Yes, we all agree that StackExchange is not a social network. But one part of StackExchange, Area 51, serves as an outlet for people who want to connect and work together with other people in their area of expertise. It is, according to the faq, "where groups of experts come together to build new Q&A sites," and "help sites get off the ground by defining the types of questions that are wanted, recruiting a critical mass of experts, and committing to the site's success." Sounds pretty social. And it is! Area 51 gets the credit for creating communities of experts in areas like English Language and Usage, Cooking, Graphics Design, and Physics.
An unfortunate side effect of Area 51, though, is that it's also the only outlet for programmers on StackOverflow to join together into social subcommunities. The result is lots of proposals for splinter sites of StackOverflow (or splinters of one of the existing splinter sites.)
Area 51 provides a bunch of services that aren't available on Stack Exchange in any other way. For example, Area 51 proposals get free ads all over Stack Exchange (without needing to go through the Community Promotion Ad process):
Once you commit to a proposal on Area 51 you get access to tools to promote the community on other social networks: Note that this is the only place on Stack Exchange where there are sharing buttons for Twitter, StumbleUpon and LinkedIn. And the email you send isn't just, "hey I just scored 12 upvotes on StackOverflow, come and take a look," it's an invitation to join in the creation of a new community:
I'm supporting a proposal to create a new Q&A website for people interested in [topic]. It's built on the same software as stackoverflow.com, ... I'm hoping that a site for people interested in [topic] would have the same kind of network effect and turn into an amazing resource.
On Area 51 you get points for various things that help build the community. For example you get points for successfully referring new members to the community:
Like most of Stack Exchange (and unlike most social networking sites), Area 51 tries not to annoy you with spam emails. Unlike the rest of Stack Exchange though, it does send email when something really major happens. It makes you feel like you are part of something pretty special:
And should the proposal succeed and go to private beta there are more opportunities to spread the word with official emails from StackExchange:
So Area 51 is a great set of tools to help expert communities form, and develop their mission. That's great and leads to expansion of StackExchange into new territories. Unfortunately, since Area 51 is also the only place on StackExchange that a subcommunity of experts can form and work together, it encourages splintering of already functional communities into smaller communities. Sometimes this splintering even grows the traffic at StackExchange by bringing in experts who weren't comfortable with, or who were unaware of, the existing sites, but it doesn't actually expand StackExchange to new audiences or subject matter.
So my question is: can we use the tools Area 51 provides in creative new ways to make the existing sites better? There are promotional tools and community building tools in Area 51 that we simply don't have access to once a site goes into public beta. Perhaps Area 51's tools could be used to find new users, inform existing StackExchange users about sites they were unaware of, strengthen existing betas by building strength in sub-areas where they are currently a little weak, or to build momentum and excitement. How?