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It is no secret that the origins of Stack Exchange lie with software programming topics such as the notorious Stack Overflow, Super User, Server Fault and Ask Ubuntu sites. On the other hand, I was shocked to see that a number of seemingly viable Area 51 topics did not make it through beta.

That made me wonder whether the Stack Exchange vetting process is historically biased towards topics with a focus on syntax and semantics?

My suspicion arose when reading that "questions per day" is a measured performance indicator for successfully passing the beta stage:

15 questions per day on average is a healthy beta, 5 questions or fewer per day needs some work. A healthy site generates lots of good content to make sure users keep coming back.

That leaves us with the question whether certain topics inherently produce more questions per day than other topics? I am convinced this is the case. Take for example a site about a programming language. For every line of code written there is a potential risk of making a syntax or semantic error. The same argument holds for natural languages and mathematics. Many lines written result in many errors and many questions asked.

Contrast this with another technical hobby like for example building radio amateur antennas. It takes many days or even weeks to gather the materials, build and test a single antenna. This will result in less questions per day simply because building and testing an antenna is not a virtual, but a slow physical process in the real world.

Some topics will inherently tend towards a slow growing wiki of knowledge instead of a constant flow of quick and straightforward answers. It is my strong opinion that Stack Exchange should take these significant differences into account when vetting new Q&A sites.

What is your opinion and that of the Stack Exchange team?

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How do you convince people a ghost town is not a ghost town? –  random May 29 '13 at 1:50
    
Why does everything needs to be fast-paced? Is this a requirement/secret agenda trickling down from the VC investor board? –  Gin Gordon May 29 '13 at 1:58
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I'll flesh this out better tomorrow if someone doesn't beat me to it, but we do take the subject matter into account. Check out the stats for some of the (especially long-running) beta sites we have right now and the Area 51 stats for graduated sites that went through this process. The "questions per day" stat is not the end-all and be-all of everything. –  Anna Lear May 29 '13 at 2:04
    
Of course some topics generate more questions per day; this is obvious. The question is how many resources to expend towards topics that have little support, interest, or traffic, and where that line is drawn. That was a lot of words to ask what's a pretty simple question. –  Dave Newton May 29 '13 at 2:30
    
@Dave Newton: Do I understand well that a quiet site still consumes additional resources apart from disk space? Are those additional resources human or perhaps computational power for keeping the site current? –  Gin Gordon May 29 '13 at 2:34
    
hmm I think diy.stackexchange.com kinda undercuts the virtual vs physical argument... so does cooking.stackexchange –  Some Helpful Commenter May 29 '13 at 4:48

1 Answer 1

up vote 8 down vote accepted

That made me wonder whether the Stack Exchange vetting process is historically biased towards topics with a focus on syntax and semantics?

To some extent, there is probably some bias, but not from Stack Exchange itself, but instead from the Stack Exchange community. I don't have data to back this up, so take this with a grain of salt, but a large majority of the people on Stack Exchange likely come from Stack Overflow -- or from one of the trilogy sites. As a result, there are likely more technical people on Stack Exchange than there are nontechnical people. We see this on sites like Project Management and The Workplace, where many questions are asked from the developer perspective instead of the perspective of a sales associate or some other professional.

This is why the community management team suggests that these sites may need to attract audience members from outside of Stack Exchange:

...we'd really like to see more content that isn't software development related. That's not something that will magically change, and the reasons for why are pretty obvious (Stack Overflow). That said, I feel PM and Workplace will have some similar challenges moving forward and as they grow.

In short, the more nontechnical Stack Exchange proposals may need more advocates to focus their efforts on bringing in new users into the network from the outside!

That leaves us with the question whether certain topics inherently produce more questions per day than other topics?

You mention that programming leads to more questions simply because of the syntax involved in each line of coding. While it may indeed lead to more problems encountered by a user, we must keep in mind that Stack Overflow doesn't exist to help programmers find mismatched parentheses. Questions such as these simply involve more attention to detail or perhaps a better syntax checker. Since they won't be useful to future visitors, we close them as too localized.

There are however very technical, objective questions that one can ask about topics such as programming, and the Stack Exchange Q&A model works extremely well for these types of questions. In fact, Stack Exchange was built around the concept of objective Q&A targeting expert and enthusiast programmers.

Contrast this with another technical hobby like for example building radio amateur antennas. It takes many days or even weeks to gather the materials, build and test a single antenna. This will result in less questions per day...

Actually, amateur radio is a great example of a site that could fit really well on Stack Exchange. The best questions are about a real, actual problem you're facing, and even though the topic is amateur radio, it involves a lot of technical expertise and specified knowledge. I'm not an expert myself, but I can foresee a wide variety of challenges someone might encounter along the way that would make for a great Amateur Radio Stack Exchange question. Posts that include details about what the asker tried, what equipment they're using, and what problems they're seeing are some of the best questions on the network. What's more, building an antenna could actually involve a whole series of posts -- one for each occasion where the "ham" becomes stuck trying to move his or her antenna to completion!

The problem with amateur radio -- and I may be generalizing a bit here -- may be that the average age of a "ham", or amateur radio operator, is considered high, according to the Wikipedia article on Amateur Radio Operators. It's quite possible that this demographic may spend less time on the Internet than the programming crowd, or perhaps there aren't as many programmers who are also amateur radio hobbyists. Either way, we face the challenge of reaching out to these experts and convincing them that Stack Exchange has something to offer to help them overcome their own challenges.

Some topics will inherently tend towards a slow growing wiki of knowledge instead of a constant flow of quick and straightforward answers.

This is of course a very correct statement. But the bar cannot be lowered simply because there are less people. On a Stack Exchange site, it's the people that form the community. They are the glue that holds everything together. While small communities are not bad, they're theoretically not as sustainable as some of the larger communities.

You see, on Stack Overflow, if some top users drop their participation due to real life, such as jobs, divorce, marriage, surgery, vacations, etc, Stack Overflow continues on. The community has a life of it's own, and losing a few users won't matter in the long run.

But in a smaller community, the disappearance of a few key users can have a very real, noticeable effect on the future success of the site. When there aren't enough people in the community to guide new users, vote on posts, close questions that don't fit the model, and raise issues in meta, the community may stagnate and may become a ghost town. Therefore, if a community cannot generate enough great content to sustain the site and keep visitors coming back for more, it has more challenges in moving towards long-term success.

Summary

You recognize that there is a problem with Area 51. While there are possibly other solutions to promote a broader interest in the growth of Stack Exchange, such as expanding the number of inbound links from other Stack Exchange sites or promoting Area 51 proposals in our user profiles, in order to reach the experts on some of these topics, we may need to focus our efforts outward -- not inward -- by sharing links to these proposals with existing non-Stack Exchange communities who have a need for an expert Q&A format but who just don't know it yet.

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That is a very nice answer and thank you for acknowledging part of the problem! I particularly like your last sentence: ...existing non-Stack Exchange communities who have a need for an expert Q&A format but who just don't know it yet. As moderator of a Yahoo!Group, I think your statement holds true. But it is important not to scare these potential new users away! Furthermore, my question arose whilst preparing a magazine article to reach out to the non-Stack Exchange amateur radio community. So, stay put! –  Gin Gordon May 29 '13 at 9:39
    
It's great to hear you're writing about Stack Exchange, specifically about expanding beyond the walls of programming. Feel free to use the two sites I referenced -- Workplace and Project Management -- as examples of non-technical Stack Exchange beta sites that have existed for at least a year and that serve the Q&A needs of non-technical experts. If you have any questions about either of them, please let me know. –  jmort253 May 29 '13 at 13:50

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