Improved Help Center - site-specific pages and site-specific edits to all pages

Right now, moderators can edit some pages in a site's Help Center. For example, the entire /help/on-topic page can be edited. However, the /help/dont-ask page can't be edited at all.

I'd like to see two changes to the Help Center:

• All pages should be editable by site moderators. Some pages do apply to all sites, such as the /help/dont-ask page I mentioned above. However, it may be useful to edit in some site-specific guidance. The entire page doesn't need to be editable in order to ensure that key commonalities across the network remain in place on all sites. This uneditable content should be at the top of the page and moderators should be able to add site-specific content to the bottom.

• Moderators should be able to add new pages. Instead of maintaining meta tag [faq], FAQs can be added right into the Help Center from Meta. The Help Center serves as a single point of reference for the community rules, norms, and policies. Meta questions can be used to discuss updates to pages. This avoids issues such as question and answer ownership and the ability to accept/change accepted answers as users come and go from a site. An active site will always have diamond moderators to perform the edits to the Help Center.

Note that site-specific pages do already exist. Stack Overflow has the MVCE page, which no other sites have. This is something relevant to Stack Overflow (and perhaps a few other sites). It would be nice to allow sites that have this policy to link to their own Help Center for it and to edit the page to provide additional examples that may be relevant to their user base.

• I like this idea specifically because users shouldn't have to search Q&A (even on meta) to find “all site-specific official policies”. Jun 5, 2016 at 3:40
• @KevinReid That's mostly the point. It consolidates everything that embodies the site policies and norms in one location and ensures that someone (elected moderators) can keep it up-to-date with the latest information. Jun 5, 2016 at 14:02
• Weird, it appears in the featured tab but it has no active bounty. Jul 2, 2016 at 13:12

Once upon a time, all sites had a single FAQ page. There was even a badge available for reading it. Other than the first section, which defined the scope, the content applied to all sites. It defined our shared values as a network on a single page. (I miss those days.)

There were also a handful of other helpful pages such as the Markdown help, lists of privileges and badges, and so on. Three years ago (about the same time I was hired), we began transitioning from this hodgepodge of URLs to a single, integrated help center. I didn't get it at the time, but I've found it is handy to have everything organized in one place rather than scattered around haphazardly.

In addition, it also allowed us to customize bits of the help center for specific needs of different sites. For instance, we can add a page for mathematical notation on sites that have MathJax enabled. Since moderators already had edit privileges on the top section of the FAQ, the on-topic page, which replaced that section, could also be moderator editable. Under the hood, there's even a templating system for picking up site-specific variables, such as the reputation needed for editing, so we can push out a single page that works for all sites. Employees can override help pages on specific sites if needed and we can add new pages as we roll out new features.

The help center was designed to complement Meta. Instead of a place where everyone can register their opinion, the help center provides a fixed anchor. It describes how the system works without (often) prescribing specific behavior. As a fixed point, it shouldn't be changed often. And when changes do happen, they should be definitive. For instance, the be nice page was the result of extensive community feedback. Allowing moderators, even well-meaning moderators, to change that policy would be a step backward for the community.

Now if there are specific changes you'd like to make, we can certainly discuss those publicly on meta. Many of the help articles were written with Stack Overflow in mind and it's likely they don't work perfectly for other sites. This is a fixable problem. But we can't shortcut the process of community discussion to solve it.

On Programmers Meta, look at [faq] and [faq-proposed]. You can do that on all of the Meta sites. Those should be off Meta in the Help Center, especially if they are faq. Maybe some should be incorporated into other pages (dealing with non-English content, the syntax highlighter) and others should be new pages (related sites, where to go for more subjective discussions, community-specific policies about research for questions and citations/back-it-up in answers). I'm seeing these types of questions repeated on the Metas of sites I frequent, so it would be nice to get them off Meta.

This reminded me of why I answered this meta question in the first place. In the moderator-only Teacher's Lounge, the problem of repeated meta questions was raised and I noted that Make network-wide FAQ posts available on per-site metas is something I've been thinking about. This question was suggested as an alternative. Since this angle was not explicitly mentioned in the question, I guess I forgot about it.

Let's set aside the problem that making the help center editable on each individual site will increase repetition rather than decrease it, I think there are two fundamental assumptions that need to be made:

1. Help center article will increase the odds that regular users will see the policies.

The stated goal of putting them in the help center is to get them off of meta. So does the help center get more visits than meta? Not on Programmers. Last week, Programmers' got over 2,000 page views and the help center got 782. A good deal of that can probably be attributed to the Community Bulletin and the rest to the more dynamic nature of meta. There are things we might be able to do to make meta FAQs more visible, but just putting them into the help center isn't going to be enough on its own.

2. Moderators are tasked with maintaining site policies.

When we send beta users invitations to become pro temp moderators, we include language about how moderators provide leadership to a site. This a bit of useful fiction. Or rather, it describes the situation on many small sites without going into detail about how the role of "moderator" and "leader" diverge as sites grow. Setting policy just isn't in the job description. Instead, policy should be crafted and maintained by the community and that means meta.

Perhaps the most common complaint we get about moderators is that they are arbitrary dictators. Of course, this isn't true. Moderators clean up sites in service of the community. It's pretty handy to be able to point to a relevant meta question asked, answered, and edited by non-moderators to make that point. FAQs belong on meta where they can be answered and edited by anyone, not locked into the help center.

That got more philosophical than I intended. At the risk of protesting too much, I'm going to finish with a technical concern: merge conflicts. Currently, we see a microcosm of the problem with international sites. Whenever we push a change to the help center we need to notify the CMs responsible for Stack Overflow in Portuguese, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish. If the changes are substantial, we need to craft 4 translations manually. Now spread the problem across (potentially) 150+ sites. If it becomes common to rewrite "How to ask?", what should we do when we correct a typo in the master branch? There are plenty of potential solutions, but status quo doesn't have that problem:

1. Anyone can suggest a change to the help center on meta.
2. The community considers the request and hones it.
3. Moderators (or really anyone who knows how to contact us) asks a CM to look at the proposed change.
4. Community managers evaluate the change and push it as appropriate.

At the very least, I'd like to try this out before working on a more heavyweight solution.

• I agree that the Help Center should be a fixed anchor. Which is why there should be mod-editable and mod-creatable pages. So instead of pointing people to Meta discussions and dealing with keeping track of which Meta thread actually represents the most current reality, the Help Center contains everything that is relevant and current. Maybe some pages shouldn't be edited, like Be Nice. But compare the Stack Overflow how-to-ask with everyone else's how-to-ask - wouldn't it be nice to let communities make one that is just as good and complete? (1 of 2) Jul 20, 2016 at 17:24
• Another example is the SO mvce page. It's not applicable to all communities, but some communities have a stronger back-it-up policy than others. It would be nice to let them create a page with that community-specific policy defined in one place that's more controlled and easier to find than a random Meta question. Essentially, what I'm looking at is getting rid of the mod-curated faq tag on Meta sites and letting mods curate Help Center more, to make that information easier to find and appear more authoritative than Meta posts. (2 of 2) Jul 20, 2016 at 17:26
• So, my summary: I'm not asking for the ability to shortcut community discussion. I'm asking for the ability to make the results of community discussion on Meta more apparent, and to take load off of the CM team by giving community elected moderators the ability to document community policies in a much more visible place. Jul 20, 2016 at 17:30
• I was going to fix the "publically" but then found this. So is it a mistake or not? Jul 20, 2016 at 17:36
• @ThomasOwens: Those problems can be solved other ways than putting the help center entirely in the hands of moderators. Yoru proposal was for complete editorial control, which is a nonstarter. Remember, not all moderators are community elected and a tiny number of elected moderators have done mischief in the past. We don't get many requests to change the help center at the moment, so it's not really a problem. I suggest starting with a meta discussion of something on your mind (the how-to-ask might be a place to start?) and see how it goes. Jul 20, 2016 at 17:37
• @ShadowWizard: My prefered spelling is the shorter one. So fixed. ;-) Jul 20, 2016 at 17:39
• @JonEricson No, it wasn't for complete editorial control. The entire page doesn't need to be editable in order to ensure that key commonalities across the network remain in place on all sites. Community moderators should be able to, for example, add additional information to the be nice page, but have a block of text (fixed to the top of the page) controlled by SE. Like anything else, abusing this access should result in the person not being an elected moderator anymore. Jul 20, 2016 at 17:42
• @JonEricson If you want examples, how about a mod-editable "related" page to link to related SE (and even non-SE) sites? The lack of site/topic specific examples on the dont-ask page is also something that can be improved. Jul 20, 2016 at 17:46
• @JonEricson So maybe this can be looked at generally, first. Gilles (in the bounty) pointed out the ability to edit the dont-ask page. Granting that would be a good first start. Secondly may be the how-to-ask being made mod-editable and a related page being created to link to other sites for subjective discussions and related SE sites. Jul 20, 2016 at 17:51
• Ideally, I'd like to see the community (via the moderators) have nearly full control of the Help Center. If SE disagrees, maybe I'd like to see a counter proposal that offers more control, and something that's more useful than trying to maintain a faq tag on Meta. Jul 20, 2016 at 17:52
• @JonEricson On Programmers Meta, look at faq and [faq-proposed]. You can do that on all of the Meta sites. Those should be off Meta in the Help Center, especially if they are faq. Maybe some should be incorporated into other pages (dealing with non-English content, the syntax highlighter) and others should be new pages (related sites, where to go for more subjective discussions, community-specific policies about research for questions and citations/back-it-up in answers). I'm seeing these types of questions repeated on the Metas of sites I frequent, so it would be nice to get them off Meta. Jul 20, 2016 at 17:58
• We don't get many requests to change the help center at the moment, so it's not really a problem. – So it would be fine if a site requested to change its help centre in detail as desired? Because I think I can make that happen. Jul 20, 2016 at 17:59
• @JonEricson: Well, it may be hard to believe, but many of us do not want to break you and that may be one of the reasons why we do not request such changes on a daily basis. Also, we do not know what is technically feasible right now. So if you say that communities may bugger CMs about changing their help centres and this is likely to succeed, that is a relevant and interesting statement (at least to me). So, I just want to make sure before I blow the trumpet. Jul 20, 2016 at 18:15
• @JonEricson one cost of using meta posts instead of help-center pages is linking. I leave comments linking to help pages fairly often, because it's easy for me to get them. It's a lot harder for me to hunt around on meta to find that post I want to link to, so I'm less likely to do it. (Yeah, I should write more pro-forma comments, I guess.) I don't know how to factor that into your analysis. Jul 20, 2016 at 22:31
• I share your concern about editing away stuff that shouldn't be removed/changed, and also about merge conflicts. Additions to the help center seem like a more tractable problem. Jul 20, 2016 at 22:32