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I started to post this as a comment to Jeff's new "QA is Hard, let's go shopping" post, but realized quickly it deserves its own discussion. (A side note, I don't understand why we can't have this type of discussion in Area51 itself, since its really about the details in forming a specific site.)

I've been thinking recently about the (still in commitment phase) Astronomy SE at http://area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/51/astronomy. I'm into backyard astronomy, stargazing, telescopes, and a very frequent participant in the CloudyNights forums.

I haven't yet signed on as a supporter to the proposed Astronomy SE site, though, for the following reasons:

  1. I think that "astronomy science/astrophysics" questions by themselves are a very small fraction of what keeps the amateur astronomy community going. Cloudynights has a single "astronomy science" subforum (of several dozen other subforums), but the SE proposal, at least initially, appears to be focused on this somewhat narrow area.

  2. The (apparent) failure of the SE 1.0 astroanswers.com. I know they had a rough start because they were initially focused on one specific product niche (ASCOM, an API for telescope/mount control). How can we learn from their mistakes to make a successful SE 2.0 site?

  3. I'm not sure how much of the discussion that currently takes place at CN would really work on a SE site. The bulk of the forum discussion on CN seems to fall into several overlapping categories:

    • Help me decide what (telescope/mount/eyepiece/other piece of equipment) to buy.
    • Check out the new awesome (piece of equipment) I just got!
    • Individual product (review/critique/improvements/hacks/comments)
    • Let me share this (awesome galaxy photo/amusing observing story/frustrating Craigslist purchase experience)
    • Detailed 100-photo worklog for a (new homebuilt scope/custom backyard observatory/classic scope rebuild)
    • Anyone in (city)? Lets get together for a (star party/observing session/equipment sharing/beer and pizza)

Even the questions that fall into more traditional Q&A seem to be carry a lot of product-specific info:

  • Having (specific) trouble with (product). How do I fix it, or do I need to return it?
  • I've been on the waitlist for (high-end product) for (length of time). Should I stay on the list and continue waiting, or purchase (other product) instead?

Anyway, I'm definitely convinced (based on CloudyNights) that this is a huge community, and I am still convinced that there is probably enough true Q&A to support a SE site, but I still have a couple of questions:

  1. I think that stargazing/observing/telescopes has more potential as a site focus than the currently-stated astronomy-science/astrophysics stated focus. Is there a way to change the focus of the current proposal? Should I propose a new one? Is it just a matter of inviting the right kind of participants to the beta (if it ever gets there), and it'll happen naturally?

  2. In line with Jeff's new post "QA is Hard, let's go shopping", how do we best encourage the "right" kind of product questions, instead of the "wrong" kind?

  3. Any other thoughts on how to make the Astronomy SE proposal better?

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Note: Some brief additional discussion along these lines was held on the old SE1.0 meta site here: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/5566/… –  BradC Nov 23 '10 at 18:06

2 Answers 2

The answer is actually deceptively simple:

Get heavily involved in the site (particularly meta) very, very early on.

A proposal is not a site. Much of the definition of a site — the really down-and-dirty design issues — are actually decided in the last phase…in beta.

Read well this blog post: Asking the First Questions. It talks about, in part, the importance of the first questions, how they are actually very much a part of the design. That's important.

The earliest questions on a site will set the tone and topic of the site for a long time.

... Ask your first questions with an eye on the site’s design. Those first questions will likely end up on the front page when potential experts see your site for the first time. Make those first questions exemplary questions that are worthy of imitation.

So, commit to the site (I mean, literally, Area 51 Commit) and get involved. Ask excellent, well-thought out questions. Raise your issues in meta. Reach out to other communities to support your site. Link to specific, excellent questions to support the type of activity you want.

But consider also, there are a lot of discussions/communities that are simply not appropriate for Q&A. This is designed to be an expert community. But that doesn't mean the site is not for amateur astronomers. It means you should come to the site with questions consistent with professional behavior.

Many of the examples you cited look like simple comradery and socializing among enthusiasts. Questions like "Hey, check out my…", and product reviews simply are not going to be acceptable on an Astronomy Stack Exchange. Product-specific questions may be okay on some sites, depending on the context. Even more subjective questions can be okay, if asked within the spirit of good Q&A (recommended reading: Good Subjective, Bad Subjective).

But shopping recommendations and reviews are not within the spirit of Stack Exchange.

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Good advice. I think, based on this, I'll commit to the current proposal rather than attempt to create a new one. Thanks! –  BradC Nov 24 '10 at 14:08

You have a set of concerns and a set of questions. Since I want to reply to all of them, #4, 5, and 6 refer to the set of questions.

  1. Great! I suggest you read this blog post by one of the Stack Exchange founders and see if the 4 rules apply. (Personally, I think that they do, but I'm not practically nothing about astronomy or the astronomical community).

  2. Many SE 1.0 sites failed because they didn't have enough users to build momentum. Area 51 exists to remove this barrier, because commitments are required before a site can launch. So you probably shouldn't have a problem, especially since you can go to CloudyNights and encourage people to participate.

  3. This, however, is slightly worrying. If you get a lot of CloudyNights users to start with, they'll be used to forums and will think that SE is very harsh when it comes to moderation (partly because it is) and might not want to continue to participate. If you do promote there, I suggest you let them know how Stack Exchange is different than forums, and so we have different rules. Bring up those examples you listed here, and explain why we don't like those questions. That way, only those who are truly interested will commit.

  4. Let's take a look at your options:

    • You can't change the existing Astronomy proposal. Once a site is out of the definition phase, you can't bring it back.
    • However, you can create a new proposal on Area 51. I'm going to suggest a looser term than Astronomy, which has a very scientific connotation, such as perhaps "Stargazing and Telescopes".
    • You might also want to consider the fact that Stack Exchange may not necessarily be the right platform.

  5. Ask "What features should I look for when buying [item]?" rather than "What [item] should I buy?" Encourage questions to stay relevant.

  6. Since you have an existing forum to go to, encourage them to participate in the definition and commitment phases. Most proposals languish because of a lack of users, so get out there and get people to contribute. However, I do need to warn you. For a site to enter beta, no matter how many users commit, at least 100 of those users must have at least 200 rep on an existing Stack Exchange site. Since the existing Astronomy proposal hasn't launched yet, this may present a challenge, since even if more people want to commit to your proposal, existing committers to Astronomy might not want to switch over.

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