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I recently became aware of the troubles a new site in beta was facing - they had a enthusiastic community that didn't really have much overlap with the existing SE community. They put in a lot of work - and one can't fault their enthusiasm, but they got in trouble for trying to boost their numbers of folks on the community with high network reputation. While I don't condone their actions - I feel like the current system isn't really designed to deal with this specific situation that well.

Our current model optimises for overall numbers and is a little confusing. It also does presuppose we have experienced users - to guide and mentor, and well they'd be active anyway.

With that caveat, the formula we use right now works like this: We give each user a "score" based on how likely we think they are to contribute to the site. It's a bit kludgey right now because we don't have a whole lot of data. The one piece of data we have that tells us a lot and is hard to game is a user's reputation on the existing sites.

Well, that's not really true

On the other hand, if you're some random person off the internet with no reputation, you're very hard to quantify but there's a good chance that you won't contribute very much

I started off as a random person on the internet with no reputation. I'm still a random person but I have reputation?

I do understand that SE's got some quirks in the platform as well as anyone and that more experienced users are helpful in teaching newer users the 'culture' of the network.

From a few proposals I have tested on, it turns out the strictest criteria is "100 committers with at least 200 rep on a single site".

Seems a critical factor here, but it feels like it puts a heavy emphasis on the existing user base... which caused trouble here.

Considering we've moved our emphasis to new communities with a strong base already - what would be the options for a community that's not got a great overlap with SE, the potential (demonstrated or otherwise) for people who are committed to the success to the community, but don't have a great number of SE regulars?

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  • FYI: a few weeks ago I posted an answer on this MSE question (for users under 10k, I said it was most likely ok as long as you didn't do it on tons of sites and the mods were OK with it). After reading through your answer again, as well as this post and the linked Bioacustics Meta post, I've opted to delete my answer. I realize it was at +9/-6, but I agree with you that it would be problematic and given what happened there, I feel it is best deleted
    – cocomac
    Aug 19 at 18:32
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    Well - you didn't have the context you do now. Heck, while as a moderator I hear the tasty gossip, I didn't have the context I have now, and can't use anything non public anyway. With the context I have now, the ads were one way to try to get the commitment they needed. I didn't quite grok that then
    – Journeyman Geek Mod
    Aug 19 at 18:44
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    There's also the general reluctance on SE's side to make any major changes to Area 51 due to the persistently delayed new method of creating sites. Aug 19 at 21:33
  • I had no idea this situation being described had arisen when I posted the Feature Request, if I had I would have included it: Revising the criteria for moderator nominees Aug 25 at 6:43
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    Worth reminding that the 70 or odd users who have been suspended are now not eligible for election anywhere on the network for 12 months. If an error in the calculations was committed, the number of suspended users seems wildly excessive, this should be rectified asap. Aug 25 at 6:47
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    And now there will be an election and in bold this warning was issued Without a successful first election that results in 3 users being appointed as moderators, the site will not be able to progress, and will instead be shut down. Does anyone on staff have any common sense? First the suspension, which must have come out of the blue, now an election with the threat the site will be closed if users eligible to nominate themselves do not participate. Aug 25 at 7:08
  • @Mari-LouAСлаваУкраїні I did post an answer on that site's meta arguing that it should use the old method of a meta nomination thread rather than an election, mainly because it allows users to nominate other users and doesn't have a reputation requirement. What do you think of that? Aug 25 at 22:31
  • @Sonic #1 I think the solutions you offer make sense from an outsider's point of view. Both are feasible and practical but lack heart and do not take into consideration the current mood of users who were unexpectedly suspended days before the end of an election. Asking that the community trusts SE's community managers/staff to select their three moderators from a shortlist of nominees, is too much. Aug 26 at 0:10
  • #2 Not now, but maybe in a month's time, maybe in two. We're dealing with stunned users who are in a whirl of mixed feelings. Now is not the time or place for (outdated?) election process that worked in the past when there was no emergency, no suspensions, no ill feelings Aug 26 at 0:10
  • @Mari-LouAСлаваУкраїні I did kind of figure that, so I did post a second answer: to hold the election as planned and have experienced moderators from other sites fill in any gaps, then one year later hold another election where the previously suspended nominees can run (as long as they didn't run into any further trouble since). Aug 26 at 0:14
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    I said that both your proposals were feasible but to my mind the second is the worst. No to the idea of complete outsiders, albeit experienced, to moderate a site in which they have little to no direct knowledge of the subject. The site needs experts, not moderators nominated by SE, who wouldn't know an off-topic question if it slapped them in the face. Aug 26 at 0:21
  • Well yes and no - I feel like picking community members who've shown signs of leadership and maybe asking them to 'borrow' an experienced mod or CM to mentor them, and letting the current mods and community recall them if it dosen't work out sounds good.They don't need help taking care of their own affairs, they've been stellar at it. They need someone they can ask for help dealing with the rest of the network. TL and the mod team helps but its probably gonna be nice to have someone on the ground, alternatively loaning them a CM as a Point of contact
    – Journeyman Geek Mod
    Aug 26 at 0:33
  • Yeah, my proposals are both from a realistic perspective (the suspension appeal will likely not be handled in time for a deferred election, and/or the team won't defer the election because they don't want to spend time doing things a local mod team should have been doing, etc.). Per a new answer there, much of the dissent comes from a frame challenge, i.e. that the team should waive the rule and allow the users to run in the election anyway, or that the Area 51 requirements were too strict that they needed to commit fraud in order to have a fair chance to make it through, etc. Aug 26 at 1:08

3 Answers 3

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If you really want to know how you can help a new site with an enthusiastic userbase- perhaps valuable insight could be gained from those ‘outside communities’ with first-hand knowledge of exactly where the pain points are, and what could be done to help these communities create vibrant SE sites.

The question assumes SE is interested in making its platform available to new communities that may not have a strong SE base, but has an enthusiastic base that can benefit from the SE platform. @Makoto posits that perhaps ‘the Stack Overflow model isn’t really built to support anything that isn’t objectively programming-oriented’; however, there are a number of successful sites that are not strictly programming-oriented. Rather, I would argue that the problem lies in the Area51 proposal process, which seems to be designed for existing SO/SE communities and is confusing (at best) and hostile (at worst) to new ‘outside’ communities. One might also argue that program-oriented sites could be readily included within SO using tags, rather than creating independent sites, and that the real benefit for additional SE sites are with these outside communities.

So, to the OP’s question:

“How should a new site with a good user base outside the Stack Exchange mainstream get itself bootstrapped”??

As the lead of the Bioacoustics Proposal, and as a member of this enthusiastic and dedicated community, I would like to outline a few of the largest obstacles and provide a few ideas for helping other communities, such as ours, and perhaps shifting some of burden on moderators to more positive endeavors.

PRE-PROPOSAL COMMUNITY BUILDING AS A STATED PRE-REQUIREMENT
If it is critical to SE that the community user base is identified BEFORE the proposal process, then make this clear at the TOP of the FAQ, with a link to an explicit Question posted in the Area51.meta. Specifically, we suggest you modify the FAQ to include this addition, with a link to the Area51.Meta question. This serves a dual purpose of ensuring that new proposals are well aware of this requirement and have ideas of how to successfully prepare for a proposal, and this also introduces them to the idea of the Meta for learning about managing sites.

STREAMLINE & REQUIRE REGISTRATION FOR AREA51 PROPOSAL PROCESS
Currently, invited community members may ‘follow’ a proposal without registering, or may inadvertently create a separate registration on Area51 that is not linked to their existing SE account. This is extremely confusing for all users (even experienced users) and creates (at least) two issues:

  • The presence of multiple ‘accounts’ per user, artificially inflating the # of followers and giving the appearance of fraud.
  • The convoluted and time-consuming methods identified to remedy these registration problems can (and DO) turn off what would otherwise be valuable contributing community members. If you had to spend 30 minutes fixing your registration so that your existing SE account was linked to the proposal– how much more time would you be willing to invest in this platform?

We suggest that Stack Exchange require that everyone who joins a proposal (at any stage) be fully registered on Stack Exchange and that this registration automatically links their Area51 and SE profile.

COMMUNICATION WITH PROPOSAL MEMBERS
Currently, the only way to communicate about a proposal is through Q&A format on Area51.meta; however, once proposals reach the Private Beta stage there is a chat available for communication outside of the Meta. We suggest that this chat be available at the proposal stage, and readily accessible front & center on the Proposal Page). This would allow communities to both help themselves, and perhaps moderators can also check in to regulate inappropriate behavior early on.

MODERATORS AS MENTORS
While the FAQ are simple, the Devil is in the Details, and there is GREAT confusion (or outright conflicting evidence) on what is expected and what is acceptable. As I understand, proposals will have one or more moderators (or high level users) that join a proposal, and some of these seem to have great enthusiasm. As far as I know, the only way to get their attention is to ask on Area51.meta. We suggest that Area51 consider providing a ‘Mentor’ for new sites that will assist them in the process of creating a new site. Mentors can communicate directly with the community, help with initial navigation of finding pre-existing answers to their questions, and (most importantly) addressing questions/confusion re: what is/is not acceptable behavior and issues related to Code of Conduct. While this might be a bit of work in the initial stages, this type of work should be positive (rather than the intense negative work in addressing bad behavior!).

PROVIDE UPDATED REQUIREMENTS FOR EACH PROPOSAL PHASE ON THE FAQ
This is the ‘devil in the details’. The users are expected to search the Area51.meta for this information, but much of this is outdated (and some if it is incorrect or misguided, and there are conflicting messages EVERYWHERE). We recommend that 'accepted’ details in the Q/A format of Area51.meta could be linked to the FAQ page (with the expectation that the moderators will ensure that the most updated answer is the accepted answer).

CLARIFY THE GOALS OF THE COMMITMENT PHASE
The FAQ appears to be written for existing users who actively participate in multiple proposals and is very confusing for communities that are not currently active in the SE world but would be well served by having their own SE site. On the face of it– this is simple, ‘Users are asked to commit to participate in the site to assure that the site will have enough participation — we don't want to create ghost towns.’ (from further down on the FAQ). From the perspective of a novice community member, what differentiates ‘following’ a proposal from ‘committing’ to a proposal? On the one hand, they are asked to commit to being active on the site once it hits beta, but on the other hand, the site is actually in limbo and there is no activity.

We suggest SE revise the FAQ to clearly outline the GOALS and Expectations of the Commitment Phase so that inexperienced communities can understand the purpose of this phase of the proposal.

  • Is the expectation that the community will find experienced users on other sites? If so, why is it then suspicious if we advertise on the meta of other related sites (even if we got that idea as a suggestion from other meta posts?)

  • Is the expectation is that the community will educate their users? If so, then this should be clearly stated in the message that goes out to followers of the proposal. Remember, the only people that can communicate with all of the followers of a proposal are the Resident Aliens on Area51!

ALIGN THE REQUIREMENTS WITH THE GOALS OF THE COMMITMENT PHASE
If the goal is to ‘promise’ activity, then consider merging this with the offer to ‘follow’ a proposal. Please note our suggestion above (request?) to improve the registration process. The ‘commitment’ phase was the point at which this confusion was identified.

If the goal is to have an existing community bring on experienced users, make this clear and help us newbies understand how finding 100 experienced users within a few months strengthens our community and leads to success (please note that even though previous proposals had ‘advertised’ on other sites, it gives the impression that we do not have our own community, which we do!).

If the goal is to ensure we educate our own community, this should be stated clearly and SE should consider alternative approaches that actually serve this purpose.

CONSIDER AN EXTENDED PRIVATE BETA TO EDUCATE COMMUNITY
For cases such as the Bioacoustics Community, where there is a strong, enthusiastic and dedicated userbase with little experience in the ways of SE, their approach to success may be very different than other communities. These users may be highly motivated in their topic of interest, but have little time/energy/interest in participating in other sites. The overall success of individual users as well as the site may be well served by having an extended Private Beta which would serve not only to ‘seed’ the site with a large number of Q&A, but to also teach good etiquette (and building their own culture). We suggest providing an option for an extended Private ‘Training’ Beta with modified rules to provide foundational training of the community.


These are some concrete suggestions that we, the Bioacoustics Community, hope you will consider. Some of these may seem unrelated to the problems with inappropriate voting–but I would argue that they are part of the problem and addressing these issues would minimize the chance that users participate in inappropriate behavior. We really had the best of intentions, and I seriously doubt that any CM would expect us to go to the lengths we did to try to rally and educate our community. Yes, we are a dedicated and enthusiastic bunch. Sometimes we are just too enthusiastic.

Happy to discuss those juicy details at the nearest pub, if you are buying.

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    Proof Assistants had a chatroom which was attached to an existing site while they were going through Area51. (Note that chat requires 20 rep unless you're invited into a chatroom by a moderator.)
    – Laurel
    Aug 25 at 19:28
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    (+1) Very constructive suggestions. I wasn't clear on 'Moderators as Mentors' though - is that referring to site moderators (unpaid volunteers who can't be assigned unless they want to be), or to community managers (Stack Exchange employees)? Aug 25 at 19:43
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    @Laurel- I wish we knew that was an option! I did not see anything like that in the meta (it is hard to find & indentify gems in Area51.meta).
    – Shannon
    Aug 25 at 19:49
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    @Scortchi-ReinstateMonica .... Devil is in the details (and I think each idea could be an independent post/query with discussion). Some communities may not need this, but I could imagine one option would be for a moderator to ASK the community-- and perhaps the community could consider (1) they have an experienced user who worked with a moderator or (2) they first put a query out on other meta sites to see if there might be a volunteer who would enjoy the process. I know nothing about the paid staff-- and how that would work. I think this type of thing could be much, much more productive.
    – Shannon
    Aug 25 at 19:53
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    "Community Managers" = paid staff. Moderators are volunteers for a specific site, though some moderators formally or informally work with more than one site. Typically up until moderators are elected the community moderators (or community team) assists with moderation. I think one of the proposals was to bring back pro-tem mods by appointment (which was the case years ago) to get things moving, then run an election later. I also feel this is as much a learning experience for SE (which hasn't really had a community from 'outside' in ages) as y'all
    – Journeyman Geek Mod
    Aug 26 at 6:29
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When you find an answer for this, feel free to share it on Anime & Manga, would you?

Maybe more to the point of this is how Area 51 was meant to be set up. If I recall correctly - and to be blunt I can't really go and find the post since I think the person who made it had their data wiped from that site - the point of bringing a site through the Area 51 process was that they were already established as a community who needed a home, and that they wouldn't need a whole lot of extra prodding from there.

What this smells like is a situation in which the community had to boost their own numbers a bit internally to appear healthy. To which I say...that kinda goes against the idea of a site being launched, doesn't it? Wouldn't the site already have the organic members involved, asking and answering questions naturally, and not worrying about the triviality of hitting now-deprecated Beta metrics?

Some days I think that the Stack Overflow model isn't really built to support anything that isn't objectively programming-oriented, and some pain points exist with non-technical subjects that make it hard to get any traction otherwise.

But I don't really have a good answer - like I said, I'm looking for one too. Making communities form up isn't that tough, in my assessment; enforcing rules and policies makes it tough if there's not clear and concise understanding of what's expected of all players and participants, which could lead to friction like this.

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  • But they did have an "already established community" with a very healthy size. They were accused of "hundreds" of people coordinating to upvote each others network posts so that it appears like they have a lot of people with at least 200 network-wide rep. That's a huge, already-established, community. A51 was also not originally designed to have 4-month limitations on the definition and commitment phases. You won't understand how hard it is to get through A51 unless you do it yourself (please trust me on this, there's so much that you don't know that you don't know about A51). Aug 19 at 23:02
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    @user1271772: I've been through it only once, and that was only orthogonally, with Anime & Manga. I don't deny that I clutch at straws here and there since a lot of this is tricky to baseline and define, but I don't have an answer for the accusations. The CMs look at data that isn't public and will never be public, and I won't be able to accurately pinpoint what it is that they saw that caused their alarms to go off.
    – Makoto
    Aug 19 at 23:05
  • When I said "been through it", I didn't just mean supporting a proposal that was propelled by someone else. About the rest of your reply, I'm not sure what it has to do with this discussion. Let me make my previous comment clear: bioacoustics had an already-established, very healthy-sized community. Aug 19 at 23:08
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    @user1271772: *nods in silent agreement but no understanding*
    – Makoto
    Aug 19 at 23:27
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    Well A&M graduated. What I'm thinking here is - both that a site can 'survive' without having a strong stack exchange 'regular' base, and that if so, perhaps aspects of the current process, which honestly feels more designed for a growth phase we're out of could be reviewed. Assuming the voting anomalies were meant to help push the site into beta - maybe removing those pressures would make for a healthier process.
    – Journeyman Geek Mod
    Aug 19 at 23:31
  • As for keeping people engaged - I feel like these days, a lot of where I post is unrelated to ... well SE. I do Super User when I have projects. I posted pets when I had my dog. I did arquade when I finally figured out something annoying in a game. I'd assume domain specific sites should be fine in that respect. The concerns I had/have here would be cultural - good meta and voting practices for example.
    – Journeyman Geek Mod
    Aug 19 at 23:41
  • @JourneymanGeek: Yes, A&M graduated. It still has its struggles, but it graduated. So I guess my thought on this is why did the CMs deem fit to campaign against this site, attacking the behavior they saw as bad without trying to see what the actual issue was. But I'm also projecting a bit there; they probably only had dashboards to work with and deal with cases that smell like this kinda on the regular.
    – Makoto
    Aug 19 at 23:52
  • Every site has its struggles. Moderation, and dare I say community management, even at a hobbyist level is a process ongoing. As for bioacoustics - from what I understand, - and from the post about the suspensions, the issue was on other sites finding they had voting rings. It was a problem, and from past experience, it takes a lot of work to both find these rings and to figure out the fairest solution. The behaviour was pretty bad, but I'd argue that the actual issue is fairly clear - it'll just take time to sort out and communication over time.
    – Journeyman Geek Mod
    Aug 20 at 7:19
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  • To draw committers from users already active on other S.E. sites, continue working on the proposal to make it attractive, & continue contacting people—colleagues, friends, &c.—likely to be interested in the proposed site (some of whom will turn out to be active on other S.E. sites).

  • Committers of a proposed site without any experience on another S.E. site should consider joining one that corresponds to one of their interests & contributing to it; for its own sake, & to get a feel for how S.E. sites work in general.

I believe this is how the matter of a proposal's not currently meeting the requirement of its having at least 100 committers with at least 200 reputation points on at least one other S.E. site is supposed to be addressed. That many supporters of one proposal felt they needed to resort to gamesmanship in order to meet that requirement is not in itself a reason to abandon or revise it, even if they were correct: its aim is that a new beta site should benefit from having plenty of users (1) familiar with the S.E. model, & (2) with a track record of participation on an actual site (as opposed to merely having expressed enthusiasm for a potential site). It's by design that having "an enthusiastic community that [doesn't] really have much overlap with the existing SE community" isn't enough (see https://meta.stackexchange.com/a/53696/225179).

Ought S.E. to decide that enthusiasm (as measured by the no. supporters, the amount of activity around the proposal) trumps experience? The company's concern is undoubtedly that a beta site lacking experienced users would require more assistance from, & more intervention by community managers, & run a higher risk of eventual failure—bother & aggravation for all involved.

Could S.E. look more widely for evidence that supporters of a proposal have experience of participation in and administration of an on-line community? I suppose they could (the most favourable case would perhaps be where users of another platform want to migrate en masse to a new S.E. site). That would involve more work though—paid work presumably—& I can't blame them for using criteria based on what can be automatically measured by S.E., & putting the onus on the people who want the new site to demonstrate its viability.


† Spreading word on S.E. sites covering related topics (using chat or Meta) ought to be fine, in moderation, if you ask me—it depends really how the users of those sites feel about it.

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