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Note: This is not an official Stack Exchange post.

I have changed some aspects and addressed some concerns. Please read the post again if you have read it previously.

TL;DR: I propose that community members develop an open-source alternative for Area 51 that will eventually be used by Stack Exchange. But please read the full post.

Area 51 is the site where new Stack Exchange communities try to get enough momentum in order to create a working site. The current mechanism has been acknowledged by Stack Exchange’s own Community mangers to be flawed for over six years now:

Robert Cartaino wrote:

Area 51 has been churning out progressively weaker sites [...] about a third of which fail in private beta.

There were plans to create a new site (called "Area 52") with a different process. But no major changes to Area 51 except for a drastically reduced time needed to pass a proposal have been done.

Whilst previously succeeded one proposal every month (approximation), noonly one proposal has made it to beta for almost seven months now. The failure component seems to be the commitment stage, in which the committers with high reputation on other sites was the largest hurdle.

Unfortunately Stack Exchange does not seem to have any resources to develop a new site staging zone. I think this is a pity, because the Stack Exchange system is really good for Q&A.

I have thought about how Area 51 could be improved and used some of the statements from Robert Cartaino as a starting point. I am not sure whether these changes will be sufficient to un-flaw the site creation process, maybe one of the community managers (CM) can comment on this.

In the above linked post Robert furthermore states:

It would be nice if our site-creation process allowed us to experiment with more impromptu site ideas, but the current system is not sustainable in the old format

My main ideas are to split the definition in smaller, easier steps and to introduce a pre-private-beta prototyping stage. The process would become like this:

  1. Anybody can propose a new site. Each proposal consists of a site name, an audience string (site for ...) and an community description (we are ...).
  2. Users are asked to join the community (similar to commitment/following). These users try to agree on these Definition aspects:
    • Three main topics for the site (tags)
    • Two example questions with an score of 5 per tag
  3. If this definition is completed within one month and there are at lease 60 users who joined the proposal, the Prototyping stage will start. In this stage, the community members are given an sandbox environment:

    • A Q&A system
    • The example tags & questions are pre-filled in the sandbox
    • A simple review system (only first posts, close votes, reopen votes and some statistics ("site health"))
    • A guided Meta experience (encouraging discussions about tags, on-topicness, etc.)

    The sandbox environment will give some hints spread over the time. At first only some 30 to 50 users are invited, the other committers are invited later during the prototyping stage and join the sandbox in multiple waves. There can also be some regular milestones like so-and-so-many questions after so-and-so-many days

  4. At the end of this prototyping stage (if some health conditions are met) the public beta starts.

This system is intended to lead communities that have not so much knowledge about Stack Exchange and therefore making the "experienced users" factor less important. Also the system could theoretically be extended to allow "Community Guides" to be appointed, experienced users that help (together with the CMs) new sites to succeed.

Furthermore I would like to see the system choosing about eight candidates (suggestions from the community could be included as some bonus-points for the internal score) for moderators from which the three pro-tem moderators are elected after two-third of the prototyping stage (simple majority vote, only one choice per user) Here are some exciting mockups for you:

StackLab home page

Proposal page

Prototype proposal page

Prototype review page

You might wonder, why should Stack Exchange do this change when they did not do all these other suggestions over the years? This is a good question and leads directly to the most important part of this post:

I propose to do it as an community project.

That’s right. I propose that committed members of the community help to develop an open source community building tool together. It would be published on GitHub with an permissive license as MIT, etc. Ideally one of the CMs would help us with ideas and maybe some of Stack Exchange’s developers would join the development process too.

This post is intended to solicit consensus about whether this type of community project is generally a good idea. Comments on the proposed implementation are also welcome.


Answers to possible concerns

What would SE need to do?

Stack Exchange would need to do two things only to support the creation of this project: They need to tell us what is important to them for such a site and they need to run the (final) version on their servers and use it as a replacement to Area 51.

Additionally Stack Exchange could support us by providing us a chat room or even creating a team for us to develop this. Maybe some of their developers join us and help with the development, but only if they want to.

What technology should be used.

As Journeyman Geek said in a comment: Stack Exchange will probably not run a site not built on their software stack. I don't think this is a problem. For example the data explorer is also an open-source project running on Stack Exchange servers.

(Although it is not my tech stack I could still try to learn something or participate in other ways: frontend, ideas, etc.)

But wouldn't this process make it way easier to create new sites and therefore lead to segmentation and struggling/low-activity sites?

All proposals would still have to be reviewed by the Community Team or maybe even the Community Guides when they are close to the next stage.

Furthermore proposals would still have to fulfill both minimum quantity and quality requirements in prototyping. These requirements would be enforced by system requirements and staff intervention.

And don't forget: Launching a full public beta site (or private beta if it is not removed) will always be a manual process.

What about Site sponsorship?

I think there could be a selection ("Would you sponsor this site?") that allows potential sponsors to quickly and effectively communicate with Stack Exchange. This may or may not result in less hard requirements for the Prototyping stage. I am not fully convinced whether or not this should happen. There are arguments for both sites (they want to pay money and have therefore probably enough users vs. only because a site is sponsored it should succeed and not fail the usual review criterions).

What should the requirements be?

I think every site should meet these requirements to advance from the proposal to the prototype stage:

  1. THREE topics (tags) having a minimum score of 10 each
  2. FIVE example questions for each topic having a minimum score of 10 each
  3. FIFTY users commiting as community members.

As per a recent comment from Robert Cartaino, every site needs at least 150 to 200+ questions during the private beta to be opened to the public. If the prototyping stage replaces the private beta, this requirements could be the same. This could be split up into regular milestones:

  • 15 questions after 3 days
  • 40 questions after one week
  • 75 questions after two weeks
  • 120 questions after three weeks -> end of prototyping

This should probably include only upvoted and open questions to limit abuse.

  • is the problem that no new sites launch caused by how area 51 works? Does your changes increase the likelihood that more sites launch? – rene Dec 1 '18 at 21:13
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    @rene I don't know exactly. All I know is that Area 51 is not working as supposed and that SE has not enough time to change it. My proposal is not about my implementation suggestion but about creating A52 as community project. I think the dev team (if this is done) will need to talk a lot to the CMs (esp. Robert) about exact details. – MEE the sneaky user Dec 1 '18 at 21:17
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    Ultimately, this idea relies on having buy-in from SE. If SE doesn't want to participate in this experiment, the most that could be done would be to copy proposals to Area51 once they succeed on this new site... which kinda defeats the point. – ArtOfCode Dec 1 '18 at 21:22
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    @ArtOfCode yeah that is the main point. SE needs to support this. I think this is realistic, because they have already acknowledged that A51 is flawed. And I don't know about buy-in because I thought it would be Open Source so they could simply use it. – MEE the sneaky user Dec 1 '18 at 21:23
  • @MEE buy-in == support, I'm not referring to them paying for it :) I think there's more to a decision of whether they support it or not than just "A51 is flawed". Supporting a project like this still requires SE resources, which they may not have; or it may just not be something they're interested in doing right now because A51 is, for better or worse, working. – ArtOfCode Dec 1 '18 at 21:25
  • @ArtOfCode Sorry I am not a native speaker. And I assume it is easier to include a given system than to build a new one. Therefore I see this project as much more realistic than a SE implementation. – MEE the sneaky user Dec 1 '18 at 21:35
  • I'd be careful about making that assumption - it's not necessarily true. I think you're right that this project is more realistic than SE doing it themselves, but I'm not yet convinced it's likely. – ArtOfCode Dec 1 '18 at 21:45
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    Something worth remembering is SE probably won't run stuff on their infra if it's not based on their tech stack - it's the reason elections.se is on hiatus and the blogs moved – Journeyman Geek Dec 1 '18 at 22:42
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    Can you be a little more specific than "Area 51 is flawed" as for what you see as being problems? – Laurel Dec 2 '18 at 2:11
  • @JourneymanGeek Ooops, didn't know this. Well better wait for an official response to that. – MEE the sneaky user Dec 2 '18 at 6:33
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    @Laurel to quote Robert Cartaino: "you may have noticed that Area 51 has been churning out progressively weaker site proposals and more anemic site launches, about a third of which fail in private beta." – MEE the sneaky user Dec 2 '18 at 6:36
  • Perhaps follow the naming convention (the last section), Stack Lab instead of StackLab? – Peter Mortensen Jan 14 at 3:54
  • @PeterMortensen yes, thank you for your edit. I could change the mock-ups but I won’t be doing this for now. Maybe later. – MEE the sneaky user Jan 14 at 6:20
  • I suspect a major flaw in this project is that SE is increasingly giving less of a crap about non-revenue-generating elements of the project. Unless this idea generates new sites that can be advertised to, all you're doing (if you create new popular sites about stuff) is increasing their overhead. – Richard Jan 14 at 7:44
  • @Richard I thought about this too. Maybe there could be a field when you propose a new site "Do you know someone who would sponsor this." See also: quantumcomputing.meta.stackexchange.com/q/1 – MEE the sneaky user Jan 14 at 11:31
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  1. Somebody thinks they have an audience and proposes a new SE site with a title and a tag line. Users can subscribe/follow proposals.

As per current Area 51.

  1. [NEW] This audience tries to agree on three main topics (tags). The topic suggestions can be voted on and there is a limited time in which a consensus must be reached.

  2. For each of these three topics must be found two (or more) example questions. These must have a minimum score.

Current Area 51

  • milestones are five users and five questions after three days, and ongoing activity of at least one action per seven days.

Suggestion

  • require a consensus of five topics represented by five tags within three days of proposal.

  • each tag requires a minimum number of open, upvoted questions within ten days of proposal.

  • require a minimum number of followers.

  • these topics/tags must be absent from an existing SE site, or any overlap must be excused by good reason.

  1. [NEW] When these questions are found in time and there are enough followers, the site experiment starts. All users that ever participated in this process and users that subscribed to the site are invited to test the site in an sandboxed environment. The example questions are automatically imported and there is a mini-meta allowing users to find consensus on topic-issues.

Current Area 51

  • the Definition phase is complete when reaching 60 followers and 40 questions of score 10+.

  • the Commitment phase is complete when reaching 200 followers, of whom 100 have the association bonus, and a minimum commitment score is reached (determined by a formula).

Suggestion

  • this stage should merge the current Definition and Commitment phases, and be public.

  • the mini-meta should exist from day zero, and used as the place for developing initial consensus on tags.

  • include increasing milestones for number of users, number of topics/tags, number of tags with a minimum size, number of questions, which apply at regular intervals.

  • move to private beta when the requirements are met.

  1. [NEW] The system will automatically appoint three users as moderators for the site (they need to agree to this of course) after one week.

Current Area 51

  • moderators pro tem are selected from the followers who are experienced elsewhere in the Stack Exchange network when the public beta begins.

Suggestion

  • moderators are not necessary until the community is established. Avoid selecting moderators until the public beta (see below) and avoid selecting them automatically at all.
  1. If there has not been enough activity in the experiment after two weeks: The proposal is closed and the experiment site locked. Otherwise the current site process from beta to graduation (private-beta may be excluded) will be followed.

Current Area 51

  • the proposal has four months (~122 days) to complete Definition and a further four months (total ~244 days) to complete Commitment.

Suggestion

  • an overall time limit of 180 days is allowed for the Experiment (combined Definition-Commitment) phase.

  • the private beta stage is disestablished as a hindrance to growth.

  • requirements to enter public beta are approximately those currently used, in addition to clarifications of the scope.

  • initial nominations for moderators are made by a community manager simultaneously with the change to public beta. Nominees accept or decline, the community votes. Nominees gaining a minimum level of support (e.g. at least 30% of users voted them) are established as moderators; any unfilled spots are decided by the community manager.

  • I have updated my post with new ideas. I think they implement most of your suggestions. Only some numbers/milestones were not changed but I don't think this is so important right now. I also kept the moderator part but changed some implementation details. Feel free to add further feedback. – MEE the sneaky user Jan 8 at 18:34

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