I have been a longtime lurker on Stack Exchange, and enjoyed using it as a reference and learning tool.
I am happy to see it grow, but I am increasingly worried about where it's going.
Prompted by Sara's recent post What a very bad day at work taught me about building Stack Overflow’s community, I decide to write about my own experience and share my thoughts about growing the community, as a sequel to Sara's post, and as my contribution in return for what SE gave me over the years.
I left a comment under her post but am unsure why it's not showing up (stuck in the spam filter maybe?). So, I decided, why not join Meta and share my thoughts with the community directly?
Here is my post, which took me several days to finish:
It will be a long read with nearly 7000 words, so a brief summary is included here:
1. An "off-topic" math question
The story of my two very bad days on Math SE as a new contributor.
2. Ask Ubuntu, answers nobody
As of Friday, there were 325,137 questions, 109,451 questions with no upvoted or accepted answers. That's about 1/3. Something is wrong with this.
My queries on Data Explorer show on the top five SE sites there are an excessive number of rep=1 users who just come, ask a question and leave.
3. The problem: The userbase has grown, but the system has not.
The system is still that of a small internet forum from the early 2000s.
If we compare SE to a country, SE is like a mobocracy with a failing economy.
The dysfunctional system causes an excessive burden on existing users whom must spend a lot of time policing new users and are growing frustrated.
This incentivizes new users who want to come and get their problems solved to make the minimum effort to get what they want and leave ASAP (the effort in mentoring them also going down the drain).
And those who want to come here and share their knowledge are turned away by the chaos and uncertainty, and by the disregard of the value of their contribution simply because they have less rep. (Remember, everyone here started with rep=1, or 101 if you joined years ago.)
4. How to improve the system
People who come to share their knowledge, the suppliers in the knowledge economy, are SE's most valuable users on most sites. Focus on making the sites better for them. (There is a detailed analysis in my post of what make them want to come here.)
Ask users to classify their questions according to whether they want to get help with their problems, or help the community discover something interesting. Handle differently.
Stop displaying rep along usernames. The emphasis on rep encourages prejudice, and distracts from more important things.
Don't think about good questions and bad questions, good answers and bad answers.
Instead, think about good matches and bad matches between whose who ask and those who answer, those who post and those who view. This naturally makes it easier for newbies to come and ask questions.
Wind down the existing system of upvotes/downvotes and rep, replace with ratings on match plus collectibles. (Existing rep should convert to a special collectible so that high rep users can continue to enjoy their status.)
Replace "comments" with "suggest an improvement" and "I have something to add", which have clear purposes and encourage constructive feedback (and allow criticism to be be viewed more favorably by the receiving end).
Establish a reasonable "legislative" system, and separate arbitration from enforcement, so that "rule by the mob" can become "rule of law".
Incorporate the following Five Pillars of Stack Exchange Sites, in the spirit of Wikipedia's "Five Pillars":
Every user has the right to ask questions and post answers, provided such answers and questions facilitate the spread of knowledge.
A user's participation shall not impede the spread of knowledge.
Users shall obey the rules enacted by the community following established procedures.
Users shall treat each other with respect.
Users shall behave as if they were in a classroom or workplace.
Note the single "respect" clause already covers much of what's in the existing Code of Conduct, and is much more clear cut and easy to enforce. Nobody can demand "friendliness", but everybody is entitled to basic respect.
The phrase "spread of knowledge" appears twice, underscoring its importance. I hope everybody agrees that it's ultimately what we are all here for: to spread knowledge and share what we know.
If anybody needs clarifications on anything please let me know in the comment and I will make an edit here (downvotes are not very helpful in helping me understand your disagreement).
A few things that came up in the comments and in the reply by Geek that I think may need clarification.
1. Rate the match:
With this feature everybody can get personalized feeds of new posts according to what they are interested in. Users can help the recommender system by rating the posts in the same way they currently vote on them.
But instead of displaying the scores and counting the votes as rep, under the new system, the votes will simply be used to make future recommendations. The recommender system learns and improves over time, making the recommendations more and more accurate.This way people will no longer have to read through ten posts to get one that is interesting to them (maybe downvoting the rest along the way).
Also, since the votes are not displayed, and don't count towards a single and highly important metric, rep, it will not be a source of distress, tension, and bad user experience.
It will fulfill the requirement that good content rise to the top without hurting or discouraging anybody, because "good" can mean different things to different people. Say a programming post for example, for experts, good content means something precise and efficient, while for beginners, something conceptual and easily understandable.
In my proposal, collectibles are to be used with "rate the match" to replace the existing vote + rep system.
In my lengthy post, I analyzed why people want to come here. Some want the respect of their peers and the approval of their colleagues. Some like to collect points.
The benefit of using various collectibles is that it encourages diversity of metrics.
Yes, I know there are badges, but right now I think they are completely overshadowed by rep.
Imagine two different worlds: in the first one, people judge each other by one single metric, how much money they have, whereas in the second, people use all kinds of metrics (could be things they own or do, like a new gaming console, a cool hat, a vintage bike, a trip to somewhere else in the world ... ), and different people use different metrics.
I don't know about you guys/gals, but I'd prefer to live in the second.
3. My post
While writing all these, I got a comment by @Marshmallow about my tone in the post I wrote. Keep in mind when I wrote it I wasn't planning to share it here. If you are likely to find the ways I say things objectionable, please skip straight to section 4 of that post. The details of my proposals (the best part of the post) are there. Thanks for reading.
4. Ask Ubuntu's supply/demand imbalance
@terdon commented that I may have used the wrong metric when I said: "325,137 questions, 109,451 questions with no upvoted or accepted answers". It's not my metric. It's the metric displayed at the top of the Ask Ubuntu site (apparently the items have since been separated).
I actually have what you might consider a fair metric, just #(answers)/(#questions+#answers) taken annually:
Year Answer% --------------- 2010 68.31 2011 61.56 2012 60.70 2013 58.70 2014 58.02 2015 57.23 2016 54.62 2017 51.76 2018 48.74
Clear downward trend. Not looking very promising.
5. Rule of law
Let me make it very clear that my post is absolutely NOT a complaint about any moderators. Yeah, I just realized it: mod and mob. LOL. What any of you reads out of the similarity in spelling is completely unintended.
Prior to this post, I never had any experience with any moderators, and I don't think after this post I will run into anything that will involve intervention of a moderator.
To average users, the point of having rule of law is for them to be able to know the rules that are relevant to them, and thus to be able to behave accordingly. This avoids unpleasant surprises.
I am very familiar with all the instructions about asking a good question, and I can't count how many positive examples I have seen here since I first started lurking around many years ago, but I still asked a question that got closed for missing context, on a subject where I am an expert.
Can't imagine how things would be if I were an absolute newbie here.
On important proposal I made in my post is to index the existing decisions buried under years of meta posts, to make it easier for users to find the "law", so that they can behave accordingly. What's wrong with this proposal?
And to really ask some questions (since this is supposed to be a question):
Can anyone tell me, if you find it objectionable when I say SE is lacking rule of law, where do I find a list of all the laws, and what are the "laws" governing how new "laws" are passed?
Additionally, for those from a common law (aka case law) country, or familiar with the common law system, can you please link me to a "case" here on meta or any of the meta sites, tell me (1) what are the facts in the case, and (2) what laws are applied there, and (3) what is the final verdict?
Just a short edit:
It appears that Mr Geek, by repeatedly quoting me out of context in his reply, has managed to distort my post to such an extent that people reading his summary without going through my original post (like Marshmallow below) are led to completely wrong interpretations of what I wrote.
Although it really was not worth my time from a utilitarian point of view, I felt I had to set the record straight.
To avoid distracting people from the more important things up here, I wrote an answer and let it sink to the bottom.
For those who care about the truth (or want to downvote again), please look under the other posts.