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This problem affected Stack Overflow in its early days, and probably most beta sites are vulnerable to it. What can happen is:

  • Subjective/vague questions get asked (as they always will be)
  • They are often "bike shed" questions, that everyone has an opinion about
  • For that reason, the answers attract a lot of upvotes
  • Some early adopters who are keen to maximise their reputation like to take advantage of this, knowing that they can pick up thousands of reputation points from their answers to these questions.
  • These same users are often the most influential, i.e. they are the ones discussing what the boundaries should be between on-topic and off-topic questions. But they do not want to close the questions that earn them thousands of points.
  • When the site reaches public beta (and full launch), new users will follow the example of these influential users and post similar (bad) questions.

It took a very long time to clear the resulting questions from StackOverflow, with questions being closed/reopened/locked/unlocked multiple times (and worse, being migrated to programmers.stackexchange.com where they were equally unwelcome.)

What if anything can be done to prevent this from happening on a new site?


Related: Less discouraging presentation of closed questions for Beta sites

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One thing is people can stop thinking the newest beta site is the one that finally turns the Q&A model into the discussion forums they so dearly want with SE UI. –  random Jun 14 '12 at 15:23
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I would consider this just the "maturing" phase of a new site. I'm not convinced anything really needs to be done. –  Jeremy Holovacs Jun 14 '12 at 15:39
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2 Answers 2

up vote 2 down vote accepted

All Stack Exchange sites have an inherent tension between popularity and long-term professional utility. People like popular questions, rather by definition. On a new Beta site, the problem is particularly acute, because (A) the site has a desperate need for initial content, (B) the site definition isn't clearly defined yet, so it's difficult to definitively say, "No, this question is bad even though lots of people like it."

Yet the Stack Exchange ethos is, explicitly and firmly, to eschew questions which are popular yet "poor quality." Jeff's answer, and the guidelines for question-asking in Betas, explain the reason for this ethos - these questions are fun and attractive, but they severely undermine the goal of being a high-quality, expert-level, no-useless-noise knowledge resource, which is Stack Exchange's raison d'etre.

I think that this is what you're seeing - not self-serving rep-mongering, but sincere attempts to contribute. There's no formal, well-defined ruleset for stopping this - telling the difference between good questions and popular questions in one of the most challenging tasks a fledgling SE community has.

There are already many mechanisms in place to help keep things as much under control as possible.

  • The Area 51 process biases participation in a Beta heavily towards experienced Stack Exchange members. If you open a new proposal for CamelJockeying.SE, you will attract many, many more Stack Exchange enthusiasts with a passing curiosity about Camel Jockeying than you will find expert Camel Jockeys eager to learn the SE system. This means every new Beta should have a strong core of experienced members who can rail against bike-shed questions and their ilk.
  • The Pro-Tem mods are elected pretty much ASAP; they're tasked with making precisely this type of call - preferably before the community can get too far off track. SE employees, including the good folks of CHAOS, are also keeping their eyes open on new Betas.
  • The issue is raised frequently in SE blog posts and Meta discussions across the network. There is no lack of venue for discussion, for asking advice on particular cases, for understanding what SE best practices are and why...
  • Sites with a particularly subjective (or otherwise iffy) nature should try to hash out initial guidelines before Beta begins, so they'll have a firm base to begin from.
  • Last but not least, the summarized guidelines Jeff posted are readily available and automatically presented to members beginning their participation.

That's what we've got, and I'd have difficulty coming up with anything more thorough! Is it enough? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Depends on the site, on the topic, and on who's involved.

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Bear in mind that SO was the first stack exchange site so it took us a while to figure this stuff out. As of about a year ago, there is a mandatory interstitial page when clicking ask question during the private beta; it covers what we've learned:

http://outdoors.stackexchange.com/questions/how-to-ask-beta


Welcome to the private beta for The Great Outdoors!

The tone and quality of the questions asked during this seven day private beta are critically important.

If the private beta doesn't produce enough high quality expert level questions, it won’t proceed onward to the public beta. To help ensure your site makes it out of private beta, here are some tips:

Avoid “easy” questions

It’s tempting to start with easy, superficial questions: surveys, polls, and rudimentary questions like “what are some good books on this topic” or “what are the best blogs on this topic.” Those are not good questions for the private beta – they don’t reflect the actual content that we want this site to contain, and are not representative of it.

Think like an expert

Stick to actual, real, objective questions with concrete answers that a working professional or expert in this field might encounter as a part of their actual, real, job. Stock the site with a bunch of on-topic, expert questions and answers, so that when the site opens to the public, it’s already pre-populated with a bunch of the kind of content that will attract other experts.

You get the site you build

The first questions set the tone and topic of a site for a long time. Those early questions say a lot about what your community could become. And questions asked during the private beta will be on the front page when potential experts see your site for the first time. So please make those first questions exemplary ones that are interesting, challenging, and worthy of imitation.

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This does not really answer the question. I am not talking about people being unaware of these guidelines, I am talking about people intentionally not following them. –  finnw Jun 14 '12 at 16:34
    
That is what the sites meta and the SE community team are for. Also you can vote on such questions and leave comments on them... –  Jeff Atwood Jun 14 '12 at 16:36
    
When does this page come up? I don't recall ever seeing it in private beta (granted I might have forgotten) –  Ben Brocka Jun 14 '12 at 16:47
    
@Ben: it'll show up the first time you try to ask a question. –  Shog9 Jun 14 '12 at 17:05
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