Ode to tags

Let's say pygtk doesn't compile for you on osx due to an obscure automake error. Would you send it to the python mailing list? or perhaps to the gtk mailing list? etc. No, you ask it on Stack Overflow and give it all the relevant tags!


But hey, does it belong on Stack Overflow, or on Server Fault. It's related to programming but you are installing pygtk because you are the sys-admin, so maybe it should be on Server Fault, but on the other hand, one might face this problem when trying to install it for his personal reasons, so maybe it can belong on Super User?


It seems like the split to several "topic sites" goes against the philosophy of tags. Perhaps there's a better solution than splitting to different sites, one that is consistent with the tags philosophy. Maybe like:


Instead of splitting to different "topic sites" (SO/SF/SU/MSO), create "master tags" (programming, sysadmin, power-user, meta-stackoverflow). Each question must have at least one master tag. Users can not create "master tags", they are "fixed", or decided by the site admins, to maintain order.

If someone is only interesting in viewing power-user questions, he'll view the questions belonging to the "power-user" master tag (currently he goes to superuser.com).

In the case of the example question (the "python gtk osx automake" question), it may belong to all three master tags mentioned (or maybe there would be parent master-tags, like "computing").

This may also give more freedom to the site's admins to easily extend the scope of the SO family websites. Perhaps they would want to also allow science questions, or even heated political debates, in this awesome platform. In this way it won't require separate domains and accounts, and would allow the users one convenient gateway to the "internet questions world".

Comparison to current solution and backwards compatability

The way I see it, this solution can be implemented in a totally backward compatible way. Everything in SO gets assigned the "programming" master tag, etc. The topic sites can resume to exist as a site where the default shows question of their respective master tags.

When asking a question, it can get a default master-tag from the domain you used to access the site. Tag auto-completion is only offered for tags that "belong" to this master tag (A tag can belong to several master tags. It belongs to it if any question was asked with this tag in that master-tag)

So I don't see how this will cause clutter as Jeff suggests. In fact, if you limit a question to have only one master tag then imho this is (almost) exactly equivalent to the current "topic sites" solution.

The only difference is that karma will be shared. But if this is seen as a bad thing then this can be solved too, with master-tag specific karma. This idea can be extended to tag specific karma as well.

  • This all sounds like another request to make it all into one big site.
    – random
    Commented Aug 22, 2009 at 0:53
  • @random: It is. But imho it offers a different argument and feature suggestion than the other such request I've seen
    – yairchu
    Commented Aug 22, 2009 at 9:26
  • 2
    This is the reason I started this thread: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/6033/…. Sadly not one of my best attempts at getting the community excited. (Yes I am punting my own post in an attempt to point out ---> Potential Duplicate!) Commented Aug 22, 2009 at 20:26
  • @Diago: it is related, but it's not a duplicate. you offer a different course of action to solve the problem
    – yairchu
    Commented Aug 23, 2009 at 12:35
  • 1
    I think this is a good idea, the separate sites thing is going to get very complicated - so far we have stackoverflow vs programming vs software engineering sites
    – codeulike
    Commented Sep 17, 2010 at 8:46

4 Answers 4


This is mentioned on the blog:

Why Can’t You Have Just One Site?

There is no (good) community that can form around “let’s just talk about everything and tag it”

I completely agree with Jeff on this. There's a more fundamental problem than just organization. An online society, just like its physical counterpart has a dominant culture. It shapes the society. At best, you can use tags to separate content but they can never separate the culture effectively and I believe SO, SF, SU, and MSO each require distinct social norms to be effective. Merging everything in one location, even if they are separated by tags, will degrade the overall quality of the sites.


The problem is... People suck at tagging.

They make up new tags instead of using existing tags. They misspell tags even when the entry field prompts them with the correct spelling. They paste the title of their question into the tag field. They pick a single tag matching the specific tool they're using and leave it at that. They pick ambiguous names for tags.

That SO's tagging system works as well as it does can be credited to the ability and willingness of many experienced users to re-tag questions. But many, many questions are initially posted with - at best - a poor set of tags.

Now, think about what you're suggesting: we dramatically expand the scope of the site, relying on tags to keep disparate topics apart. It immediately descends into chaos, as the increase in questions overloads those willing and able to retag them, and the body of poorly-tagged questions pollutes every search.

So maybe you do what you suggested, prop up the system by requiring users to choose a tag that roughly categorizes their question prior to posting: "programming", "hardware", "sysadmin", etc. You modify the browsing UI to allow quickly switching between tag-filtered "views" (rather than requiring users to modify their "ignore" list every time they switch from, say, programing-focus to hardware-focus). You modify the reputation system to allow keeping and displaying per-tag rep. You beef up the database server to handle the extra load.

And after all that work, you have essentially the system we have now, but with the ability to cross-post built-in. Congratulations, you've just pissed away a lot of time and effort you could have done something useful with...

  • 3
    I think there's a more fundamental problem than just organization. An online society, just like its physical counterpart has a dominant culture that shapes it. You can separate content by tagging but you can't separate the culture of the communities and I believe SO, SF, SU, and MSO require different social norms to be effective. Merging everything in one location, even if separated by tags, will degrade the quality of every one of them. I think Jeff's quote (in my answer) primarily points out this fact.
    – mmx
    Commented Aug 22, 2009 at 0:00
  • @Mehrdad: i think you're right. The "heated political debates" comment in the question here sent shivers down my spine; if that's what he's looking for, he's on the wrong site ("oh noh, shog is mean to newbies!"). But even if that weren't true, even if you could have vastly different topics coexisting on a single site with naught but tags to separate them... Why? Cross posting is so rarely useful.
    – Shog9
    Commented Aug 22, 2009 at 0:10
  • @Shog9: the "heated political debates" has an "or even" prefix. I didn't mean that's where I want it to head, I was "joking"/stating a "crazy idea". it's probably problematic because in politics people may have agendas rather than a will to get a question answered, which will make it full of junk.
    – yairchu
    Commented Aug 22, 2009 at 0:19
  • @yairchu: agreed. But, surely that's as good a reason as any to stay focused!
    – Shog9
    Commented Aug 22, 2009 at 1:06

The problem with having a single system that is just run on tags is that all these tags can get shifted and changed and merged and removed and all sorts of other mechanics that makes the tagging system too "light-weight" to allow for real structure to form.

If you aren't sure where to post, post it on the one you think might be the best and if you're wrong, we'll tell you, and even more it for you!

  • @TheTXI: Doesn't the "super-tags" solution I suggested give all the benefits of the site-split? How does this introduce new problems?
    – yairchu
    Commented Aug 21, 2009 at 23:50
  • @TheTXI: I added a section to my question addressing your response. I added some details on how it should be implemented so these problems won't happen.
    – yairchu
    Commented Aug 22, 2009 at 0:04
  • Your suggestion may be good for a future website, the fact that Jeff has already decided to take his company in the direction it currently is going down (and with sizable investments I might add) means that you suggestion is something that can't really be considered more than a "what if"
    – TheTXI
    Commented Aug 22, 2009 at 0:26
  • @TheTXI: following your comment I added the "what-if" tag to my question. although perhaps it's yet another example for bad tagging, like Shog9 described :) btw, see my comment to Ian's answer - what if developers would back-track from "design mistakes" instead of sticking to them? then probably there would be a lot less mess in the software world I guess.
    – yairchu
    Commented Aug 22, 2009 at 0:31

I think you have an underlying misunderstanding regarding what differentiates the sites. The distinction is between the content, not between who you are, and what you do. It doesn't matter if you're a sysadmin, a software engineer, or an average Joe; if it's a programming question, it belongs on Stack Overflow. If your question deals with computers and software but not the workings of computers and software, it belongs on Super User.

The site distinctions also serve as an important filter between topics. If I come from google looking for help with cooking, I'm not going to have great expectations if the site it brings me to is also filled with cars, books, and furniture on the homepage. The sites are a League of Justice, and should not be considered a single entity. The sites are a family, and each member of the family is its own person.

Furthermore, it's far too late to merge all the sites into one, especially considering a cool $10k was paid for SuperUser.com.

  • 2
    $10k for a trash bin. sounds expensive.
    – mmx
    Commented Aug 21, 2009 at 23:46
  • I'm not much into paying a lot for domain names (cleverness > wallet) but superuser.com was such a great and short name -- and so rare for names of that caliber to be availible for less than, say, the price of an Escalade Commented Aug 21, 2009 at 23:47
  • Ouch, I take it you don't appreciate what goes on there? ;) Commented Aug 21, 2009 at 23:47
  • Ian: It's just a reference to another post on meta ;) meta.stackexchange.com/questions/15456/…
    – mmx
    Commented Aug 21, 2009 at 23:50
  • Yeah, that thread came to mind when you mentioned it but I wasn't sure, as it also struck fairly close to Serverfault is not your trashbin meta.stackexchange.com/questions/4679/… Commented Aug 21, 2009 at 23:53
  • @Ian Elliott: It seems that according to Jeff Atwood the distinction is also about who you are: "Is it really so hard to figure out which community you belong to, and thus, where your question belongs? Ask yourself this: what is your job title? which community do you consider yourself a part of?" from blog.stackoverflow.com/2009/07/why-cant-you-have-just-one-site. It makes sense too. Maybe programmers and sysadmins talk different languages and so could not understand each other's questions and answers.
    – yairchu
    Commented Aug 21, 2009 at 23:54
  • Ian: I was thinking of this one too. couldn't find it.
    – mmx
    Commented Aug 21, 2009 at 23:54
  • @Yairchu, Jeff's explanation is valid for the general case, but it's entirely possible for your questions to lay outside of that guideline. A programming question, no matter who you are, belongs on SO. A server question belongs on Super User. Of course the community you want to belong to is the one closest to your job description, but that doesn't mean your questions are restricted to that site. Commented Aug 22, 2009 at 0:04
  • @Ian Elliott: Anyhow, I don't think this issue is really relevant to the question. I just gave an example, and even if I laid it in terms of "who you are", that may have just been a bad choice of phrasing. The example question is still one that crosses topic-site boundaries, and you can probably come up with other good examples too.
    – yairchu
    Commented Aug 22, 2009 at 0:08
  • @Ian Elliott: Regarding the sum paid for the domain. I'm not necessarily saying that it was a mistake. But if it was, then saying "I already paid 10K for this, so I can't stop now!" would be a saying typical for an irresponsible gambler in Vegas, and it would also be to his detriment to follow it..
    – yairchu
    Commented Aug 22, 2009 at 0:26
  • The cost of the domain was more of an anecdote to prove the decision wasn't hasty. It was thought out, and is without a doubt, the path the developers want to take with their software. In my opinion, and by the likes of this thread, it was far from a mistake, so your comparison falls apart. Commented Aug 22, 2009 at 0:41

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