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Why are some Stack Exchange sites so inactive?

For instance, Writing.SE shows questions from 2 weeks ago on its homepage, and it appears to have very low overall activity as well (including a large amount of recent unanswered questions).

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4 Answers 4

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Why

Site participation depends on each site's circumstances. You could look for the reasons on the per-site / child Meta. Some cases could have "escalated" to this site, Meta Stack Exchange, and some have even reached the news / external sites.

Some events that had an overall relevance on Stack Exchange are mentioned in the Wikipedia article. As of November 21, 2023 this article has two notices. One general notice suggested splitting the article. Another on the section "Declining relationship between users and company" with the following text (links are not included):

This section may contain improper references to user-generated content. Please help improve it by removing references to unreliable sources, where they are used inappropriately. (March 2022) (template removal help)


What

Stack Overflow's Help Center will be used for links because Stack Overflow is the Stack Exchange Network flagship. To find the corresponding help article of another site, replace https://stackoverflow.com from the link URL with the site's address—the same for other pages like Users.

The elemental user activity, referred to as participation, on a Stack Exchange site is done by posting questions and answers. Other actions like edits will "bump" posts to the Homepage, but there are some rules.

IMO, the most critical participation is moderation, not by people with "super powers" but by the site's users based on the Reputation System.

The activity that builds a sense of community goes far away the Homepage

Many things will not be shown on a site's Homepage. Many of them are more important than questions and answers, which foster a sense of community, engage, and make people commit and have a feeling of ownership, to make things happen. Those things motivate them to moderate their site.

Moderation might be referred to in many forms and seen in many places. Not all the moderation outcomes will cause an output visible on the site's Homepage as question, answer or edit.

Besides activity on the main site, look at the site's Tour, Help Center, the per-site / child Meta, the site chat, aka, "The Third Place™," and the off-site places where the users do other things than posting questions and answers and editing posts according to the Stack Overflow Q&A model and rules.

Where

As of November 22, 2023, the Stack Exchange button on the toolbar of this page says that there are "183 Q&A communities".

Stack Exchange Network Stack Exchange network consists of 183 Q&A communities including Stack Overflow, the largest, most trusted online community for developers to learn, share their knowledge, and build their careers.

Stack Exchange expanded card

In the above text, IMO, the term "Q&A communities" refers to "online community" as a synonym of "virtual community". It includes a claim, which is done from a marketing/promotion of a product writing style, so take the communication intention, promoting a product; it's a free digital service, but it still is promoting a product from a for-profit business.

It's perfectly fine to have as an aspirational goal and use it in publicity and public relations: the intention to achieve the sense community, as the Malcolm Baldrige Excellence Award has defined in their category for Communities, as well other institutions have done as something causing satisfaction because the top outcome is the human well-being.

Site and Community

From an economic and financial perspective, a site, aka website, and a community are intangible things, but one is an intangible asset and the other not. A site can be sold, but a social group of people around the globe cannot.

The site creation process has evolved dramatically over the years. Nowadays, to propose a new site, it's required that a community already exists before creating the new site proposal. Also, due to the limitations of what could be done on Stack Exchange and digital services, it's not strange that people look to create meaningful relationships, grow as human beings, and spare their time in other places.

From https://area51.stackexchange.com/faq (emphasis mine):

How do I start a new site?

If your area of expertise doesn't already have a Stack Exchange site, propose it! Stack Exchange sites are free to create and free to use. All we ask is that you have an enthusiastic, committed group of expert users who check in regularly, asking and answering questions.

The creation of Stack Exchange sites is a community-driven process. That does not mean the majority of Area 51 users have to love your site idea. It simply means you have to recruit a community of users large enough so that questions get good answers quickly. Reach out to other experts to build support for your site; bloggers, enthusiasts, and support groups can all benefit from a world-class, canonical collection of expert answers to the hardest questions.

Site

Looking at the output of the Stack Exchange platform, we find sites. The Stack Exchange sites are listed at https://stackexchange.com/sites. This page has two views. The list view shows some site statistics:

Stack Overflows Statistics Alls Sites page

  • questions
  • answers
  • answered
  • users
  • questions/day
  • site/age

The above metrics could sort the sites. On top of the list, it's easy to see the most active or the least active. Just choose one of the metrics.

As mentioned at the top of this answer, site participation depends on each site's circumstances.

While a site's Homepage might give some sense of site participation, looking at the Users page might be more helpful. This page has the following views.

  • Reputation
  • New users
  • Voters
  • Editors
  • Moderators

Several views have filters to show users by week, month, quarter, year and all.

Meta

Per-site / child Metas has its own Users page, with a slight difference. Instead of a Reputation view, they have a Participation view.

Data Explorer

Data Explorer might be used to make a more profound analysis based on data, but according to Glorfindel's answer to How to get the historical data in users Tab

Statistics on voters is not possible via SEDE; votes are anonymized before they are made publicly accessible.

A workaround is to archive Users page views using services like Wayback Machine from The Internet Archive and use archived Users pages to get data from previous / old periods.

Related
Chat

Besides Site and Meta, there is Chat. Stack Exchange has three chat realms,

The Reputation System controls access to chat but works differently from others. The privilege threshold uses the aggregation of all per-site user's reputations. Also, chat moderation works differently, so activity and a sense of community might need more study to be understood. Start by reading https://stackoverflow.com/help/privileges/chat.

When

Below is a summary of some of the most relevant events without including those that might be controversial. They are documented in the Wikipedia article linked above.

Stack Overflow was launched in 2008. Later, other sites followed using the same Q&A model/platform. Stack Exchange, later referred to as 1.0, was established.

Server Fault, Super User, the first Meta, and MathOverflow, among others, were launched during this stage.

A new site proposal process was deployed in 2010. The Area 51 site was launched for this. Stack Exchange 2.0 was established. There was a rule that sites should be "healthy"; otherwise, they would be closed.

A bit later, Jeff Attwood, one of the founders, left the company.

At some point later, very significant rules were made. Sites were no longer required to be "healthy" to continue working. Also, it was required for Area 51 new site proposals to be created only when there was already a "community" ready to support them.

Stack Exchange, Inc. was sold. Nowadays, it's owned by Prosus.

Related

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    As all we know, COVID-19 was not a minor thing. Many very active members prior the pandemic suddenly stopped their activity. In many cases there is no way to know if is this is unrelated to this major external event. Taking the stop as "natural", doesn't feel so "natural" to me.
    – Rubén
    Nov 22, 2023 at 14:34
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    I haven't done data analysis to support this concern. This is not something appealing to do.
    – Rubén
    Nov 22, 2023 at 14:40
  • There are more things to consider, such as bias and criteria, regarding bias, who is the observer and what is observed, how aware the obversed is about how they affect the observed thing, and how the observed thing affects the observed. Some might argue about how well the Q&A model fits the "community" needs, others how well the "site" performs, others might focus on the interaction between the parties, etc., etc.
    – Rubén
    Nov 22, 2023 at 15:37
  • Add a Glossary: Add Output, Outcome. Consider the relevance of explaining the purpose of the Q&A model and why not all questions are a good fit to be handled with this model. Add an explanation of why a low activity in terms of new questions and new answers is not something bad per se. Consider the mention of the autonomy and control concepts from a cybernetics perspective.
    – Rubén
    Nov 22, 2023 at 18:23
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My option is that the site life cycles are somewhat broken. Communities are too and need help.

Originally there was a focus on growing these smaller communities - AKA Stack Exchange 2.0 and the associated projects, such as team CHAOS, and having dedicated, fairly engaged staff across the company on many of these sites.

Unfortunately the choices that were made – a rather strong focus on SO adjacent products – ended up meaning most of the smaller sites got neglected for years.

In addition, Communities have had a lot of damage done to them over time by choices made by the folks who run the company over time. Healthy communities need commitment, care and work. In addition to neglect, we've lost/had people driven away who were good at running these communities.

While to an extent communities have been resilient the sum total of this is the core of many communities have gotten gutted, and fixing this hasn't been a priority. And this means outside a few hardcore people remaining, a lot of communities have not recovered from traumatic events, or people have simply drifted away.

I'd say (optimistically) it'll take a few years of some degree of dedication–no getting distracted by the next shiny object, and downsizing of community centric staff to make profit margins look nicer to make a dent on it.

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    "Originally there was a focus on growing these smaller communities" What were they doing? I only know Team CHAOS as the people with the Unicode at the end of their names.
    – Laurel
    Dec 4, 2023 at 14:32
  • Practically, the cliffs notes version is they got a quintet of essentially paid interns and got them directly on community building tasks - stackoverflow.blog/2011/11/08/the-art-of-organizing-chaos is a useful read. Some of the links to Twitter seem broken but that'll give an idea of what they did. Dec 4, 2023 at 23:40
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Why are some Stack Exchange sites so inactive?

I believe one reason is that is the script that automatically deletes questions aka Roomba. Currently, that script deletes questions with no answers, score = 0 or below, no more than 1 comment, and not many views. This means that the script will delete a large percentage of questions on small sites, unless there are some active user(s) answering questions. E.g., on Stellar most questions will get removed (even without getting a downvote).

Posting a question knowing it'll likely get removed is not motivating. Also, the deletion of good questions also causes fewer users, resulting in fewer votes/answers and overall lower site activity (e.g., potential new SE users who could have found the question via Google won't be able to find it if the question was deleted).

Therefore, I recommend to decrease the required view count to prevent Roomba deletion when score = 0 on smaller sites. E.g., Roomba’s strict auto-deletion criteria are considered problematic in Arqade SE.

Other ideas: Why is traffic on some of SE sites stagnant or in decline, and what is the destiny of such sites?

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    @This_is_NOT_a_forum 365 days if score=0. Nov 26, 2023 at 3:49
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    that no one's answered in a year... seems like a bigger problem Nov 26, 2023 at 4:21
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    @JourneymanGeek Deleting good user content is also a significant issue, and fixing it could be mostly solved by changing one line of code. Meanwhile, attracting more users is much harder to solve, and personally I'll never recommend a site that deletes good user content. Nov 26, 2023 at 4:28
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    Its a symptom - no one's voted, answered or interacted with the post. That's the real issue Nov 26, 2023 at 4:30
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    @JourneymanGeek It's not just a symptom: the deletion of good questions also causes fewer users, resulting in fewer votes/answers and overall lower site activity. E.g., potential new SE users who could have found the question via Google won't be able to find it if the question was deleted. Nov 26, 2023 at 4:33
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    If the question was good in the first place, why did it not get any upvotes? No upvotes is often a sign of low quality. Do you remember when askers used to get 5 points for every upvote, while answerers got 10? That changed, now askers and answerers both receive 10 points per upvote. One of the reasons for increasing the rep was to encourage askers to stay. Nov 26, 2023 at 9:19
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    @Mari-LouAСлаваУкраїні because of low site frequentation Nov 26, 2023 at 9:25
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    Yes, and why is a site attracting so few newcomers? And why aren't users returning? It's got very little to do with questions being silently (which I have always found disconcerting) deleted by the Roomba. How many users are even aware that their un-voted, and unanswered question(s) got nuked? You don't, until one day you go through the list of your questions and realise something is off. Can you please provide some evidence that users are abandoning sites because of the Roomba's silent deletion? Nov 26, 2023 at 9:30
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    Posting a question knowing it won't get answered is not motivating. Nov 26, 2023 at 9:34
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    Just look at the annual reputation table for users on Stellar. The highest amount of rep earned in one year is 50 by a single user, followed by three users who each earned 20 rep. In over eleven months! Nov 26, 2023 at 9:39
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    If someone doesn't find a deleted question, it's because it didn't have any answer to begin with. What good is a (useful) two-year-old question with no answers? A new SE user, googling, is primarily looking for an answer. They could post a new question. What happens? It gets closed as a dupe! The problem is the lack of participation, and the decline of participation which you cannot realistically say is to be blamed on the Roomba. A user can be justifiably annoyed that their unanswered question was deleted but only when they perchance on it. They're not notified when a post has been deleted. Nov 26, 2023 at 10:51
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    Roomba's strict criteria for question deletion is considered a problem in Arqade: "Is the automatic deletion of "abandoned" questions a good thing?" It causes the unwanted deletion of questions about old or obscure video games. SE should give sites the option to reduce or remove the view count threshold for auto-deletion. Nov 29, 2023 at 8:23
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    @Mast changing user voting behaviors is much more difficult than changing Roomba's criteria. I'm not aware of any successful attempt at doing so (there was some debate about it when redesigning the vote buttons). People don't stop playing a game just because it's 5 year old. Dec 2, 2023 at 9:03
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    @Mast I get that Roomba works well for some sites, but it shouldn’t apply the same settings to all of them. Roomba's settings are based on Stack Overflow, which has different policies, topic matter, traffic, and voting patterns than smaller sites like Arqade. On Arqade, we accept questions about any video game, no matter how niche or obscure. We don’t think they should be deleted just because they didn’t meet Roomba’s views threshold. Dec 2, 2023 at 9:09
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    @galacticninja If they deserve staying around, give them an upvote.
    – Mast
    Dec 2, 2023 at 13:55
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I am suspicious that sites that we simply do not need are wasting the Stack Exchange network and is why Stack Exchange seems inactive.

Hop over to the Sites list and we find... "Quantitative Finance" alongside "Personal Finance & Money" even though they could be made into one "Finance" site and just use tags to tell if it is a finance professional or related to personal finance.

We have "Ask Ubuntu" and "Superusers" even though both of them are very similar, even though only "Superusers" is needed.

We have a "Tor" site even though it is very specific and could fit alongside some "Online Privacy" site or just not exist and we could use tags.


Alright so previously I was saying that we should merge sites... that have very different audiences. Alright I was wrong in that, but I guess I meant more of that we do not need super niche sites. Anyways, we do not need Tezos or Joomla or Substrate and Polkadot or Cardano or Sitecore or Tor or the other sites like this, I know maybe because of their community it might be hard to delete them, but these are just wasting our space.

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    Welcome to Stack Exchange - those are bold claims, and I get the impression you don't know enough about the specific audiences of the sites you mention. There may be some overlap between existing sites, but less than you assume and e.g. Ask Ubuntu and SuperUser are some of the most active sites/communities we have.
    – Glorfindel Mod
    Dec 1, 2023 at 18:16
  • @Glorfindel Thanks for the welcome though I have been here for 5 months. What I mean is that Ask Ubuntu and Superuser both are for questions with tech, now one is for superusers and one is not but if you look on the Superuser site a lot of them are normal questions that don't have to be for superusers and Ask Ubuntu can also have superusers. Yes they have different communities and sites alongside being active but I was just painting an example of how we could have overall more actives sites if we made our sites a bit more general.
    – The_AH
    Dec 1, 2023 at 18:34
  • @Glorfindel We do not need the Tor site or Solana or Tezos or Stellar or any of those sites and we didn't need to have Ask Ubuntu but we do because of the order of the sites. What I mean is that in the future to ensure that our sites are more active we should make more general sites and not split this activity making some sites seem less active than others when really the topic is active.
    – The_AH
    Dec 1, 2023 at 18:34
  • @Glorfindel However you are right that I do not know enough about the audiences of these sites, though it is pretty obvious for Tor or Solana or Tezos or Stellar or etc. However overlap between sites is based on their definitions and not based on community, if someone was to create a site dedicated to Red Hat Linux and CentOS today sure it would have a completely different audience from Ask Ubuntu or L&U SE but it would still be overlapping a lot. The only reason Ask Ubuntu exists is because of the order of the creation of the sites, nowadays if it was proposed it would not have been created.
    – The_AH
    Dec 1, 2023 at 18:39
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    Then why shouldn't there just be one big site for all of SE and we can just use tags to find what we want to read? The sites aren't divided up by topic; they're divided up by audience. The Quantitative Finance audience is not the same as the Personal Finance & Money audience. Even if the exact same question was on-topic for both sites, it would have a different answer for a finance professional than it would for a lay person. This is as it should be and is a good thing.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 1, 2023 at 19:03
  • @ColleenV Perhaps I was wrong in those sites and maybe we should only remove the very niche sites. I get your point but someone coming to Stack Overflow could be anyone from a beginner programmer to Terry. A. Davis's successor, that is a very different audience but the same site, isn't it? So clearly we can merge similar sites together even if they have some different audiences.
    – The_AH
    Dec 1, 2023 at 19:06
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    What benefit do you think there is to merging sites exactly? Linguists don't find most questions asked by EFL folks all that interesting. Why shouldn't there be English Language & Usage for the linguists and English Language Learners for learners? Sites are communities first and topics second. There's relevant discussion on the ELL/ELU metas about a proposal to merge the two back together: ell.meta.stackexchange.com/q/3349/9161 / english.meta.stackexchange.com/q/9778/80039
    – ColleenV
    Dec 1, 2023 at 19:13
  • @ColleenV Alright so I guess I was wrong, merging sites with very different audiences clearly does not work, I guess I can edit the answer to focus on merging or deleting sites that are too niche to be active.
    – The_AH
    Dec 2, 2023 at 8:38
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    I don’t mean to pick on you and I didn’t downvote your post, but why do you believe SE has limited space for sites? I don’t see how shortening the list of sites translates into making the rest of the sites more active. Wouldn’t it be better to ask 10 people who know a lot about Tor a question about Tor then to ask 10,000 people and hope that the few Tor experts among them will see your post in the flood of questions about a hundred other topics?
    – ColleenV
    Dec 2, 2023 at 12:42
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    @ColleenV Well because then someone who goes to the Tor site to ask a question will go to another site to ask a question increasing it's activity.
    – The_AH
    Dec 2, 2023 at 12:49
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    Someone who has a Tor question is not going to go to a different site to ask a non-tor question because there’s no SE site dedicated to Tor. They’re going to go to r/Tor on Reddit or some other Tor forum.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 2, 2023 at 13:46
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    @CollenV They could ask it on Stack Overflow.
    – The_AH
    Dec 2, 2023 at 15:04

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