June’s “The Loop” blog post was just posted: Defining the Stack Community. In this post, I attempt to define the term “Community” as it is used on our Public Platform. My overall suggestion can be summarized as follows:

  • The Community refers to all Public Platform users (on Stack Overflow, or any other site on the Stack Exchange Network) who have contributed content (in good faith) to any of the sites on the network (questions, answers, comments, votes), or who have assisted with the curation of content on the sites (editing, flagging, reviewing, moderating). And each site maintains its own smaller Community along these lines, which while being interconnected with the large Community, has its own specific identity as well.
  • Passive users who visit sites on the network without engaging in any of the activities defined above for the Community are not yet part of the Community, but are part of our audience. They are essential to Stack Overflow’s mission, future, and growth.
  • Our Public Platform strategy and vision aspires to:
    • Focus on providing features that meet the needs of both of these main types of users (each of which has various sub-types with their own needs).
    • Recognize that the needs of these different main groups (community vs audience) can be vastly different (as are those of many different subgroups), and that we must be mindful of these differences if we are to address them successfully.
    • Provide features and foster an atmosphere that encourages and incentivizes passive users to become Community members, and less active Community members to become more active.

The post goes into a good deal more detail on this topic, offering a parable as an analogy for the history of the Community on the network and some of its triumphs and challenges. While the post does not address every facet of this topic, we are interested in opening the discussion with you here. Your thoughts on the topic and its implications are important to us. Please leave below any questions or comments that you have.

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    I feel like it's a little bit of a misnomer to ask what the "Stack Community" is. (Almost) no one calls it "Stack". We call it the Stack Exchange Network, and we're the Stack Exchange Community. Commented Jun 17, 2020 at 14:42
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    Thanks to all who have responded so far. I am not ignoring your responses, it's just been a busy few days. I will try my best to try to respond to all feedback by the end of the weekend. Commented Jun 19, 2020 at 9:24

6 Answers 6


Communities are fractal... And linked

I was happy to see you tackle this right away: the notion that Stack Exchange is a community overlooks an essential property of how communities form:

XKCD, "Crazy Straws": Human subcultures are nested fractally. There's no bottom.

As you say, there are communities within communities, neither separate nor identical.

But there's another factor here as well: the interests which bring us together in the first place! There are C++ communities which participate on Stack Overflow, whose members are a part of that community and this one, but who also participate in the standardization community, in the education community, in their local interest groups... The Euler diagram of "Stack Exchange Communities" is itself contained in a circle which overlaps those of external communities, and those have as much - if not more - influence.

a quick and dirty diagram - not to scale, definitely not complete

This is why working with C++ questions here can feel so very different from working with PHP questions, Python questions, R questions, Rebol or Red questions... It's not just the technology that's different - the people are different, the attitudes and expectations that they bring to the table are distinct in significant ways.

This is the challenge - and the opportunity! Because these connections work in both directions, Stack Overflow's culture has influenced many other communities beyond its own; ideas and approaches that've originated here can today be found in communities whose members have no experience using these sites at all... Just as Roman culture continues to influence societies that were never part of that empire, Stack Exchange's reach far exceeds its nominal boundaries.

One could argue this was always the goal - not just to provide a space for gardeners, but to change how gardening is done. But it doesn't have to be the intent or the goal; it is something that has and will continue to happen.

Community gardens

I like your analogy; community gardens are a wonderful, flexible concept, able to serve numerous purposes, bring in a wide variety of people, host a variety of different plants and scale from tiny marginal plots to vast fields.

This fits in well with the notion of overlapping communities of various sizes as seen here...

...But there's another reason to like the analogy: a garden needs constant care and planning. ESPECIALLY when the gardeners come in with very different abilities, skill levels, ideas as to what should be grown... You need a system for keeping order, ensuring that resources are allocated effectively, providing guidance for those who need it; if everyone tries to plant in the first plot while the rest of the garden lies fallow, nothing will be grown. This organization doesn't need to be complicated or forced - humans tend to form them instinctively when they don't exist - but it must exist, and the form that it takes will have a dramatic influence on what the garden produces.

And once such a government exists for the garden, it needs to have clear goals...

I love all of my children equally

This is my only big concern with your post:

Two equally important groups

That... Sounds good. But it isn't true. You may love all of your children, but... You probably don't treat them in exactly the same way; each needs different levels of care, attention, resources. The two groups you identify are both important, but... Their importance is not equal.

In fact... the groups are not distinct. They overlap, and people move between them with some regularity: there are plenty of folks who last contributed a decade ago but still read; there are plenty of folks who've been reading for years but only just became members of the community.

The critical difference between the two groups isn't the people in them... It is what they do. A garden which has just been seeded may not be of much interest to observers, but it will in time - provided there are people to tend it. But the reverse is not true: a garden with many visitors but no one to weed, water, and re-plant it will quickly lose its audience as well; the plants will die, the soil will blow away, the place will lose its value to both groups. Both groups are important: but only one is essential.

You recognize this in the last paragraph of the section:

If we define the community to be all users (visitor and contributor), I believe that we can very easily downplay the important role and valuable contributions of the gardeners in the past that we need them to continue into the future. Contributors and passive visitors are not interchangeable (though of course most contributors are also audience members).

Yes. I suspect we both remember what the landscape of the Internet looked like when Stack Overflow was first launched... Awash in "content farms" stuffed with material bought or "borrowed" from its creators, optimized for page-views. And completely dead. No one to update obsolete information, no one to correct mistakes, no one to answer new questions. Gardens filled with dried flowers. From the late '90s through the early '00s, we watched one formerly-thriving community after another succumb to this blight: bought out, drained of life, corpses left posed for the unwary reader to stumble over, a macabre wasteland.

Which brings me to the last reason I like the garden analogy...

A garden is never done

I've used farming or gardening analogies quite a bit over the years, from musings on the problems of scaling to cultural issues to sustainable growth. It's not just that I've spent a good chunk of my life working in that field... The task of growing things has some strong parallels to the task of nurturing groups of people.

Specifically: you aren't done. You're never done.

The workers, the plants, the land itself all need regular attention if you wish to still have a garden a day, a month, a year from now. Communities are much the same way: as long as they live, they will have new problems, new challenges, new opportunities that require care and tending.

The community garden strengthens its community by bringing the people together for work, providing shared goals and allowing its members to share in the fruits of their labor.

The plants themselves may wither in the fall, but the community rejoices in their harvest and begins work for the next season, digging new plots and welcoming new members; it is evergreen.

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    "As you say, there are communities within communities, neither separate nor identical." Yes, definitely. In order to stay at a publishable length, I had to simplify the example pretty severely. A real representation in my mind would probably have to be 3 dimensional, with the Euler diagrams showing internal Communities, their subcommunities, and overlaps between them. And then in the third dimension you have communities spanning all of those of users based on their focuses within the network (mods, close votes, chat rooms) that can overlap in completely different ways. Commented Jun 19, 2020 at 8:38
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    "Two equally important groups" - yes, so maybe 'equally' was the wrong adjective (since it is so easy to disprove). The point that I was trying to make is that both groups are very very important. The importance of one doesn't detract from that of the other. Commented Jun 19, 2020 at 8:41
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    "Both groups are important: but only one is essential" - if the only goal is for the survival of the garden, then yes, only one of them is essential. The overall goals here however are (simplifying things a bit) that the knowledge in the sites can be used by anyone who needs it. So if the site survived with only the gardeners happy, and the visitors feeling like they had no place or tools to use to find what they needed, then we are missing a large part of the potential of the site. For reaching the full goal, both groups are essential. Commented Jun 19, 2020 at 9:22
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    "the last reason I like the garden analogy...you aren't done. You're never done" - definitely agree with this. Thanks for sharing our thoughts and ending your response how you did. Commented Jun 19, 2020 at 9:23
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    I think the keyword there is "goals": it was an awful long time between the end of the SO beta before I ever saw a useful answer pop up in search results - but I had co-workers using the site as a reference far sooner. And that's what sold me on this project: not the gardening, but the goal to provide a greater value to the programming world. That's what we need to hold onto, I think... The mission to serve, to grow with purpose.
    – Shog9
    Commented Jun 19, 2020 at 11:49

I can appreciate the distinction being made when defining who the Community is. I can even laud the parable; it sounds very much like a metaphor that Shog9 would use. Personally, I prefer using an engineering metaphor to help make the hyperfocus on details and process make more sense. A castle isn't going to stand for long if you build it haphazardly and don't institute standards and quality checks.

There's a couple parts I want to comment on:

Because in the end of the day, the active and engaged members of the Community—especially the curators—are the ones that ensure that the gardens remain healthy. Without the gardeners, the gardens will become overgrown and die. Maybe not overnight, but it is inevitable. And many gardeners have spent years honing their craft, working together to be consistent and comprehensive in their coverage. They are not easily replaced.

Finally, some actual recognition of the work we put in. Realizing the value your volunteers add, for free, to the success of the platform shouldn't have taken this long to acknowledge. We could have avoided the last two years of lost community trust, betrayal, and active dismissal if this had been believed prior to the Welcome Wagon kickoff. It's not like we weren't shouting from the rooftops, asking someone, anyone, at the company to do more than talk at us about how valuable we were. I suppose this blog post isn't much better, right now, but at least it's a far more straightforward statement now. It didn't have to be this way.

However, without the visitors, the garden (while having immense value) has almost no impact on any sort of wide scale. No matter how much curation is taking place, the ultimate goal is for people to frequent the garden, to learn from what it has to offer, and to be able to take the knowledge gained there and apply it to their lives and careers.

In this, SE is a victim of its own success. The visitors show up regardless because of the reputation the sites have. One it has because of the quality control and commitment to the tending of the garden. It's become a self-perpetuating cycle now; people come here because they know it's the place for help.

A healthy, organized, and well-managed garden will always have more visitors than it will have gardeners.

I'd argue that some sites (SO) have too many visitors; the gardeners can't keep up with all those that want to plant their own flowers.

One of the best ways we can be more welcoming is to lower the frustration level of the gardeners. Everyone's fine the first time someone doesn't stay on the path and needs a gentle nudge back onto the path. It's the 35,737th time it happens that the gardeners might be just a little frustrated nobody's reading or obeying the signage. That signals a problem with the signage and the pathing, and the gardener has no ability to resolve either of those things. The system can do so much more to help teach our visitors, but it doesn't.

Another way is to give the gardeners better tools. They've been using this hand trowel to prune stems and while it doesn't work well, it's what they were given. Sharpen it up, and maybe it won't take so long. And maybe those gloves could be used for something else than just smashing a weed flat. Sorry, my gardening metaphors are running low.

Tooling. Signage. Acknowledgement. Make your curators feel valued and less frustrated. Make your visitors feel less like there's a ghost hovering over their shoulder, waiting for the slightest infraction. All of it is there, none of it is new.

It just has to be done, not only talked about.

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    Maybe a playground for the toddlers should be built right at the entrance so they don't risk be yelled at by grumpy old people if they tramp down the flowers? Commented Jun 17, 2020 at 19:23
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    "It's not like we weren't shouting from the rooftops, asking someone, anyone, at the company to do more than talk at us about how valuable we were." I know. We know. However, I think that perhaps something that can make that message hard to swallow is when it is given in a way that implies that anyone who isn't contributing is not valuable. I am trying to find the middle ground here. Everyone is special and important, for their own reasons. Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 6:51
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    "It just has to be done, not only talked about" - we are talking. But aren't we also doing now as well? I have heard the refrain now for a while of "don't just talk, but show us action". Action (and talk, though of course it is not going to be perfect) is what we have been focusing on this year. You don't see a difference? Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 6:53
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    @YaakovEllis To be honest....no, I don't see a difference. I still see a lot of talking about how we're valuable, but actions still paint a different picture. Thanks on SO, anyone? Truth is, SE deliberately destroyed it's relationship with the community in the rush to acquire more users, thinking we were the problem. Insulted us, berated us, actively drove us off. An actual, heartfelt apology for that would go a long way, instead of this nonpology.
    – fbueckert
    Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 12:08
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    You don't get trust back with one grand gesture. That takes years of commitment to transparency, communication, and dedication to helping the community. You, yourself, are trying to make progress there, as is the rest of the CM team. The rest of the company...? Seems like they're hoping we'll just be quiet if they throw us a bone now and then. My answer here says it all.
    – fbueckert
    Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 12:12
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    @YaakovEllis SE started to makes moves to regain trust (its why I'm still here on this account even if I deleted my main one) but then we had the "thank you thing" thrown at us with no notice, the removal of "lacks research" from downvote with no notice, and several other changes which were never announced and are the opposite (or at least far from optimal) solutions from what the gardeners have been asking for. It cannot be "we do listen except with...." or it just means nothings changed Commented Jun 23, 2020 at 0:29

The post makes a lot of effort to make it somehow self-evident or obvious that all the "gardeners" need or want the "visitors". Perhaps, a lot of people do, possibly event the majority. Myself, I don't.

I think that a lot of gardeners want to be parts of communities of people who actually care about gardens and plants. They cringe at confronting people who ask: "hey, I am a professional gardener in a large estate; I want to plant some dogs alongside petunias, and I need to know which side goes down, head or tail. The cats I tried last month just dried up and went bad, but the carrots are fine. Is it the soil?". And even more at being downvoted by them.

Don't get me wrong. I understand that the company selling snacks at the gate and owning the parking lots around the garden needs and wants the visitors. I understand that it's the company that's paying the rent for the garden. But still, for some of us, that only makes the annoying visitors a necessary evil. Not a "welcome part of the community".

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    A huge proportion of visitors to the sites do not ask dumb questions. In fact, they don't ask any questions, because their question has already been asked and answered years ago, and they find the info they need by searching. So we end up with a situation where many of the people who do end up posting a question are so new to the topic that they don't know the right terms to use in a search, in which case they should probably be working through their textbook or a tutorial. Or they're simply not very competent at searching for things on the internet.
    – PM 2Ring
    Commented Jun 18, 2020 at 13:24
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    @PM2Ring: yes, good summary. This, unfortunately, means that we have a negative selection: people who actually ask questions are the ones least qualified to do so. I don't really have anything constructive to say, I just felt this is a real problem and it's missing from the flowery description in the blog post.
    – fdreger
    Commented Jun 18, 2020 at 13:36
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    Some of those gardeners would even be willing to pay to work in that garden.
    – pkamb
    Commented Jun 18, 2020 at 18:38
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    Dear sir or madam: I would like to thank you for the enjoyment I derived from your animal garden quip. I am almost grateful to Cov2 that no one was around to see me spew my coffee out when I got to that part. Good show. Commented Jun 18, 2020 at 20:44
  • @PM2Ring - I think you're right - but you know I don't much mind questions where the 1-point user doesn't even know how much he doesn't know - you know like "I'm new to programming and would like to write this game much explanation of complexity but here's some code I'm stuck on code with basic misunderstanding of a simple if statement." I just ignore those and go on my way. The 1-point users that upset me are the ones that just paste a homework problem in and ask for the answer point blank. (BTW - this is a SO problem only, the other stacks I'm on - retrocomp, etc - don't have it.)
    – davidbak
    Commented Jun 20, 2020 at 20:29
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    @davidbak Those "doesn't even know how much he doesn't know" questions clutter the site and need to be closed. The OP needs to study their textbook etc, we can't write in-depth tutorials on SO. But hopefully we can guide such OPs to ask more focused questions that are suitable for SO. OTOH, the blatant "homework dumpers" are a far greater problem. They generally aren't here to actually learn, they just want an answer. And they mostly don't understand why we don't want to spoon-feed them the answer. They rarely go on to make good contributions to the site.
    – PM 2Ring
    Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 7:23
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    @davidbak BTW, the homework dumpers aren't just a problem on SO. They infest the maths & science sites too. On Physics.SE, we have a strict homework policy: blatant homework dumps are closed as off-topic. But we do help people with homework if they ask a question about a physics concept. Still, we get a constant stream of homework dumps, including questions that consist of a low quality photo of a question from a text book or homework assignment sheet. In one bad recent case, the OP simply asked for people to supply answers to a live online quiz!
    – PM 2Ring
    Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 7:36

Nice parable -- like "happy little trees" ... pastoral imagery.

It reminds me of Jack Nicholson:

  • Hey, we all have these terrible stories to get over.
  • It's not true. Some of us have great stories -- pretty stories, that take place at lakes, with boats, and friends, and noodle salad -- just, no-one in this car. But a lot of people, that's their story: good times, noodle salad.

Slight inconsistent pronoun use ...

Once upon a time, JJ planted a flower garden. Well, he didn’t exactly plant it.

... versus ...

JJ (who eventually retired from the gardening business) and their organization allowed

Perhaps that begins to answer this question -- or an explanation could be inferred from it, e.g. "We have community/curators and we have visitors, and we want both" -- or your blog post takes it for granted or states it as a given (either obvious or an axiom):

Yes, it is in the best interests of the garden (and the company) to encourage as many passive visitors as possible to become active and engaged.

I barely remember why I asked the question, it seemed pertinent at the time -- perhaps I was partly being an advocate (i.e. "other people are asking, 'why do you want to increase'" etc?) -- and thought it might help to get people onboard or at least on the same page with you, if you'd tell them what the company's "playbook" is.

I'm not sure whether you still hope to answer that question sometime. I guess I had in mind that you might disclose your plans for economic growth -- I gathered that (company growth plan and perhaps the company's main commercial focus) is to do with this:

They also allowed for the creation of private flower gardens using the same organizational techniques and tools, both within the Gardens of Stack and on private estates.

Perhaps the answer is as simple as, "we need a thriving public gardens, including balance and good will between community and visitors, in order to sell private gardens."

Maybe it's also something to do with, being able to "convert" (in the marketing sense of the word) visitors into community members -- perhaps because your research tells you something about a correlation between people who buy private gardens and their previously "identifying as" a community member of the public.

The last paragraph sounded important, the last sentence ...

But if we can build features, introduce policies, and encourage behaviors that will allow each group to thrive and, at the same time, make the garden more welcoming and easy to use, then we will have all contributed to a real monument that we can be proud of.

.. and there it stops, just where it's getting interesting!?

No details about what those features and policies are (if they're new).

I wonder what would happen if the article were written with BLUF in mind.

My definition of "community" would include:

  • People who try to answer other people's questions
  • People who post on Meta
  • Curators (e.g. editing, also tools, CMs too)

Someone who only posts questions, I might see as a visitor instead (not to say it's wrong to be a visitor).

I'm not sure about people who post 'bad' answers, or who post on Meta to argue against the status quo, in general (or according to my definition) I suppose these people are part of the community too, sometimes a less welcome part.

I'm not sure why the definition is important. More broadly it's the group of people who try to or need to cooperate (their actions) and coordinate (their expectations).

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    "what the company's "playbook" is" - I wrote what I wrote unaided by any market research. And while yes, of course we want people to buy our private versions (Teams, Enterprise), and increasing revenue is essential for the company's survival and growth, I'm also not writing from a perspective of "how can we best convert". I am writing from the perspective of furthering the goal of the company to allow as many people as possible to share knowledge, become better developers (etc). Is this ultimately self-serving in terms of revenue? Probably. But believe it or not, it is also a goal unto itself. Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 11:21
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    "and there it stops, just where it's getting interesting!?" sorry, hit my word limit. Gotta save some good stuff for the next time. Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 11:21
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    "Someone who only posts questions, I might see as a visitor instead" - so we are almost in agreement here. I am putting these users just over the line into being Community members - questions are super important, and if they put in a good faith effort to contributing quality content (even if the quality was more in their intention than in the actual result), then they are showing that they want in. Even if this doesn't apply to all of them, I would rather err on the side of being more inclusive than less. Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 11:23

The relationships that Community members have with each other and with the site allow them to share a group identity.

In my opinion the term community members is not appropriate for people who just use stackoverflow every now and then to ask a question. Even users who sometimes write answers are not yet community members. The distinction between community members and other visitors is useful, but the dividing like between having created content or not seems to be useful only because it's simple to draw, not because it is meaningful.

The quote above is a more meaningful definition. Visitors you a site having any relationship to other visitors of the site, caring about other visitors, and feel a group identity. Having asked a few questions on stackoverflow does not give any of that.

The sites are not social networks, getting to know each other as persons is considered off-topic (outside chat). Reliable repeated interaction between the same 2 people on the same topic does not happen often. Is there even a way to send a private message to another user? Even voting, (unlike like buttons on Facebook) isanonymous. If stack sites had any focus on community-building, then off-topic exchanges would be encouraged and technically supported.

Rather, it seems that any emergence of community despite all the restrictions on personal exchange is an undesired but inevitable effect outside meta and chat. A bit like a park with strict signs on social distancing everywhere, with some visitors, ignoring the signs and rules, sit together to get to know each other.

And again, that is a lot like Wikipedia, which is all about content, but where some community building still happens.

Moderators are much more of a community, possibly even people active on meta. And maybe active users on sites with less than 50 active users per week.

Does it matter whether the "community" of the blog is an actual community or not? I think it does, because of the general intent of the sites to being all about content but not about community and social networking, but a growing understanding that some social networking of a subgroup of active members may benefit the health of the content.

This could lead in design to additional community building features for high reputation users as an example (as one other simple way of drawing a line between visitors who care about individual questions only and community members who identify with a group and care about the group). Sending private messages, "following" other users, a forum to discuss any topic with a more useful structure than Q&A for threaded dialogue, ...

Calling people a "community" who don't care about each other and don't identify with the group seems to confuse matters more than clearing them up.

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    There is chat though, and I think that is the place where friendships are more likely to be built.And then there's meta, where topics are a bit looser and, in theory, comments are less likely to be culled. Although every so often, comments on SE meta do come under fire, and are exterminated by the mods with the battle cry "Comments are ephemeral"! They certainly are... Commented Jun 19, 2020 at 8:06

The top fundamental problem I have with the Stack Exchange Network is the lack of community participation/trust between sites.

  • Stack Overflow
  • Super User
  • Ask Different
  • Server Fault
  • Web Applications
  • etc.

They're all tech sites with mostly the same rules. The communities widely overlap.

I've been trusted to make thousands of no-review edits on Stack Overflow. When Google randomly lands me on Super User, I want to make those same edits there too to improve that site and the Stack Exchange network as a whole.

I want to participate all across the Stack Exchange network, but can't because there's no concept of higher-rep cross-site trust beyond the 100 point Reputation Bonus.

It's onerous to be expected to maintain and curate a 2k rep account on each site in order to make edits to improve the sites. I rarely submit edits on Super User because it will go through a 6-hour long review queue. I'm a couple hundred points short of the privilege.

On Super User I have some 50+ point Answers. Those plus the linked Stack Overflow account could give me trust on Super User, where I'd submit edits and participate in review queues and all of the other curation tools to make the SE sites even better.

A gardener-share, if you will.

  • I agree done sure seem to be spin-offs for original sites to focus topics that were only slightly off-topic on the original sites, reputation could be shared across those. But it's not very related to the blog post, rather see here: Why not merge reputation across Stack Overflow, Server Fault, and Super User?
    – tkruse
    Commented Jun 20, 2020 at 22:22
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    You make a good point, and having more of an intrinsic connection between the different sites on the network (especially the tech sites like the ones that you list which are so closely related) is definitely one of the areas that we have earmarked for further exploration and discovery in the coming months. Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 9:42
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    @YaakovEllis some graded system like 10k+ users on any site can behave like 2k+ users on any other might be nice. Obviously the exact thresholds are for discussion.
    – mdewey
    Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 16:08

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