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In the recent mod/staff virtual meetup, which included members of senior company leadership such as the CEO, a lot of discussion happened around focusing on new initiatives versus community requests. One example brought up was deciding to work on Discussions, as, according to Prashanth (the CEO), there were thousands of people saying that they needed a place for more open discussion in a less formal method than Q&A.

However, such a place does already exist, and has for many years on the Stack Exchange platform, and that is chat. There are currently three chat servers, chat.SE, chat.SO, and chat.Meta. These provide a much less structured, and less formal, way of discussion. It was explicitly developed to be the more lax "third place".

As Prashanth noted, it's very hard to build a community without discussing things, and I wholeheartedly agree. We've been pushing for more focus on chat for years, but it hasn't been a priority. I understand that; Teams and the like were much more urgent as the company needed to make money to survive.

However, when people are requesting something that very much does exist, but is not well-known, why was the decision made to make something entirely new (Discussions) rather than going, "Okay, we need a discussion area for the NLP Collective. Let's create a chat room, appoint "recognized members" as Room Owners, and prominently link this from the Collective"?
The existing chat features are where the community already hangs out, and so it would be less isolated - you're more likely to involve more people if you go to where they are rather than having them come to you. It has existing moderation tools that mods are familiar with, meaning that the existing tools can handle moderation instead of requiring CMs to moderate the Discussion spaces. It supports most of the features that Discussions currently has:

Feature set

  • Users can browse and view open Discussions posts.
  • Collective members can create new Discussions, and any registered user can reply to existing Discussions.
  • Nested replies are supported.
  • While voting is supported and post scores are tracked, there is no reputation impact to voting within Discussions.

Any user can view chat rooms, even if they can't talk until they have 20 rep. (However, users with lower rep can be manually granted talk permissions per-room, and this 20-rep limit is something that, if dev work was being done, could even be adjusted or removed on Collective chatrooms.)
Users gain the ability to create new rooms at 100 rep or so.
Replies are robust and implemented in the least confusing way of any chat system I've used.
Users can star interesting messages, and this doesn't affect rep (but you can get a couple badges).

In addition, this would have been a great opportunity to simultaneously work on something community-requested and that feeds into the current needs of the company.

From what Prashanth said in the meetup, I understand that focusing on a discussion space was a major priority in the past few months. The example given was Area 51 vs Discussions. However, I didn't hear anything about why a new feature was developed from the ground up instead of improving and using an existing feature, that's well-loved by the community and proven to be robust. Yes, apparently the chat codebase is esoteric, but surely with (one of) the original creator(s) of chat on board and a very competent dev team, it could be figured out.

Why was the decision made to create this new feature instead of using something that already exists?

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    I don't follow the equivalency between Discussions (which seems to be more discussion forum-like) and chat. There's an asynchronous vs (closer to) real time aspect, plus the length of messages (longer, more thoughtful in Discussions versus shorter, more spontaneous in Chat). I suppose it could be asked why some of the long-standing chat issues weren't fixed first, but I really don't see Chat as something that can stand in for Discussions. Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 10:03
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    Maybe Discussions and chat are not seen as completely equivalent, even though there might be considerable overlap. Chats with many persons tend to mix things together, discussions could stay more ontopical. Also discussions sounds more productive than chat. The underlying technology might be the same but from the content, chat might be seen as too relaxed and discussions as something in between chat and Q&A. Without knowing what the company's vision for discussions exactly is, I imagine it could be something like Q&A but without the downvotes or close votes and with more back and forth. Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 10:17
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    And to be clear - there are plenty of things to fix with Chat. Visibility into a site's rooms would go a long way, for starters. The whole "migrate comments to chat" functionality could also use some thought and discussion. But I also find Chat hard to use in an asynchronous manner, especially in highly active rooms. Just watching the video, I'd be happier in Discussions, even if some of the Chat issues were resovled. Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 10:25
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    "A space for threaded, public conversations on Stack Overflow": Avoiding the f word? This is not a surprise. Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 11:44
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    People don't need Discussions, which will drive knowledge into a black hole instead of into Q&A, they need Distillations, help focusing & clarifying Qs. Except that that is just Q&A+comments with the site educating on how the site works.
    – philipxy
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 11:55
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    Wait! What? We have chat?
    – rene
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 6:10

2 Answers 2

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Thank you, Sasha, for providing an answer.

Our current Chat tool does not easily facilitate extended lifespans of particular conversations, and previous conversations are often hard to find.

Well this question asks exactly this: Why not invest on making Chat better and add more features to it so it can accommodate those conversations?

Chat rooms can feel like one long thread or multiple intermingled threads

We can create "Threads" within "Channels"... Discord is a good example.

Chat rooms can have a defined topic but often do not have clear rules of engagement

I don't find this to be entirely accurate. There are number of rooms with their own set of rules, FAQ, etc. And honestly, I don't find the guideline for the Discussions to be really effective as is. So, whatever effort goes to making a guideline for them, can be (could've been) focused on making a set of rules for chatrooms.

The goal of Discussions is to have a space for conversations within a collective that doesn't fit neatly into the objective Q&A model but still augment the Q&A experience by helping technologists make well-informed decisions.

I am not sure how can we make "well-informed" decision based on uncurated content.


All that said, I am not against the experiment. But all the options should be kept on the table, including abandoning the feature if it's proven to be more problematic than helpful. And based on the initial feedback, expanding the experiment should be put on hold for some time. Just considering Discussions in a bubble (not arguing whether they are needed or not), the feature needs a lot more work, understandably, before it would be considered for expansion. The UI is buggy, comments under each threads do not accept replies, you cannot mention users, flagging/curation is basically nonexistent, etc.

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    How to summon an angry Cody Gray: "We can create "Threads" within "Channels"... Discord is a good example."
    – starball
    Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 0:53
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    "I am not sure how can we make "well-informed" decision based on uncurated content." they claim that getting something curated is a goal, but I don't see how that's going to happen without editability
    – starball
    Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 0:55
  • @starball yeah, I read your answer. At elast that claim is not yet supported with the feature as is (voting is part of curation, but definitely not all of it).
    – M--
    Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 0:59
  • And if that what it takes to hear from glasses, I am willing to make many more suggestions like that. To be clear, I don't want that feature in the existing chat rooms. But imagine if discussion main page for each collective was a room in the chat, and then sub-rooms for each discussion. Something off the top of my head. I haven't thought about it much.
    – M--
    Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 1:02
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    I think an important aspect here is most of the folks making decisions don't use or understand the value of chat. Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 3:03
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    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on all this. The first thing I will says is that curation is something we are thinking about, and there will be a separate post about this coming soon. I definitely agree that Discussions needs more work. Wider releases of the feature will come as we continue to iterate and improve. That said, it is still an experiment and we are open to all possibilities (including it not working out), based on how it's used and what we learn from that.
    – Sasha StaffMod
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 19:22
  • @Sasha thank you for clarification. Again, I understand the premise of this experiment and appreciate your openness yo feedback. While I have you here, I wanted to bring up 1 huge bug with the UI. After almost any interactions (commenting, flagging, editing, etc.) one has to refresh the page or otherwise nothing works, even the vote arrows become non-responsive. I can post this when you officially post something soliciting feedback.
    – M--
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 19:30
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    @M-- Bug reports and feedback are always welcome; the MSO post is a good spot for those, or you can always do a new MSO post if you like. I was able to reproduce unresponsive vote buttons after posting a reply and we'll take a look at that. On that bug I noted your comment verbatim (that it was almost any interactions) and we'll do more testing. Thank you!
    – Berthold StaffMod
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 20:43
  • @Berthold I cannot flag and vote. Maybe it's still possible to post comments but I haven't tested that. Thanks for taking a look. Cheers.
    – M--
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 20:45
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In Discussions, we’re looking for the content within to be more of an ongoing resource for both readers and participants, where the conversations can be easily accessible and discoverable in both the short term and long term. Our current Chat tool does not easily facilitate extended lifespans of particular conversations, and previous conversations are often hard to find.

As others have said in some of the comments, we don’t see Discussions as serving exactly the same function as Chat. Of course, there is some overlap, because they are both spaces for users to communicate outside Q&A. However, there are also some key differences:

  • Chat rooms can feel like one long thread or multiple intermingled threads, used more for real-time (or close to it) conversations on an ongoing basis. Discussions will be individual posts with subthreads that are meant to live on the platform long term, which people can come back to as needed.
  • Chat rooms can have a defined topic but often do not have clear rules of engagement (other than following the Code of Conduct). Discussions are housed in a specific collective which defines their scope and have a set of guidelines about what types of conversations are considered useful and appropriate for the space.

The goal of Discussions is to have a space for conversations within a collective that doesn't fit neatly into the objective Q&A model but still augment the Q&A experience by helping technologists make well-informed decisions. On the other hand, chat is more open-ended, allowing users to connect however they see fit. We expect some Discussions threads to only be relevant for a finite duration in time, while others will become long-lasting points of reference.

You can read more about the goals of Discussions on this MSO post, and in this post from our research and design team, diving into the user research behind Discussions.

Both features add value to the user experience in their own way. We don’t see Discussions as a replacement for Chat, but as a separate way to encourage users to engage with each other, and build subcommunities on Stack Overflow.

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    "Our current Chat tool does not easily facilitate extended lifespans of particular conversations" how so? auto deletion of low activity chatrooms? room freezing? Both of those are implementation details that you have the power to change.
    – starball
    Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 17:15
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    @starball to me chat feels ephemeral just like comments on SE. Whereas online forums feel more permanent. I wouldn't be too sure putting something in a chatroom that I want to be preserved. It's a dichotomy. Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 18:00
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    @CaveJohnson comments are "ephemeral" in a quite deeper sense- the whole "second class citizens", delete whenever no longer needed. Chat transcripts are kept around... forever. Unless messages are deleted or moved by mods.
    – starball
    Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 18:10
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    So does it mean chat is going to be shut down? Chat is already a "lose only" part, with no ads, and no money making at all. Adding another similar thing, spending very much time, money, and efforts on something new with the same functionality, etc, means you'll spend double on essentially the same thing. Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 18:21
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    "Our current Chat tool does not easily facilitate extended lifespans of particular conversations, and previous conversations are often hard to find" - so fix that? It's far less resource-intensive to expand an existing system than it is to make an entire new system from scratch. That's particularly useful when the company has very little resources to waste thanks to it being run financially into the ground with moves like this. Chat could've been expanded with a special new type of room, for example, or have the existing conversation saving improved (and made significantly more trivial to
    – Zoe
    Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 20:35
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    search for), which would've required far less work, and caused far less community fragmentation. What a continuous stream of new features does isn't making it easier to engage, but making it more difficult by having there be many different places with overlapping types of engagement, making discussions a net negative towards your stated goal
    – Zoe
    Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 20:36
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    Additionally... chat already supports threads... it's called creating a new room, and they're infinitely nest-able! you can also search for rooms, which doesn't appear to currently exist with discussions, and rooms are long-lasting with an accessible transcript, are searchable, I mean, the only thing they don't do that discussions do is give a reason for collectives to exist.
    – Kevin B
    Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 20:41
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    I think this was a good decision. The real-time nature of chat tends to exclude people from less active time zones, cause it to be fairly intimidating for some people, and to promote more off-the-cuff social chit chat than scholarly discussion.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 21:42
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    @Zoe On the other hand, I suspect every effort to modify chat for this effort would be greeted with complaints about how it breaks peoples' workflow with chat and how this feature for Collectives is breaking the rest of the site, etc. I think it's a bit funny that the We're Not A Forum site is building a forum, but forums are very different media than chat. Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 22:27
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    @BryanKrause yes and no. Chat's a good basis for something like this and could cross pollinate development and we've historically used chat in the exact same manner that the community team describes discussions. I also recall one of the sites that got started by ex-SE users actually using their chat system that way. Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 23:36
  • I think there may be a good space for discussions, but voting on them should be removed. If you want people to be able to indicate usefulness, use reactions like on GitHub
    – TylerH
    Commented Aug 22, 2023 at 13:30
  • A fruitful discussion in chat can be converted into a Q&A post(s).
    – starball
    Commented Aug 24, 2023 at 6:44
  • @ShadowTheGPTWizard it doesn't seem chat will be going away: meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/426143/…
    – M--
    Commented Aug 25, 2023 at 21:52

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