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It seems to me that several of the newer features on Stack Exchange (automatically removing @replies in comments to the post owner when only one other commentator is involved, nagging about back and forth comments on answers and inviting to move it to chat, autobanning, etc) are moving from helpful to coercive in how people use the system.

I understand that Jeff and the team have some constraints to deal with and ideas on how the system ought to work, but shouldn't I be the one to decide if I include a @reply or migrate a discussion to chat? I fear that decisions are starting to be made based on what's best for the system, not what's best for the users.

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locked by Robert Harvey Jul 22 '11 at 18:18

closed as not constructive by Kevin Montrose Jul 22 '11 at 17:18

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It's good to have discussions filed that lead to questions and answers being changed/improved in a particular way. Often those discussions are very helpful in understanding an issue with an answer. The chat is nice for chatting, and we are using it to waste our time discussing just about anything. However, the chat is bad for filing serious discussions, because 1) they'll be drowned in the noise and 2) they are not filed alongside the issues they refer to. 90% of all cases where I have seen discussions moved to the chat I considered it a bad decision. –  sbi Jul 21 '11 at 22:15
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@Jeff: However, the system as it is leads to valuable discussions getting lost. In my book, that makes it Wrong(TM). –  sbi Jul 21 '11 at 22:40
    
@sbi I can see where moving a batch of comments to chat by a moderator, rather than deleting them outright, might be a useful option.. perhaps ask that as a [feature-request]? –  Jeff Atwood Jul 21 '11 at 22:42
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@Jeff: Just look at you. You are discussing things here, instead of the chat. Why do you do this? Because here, right beside the question, is where this discussion belongs. Of course you think your comments are different, more important, more to the point, than the common comment noise the rest of the community spams the site with, and if we'd all just stop denying their superiority this discussion wouldn't even be necessary. We all think this, all the time. About our own comments. Face it, these discussions are necessary, and it is necessary to have them on spot, not somewhere else. –  sbi Jul 21 '11 at 22:47
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@sbi to a point they are; beyond that point they are not. See: meta.programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/1907/… but if that's TL;DR "If you are more interested in conversation than learning, you might be in the wrong place." –  Jeff Atwood Jul 21 '11 at 22:50
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@Jeff: And I think this point is too often defined wrongly. Deleting comments not only deletes noise, but also deletes valuable content, that will be lost forever, even to 10k users. (That's different from questions/answers.) Moving them to the chat is burying them under noise. Yes, there are discussions that are plain noise. But those are few, and there's way too many useful once being deleted for this to be rectified. Most deletions/moves are destroying valuable content, which makes those actions making the web a worse place. –  sbi Jul 21 '11 at 22:51
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@Adam - I'm perfectly open to having @Jeff explain how the decision process involves user-feedback and is intended to improve the user experience. My observation is that his defenses have more to do with it not fitting his concept of the perfect Q&A site. I find ironic that the whole premise (wisdom of the crowds) of how the site helps good answers rise to the top seems to be ignored when it comes to how the site itself works. Like you I'm at the point where I'm trying to stop caring with only an occasional flare up.`` –  tvanfosson Jul 21 '11 at 23:40
    
@Adam: We are in agreement that there is a "best interest" case for questions and answers meeting quality bars. We are in disagreement that comments also need to meet such bars. IMHO, comments are not for the system, they are for the commentor and/or answerer. But I would be interested in a more official explanation –  Billy ONeal Jul 21 '11 at 23:55
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@Billy - I can only notify one person through the reply feature. I didn't intend to rip Jeff about the title, but to respond to his observation that the answers no longer made sense with the new title. I also wanted him to see the response. In retrospect I probably should have split that comment in two. –  tvanfosson Jul 22 '11 at 0:06
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@Adam Davis: It happens to me on about every other "comment train". And of course the @ stuff removing part happens constantly. I wouldn't call them outliers. –  Billy ONeal Jul 22 '11 at 0:08
    
@Adam: I don't find that uncomfortable at all. On the other hand, I don't particularly care. I certainly don't think I have detracted from any StackExchange site or otherwise, whether I'm an outlier or not. –  Billy ONeal Jul 22 '11 at 0:16
    
I guess this whole issue all boils down to this: twitter.com/#!/tweetsbi/status/91728206046052352 –  sbi Jul 22 '11 at 8:56
    
To the extent anything can be saved from this discussion, it should be done on new questions. I see no point in re-titling beyond trying to re-write history. –  Kevin Montrose Jul 22 '11 at 17:18

7 Answers 7

One of the benefits that the Internet brought to the world was an increase in flexibility via personalization and customization. It seems that a development direction of more options (not to the point of confusing) would be the best direction to go in.

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I can't tell if this answer is for the question's premise or against it. :P –  adamjford Jul 21 '11 at 16:48
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People only tend to want "personalization and customization" when the choice itself is simplistic and superficial, e.g. changing a wallpaper or ring tone. Choices that require more intellectual effort - especially when multiple choices need to be combined for a single result - are more likely to lead to fear, frustration, and stress. That's why people stick with the same brand and the same employer, why they hire interior decorators and money managers instead of doing those things themselves. I realize that you said "not to the point of confusing", but that point is reached very early. –  Aarobot Jul 21 '11 at 17:22
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@adamjford, I agree with him that SO is becoming a nanny state, and that it's the wrong direction. The correct direction is flexibility. –  Lance Roberts Jul 21 '11 at 19:31
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@Aarobot: Your comment is particularly insightful. For many years I worked for a small company that developed a general-purpose office application. Every sale was important. Rather than tell the customer they couldn't have their pet feature, often we would just add another checkbox to the options dialog. That approach became precipitous over time; every checkbox we added to our Wall of Options™ increased the complexity of the software and added to our support and documentation burden. –  Robert Harvey Jul 21 '11 at 19:40
    
@Aarobot, Determining where that point is, is pretty tough. That's why the Meta discussion is a good place to hash out this kindof stuff. –  Lance Roberts Jul 21 '11 at 19:41

No, I don't think so. I think they're just trying to make a better and more useful environment as a matter of course.

How many SO users do you think are even aware of the chat? How often have you wondered "gee, if only I could talk to this person in realtime for 30 seconds, I might could solve this now"? I used to do it a lot. Now I have the SO Chat system, but I know about it.

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I know about it, but it doesn't really work for me. I pop in an out with some frequency, but it could often be hours before I see a comment and respond to it. Chat's real-time nature makes it less appealing for me and, thus, it's annoying when the "system" suggests that I do something that doesn't work for me just because it's better for the "system." –  tvanfosson Jul 21 '11 at 18:40

but shouldn't I be the one to decide if I include a @reply or move a discussion to chat?

This sort of thing is not a black-and-white issue. There's a range between extremes, and SO and its siblings are seeking a particular balance that Jeff & co. believe is optimal.

If you think leaving things almost entirely up to the users is preferable, there's always Usenet or 4chan.

I fear that decisions are starting to be made based on what's best for the system, not what's best for the users.

What's best for the site is by definition what's best for the users. What an individual user thinks is best for themself, however, is not necessarily best for anybody, including (from a broader perspective) the user in question.

If you find the above assertion strange I would encourage you to look into behavioral economics and game theory; these principles are well-known.


Ok, I'll spell things out: What people want to do in the short term at small scales may be "better" for them in some sense, but if the result of this (in aggregate) reduces the quality of the site, this harms everyone, including the users who simply chose what they thought was best for themselves.

Reducing the amount of noise on the site is a major part of this, from discouraging commenting to locking popular "fluff" questions to aggressively purging low-quality posts. Everyone benefits from keeping the overal quality of SO as high as possible, and this requires frequently preventing users from using the site in ways they might prefer.

Arguing that the decision to do or not do something should be left to the individual user's discretion is a nice idea, but it doesn't work in the presence of actions that benefit individuals at the expense of minor harm to the entire population; without some sort of constraint the result is inevitably a rush to the bottom as everyone does the "best" thing locally and collectively makes things much worse globally.

Making the system subtly coercive is one way to deal with the problem; rather than restricting outright, make the right thing the path of least resistance. Centralized authority is another way, but it scales poorly. Community norms are the best solution, but requires convincing enough people cooperating that the individual benefits of globally suboptimal choices are outweighed by the attached social disapproval.

All of the above are well-established concepts, both derived formally from the mathematics of game theory, and from empirical observations in behavioral economics. Worrying about things "moving from helpful to coercive in how people use the system" or fearing that "decisions are starting to be made based on what's best for the system, not what's best for the users" are often a sign of a naive way of thinking that ignores the existence of non-positive-sum interactions.

In computer science terms, letting users do as they please is a greedy algorithm for optimizing global success. Most social contexts are an optimization problem not well-suited to this approach.

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Doesn't the "above assertion" also apply to this particular answer? –  user151803 Jul 21 '11 at 16:54
    
@Saul: I'm not sure what you mean. Also, please don't circumvent the system in order to add superfluous noise into your comment. –  McCannot Jul 21 '11 at 16:59
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¤@camccan: Thanks for the suggestion but I regard references useful. What I meant was if a proposition is invalidated by suggesting universal self-centeredness, then it follows that the suggestion itself is, by definition, also invalid. In other words.. it looks like a fallacy. –  user151803 Jul 21 '11 at 17:16
    
Your logic makes no sense and that has nothing to do with what I said. –  McCannot Jul 21 '11 at 17:20
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¤@camccann: It's basic set theory. Your "above suggestion" is equivalent to the statement that every statement has a property X. Hence that statement itself must also have X. In your example, X is equal to "selfish motives". –  user151803 Jul 21 '11 at 17:42
    
Maybe its because I'm a twitter user, but the comment chain without the @replies seems more "noisy" (as in, it's harder to pick things out of the background) than with them. Be that as it may, my main issue is not so much the particular decisions but the trend of features being more "nanny"-like, i.e., you as a community don't know what's good for you so we're going to do it the way we want despite your feedback to the contrary. –  tvanfosson Jul 21 '11 at 18:44
    
¤@camccann: I wholeheartedly agree with the need to balance local issues against global outcomes. I simply promote open debate about what constitutes undesirable effects and why so. In the particular case of references, I see more benefit in having them. If someone demonstrates the opposite, then I'll be happy to switch sides. –  user151803 Jul 21 '11 at 18:50
    
@tvanfosson: Feedback from the community is easily distorted by selection bias. If 30% of the people think something is a trivial improvement, 65% don't care at all, and 5% think it's a terrible idea, only the latter group will be motivated to complain on Meta. Also, to be very blunt, sometimes a community doesn't know what's best for it, because of stuff like what I described at length in my edit. –  McCannot Jul 21 '11 at 18:51
    
¤@camccann: But sometimes it does. And sometimes you might be mistaken about the nature of community. The best cure is to have an open, rational, in-depth discussion on what constitutes undesirable effects and why. –  user151803 Jul 21 '11 at 18:56
    
@camccann - meta sucks as a way of collecting feedback, but that argument's already lost. I would disagree, too, that people don't give positive feedback. You might have to work harder to get accurate feedback, but it can be done. We do it all the time on our products and services. –  tvanfosson Jul 21 '11 at 18:57
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@Saul - to which I would add "in advance of the changes" and "in a place where such discussions are easy to find and participate in." –  tvanfosson Jul 21 '11 at 18:58

The problem, as I see it, is not so much that comments are being managed in these ways, but that comments are second class citizens. Management puts up with them, because their true purpose is to divert noise away from questions and answers.

A brief historical account:

  1. Users ask for clarification in answers. A comment system is added to give people a place to write things that are not supposed to be in answers.

  2. Users get too chatty in comments. A chat system is added to give people a "third place" for conversation.

  3. Users are still too chatty in comments, so a link is automatically provided to divert people to chat.

  4. Comments are still perceived to be too noisy, so ways are found to begin stripping @user from comments where they are not needed.

What Management really wants:

  1. A question and answer system free of noise.

Because the primary purpose of comments is to divert noise from questions and answers (the comments themselves are of secondary importance), sometimes decisions are made about how to manage them that don't seem to make sense from the user community's perspective.

People should really make better use of chat. The chat system on the SE network is one of the finest I've seen anywhere, and it includes all of the nice bells and whistles that are missing from comments.

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I'm honestly beginning to think it would be better to remove comment notifications entirely and more aggressively redirect people to chat. –  McCannot Jul 21 '11 at 17:15
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@camccann: Comments should be used for only one reason: to clarify a question or answer, or to ask for such clarification. Comments and comment notification are still important for this reason. –  Robert Harvey Jul 21 '11 at 17:17
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Bravo for truly grokking and clearly explaining the reasons behind the team's decisions and not just pulling a "I'm a mod and I say so" routine. –  Pops Jul 21 '11 at 17:23
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Regarding Historical point #1: If a comment truly adds clarity to the answer, shouldn't it be incorporated in the answer? If answers are "retrofitted" with useful clarifications derived from comments, would there be any reason not to hide comments by default? –  Farray Jul 21 '11 at 17:28
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My use of comments is as you describe in your comment. Real-time chat doesn't work for me as I'm here frequently, but not on-line for very long at a time. Asynchronous communication -- which @Jeff has been adamant about not opening up between individuals (and I'm okay with that) -- is what I need. The best avenue for that is comments. I think it's also better to localize the discussion around the issue at hand as well, just like with code comments. You wouldn't keep those in a separate file from your code. –  tvanfosson Jul 21 '11 at 18:49
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The most salient point you make is what management really wants as being the rationale. Shouldn't it be what the users really want. I understand that it needs to be balanced against dev resources and what the users really need, but I didn't see comments as broken because I have no interest in using chat for that purpose. –  tvanfosson Jul 21 '11 at 18:51
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Some things are driven by what users really want, but some things aren't. There are many users who come to SO wanting it to work like other forums they are used to, but SO is fundamentally designed to work differently, and so the desires of those people who want SO to work more like other forums are not considered. –  Robert Harvey Jul 21 '11 at 18:55
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Also, some of SE's decisions are based partly on behavior modification. You will note that I'm not using an @user to write these comments, because I know the comment will get back to you. This is exactly the reverse of the way I used to write comments; for consistency reasons I almost always used the .@user, especially if there was more than one other user in the comments. –  Robert Harvey Jul 21 '11 at 18:58
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The problem with chat is that it's basically synchronous. I know you can do it asynchronously, but it doesn't really do it well. –  Lance Roberts Jul 21 '11 at 19:33
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@Robert - except that I don't think I actually saw a notification for your comments. I think they go to you (the answerer), not me (the questioner) and you still have to use the @user feature for me to get an explicit notification. Again, it's not about the feature per se, it's annoying, but I can adapt. It's really about how the decisions are made. –  tvanfosson Jul 21 '11 at 19:45
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I think your first paragraph really hits the nail on the head: SE management has strong ideas about how comments should be used and views them as no better than a necessary (for now) evil. But the users of the various sites have a different perspective. I feel strongly that comments are an integral feature of the platform: without them, there would be edit wars and/or many competing, very slightly different answers, both of which would seriously effect the level of collegiality of the site. –  Pete L. Clark Jul 21 '11 at 20:21
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@Pete L. Clark: I think it is worth pointing out that, as an extension of an existing academic community with cultural norms about communication, MO in many ways has many questions resolved by default. SO and sites with similar user bases either don't have such an existing social norm, or if they do have one it's frankly terrible. Much of the reason I like SO is that it's not, say, Reddit. –  McCannot Jul 21 '11 at 20:51
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I'd make use of chat if it were on the same page as everything else and clearly tied into the main material. Being on a completely different page makes it basically useless for the purpose of dealing with issues with / clarifications of the actual question or its answers. (It's useful for side-discussions, and for that purpose it makes total sense. And it's very pretty and has some fine features.) I can easily see a way in which both could be side-by-side, not unlike annotations in Word or Google Docs. –  T.J. Crowder Jul 21 '11 at 21:17
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@Pete L. Clark: The difference is that because you already know how it should work for your community you're able to work around the site in some ways to get that (cf. the close-vote cancelling you mentioned), even if it's a little awkward. Subtle attempts at social engineering to coax better behavior from the masses can be ignored by a coherent community with its own norms, and if the inconvenience of doing so is less than the general benefit of using the platform it's still a net gain. I think this is roughly what Robert Harvey was getting at, as well. –  McCannot Jul 22 '11 at 13:48
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@Robert - perhaps the new question can be "Is SO becoming a police state?", but then we'd have to invoke Godwin's Law. –  tvanfosson Jul 22 '11 at 18:13

Given that we're almost at 2,000,000 questions, 750,000 users, I think the intention is maintain the level of utility to the contributing community and minimize the impact of noise. As to your points:

  • Removing the @user: I wish this were an on-going debate, but Jeff Atwood has been pretty clear the decision has been made. The community certainly has a lot to say and the issue isn't closed. A recent proposal already appears to have a lot of traction.

  • Back and Forth Comments: This appears to be more a suggestion to prevent extensive debugging sessions within the comments. I find the auto-migrate to chat very useful. I'd like the link to the chat-room to be auto-added to the post, but that suggestion is for another day.

  • Auto-banning: I believe this happens only for very low-quality questions / answers. At present, on Stack Overflow, there are 342,000 questions without an up-voted answer. There must be some mild quality controls to keep down the noise.

It's my opinion that these features don't severely limit the utility of the site. I find it natural that more controls be added as the userbase (especially non-native English speakers) expands rapidly.

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We're at 717K users only. The 2M is about questions. –  BalusC Jul 21 '11 at 17:22
    
Oh. hehe. Whoops. Sorry 'bout that. I was about to ask where that user got the 2M number from. –  M. Tibbits Jul 21 '11 at 19:52
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I would hardly say the removing of the @user is an ongoing debate. There are a lot of people talking about it, but Jeff has made it very clear he isn't going to change (paraphrasing) "while he is still breathing". I think T.J.'s proposal is great, but traction or no, there is only one vote that matters: Jeff's –  JockM Jul 21 '11 at 21:24

No, it's not becoming a nanny state. It is a nanny state, and it probably always has been.

Any site that allows a plutocracy of users to edit, close, delete or flag posts based on a set of strictly enforced rules would fit my definition of a web site that is a nanny state.

You may not have ever noticed it because as one of the nanny state's plutocrats you probably never run afoul of the nanny state's wishes (or if you have it was thousands of posts ago).

In fact, it's likely that as a plutocrat you often enforced the nanny state's wishes.

Honestly, I think anyone who's lamented their closed, deleted or significantly modified post feels the nanny state's much more directly than having a pop up or seeing @user removed from a comment.

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There's a difference between collaboration and coersion. I just don't like an automaton second-guessing my intent. –  tvanfosson Jul 21 '11 at 18:38
    
@tvanfosson I agree there's a difference but I would argue that the automation is inline with being able to flag the comment that reads "Worst Question Ever" –  Some Helpful Commenter Jul 21 '11 at 18:54
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Why? There's no human judgement involved. I think I'm more competent that a machine to determine whether adding an @reply is better than not. –  tvanfosson Jul 21 '11 at 19:08
    
@tvanfosson as impractical as it sounds, would your objection be different if a manual Nanny mechanism removed the "@reply" –  Some Helpful Commenter Jul 21 '11 at 19:23
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There seems to be something fundamentally wrong with anyone else editing my comments. Comments by their very nature are more personal and less collaborative, at least in the sense of an individual comment. Maybe that's why I also have a visceral reaction to the system automatically stripping things out of my comments. –  tvanfosson Jul 21 '11 at 19:30
    
@tvanfosson: See Robert's remarks above. Comments are for clarification, nothing further. If you want personal messages, take it to chat. That's what it's for. –  McCannot Jul 21 '11 at 19:34
    
Nanny State is a concept centered around control, not rule by law. SO has rules, and we try to enforce them to make it the best site it can be. What the OP is addressing is really about control, not just having rules. –  Lance Roberts Jul 21 '11 at 19:35
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@cammccann - personal as in I believe this not personal as in how are the wife and kids. –  tvanfosson Jul 21 '11 at 19:40
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As an aside, I find it really, really hard to take it seriously when people use the term "nanny state" in an argument. Especially as applied to a private entity like SO. –  McCannot Jul 21 '11 at 19:57
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@camccann Jinguy has a nice post on that exact subject. –  Some Helpful Commenter Jul 21 '11 at 20:31

Are recent changes in SO customer- or system-driven?

I suspect a mixture of both, but it's very important to understand that the "customer" in this case are the thousands of people who come here daily for help, not the experts who work here.

From the perspective of an outsider who merely wants an answer to their problem, and google promises the information is here, having few to no off-topic comments is a plus. It means less irrelevant material to read and comprehend.

From the perspective of the system - the maintenance and care thereof - it makes sense to encourage users to have such discussions where they won't need to be moderated.

I think that the system has to balance the needs of several aspects of the site:

  • Visitors
  • Experts
  • Moderators
  • Technical requirements

Visitors

They are just looking for help. However, the largest portion of site traffic comes from them, and they are the target of the advertising. This is, in theory, the primary monetary motivator of the site.

Requirements:

  • Easily readable
  • Clean UI
  • Attractive not just in looks, but functionality
  • Draw experts in who may just be visiting for the first time

Experts

Without experts, the content wouldn't be created, and visitors wouldn't get answers to the questions which aren't already answered (or are hard to find if answered).

Requirements:

  • Easy to ask and answer questions
  • Easy to help "judge" the correctness and quality of other's contributions
  • Easy to help with common moderation tasks as a group
  • A game system that fulfills aspects of Self Actualization (prestige, curiosity, experience, connection, etc)

Moderators

There are some activities which shouldn't be delegated to the wisdom of the crowds, and which may be irreversible. These activities are performed by diamond moderators and some employees. They get to be the bad guy for egregious acts of abuse or misuse, as well as other aspects of moderation that need to be dealt with daily. Further, they are the first line of support for users who believe there's a problem with a post that can't be readily handled by the community.

Requirements:

  • Easy to moderate
  • Tools that detect trends and problems prior to regular users noticing
  • Direct line to each other and the main team for additional direction and discussion

Technical Requirements

The programming team, company, community evangelists, server/internet infrastructure, etc need to be taken into account as well. Some things can't be solved technically, or would require more time and effort than the problem warrants. Some problems can only be solved - or even approached - through human exchanges.

Requirements:

  • Company benefits
  • Clear direction
  • Resources to maintain focus and forward movement
  • Community feedback
  • Ability to help direct the growth of the company

Conclusion

Recent changes are both customer and system driven, however, the weighting probably tends more towards visitors than experts, and this is probably why the current friction exists.

However, it must be understood that these two changes you specifically call out merely change how the experts interact with the system. The @ issue is cosmetic - it doesn't get in the way of interacting with the site. The chat issue is a suggestion - a gentle push in the direction they would like you to take - but not a shove. Neither change removes functionality.

Yet both changes should directly impact how visitors engage with the site.

So there are some tradeoffs, but on balance the pain caused is expected to be less than the benefit gained, when you take into account all the customers the system is expected to cater to.

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