the highest number of prizes and awards; instead, it is to increase understanding of mathematics (both for yourself, and for your colleagues and students), and to contribute to its development and applications. For these tasks, mathematics needs all the good people it can get.

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+1 Nice answer. –  Alenanno Feb 5 '12 at 11:33
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"I think the frequent use of the word expert might imply "genius" but that's not what SE is about. SE is about contributing your expertise and helping out in things you know." ... Bingo. –  Bart Feb 5 '12 at 11:35
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This is a good answer from the one perspective. I think Jeff's answer to a similar question already posted by Yannis Rizos above is a good answer from the other perspective, and the perspective from which I was looking when I posed this question. –  hippietrail Feb 5 '12 at 11:42
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@hippietrail ah, I see - yes, I think there is a minimum level you need to have, definitely - after all, you need to be able to understand the answers you'll get :) I read this from the other way: all these people look so bright! How do I contribute. Hopefully, between the two questions, we have covered both angles. –  user142852 Feb 5 '12 at 11:46
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Having a site filled only with real experts and upper-intermediate level users can be quite intimidating to beginners. The private beta of mathematica.SE had such high level of activity and quality that when it opened to the public, the level of questions/answers present on the site scared a few people away (from actual chat & email confessions). I do not know if that's necessarily good or bad from SE's viewpoint. On the one hand, it's a great site, but on the other, not many will google for such hard (and good) questions; at least, not all the time –  Lorem Ipsum Feb 5 '12 at 13:02
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I think Jeff Atwood's answer to a related question fits this one so perfectly that I feel it's justified to also paste it here verbatim in its entirety. I think it needs more attention than it is already getting by being linked twice in comments. And provides even better counterpoint to the other answers we now have. *


We recently had a highly emotional discussion on Programmers Meta, and although the consensus seems to be that the system works as intended, it's hard to ignore the fact that several new users feel alienated.

Bear in mind that the two sites in question are specifically not for beginners.

Let's read the site descriptions:

  • English: Q&A for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts

  • Programmers: Q&A for professional programmers interested in conceptual questions about software development

If you want to walk into a college Calculus class, you need knowledge of Algebra, Pre-Algebra, Geometry, and Pre-Calculus. If you don't, you should be gently directed to other places where you can learn the necessary prerequisites first.

The problem is not that we need to figure out some way to stop the Calculus class to teach these users Algebra -- the problem is that these users are in the wrong place! It is totally correct to gently, civilly direct them somewhere else, somewhere more at their level.

Even on Stack Overflow, which never really had "professional" in its mandate, there is generally an expectation that someone posting a question will understand the rudimentary mechanics of, y'know, being a programmer. Otherwise they're committing the greatest sin of all -- they are wasting everyone's time.

Nobody expects every student to have what it takes to attend Harvard or Yale, right? Heck, we're more akin to the local community college, and even we have standards. You can't expect to show up on the campus of your local community college and go to class completely unprepared. Nobody is going to educate you K-12 just to teach you a college level topic; asking that of your peers is completely unreasonable.

Thus, if you want to come on our "campus" and learn with your fellow students, we expect users to be armed with the basics and fundamentals of the field. Users who fail to meet the absolute minimum standards of a practicing professional, whatever field that happens to be (think FizzBuzz for programmers), should be helpfully directed to other resources where they can learn these things before coming back.

If you don't enforce some basic standards for participants, you soon won't have the benefit of any experts at all. And God help everyone on your Q&A site then.


* If this is against the rules feel free to delete this or if you are Jeff feel free to replace it yourself since they are your words and not mine.

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I remember Jeff Atwood... nice fellow –  jmfsg Feb 7 '12 at 19:54
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As a counterpoint to Ninefingers's answer, I quote a much more recent post from Jeff, "The Trouble With Popularity":

Every minute spent participating in an entertaining ‘fun’ post is time that someone could have spent asking or answering a substantive question, something practical that solves an actual problem for hundreds or thousands of people. Entertainment, within reason, is by no means a bad thing — but I experience almost physical pain when I think about a brilliant topic expert spending 10 minutes on one of our sites deciding which hilarious cartoon is their favorite.

And a less recent, but oft-quoted piece by Robert Cartaino, "Good Subjective, Bad Subjective":

Most forums and chat rooms have a scale problem. As in, they don’t. The more people that join the discussion, the more noise each of those connections bring. So the forums get progressively noisier and noisier, and suddenly one day … you stop learning.

eventually the experts (i.e. people who are teaching you stuff) get drowned out and you are left with an experience that looks more like the magazine rack at a grocery store than a book shelf at Harvard. — Robert Scoble

Because we believe so deeply in learning, we are willing to go to great lengths to suppress the discussion, debate, and opinions that — while plenty entertaining — cause most forums to inevitably break down.

And finally, to another piece by Robert Cartaino, "No Artificial Intelligence in Area 51":

Top blogs, best books, buying recommendations: those are not the hallmarks of expertise. They’re the seeds of the merely curious. A site filled with these sorts of idle, pedestrian questions will never attract the core of experts it needs to survive.

The reason I quote these things isn't to cherry-pick the places where the word "expert" is used over some other word, but to show that the usage of the word "expert" has been refined over the years. Ninefingers points out that your expert-level status is irrelevant, but that's a bit too simplistic: your expert-level status does matter. A whole lot. It's just that your expert-level status is determined not by your past experiences and certifications and degrees, but by the quality of the content you provide here.

Stack Exchange, I think, unapologetically favors experts: while newbies can get their questions answered, Stack Exchange is not a site for newbies and their facile questions. When there's a choice between doing something to cater to the newbies (and subsequently, a much larger audience) and doing something to cater to the topic/domain experts, the wind almost always breaks towards the experts.

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I agree wholly with your disagreement with me - I used the term "irrelevant", perhaps a bit strong, to say that you do not necessarily have to be a 100-paper academic with three Nobel Prizes. Adding emphasis to my post - "if you can explain your problem or help somebody else solve theirs." You clearly need to be able to ask a sensible question and understand a serious answer to the problem domain you're discussing - my point was solely, if you're prepared and able to do that, don't be put off by the apparent all-knowingness of some users. –  user142852 Feb 5 '12 at 11:55
    
@Ninefingers I think the bar is a bit higher than that, though: we discourage broad, beginner questions, no matter how clear or serious they are, and we discourage answers that don't demonstrate expertise (the archetypical examples being the Googled answer or the opinion), even if they ostensibly help non-experts. It's not so much "are we helping users?" and more "are we making the Internet a better place?": an individual user's ability to help a user or be helped by users, in many ways, is incidental to that goal. –  user149432 Feb 5 '12 at 12:07
    
I find myself agreeing with you again - I may even update my answer to reflect this - broad questions are no good whether you're an expert or not. "Please summarise the use of elliptic curves in the proof of Fermat's last theorem" requires an expert mind to solve, and probably a whole series of books. It's still too broad. Beginner level questions are in my mind fine - it's just the beginner needs to break their problem down into smaller, appropriately scoped questions, and it might take community feedback to do that. –  user142852 Feb 5 '12 at 13:29
    
The problem there is gently nudging a user to say "you're asking too broad a question here - you might want to work out what you're not getting and ask that" and convincing them to do that and come back. –  user142852 Feb 5 '12 at 13:30
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it is entirely ok to be an aspiring expert, is the way I would look at this. What you don't want is the blind leading the blind. Ideally a site should appeal to true experts, and those that wish they were experts and are working their way towards that in public. –  Jeff Atwood Feb 6 '12 at 6:00
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