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Preface: I am posting this here as an adjunct to a post I just made on the meta site for “Science Fiction and Fantasy.” My post here will be far shorter and more “high level” since what I ask there is about a communication need and what I am asking here is for the proper tools to potentially sate such a communication need.

Let’s make the functional/usage differences between core SE sites and smaller SE sites more obvious to casual users.

Given that many of the smaller Stack Exchange sites have different cultures and given that many of the smaller Stack Exchange sites use the tools of the system to different degrees, would it at all be possible for there to be some very obvious and clear feature available to all sites that acts as a “Here is what we do differently from Stack Overflow…” page/guide.

I—like many others—discovered Stack Exchange via Stack Overflow and realize that is the main site and many of the tools available to all sites stem from them being “battle tested” on Stack Overflow. Utterly reasonable and pragmatic approach to feature integration.

That said, many of the small Stack Exchange sites simple use the tools available in ways that are counter-intuitive to anyone used to the way the main Stack Exchange sites work. For example, on the “Science Fiction and Fantasy” site, comments often have a much longer—and well respected—life than they have elsewhere across the Stack Exchange network. Expanding the comment management system functionality is truly a can of worms that I don’t believe anyone should touch with a gajillion foot pole. But I still think some way of conveying high-level usage/site-culture differences like this is necessary to the overall health of the community.

That said it would be nice for casual users—such as me—to have one canonical page/guide/welcome that states something along the lines of:

Welcome to this site! While you might be familiar with Stack Overflow, this site works like other Stack Exchange sites but with a few differences we find work best for our culture.

Link some icon or menu thing on the top of each page to that page and… Done! A quick way to understand why a site might be different from core Stack Exchange sites.

Now I am using “Science Fiction and Fantasy” as my example here but I can easily see this being useful for some of the other, smaller, more focused Stack Exchange sites.

To my mind, the overall user experience is visually and functionally so similar across all of the sites that when differences appear in basic tool usage, it leads to confusion and potential conflict. Instead of relying on the community to constantly letting users know about “unwritten rules” of usage, why not just be transparent and clear about these differences from the beginning with some very clear and site-moderator manageable tool that allows them to summarize these differences.

It seems that simple functionality like this would be a big plus to the smaller sites as well as the casual users who just want to participate lightly without finding out that “ZOMG! I don’t believe you said/did since we are not like Stack Overflow so don’t think this thing is treated this way!”

I believe being very clear about these differences will lead to better content from casual users which benefits everyone in the long run. If the barrier of entry to a smaller community is risking stepping on tripwires casual user’s don’t know exist, it will simply alienate them from even casual interaction.


NOTE/UPDATE: I have discovered—for example of one site—the “tour” page for the “Science Fiction and Fantasy” site thanks to a comment, but honestly this is not obvious, you have to hunt for it and I dare anyone to look at the “tour” content for “Science Fiction and Fantasy” and find anything past superficial, bureaucratic “glad handing.” A page like that with the wording it has and it’s non-prominent placement comes off as some kind of a disposable afterthought; reminds me of a pamphlet that comes with a set of headphones that gets discarded after you open the package. I doubt most users ever see or read that “tour” content. Perhaps the “tour” page simply needs to be made more prominent and clearly address some deeper site-specific differences? Like I said, I embrace the idea there are differences. But they really need to be made clearer and at a high level in many cases.

And look at the tour page text for the “Science Fiction and Fantasy” site; the broad statement is that “Science Fiction and Fantasy” is not a “discussion forum” and “there’s no chit-chat.” Really? Is that really accurate to what a smaller site like “Science Fiction and Fantasy” is?

This site is all about getting answers. It's not a discussion forum. There's no chit-chat.

Screenshot of the “Science Fiction and Fantasy” tour page.

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    There's enough problems dealing with people that aren't familiar with SE's model at all already, I don't see why we need something specifically for SO users that are supposed to know the basics already. Before you barge in an a site (SE or not), look around to get a fell of the place. Works just fine.
    – Mat
    Jan 3, 2016 at 19:42
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    @JakeGould: I care quite a bit about this network, I think it's great. I've used a few of its sites (actively or passively), and so far have gotten along quite well by following that very simple "way of life": look at how things are done before barging in. Read the help page. Browse meta. As you say, people who don't care won't do any of that or read a 1 page summary. Those who do don't need it, they have enough respect to get a feel of the place before coming in with their SO habits.
    – Mat
    Jan 3, 2016 at 19:48
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    Who would write this summary? It would have to be a person with intimate knowledge of both sites' cultures. There's also a lot of variance within Stack Overflow, since it's so big: the way people answer, comment, and close in [tagA] is noticeably different than in [tagB]; there may not be a "reference practice" on SO that can be pointed out.
    – jscs
    Jan 3, 2016 at 19:50
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    @JakeGould: Looks like you've had a bad time on SS&F, sorry to hear about it. But don't generalize that one experience. It doesn't match mine at all on any site I've participated on. (BTW: I'm not attacking you , just stating my opinion that this is a waste of time. Don't be so defensive.)
    – Mat
    Jan 3, 2016 at 19:54
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    I contest the claim that the Tour and Help Center are hard to find and not useful. Additionally, the mods modify the tour pages, with input from the community.
    – HDE 226868
    Jan 3, 2016 at 19:55
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    I understand where you're coming from. Stack Overflow is my home site, and when I ask a question on another site, I usually have a vague sense (and somtimes not so vague) that I'm asking something considered weird or not in quite the right way. But in this, I agree with Mat: the best solution that I see is to spend some time just hanging out, listening, and picking up the culture.
    – jscs
    Jan 3, 2016 at 19:55
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    The tour page seems like it's meant for new-to-SE users, @JakeGould. If it's meant for cross-site introduction, I agree that it is not successful. It's the same page -- with per-site styling -- for every site. Compare SO's tour: stackoverflow.com/tour
    – jscs
    Jan 3, 2016 at 19:56
  • I think this question is being voted down for two reasons. First is that formatting is not quite smooth and second is that idea presented is quite novel, people aren't yet sufficiently used to the idea that smaller sites have their special needs and these needs are worth considering (it happened only recently that smaller sites (combined) started getting more views than Stack Overflow, which sort of changed idea of their importance)
    – gnat
    Jan 3, 2016 at 20:53
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    @gnat: there's also the fact that he's not clear on what kinds of problems he's talking about. He mentions different culture, but he doesn't explain how that manifests across different sites. Nor does he explain why those differences would be problematic for different people. Jan 3, 2016 at 21:30
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    @NicolBolas I think this would ask for too much. Explaining cultural specifics of Skeptics, Code Golf, Code Review, Software Recommendations, Workplace, Math etc in one post would make it terribly hard to read
    – gnat
    Jan 3, 2016 at 21:34
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    @gnat: I didn't ask for the differences for every site. But he speaks about the problem in such a nebulous way that, unless you have personally experienced it, you have no idea what he's talking about. A couple of concrete examples, particularly ones that create problems for casual users, would be a good start. Jan 3, 2016 at 21:35
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    +1; I agree with your thoughts here, although I doubt anybody's going to implement this in the foreseeable future. One thing that deserves a mention (I haven't read all the comments to see if it's already been mentioned) is chat. If I want to join a new SE site and post a question, without having a clear idea of whether it'd be on-topic, I'll probably drop into the site's chatroom to get a few tips from the regulars. Jan 3, 2016 at 21:40
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    @JakeGould: "I clearly have explained the issue with comments being far more permanent on “Science Fiction and Fantasy” compared to the core sites." No, you explained that fact. What you didn't explain is how this fact represents something which can "alienate [casual users] from even casual interaction". I simply do not see the connection between comments being more permanent and how that leads to alienation. Jan 3, 2016 at 21:42
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    @randal'thor: "If I want to join a new SE site and post a question, without having a clear idea of whether it'd be on-topic, I'll probably drop into the site's chatroom to get a few tips from the regulars." Are people really that terrified of downvotes that they feel the need to go to chat of all places before asking a question? Jan 3, 2016 at 21:43
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    I can't possibly object to the idea of a more involved introduction to a site's practices and use of SE tools (although I wonder how often it would be read). It's really just what I said in my first comment: "X.SE differs from SO in the following ways" that I find unlikely to work or help. What about someone who started using SE on Physics, for example, and then got an account on Ask Different?
    – jscs
    Jan 3, 2016 at 22:18

4 Answers 4

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The system seems to be intentionally designed to let visitors at smaller sites drop anything into question / answer text box, without even hinting them that there are Tour and Help Center pages.

I accidentally discovered this at other smaller site and it was explained as follows:

On the smaller sites... since they get less traffic than Stack Overflow, there's not as much of a disincentive to prevent people from posting, since the community can help users fix problems with their posts, or close, flag, and delete...

This seems to be a really old policy. Back then, when it was established, common belief seemed to be that these matters will fix themselves after site grows, and it was assumed that every site will eventually grow (“Science Fiction and Fantasy” getting 8,000 questions a day like Stack Overflow, can you imagine).

Of smaller sites, only Server Fault managed to get "an interstitial page" to help newcomers - possibly because they complained loud enough about missing such a guidance.

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    @JakeGould worth noting that their old belief is now officially debunked: 'Past experience had led us to believe that “small” and “unhealthy” would mean the same thing: we took it as a given that quiet sites would develop spam and obvious broken windows, while high quality sites would always grow big and graduate. But you proved us wrong! Five years later, we have lots of tiny sites which have been in public beta for months or years, each consistently producing excellent Q&A which helps people with real problems...'
    – gnat
    Jan 3, 2016 at 20:21
  • @JakeGould that's a good point. Note that official confirmation that it's okay for site to stay small is really recent, posted less than half year ago. Lots of current features seem to be inherited from times when belief was opposite, 'that “small” and “unhealthy” would mean the same thing'
    – gnat
    Jan 3, 2016 at 20:31
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    @gnat: I'm not quite sure I get it. Do you think adding guidance specifically targeted to people already familiar with SO would help smaller sites much? (I'm not disputing anything you said above.)
    – Mat
    Jan 3, 2016 at 20:37
  • @Mat hard to tell. Would be interesting to learn from experience of SF folks who have got their interstitial page a while ago. Thing that worries me most is that current way seems to be based on assumption that was proven wrong ("every healthy site will eventually grow and this will fix things")
    – gnat
    Jan 3, 2016 at 20:44
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    @Jake Oh, don't worry, I don't actually disagree with you. I might if I'd read your post, but I'm too distracted by your abuse of formatting to do so properly. Perhaps I might be pleasured with the opportunity to disagree with your "core premise" if you'd stop treating a post formatting suggestion as a personal attack and fix your unreadable text.
    – bjb568
    Jan 3, 2016 at 21:10
  • @JakeGould removing all the bold would be bad idea, for example, this part appears to be bolded appropriately, it really helps readers to see the point: "Let’s make the functional/usage differences between core SE sites and smaller SE sites more obvious to casual users." There are one or two other places where I would keep bold no matter how others complain
    – gnat
    Jan 3, 2016 at 21:23
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    @JakeGould yes, looks better to me. I'd also drop bold of the "I can easily see this being useful for some of the other, smaller, more focused Stack Exchange sites"
    – gnat
    Jan 3, 2016 at 21:31
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My method

Here's what I do when I want to learn about a community's culture:

  1. I read the tour.
  2. I go through the help center.
  3. I look through the site meta.
  4. I go to the main chat room and ask any questions about the site there.
  5. I watch the posts on the site and wait before posting.

Right there, you have five different places to go to learn about a site. I've explored and joined 30 sites across the network - including Science Fiction & Fantasy - and this strategy has yet to fail me.


Addressing the specific point about the tour:

  • Moderators edit it, typically with community input.
  • It's designed as an introduction for folks new to Stack Exchange, but it shouldn't be the only place you visit when joining a site.
  • The "help" button is located on the top bar, and the drop-down menu leads you to the tour. If you've seen the tour on one site, you should know to look for it on others.

Are there ways we could improve the experience for a user new to Stack Exchange? Yes. Are there ways we could improve the experience for a user new to a Stack Exchange site? Yes. But I don't think this is a problem we need to deal with at the moment.

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    @JakeGould I think it's pretty implicit that you think this is a big issue.
    – HDE 226868
    Jan 3, 2016 at 20:09
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    @JakeGould You've certainly acted like it is one. Anyway, I'm just saying that it's not a problem that we need to deal with right now.
    – HDE 226868
    Jan 3, 2016 at 20:39
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    @JakeGould: It's big enough for you to make two rather large posts across two websites for it. You even claimed that you considered it an "exit interview" for SF&F. Perhaps we have different ideas of what something is worth. But if you're willing to put all of that text behind it, then it seems clear to me that you think it's a significant issue. Jan 3, 2016 at 21:26
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    @JakeGould Then I think perhaps this may have caused some confusion in general interpretation of your post. It certainly swayed my reading of it a bit.
    – HDE 226868
    Jan 3, 2016 at 21:34
  • @JakeGould Oh, yes, it was definitely my bad. I was simply thinking about meta posts I've seen before. But yes, it was not your error.
    – HDE 226868
    Jan 3, 2016 at 21:41
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    @JakeGould Good to have yours, too. I hope this leads to improvements for a new user's experience, in some way.
    – HDE 226868
    Jan 3, 2016 at 21:53
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There are no functional and usages differences between Stack Exchange sites. The great part is that the functional equivalence between all sites makes the transition from one community driven and moderated site to another much easier, once you discovered these and have the need or urgency to do so.

It really doesn't matter how much more text and guidance you put in front of people to make them aware of how one community is different from the other. Users that are used to one of the many forums are trained to ignore everything because they have one goal, get their own question answered. They do get extra guidance before they can post a question. That is happily ignored, I assume everywhere, not only on Stack Overflow.

I don't know how many users re-visit the tour or the help center if they switch between communities but their posts will still go through the same moderation functionality as on any other site. So there is enough in place already to direct users into the correct direction.

Rules for a community are by definition fluid. They change over time. Have a look at the early crap broad/resource request questions at Stack Overflow. So to have something extras like you propose would need updating and adaption at a regular basis.

What is needed is a healthy community with enough members that are up to the task to moderate their community and have a healthy discussion about the site goal and evolution on the site meta. That will distill a common denominator that can server as initial guidance, either in the help center or in the tour.

I don't think sites need something extra because I don't understand which usergroup you want to address. There doesn't seem to be a lot of cross-over and those that do should pick-up quickly.

I do think (new) users might need less complicated texts but above all sites need members that are willing to invest a little bit more (reading) time in a community to serve others instead of their own needs. New users that are not open for information about the site culture, on-topic-ness, habits and moderation are maybe better directed to other, less moderated, sites like Reddit and Quora.

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    I suggest you go hunt for the evidence first that it doesn't work. I don't believe your proposed solution will fix anything, if there is anything that needs fixing in the first place
    – rene
    Jan 3, 2016 at 20:12
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Instead of relying on the community to constantly letting users know about “unwritten rules” of usage, why not just be transparent and clear about these differences from the beginning with some very clear and site-moderator manageable tool that allows them to summarize these differences.

Because... we don't know what they are.

It's not like each site got out the Stack Exchange rulebook and started adding rules and crossing out ones they didn't like. Culture is usually very informal. It is also always in flux.

Equally importantly, different people have different ideas about what the culture of a site actually is. Some people may not agree with what other people think the cultural norms are. Maybe some users on SF&F want comments to be less "permanent" than others do. Even moderators on Stack Overflow disagree sometimes about what is good and what is not.

So who gets to decide what the codified cultural rules for a site are? Should there be some formal referendum processes? Is it just moderators deciding for themselves and presenting a document?

Either way, this sounds disturbingly like culture police. Majority rules, insofar as culture usually works. But I'd hate to see the majority's culture becoming a fixed document who's very presence wards off users who don't agree with various cultural norms.

And giving such power to moderators is basically electing them as the culture police. Yes, on some level, the moderators of a site help create and enforce particular standards. But at the same time, it's all very informal, and therefore subject to change without having some formal process.

Codifying something nebulous like site culture into some list of rules is just not a good idea. It's too rigid and inflexible.

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    @JakeGould: "This site is less question and answer and more, question, answer, comment discussion." I would say that any site that finds a need to say that should not be an SE site! Either that, or such moderators should be removed and replaced with ones who know how SE's actually supposed to work. We aren't making forums here. Jan 3, 2016 at 21:59
  • @JakeGould: "Unlike other sites, we place high value on comments and their longevity." In what way would that warning change how someone interacts on the site? Jan 3, 2016 at 22:00
  • @JakeGould: That doesn't explain how someone would change their own behavior. If I consider comments disposable on a site that does not... what behavior would I change? A person who considers comments to be disposable would not do anything different because they don't make comments often. They use comments solely to improve questions/answers, not for discussion. So what problems will they encounter? Jan 3, 2016 at 22:06
  • This is, to my mind, the right answer. Describing your own culture, from the inside, to an outsider, without a point of reference, requires an uncommon, not to say uncanny, degree of insight and communication ability, and I don't believe there is any such point of reference available.
    – jscs
    Jan 3, 2016 at 22:25
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    I'd like to quickly point out that, while I think this question and this answer work perfectly fine in the hypothetical sense, I want to clarify that SF&F absolutely has no such "comment policy", official or otherwise. We treat comments with the same level of transience and disposability as any other SE site I've been on - used to improve question/answers, flagged for deletion when they get out of control, etc.
    – KutuluMike
    Jan 3, 2016 at 23:04
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    Im my opinion, the comment policy on all stack sites is enforced arbitrarily. In theory, they are entirely disposable and should serve only to improve the posts. In practice, I see no discernible logic behind which of my own off-topic or irrelevant comments on SO are allowed to stay and which are deleted, other than "when they bother someone and get flagged, they go away." The only difference is that SO has orders of magnitude more users, so the odds of someone seeing and flagging rises dramatically.
    – KutuluMike
    Jan 3, 2016 at 23:21
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    Which I think may really be the crux of what you're seeing. The policies are no different on the smaller sites than the big three, but the volume of people actively working to enforce them is much, much, much different. With thousands and thousands of active high-rep users on SO, even if hundreds of those people pay no attention to bad comments someone will object and flag them. With a couple dozen active people at that level of SF&F, if 5 or 6 of us just don't notice, there is an appearance that they are being "allowed to stay."
    – KutuluMike
    Jan 3, 2016 at 23:24
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    @JakeGould: "I still feel the specific comment policy as practiced on SF&F is fairly arbitrary at best." To be honest, that's just as true of Stack Overflow. I've seen lengthy, informative comment threads that vanished into the aether. At the same time, I've seen lengthy, pointless comment threads just sit there. For years. Nobody's comment policy is strictly enforced in all cases. Jan 4, 2016 at 0:38

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