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How do we grow the Server Fault and Super User communities?

And I'm not sure we can do anything about it.

At any given point in time, if you look at the home page of Stack Overflow, you'll see at least 4 or 5 questions that "belong" on Super User or Server Fault. Well, "belong" is a bit subjective, and I'm sure you can convince yourself that configuring SuPHP for Apache 2.0 is programming related. And there's a pretty strong incentive to do so:

Namely, if you ask your question on Stack Overflow, you will get an answer. Even dumb questions, even questions that belong on SU or SF: On SO they all get answers, and fast. On SF and SU, maybe they will, maybe they won't. But on SO, the results will be pretty well solidified within the hour; even if you get bumped to SU or SF, at least you'll know. However, if you ask on SU and SF, it takes a day or two or three before you get to the same state, with your first response rolling in at around 8 hours later. So, the intelligent solution is to ask on SO first, and if people complain, ask on SU or SF.

The problem is that the participation rates in SU and SF are abysmal compared to SO. The crappy engineer will simply say: "People need to start using Super User and Server Fault, and this will all be fixed." Of course, identifying a solution that is contingent on other people altering their behavior with no incentive to do so is wishful thinking at best.

But as pointed out a dozen or so times on this forum: people don't want to check all three sites separately. And they have proposed several solutions to try to unify the sites, or at least provide an agregated view for that user. The unstated implication that seems to get ignored is "Checking all thee sites is hard, I will not do it unless the interface is simplified."

Paradoxially, Jeff Atwood has offically stated that he has no intention of fixing this problem. In a blog post last year, he compared the individual sites to individual members of the League of Justice. Batman and Superman and need to be separate heroes, even though they fight for the same team, he argues.

However, to extend the metaphor, when people call the League of Justice, they now always call Superman. So much so, in fact, that Batman and Wonder Woman have stopped carrying their cell phones and only check their voicemail once a week. Now, no one even tries calling Batman because they know he takes longer to respond. And besides, Superman can probably help instead.

Rather than proposing yet another solution, I'm proposing that we at least acknowledge that there is a problem. Once we get past this first step, we can start looking at solutions.

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    +1 for the paragraph before last. Excellently put. – Pekka Mar 29 '10 at 23:11
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    I never bother calling Batman because he has no superpowers. Ooh, he has a grey leotard and a flashy Batmobile, sooo impressive! But can he stop a speeding bullet? – Ether Mar 29 '10 at 23:23
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    Personally, I'm just happy we have a way to get these questions off of SO. Believe it or not, it's been worse... – Shog9 Mar 29 '10 at 23:26
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    I thought about answering this, but then as I was formulating the answer in my mind it turned out that I'd be saying exactly the same thing I've already said, and in fact this whole question is merely a cleverly rephrased dupe of meta.stackexchange.com/questions/26689/… - so I'm voting to close as a dupe. – Pollyanna Mar 30 '10 at 0:53
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    Also, superman sucks – Pollyanna Mar 30 '10 at 0:55
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    @polly hmm, not sure they're exact dupes -- my question was about how to grow the communities, and they are now growing. Tyler's question is similar, but more about "how do we tie them more closely together", I think. – Jeff Atwood Mar 30 '10 at 2:40
  • so.... which one's batman? – quack quixote Mar 30 '10 at 3:33
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    May I remind you that the quality of the questions on Super User or Server Fault could also have an influence? People either asking poorly worded questions or asking for sugar coated ponies doesn't really increase the likelyhood of getting an answer, since it simply doesn't exist – Ivo Flipse Mar 30 '10 at 5:29
  • @quack: I'm batman (youtube.com/watch?v=8Ph8xOGLvdw) – AnonJr Mar 30 '10 at 13:06
  • This calls for a League View. Unified, functionality similar to the SE toolbar's hot questions/inbox, interface similar to SO|SU|* "full view". Add an icon of the Hero before each question. – n611x007 Jun 23 '12 at 19:58
  • I think it would be a good idea to merge SuperUser and ServerFault -- there is no good reason that these should be two separate sites. StackOverflow for specific programming questions, SuperUser/ServerFault for general computing / hardware / sysadmin / networking, etc... – John Peter Thompson Garcés Mar 27 '14 at 21:19

I don't know if you realize this, but you're asking for us to ruin Stack Overflow. Sure, let's allow any question to be asked on Stack Overflow -- there is a huge community there of smart programmers who know stuff about almost any topic, and they'll answer anything, right?

We know what lies at the end of that road: Yahoo Answer Fail.

Even dumb questions, even questions that belong on SU or SF: On SO they all get answers, and fast. On SF and SU, maybe they will, maybe they won't. But on SO, the results will be pretty well solidified within the hour; even if you get bumped to SU or SF, at least you'll know. However, if you ask on SU and SF, it takes a day or two or three before you get to the same state, with your first response rolling in at around 8 hours later. So, the intelligent solution is to ask on SO first, and if people complain, ask on SU or SF.

Totally [by-design].

Those questions and answers will get migrated -- so if you want that reputation attached to it, follow it to the target site. Heck, even if all you want to do is see the answers you have to follow it to the target site. This is actually OK, it's a legitimate way to learn about the other sites in the trilogy.

identifying a solution that is contigenent on other people altering their behavior with no incentive to do so

Sure there's incentive -- rep denial / migration and, in egregious cases (have yet to see this, though), banning of accounts.

But as pointed out a dozen or so times on this forum: people don't want to check all three sites separately. And they have proposed several solutions to try to unify the sites, or at least provide an agregated view for that user. The unstated implication that seems to get ignored is "Checking all thee sites is hard, I will not do it unless the interface is simplified."

Remember when the community was wondering, gosh, what could Jeff and Joel possibly do with a lot of venture capital money?

Well, TRY TO WONDER HARDER(tm). Seriously, it's like you're not even trying.

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    I totally agree with the top part, SO, SU and SF need to stay apart. But your solution is to threaten... I don't know who exactly with bans as an incentive, and an airy hint about VC that is maybe going to be spent to ail the problem? Weak. Not enough, Sir. – Pekka Mar 29 '10 at 23:48
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    @pekka my point is that it's a problem that largely doesn't exist -- we don't have users who repeatedly ask sysadmin questions or general software/hardware questions on Stack Overflow -- the migration teaches them about the other sites, and if they want the rep (or heck, the ANSWERS!) generated by their questions, they follow them to the destination site... – Jeff Atwood Mar 29 '10 at 23:51
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    @Jeff the fact that people try to ask their questions on SO in the first place - often explicitly because they get the dozenfold of views than on SF/SU, is a telltale sign that something is wrong. SO has gained critical mass and is flying. You can ask almost any programming question at any time of day, and expect to get three answers within 15 minutes. SF and SU, even I can see that much, are not flying - they are staying afloat thanks to the effort of a few (who have my great respect). The question to me is, is the management planning to address this with additional resources of some kind? – Pekka Mar 29 '10 at 23:57
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    @pekka oh my man, if you think those "aren't flying", I need to introduce you to you some Stack Exchange sites.. even the "popular" ones. SU and SF are definitely working, it's just that you have seen the Jon Skeet of sites and are (unfairly, IMO) using that as the benchmark against all others. – Jeff Atwood Mar 30 '10 at 0:06
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    @Jeff I am looking frequently at Stack Exchange sites, I know that in comparison SU and SF are doing well. And compared with most other tech support forums and such, I'm sure they are doing well, too. Still, I maintain that SF is not what it could be, not by a long shot. It could be to server administration what SO is to programming, and right now, you have to admit that's not the case, or not the case yet. But maybe I'm being unfair. – Pekka Mar 30 '10 at 0:25
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    On another note @Jeff, you keep dropping hints about VC. Is VC maybe going to be used on SF/SU in the future, or is there something concrete in the works, or is there going to be more info after your planning session, or can't you talk about it (which is all right as an answer)? – Pekka Mar 30 '10 at 0:32
  • @pekka Obviously they know, after all they would need to pitch the idea first so you can guarantee they know what it will be used for...they just need a little time to get their proverbial ducks in a row. ...and I really doubt they would let us know before the investors. – Locutus Mar 30 '10 at 0:43
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    I don't think Jeff is answering the question that was asked. I don't think that tylerl was suggesting that we have one big site where any question goes. – Joel Spolsky Mar 30 '10 at 14:26
  • @Joel: Perhaps with the API someone will create a portal to follow each seperate site in one spot or you guys use some VC money to do it ;-) – Ivo Flipse Mar 31 '10 at 17:54

I notice in general that people who come and say "Super User is doomed", "Super User is good for nothing", "Super User is a mess",... are usually people who spent 3 hours on it max.

Because anyone spending more time would know that most of questions on Super User get answers, at least the ones which are possible to solve. Even though the amount of questions asked is lower than SO, there is still a lot asked every day, and the counter of unanswered questions stays very much the same. I think there are like 20 questions per day, added to it, as opposed to the hundreds new questions.

In my opinion, you may take longer to get your answer on Super User... but at least you get one. On SO, if nobody cared to answer you in the following 15 minutes, then it's practically over, your question joins the bottomless pit of unanswered questions, and only a few courageous ones, tracking your tags, or checking unanswered ones from time to time, may answer you.

So seriously, I hardly see how SU is more "doomed" than SO.

Bottom line, if you can't care enough to switch site for one dedicated to your problem, why people should care enough to answer you?

Of course the above about SU applies very probably to SF, with the difference that SF is dedicated to a more restricted range than SU, and as such welcomes more sophisticated questions probably, with more complete answers. Although, I don't use SF a lot, so I could be mistaken, this is only my view on it.

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    They also think SU is doomed because certain mods are not allowing it to become a cesspool that Yahoo! Answers is. – random Mar 30 '10 at 8:06
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    "at least the ones which are possible to solve" You hit the nail on the head! A lot of the unanswered questions on SU asking for a magic eight ball answer... – Ivo Flipse Mar 30 '10 at 8:20
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    @random - it is doomed because certain mods are not allowing 3000+ users to have their fun anymore :P – Gnoupi Mar 30 '10 at 8:44
  • It's a case of Fastest Jan Itor of the West. But you're right. 3k users need their fun too. – random Mar 30 '10 at 8:57
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    @random I generally don't vote to close until at least one other user has, too.. unless it's egregious. We want to encourage 3k users to flex their mod powers too! – Jeff Atwood Mar 30 '10 at 10:26
  • @Jeff et al: actually I only vote to close to show I support the moderators (and the site guidelines). I really wouldn't care if things are closed before I even read it. (Though I could understand that those having moderator-powers might want "Add a way for moderators to cast a normal, non binding vote" from meta.stackexchange.com/questions/41062/… implemented) – Arjan Mar 30 '10 at 20:27
  • @Arjan - I think that the point in Jeff's answer is for 3000+ not especially to have fun, like I'm kidding about, but rather to run the site (and close off topic, duplicates, so) without moderators. And having moderators closing everything encourages 3000+ to simply rely on them and not do their part. – Gnoupi Mar 30 '10 at 20:46
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    You're right though, if the mods are doing all the closing and shutting down of questions, 3k users could become/feel disincentivised. – random Mar 31 '10 at 15:43

As a contributor to Serverfault, I see a lot of hard work by a core group of people to answer peoples questions, and i'm pretty sure the response time is a lot less than 8 hours, but I agree, there are problems. The primary of which is that there aren't enough experts at the moment, Serverfault and superuser don't have the same community of users both asking questions and answering them, there are a hell of a lot of people who come to SF and SU just to get an answer to their specific problem, without contributing back to the sites. There needs to be more emphasis on getting these using engaged and giving back to the community.

Another reason for the slow take up of these sites, is that it often feels like SF and SU are the poor cousins of SO, everything is focussed around SO. It's often like, hey look out our shiny site we built for programmers, oh and there's some other sites over there as well. Yes I know this all started out as a programming venture, and Joel and Jeff are programmers, but that needs to change if we want the sites to be as successful as SO. We need to get more publicity for the these sites, nearly every programer I know has heard of SO, but I meet so many sysadmins who I tell about SF, and they have never heard of it, but think it's a great idea. Jeff and Joel, we know your not sysadmins, you don't know the sysadmin community, so why not find someone who does and bring them on as a consultant or something.

I don't think SF and SU are doomed, they are providing valuable information to users, who often, especially in the case of SF, have no where else to look for these answers, and the quality of the answers are excellent (check out the subnetting question), but to get these sites to the level of SO needs work, and commitment, both from the team and the community, and I for one am happy to do this, because I believe the SF really could be the SO of the admin world.

To put it in terms of the League of Justice, everyone knows about Superman, his shiny cape and red underwear give him away, maybe it's time Batman came out of the shadows a bit.

Finally, there are a lot of people, contributing a lot of hard work to SF and SU and I think they need to be acknowledged for this, particularly when we spend time talking about how these sites are not working, there work and time is valuable, these sites do work they could just work better.

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  • AFAIK, Jeff & Co. know about the lack of leadership problem... But it's hard to break into a community you're not really part of. If you know who the Joel of SysAdmining is, maybe suggest he have a look at SF? – Shog9 Mar 29 '10 at 23:25
  • @shog true, I know they have made attempts at this, and I understand it's hard to find someone like that in the Sysadmin community, it's just not as vocal as the developer community (or not in the blogging world) but it seems the focus on these sites has lost importance as of late. – Sam Cogan Mar 29 '10 at 23:28
  • Sam, you stated everything I couldn't have said better. Especially paragraph #2 has been a real pet peeve of mine, one I've brought up here a few times (meta.stackexchange.com/questions/14866/…). Another issue I've seen with SF lately is it's becoming a bit like SU with dozens of duplicate questions. So many times I've posted a comment with more than half a dozen duplicates of the question being asked. – Mark Henderson Mar 29 '10 at 23:55
  • believe me, I love SF and SU, and I use them all the time.. but at the same time, given resource constraints, we have to focus at least initially on the one site that is the blockbuster. If only there were some way to for us have more "resources".. like something that rhymes with "centure vapital".. – Jeff Atwood Mar 29 '10 at 23:56
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    if you really do have resource constraints, how can you even entertain the thought adding more sites to the trilogy? meta.stackexchange.com/questions/42373/… Unless you already spending some of that VC? – Locutus Mar 30 '10 at 0:38
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    @jeff I completely understand that resources mean you can't do everything for everyone, but it often feels like SF (and SU) are the branch offices of the SO world, all the new shiny stuff happens at the head office (careers for example) and we're left waiting for things to be rolled out to the regions. It would be nice if eventually, when the VC money comes in hopefully, if there were some SF or SU orientated improvements and features. I'm not having a bitch, I know SO is the blockbuster site and the focus is on that, but I'm not a developer, I'm a sysadmin and I dearly want to see SF succeed. – Sam Cogan Mar 30 '10 at 8:23
  • lifehacker, has a good community for SU. – barlop Oct 2 '10 at 17:34

Just to counteract the "doom and gloom" nature of this post.

Server Fault traffic
Google Analytics, Oct 09 - Mar 10


Super User traffic
Google Analytics, Oct 09 - Mar 10


So if by "doomed" you mean growing at a more modest rate than Stack Overflow proper, then yes.

While I totally agree that we can always do better here, I think it is unfair, and frankly a bit rude to the users who do frequent SU and SF, to imply that these sites aren't working. They clearly are; they're populated by good questions and good answers on a daily basis.

While they may not be working at the blockbuster level of Stack Overflow, I would argue that STACK OVERFLOW is the (huuuge) outlier there, and not the other way around.

This thing we're doing -- it is a marathon, not a sprint.

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    Look at those SF slackers, not working on christmas day. And what's with staying off the site on weekends? That's just plain freaking rude. How dare they. – Mark Henderson Mar 30 '10 at 1:23
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    Where's the SO graph to compare to? – waiwai933 Mar 30 '10 at 1:54
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    @Farseeker - On the opposite side, SU has a traffic increase the same day. People are obviously getting a lot of computers as presents :) – Gnoupi Mar 30 '10 at 8:29
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    @waiwai933, all the SOFU sites are on Quantcast, check out quantcast.com/superuser.com, quantcast.com/serverfault.com and quantcast.com/stackoverflow.com for current data – Rich Seller Mar 30 '10 at 8:45

I've only asked a few questions on SU, but my experience couldn't be more different. Within minutes they had answers.

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I think that the original poster makes a good point. If there are going to be multiple sites, there are going to be people who are interested in questions across the sites. If we're going to be successful at answering people's questions, we have to be better at routing those questions to the people that are likely to be able to answer them. We should be able to allow people to subscribe to interesting tags across the sites, so, for example, when I go to https://stackoverflow.com/unanswered/tagged?tab=mytags, I can see questions tagged stackoverflow.vbscript in the same list as superuser.apple-2 because I have expressed interest in both of those tags.

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    Wouldn't the RSS feeds serve that exact same scenario? – perbert Mar 30 '10 at 15:17
  • Not if you don't use RSS. Most people don't. – Joel Spolsky Mar 30 '10 at 16:42
  • This is a terrific idea. SO's and SF's audience overlap a lot, but many people (like me, who does have SF related knowledge and questions once in a while) simply don't feel an incentive to be as active on the other sites as on SO. A unified notification system would help SF profit from SO's enormous traffic. – Pekka Mar 30 '10 at 18:40
  • This is also the reason we're building an API, yes? – Jeff Atwood Mar 30 '10 at 21:55
  • I hope it is ;-) But then the following of tags/interesting topics needs some UI changes to be more intuitive and user friendly @Joel and @Jeff – Ivo Flipse Mar 31 '10 at 17:56
  • @ivo open a meta item with your suggestions and some detail; there's no way I can read your mind on this. – Jeff Atwood Apr 1 '10 at 9:44

Like some others who are mostly on SF, I find the focus on SO a bit off-putting.

I think the focus on SO might be one of the reasons there aren't enough sysadmins answering questions on SF. If a new sysadmin shows up on SF and sees it as merely as a side project to SO, they're probably less inclined to contribute.

EDIT: One possible source of expert sysadmins is all the MVPs that are kicking around, but I wonder if the format of SF is a turn-off. I once tried to ask how many people on SF were MVPs, but the question was moved here, so it got no response. (Only a small fraction of the SF posters check meta, so there's no point in asking the question here.)

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  • The fact that SU and SF are sometimes treated like mere backing vocals isn't really helpful... – Ivo Flipse Mar 31 '10 at 17:57
  • And the fact that SF has more programmers than sysadmins on it... – dlux Mar 31 '10 at 18:07
  • @ivo you keep saying that, and I keep having no idea what you mean. All engine improvements go to all sites equally, and they cross link promiscuously. Careers will eventually go that route, particularly for SF, but it's unclear how career-ish SU is. And bear in mind, SO is over an order of magnitude larger than either of these sites. – Jeff Atwood Apr 1 '10 at 3:39
  • @Jeff: I should stop using twitter to comment on things ;-) But I don't think you're holding back on improvement for SU/SF, but more that the attention they get is skewed towards SO. I fully understand why, but that doesn't mean we should give up asking for attention! – Ivo Flipse Apr 1 '10 at 5:27

StackOverflow came first, didn't it? So it's more mature, and has gained a reputation as a good site to ask and answer questions related to programming. ServerFault and SuperUser are not about programming, they have different focus and are less broad than SO.

Speaking for myself, I've learned plenty from all three sites, and it makes sense to have them separate to allow discussion of their respective topics.

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