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How serious is Stack Exchange about extending its brand beyond the community of information technology professionals?

I would like to see SE become the go-to website for serious Q&A in every field. I've just had to use Yahoo! Answers and the experience was horrible, making me appreciate again how sophisticated and responsive to users' needs and wishes the SE software is.

However, on three out of the four Stack Exchanges I regularly visit -- German, History, and Politics -- the demographic is heavily skewed toward developers, by my estimate >90 percent. On the fourth, Physics, the majority still are non-developers (physicists and physics enthusiasts) but at the end of last year, an ugly episode there resulted in the departure of two Top-5 physicists and Physics.SE has not yet been the same.

I see a kind of chicken-and-egg problem. To break out from the programmers' ghetto, the various non-IT SE sites must attract experts in each of the relevant fields as well as a broad audience of interested lay people. What prevents this breakout is a twofold institutional inertia.

  • The stick-in-the-muds on the Internet are accustomed to their (inferior) Q&A websites and don't know that they could have something better. The message is not getting out (most users of Internet Q&A still haven't heard of SE and don't know of its qualities)
  • Most people working in IT are good, decent humans, probably better on average than the average person. But even the best-intentioned people, if too many of one kind are concentrated in one place, can drive away newcomers. When I see the reception that experts and expert practitioners from other domains sometimes get on SE's that are geared to their fields, I wonder. Problems include unbalanced upvote patterns (people with accounts on Stack Overflow and the like getting higher votes than people without) and a lack of interest and appreciation for how professionals in other domains operate.

Just recently I saw answers here on Meta.SO suggesting that people who find it difficult to acquire rep on SO should join some of the less-frequented (non-IT, "beta") exchanges where they can quickly amass 100 rep points and collect the "association bonus". It is pretty obvious to me that a fair proportion of the askers at German.SE, for example, are there only for that purpose; once they hit 100 rep points, they are never seen again.

In my view, expanding active participation beyond the ranks of programmers and the like will not happen magically. It will require some serious effort and investment on the part of Stack Exchange, approaching universities and professional associations to explore ways that both sides can profit from each other.

Are SE management planning to do that or are they content to let each SE hatched at Area 51 sink or swim on its own?

share|improve this question
Um. Have you seen the sites in the footer? There's a lot of them. The majority of which were launched through A51 and the majority of which seem to be doing quite well. When I've told people about SE sites, I've not even mentioned they started out as IT-related sites. – tombull89 Jul 17 '13 at 9:27
"an ugly episode there resulted in the departure of two Top-5 physicists" Now I'm curious. Full disclosure please :-) – PeeHaa Jul 17 '13 at 9:39
Was there really any need to mention the "ugly episode". Does it have any bearing on your argument at all? – ChrisF Jul 17 '13 at 9:53
"Most people working in IT are good, decent humans, probably better on average than the average person." [citation-needed] – Yannis Jul 17 '13 at 10:21
Forgive me for saying so, but it's this all a bit bloody obvious? Yes, the programmers community is a greatest one, so a large number of them appearing on other sites is not that strange. Yes, starting other sites of similar quality will require a lot of effort. And I'm sure that SE does what it can to get there..... so what is it you actually want to discuss? – Bart Jul 17 '13 at 10:26
I'm writing an answer to this, but it's going to take a bit over a hot second to put it together. Short answer until then - yes, we're serious. Your timing is funny, one of the oldest users on SO who happens to work here and I had an opportunistic and quite lengthy chat about this, and how much things have changed over the last four years just a few hours ago. – Tim Post Jul 17 '13 at 10:47
They better be serious about it. They're betting the farm on it. Although it's partly other people's farms.... and those people tend to have a lot of farms. Anyway. I think the consensus is that all this is going to work only if they manage to expand beyond devs eventually – Pëkka Jul 17 '13 at 11:25

Yes, we're serious about it.

We're as serious about branching off into every topic that we can where a serious and able community can rally around it in order to make it happen. That's how Stack Overflow came to be. The difference between then and now is pretty simple, we have a slightly better idea what were doing, and we've pushed the engine to quite a few limitations in order to see what works.

It's important to note, I said that we can when it comes to the sorts of topics that we launch and it's a very important distinction to make. There are topics out there where the engine gets in people's way more than it helps them come together to learn more about something or get better at doing it. And that's it, really; for Stack Exchange to work well on a topic, people have to be able to learn more about it or get better at doing it. Both, preferably, but you need at least one.

You don't really get better at a religion or politics, but you can learn more things about both in the form of fact, even in topics where facts depend on consensus and faith. That's a stark contrast from Stack Overflow where this does not compile therefore it's wrong, but it's actively helping people learn more about something that's very important to them. It's working.

With that out of the way, it's natural to see our original core of users, the folks that first bought into and even helped design our model scatter out into the proverbial winds in appreciable concentration up to a certain radius. We launched a beta site for project management, and what happened? You guessed it, lots of great questions about managing software projects. But when you look at sites about Cooking, Parenting, Cognitive Sciences, Home Improvement, History, Politics and more, you begin to see users that have some participation on Stack Overflow, but more on other sites. If you look at these in a circle, with Stack Overflow in the center, you can in fact see a dithering when it comes to hard core programmers spreading out. We expected this.

We're doing two major things right now to help the platform scale:

  • We're making it easier and more friendly to use. You've seen a new help center, a much more explanatory initial experience for new users, a complete overhaul of the closing system and there have been many back end changes making way for even more feature improvements.

  • We're making it more accessible. Internationalization is a top priority for us. Right now, we want to make sure that Stack Overflow is available to people that don't communicate well in English and are very unlikely to take on another language just to use our platform. These changes lay the ground for the next major successes to do the same thing.

Is there a topic that isn't programming that a million people in Brazil really care about? We'll soon be able to consider that.

The other interesting point that you brought up is communities becoming insular, and we've seen this to a degree even in the IT related communities that we serve. Some of the changes that we've made, and are continuing to make help to ensure that people don't have extremely unpleasant experiences when they fail to breach a foreign community properly.

However, part of our very nature leads us to think if you want to be part of us, you need to be more more like us! especially in groups; I'm not entirely sure there's anything to be done about that. Membership isn't difficult in many cases, just ask a relatively well worded on topic question. If we see a community rejecting people because of what or who they are instead of what they've asked, we can and have interceded.

While we've been doing this for quite a while, there's still much we haven't learned, and it's going to take quite a bit of time before the majority of people interested in learning things begin to expect a high signal to noise ratio when they land on a site. But it is happening, and it's happening at a pace we can keep up with, and those are two very good things.

And, well, when the sticks in the mud realize they're finally just talking to each other, I guess they get to win too.

share|improve this answer
@Pekka웃 - part of the drive can be seen in the German and French careers sites. – Oded Jul 17 '13 at 11:29
While we're at it, any updates on the new generation of Area 51? I remember seeing some posts mentioning major change cooking but they're all old, about year old with no further update. example. – Shadow Wizard Jul 17 '13 at 11:32
@ShaWizDowArd Not yet. I'm sure a few more people from the community team will chirp in with answers here, though. Robert could definitely shed some more light there. – Tim Post Jul 17 '13 at 11:34
Thank you for taking the time to write this reply. You do have your work cut out for you and I wish you and your colleagues the best of luck. – Eugene Seidel Jul 17 '13 at 15:19
@ShaWizDowArd See I don't have anything like a road map or schedule to report for a next-generation site creation process, except to say that building a better first-time user experience is key to replacing Area 51 with something more akin to trial-by-fire... starting communities in a test environment to see how they might work before going live — a community boot camp or "community in training", so to speak. – Robert Cartaino Jul 17 '13 at 16:03
@Robert thanks, that's what I was looking for. – Shadow Wizard Jul 17 '13 at 17:47

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