I keep running across mentions-in-passing of Area 51 that make it sound like it’s obsolete, being sunsetted, or somehow posing a difficulty to Stack Exchange. One example I stumbled over just now while following up on the fixed CSS bug yesterday is representative:

I noticed that area 51 is not on either list. It and stack apps were not affected. – hildred 11 hours ago

@hildred Area 51 isn't getting a design lift any time soon, if ever. – Anna Lear♦ 11 hours ago

@AnnaLear Is there any chance of removing the stupid Gravatar thing from Area 51? – Catija 2 hours ago

@Catija Not really. We aren't working on Area 51 in any meaningful way these days. – Anna Lear♦ 56 mins ago

On their own these kinds of comments can be confusing or even alarming, so to clear the air: what’s really up with Area 51?

N.B. that I'm neither complaining nor an alarmed Chicken Little myself — I ask because I think it would be useful to have a Meta.SE question people can link to for more information on why Area 51 is apparently developmentally unloved. :)

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    It may be worth it to note that that conversation with Anna continued here. Sort of, anyway. Including a question asking if there were such a Meta Post. – Catija Aug 11 '15 at 16:22
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    @Won't They may have been planning to axe it, for one possible alternate explanation. Clarity is better than speculation or assumption. – SevenSidedDie Aug 11 '15 at 19:16
up vote 30 down vote accepted

The technical aspect is answered by Anna Lear in a comment on here post:

There was a time when Q&A sites worked the same as A51 in that respect. They've been upgraded. Area 51 is a separate codebase and most things we do never make it there. It's so far out of date and so far removed from the rest of our infrastructure that changes are hard (and some are impossible).

The gist of it is "it works well enough for the site proposal process, and we have a lot more higher priority work to do on Q&A + other projects".– Anna Lear♦

Another aspect that I suspect plays into this is that at some point there were vague plans on replacing the A51 process with something better. The potential Area 52 hasn't been mentioned by SE for a long time now, so nobody knows if that idea is still considered or currently abandoned. But my suspicion is that SE doesn't want to pour significant resources into Area 51 when they might replace it entirely with something new shortly afterwards.

The Area 51 process has significant flaws, there are many aspect that don't make all that much sense in my opinion, but it still works somehow. Nobody managed to come up with something significantly better so far, so it'll probably continue like this for a while.

  • @Catija I got a bit confused, probably because I read that comment thread a bit earlier (before that specific comment was posted) and thought this one triggered the question – Mad Scientist Aug 11 '15 at 17:05
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    :D It's OK. I would have added it as an answer, too but I'd like to hear something more fleshed out and "official". – Catija Aug 11 '15 at 17:07
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    I totally understand (and accept) that as an answer from Anna. It's not like Area51 is terrible or not working etc, it does the job. So given they have a lot on their todo (who doesn't..) prioritising simply means Area51 is not high up on their list. Seems fair enough. Doesn't mean they wouldn't fix any major/serious bugs I guess. – James Aug 11 '15 at 17:31
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    @James That's exactly it. Code-wise, A51 is basically in maintenance mode. If something falls over, we'll fix it, and we still make small tweaks here and there to make Robert Cartaino's life easier. But active feature development isn't a thing at the moment in light of finite resources and an ever-growing todo list. – Adam Lear Aug 11 '15 at 17:47

Following up on Mad Scientist's recap of Area 51, there was a particularly salient point:

The Area 51 process has significant flaws … but it still works somehow.

… it still works somehow.

I've been white-boarding a next-generation site-creation process on and off over several years, but without a specific edict to move that project forward, we've never committed the resources to resolve a few show-stopping community gotchas, much less actually build it. Yes, Area 51 has long since been showing its age, but as long as it continues to build sites about as fast as we can manage them, resources always seem better spent on newer, more exciting projects.

What comes after Area 51?

For anyone interested, most of my early "next generation" designs were somewhat … overwrought. But as we continue to learn and measure what makes an early site ultimately successful, the prospect for a creating a next-generation system seems to become simpler and simpler.

Our current Area 51 process works by measuring a community's chance of success by proxy through a series of trials… but I believe the best way measure the viability of a topic is to give a prospective community an actual site to see what they can do with it. Not a "live" site on the network, but something which is sand-boxed in more of a concept "lab environment."

This presents some significant social challenges. You have to designing a process which is:

  1. Largely scalable across an abundance of ideas
  2. Broadly adaptable to a diverse field of subjects
  3. Immediately transparent to NEW communities trying to use this process for the first time
  4. Resource-appropriate when the majority of ideas will not likely yield results
  5. …and a resolution which somehow takes the sting out of an experiment which just didn't work out

It's no easy task.

I don't know what the future holds for a next-generation process, but I wouldn't look for any significant upgrades to the current Area 51, and building a new system isn't on our current road map.

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    Thanks for that, Robert. I've often found myself having to struggle to not answer questions posted on Area 51 proposals as example questions. Is this the sort of thing that may be possible in a future iteration of Area 51? – Catija Aug 11 '15 at 21:11
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    That's super-interesting, actually. Thanks for the inside perspective! – SevenSidedDie Aug 11 '15 at 21:30

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