It is a well-known fact that questions that are popular or easily understood get the most votes on Stack Overflow, by a large margin.

Given this phenomenon, is it not true that the proposals that are generally understood by the public (i.e. common knowledge) are the most likely to garner the necessary votes on questions and commitments by followers to reach beta, while the specialized sites that we really want (with far more interesting expert knowledge on them but a much smaller audience) will languish in the definition phase, unable to reach the necessary vote thresholds?

MathOverflow is arguably the most successful highly-specialized StackExchange 1.0 site to date. If MathOverflow was required to go through this vetting process today, would it even get past first base?

9 Answers 9


There is no way that the current Math Overflow site would have gotten through the current Area 51 process. Something like the general Mathematics proposal at Area 51 would have a shot. (Though that seems to be moving pretty slowly, partly because MO reputation doesn't count.) The overlap between MO and SO is pretty small, and there's absolutely no way we could have gotten 500+ mathematicians to commit without them having seen the site. I think it would have been very difficult for us to get much past a few dozen mathematicians who would have been willing to go register at some random webpage in order to commit to starting a new website.

Pollyanna if you think there's a big overlap between the MO expert population and the SO population, can you actually name more than a couple professional mathematicians who use SO frequently? Anton's below 600 rep and Scott's below 300 rep, and those are the only people that really come to mind on MO who might find SO interesting (edit: also Greg's just below 200).


I pretty much agree with Noah. I'm skeptical that MO would make it through the vetting process if it were to start now. The stated theory is that as SE becomes a more common platform, it will be easier to start niche sites, but I'm not convinced yet. Even if you have a large group of people at your command (e.g. a large blog readership), it's hard to get people to do much about something that doesn't exist yet.

The point of the vetting process is to get a critical mass of participants, but if the audience already exists and is easily tappable, as it was for MO (in the form of Berkeley grad students and the Secret Blogging Seminar), the proposal process is likely to be a hindrance. Even if the audience isn't prepackaged, there's only so long people can stay excited about a proposal. It may be that if an SE proposal doesn't go to beta within a month or two, it basically never will. Or if they do eventually go to beta, they won't get the initial burst of activity the proposal process was supposed to ensure.

If MO did make it through today's proposal process, it would probably be a very different site, closer to the proposed mathematics site. I don't think it would have attracted the awesome community behind MO ... then again, it might have attracted some other awesome community. There's a saying along the lines of, "if everybody thinks it's a great idea, chances are it won't work." The vetting process tries to ensure that a site will be successful before launching it. I think there should be some way to take more of a risk, but I'm not sure how that should work. The old approach was that you could pony up some cash to start a site and run it however you want, but that "didn't work".

All that said, no sites have made it through the area51 process yet. I have no data, and my intuition for human nature is often way off base. I'm sure I'll be pleasantly surprised to have worried about non-issues.


The GIS group is interesting. It shows all the signs of people advertising for it and getting rank newbies to the SO ecosystem involved. Of course they have no meaningful reputation yet, so that proposal is markedly behind the numerically less committed Web Apps proposal. The Area51 system is strongly biased towards known experts (high rep) over unknown experts (no rep), so the effects of external advocacy are negligible at this stage. Once the breadth of StackExchange broadens from the pure-tech areas, we'll see a bit more known-experts in a wider area of expertise and these other proposals will get better traction.


StackExchange will naturally focus on the bigger communities first. These communities will then bring together enough people to enable niches to succeed. At least this is how I understand their plan.


Is the vetting process on Area51 predisposed to plain-vanilla, populist sites?

Yes. Proposals which are popular, are generally also very broad, and by definition will attract a lot more users and go to beta before niche sites.

while the specialized sites that we really want

Are you sure that's what "we" want? I think we want both.

will langish in the definition phase, unable to reach the necessary vote thresholds?

They will eventually reach the thresholds necessary, especially if the person or people who champion them bring the community to the proposal.

If MathOverflow was required to go through this vetting process today, would it even get past first base?

Yes, most certainly. There's a good overlap between programmers and mathematicians for a variety of reasons. Further, there was one guy who went to the math departments and made the proposals, got the buy in, and got people on board and rocking.

You can see that this is happening now with the surprising topics on area51 that are already in the commitment phase, not one month after the site went live. Yes, they will necessarily take longer to make it to beta, but they surely will get there.

  • The faq specifically states that "they" (meaning Jeff, et al) are looking to attract experts to the sites, not novices.
    – user102937
    Jun 18, 2010 at 2:46
  • 3
    @Robert - I think there are two separate thoughts here. Ideally a site is built on experts which attracts novices. A niche site that will only attract experts may well be viable (though probably not very profitable), but the best kind of site attracts experts and novices. A broadly defined, popular site can attract both groups if it's well defined - for instance, stackoverflow is very broad - all of programming is contained in there. It attracts both experts and novices and does very well. I don't believe that you must necessarily choose one or the other - there's a balance to find.
    – Pollyanna
    Jun 18, 2010 at 4:47
  • Just because your a novice and/or don't know the answer to a question, doesn't mean you ask stupid questions. But you do need experts to answer the questions for them
    – Ivo Flipse
    Jun 18, 2010 at 9:25
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    There isn't a whole lot of overlap between programmers and research mathematicians. I know a lot more math than most programmers, and I'm lost on MO. Occasionally I go there and play the "spot the question I can understand" game, often losing. MO as it is would currently be languishing in the high-numbered pages, and I couldn't understand the questions well enough to vote on- or off-topic. Jun 18, 2010 at 21:21
  • @David - By the time most programmers get their bachelors, they only need to take a few more classes to minor in math. But my original emphasis was actually on the idea that many mathematicians are programmers simply because a lot of the work they do requires coding.
    – Pollyanna
    Jun 20, 2010 at 4:24
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    @Pollyanna: I've got a bachelor's with high honors majoring in math. I've studied more math since. If I can't understand the mathoverflow questions, let alone answer them, then most mathematically-oriented programmers will be unable to evaluate them accurately. You're not going to be interested in this just because you have a math hobby. This means that the people who would have pushed the site would be research mathematicians who frequent SO (or maybe SU). While there are doubtless some, I really doubt they're many. Jun 21, 2010 at 14:52
  • 1
    I have to agree with David Thornley. I have a BSc in Pure Math also and MO is way over my head. I can spot words that I understand but most questions are just not going to be understood by anyone with less than a Master in Math. And most of my professors and TAs wouldn't care for SO. (Graduated in August 09 so this is recent). I see plenty of fields where the SE platform would work but won't get the support from SO users. Medical Imaging is one. Maybe Area51 can take hits on Google Scholar into account? ;p
    – nkassis
    Jun 27, 2010 at 2:06
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    You're a Polyanna if you think MathOverflow would get past today!:) MO is an example of a site that attracts only experts, and maintaining a high quality of questions has been crucial in having many top mathematicians as active participants. It has been a highly beneficial resource to the community, and it wouldn't get past today. See for instance the Theoretical CS proposal, which despite having many prof. researchers committed, won't get started until a more "general" community supports it. Jul 26, 2010 at 16:48

I think that it also depends on the degree of exclusivity the new community proposes. While yes, physicists would almost certainly prefer to work with each other without entertaining basic questions from curious non-physicists - such a barrier might preclude getting a proposal through definition.

I would be willing to commit to many rare knowledge sites because doing so helps to ensure that I get to pick the brains of those who possess it. If that offer is taken off the table, there is very little motivation for me to help define or commit to the proposal.

I love to learn. I spend a significant amount of my spare (TM) time in self study. I would love resources that let me clarify things, get over humps, resolve accredited but conflicting sources, etc. I understand professional communities that don't want amateur / beginner noise, but given the fact that the topic is rare .. such a decision effectively alienates support.


With regard to the focus on Experts vs. Novices question, I think it's very simple:

You have to design the site and community to appeal to the experts, because they will define the primary destination site for the topic. And the novices will follow them anywhere.

It's easy to get someone to a Q&A site where everyone there knows more than them. (And if they can't find it, Google will do it for them.) It's trickier by far to convince someone to come to one where no one does.

So you never have to think to hard about how to define the site to attract the enthusiasts, acolytes, etc. They'll seek out the experts. Critical mass is accumulated in one direction for Q&A - down. The good news is that each level of expertise user who is already on board should be eager to see the folks just below them participate - that's where they can answer questions.

So as long as there's a fair amount of patience for easier questions (yeah, yeah, to a point, and assuming the asker did a decent search and spell-checked), you can focus on the experts, since their collective presence will cover the novices' needs for you.

Now, "Experts" can mean different things in different fields. On the Gizmo site, the best expert may be that guy in the cube next to yours who reads Engadget, Gizmodo, and TUAW all day instead of doing his job, rather than someone who necessarily works for Samsung. But you know it's not my Mom, who wants to know what the best phone is to replace her StarTac if it ever finally dies (seriously). And if she ever comes up with a less subjective question, she'll find her way to your colleague who's about to be fired for wasting so much time.


I think that's generally true. The more popular a topic is, the more attention it's going to get. Why wouldn't it?

StackExchange is only interested in supporting the most popular topics, which makes sense as they have a business to run. If they wanted to give any topic a StackExchange site, there would be no proposal process.

That being said, I think having the whole proposal process defines the site's content in a focused way, thus able to attract the expert users who would get bored answering the very basic of questions. So I don't think it's only the non-popular sites that would attract experts. Stack Overflow is a hugely popular site and there are many experts on there, right?

  • "StackExchange is only interested in supporting the most popular topics, which makes sense as they have a business to run." — Is this true? This seems to only confirm that MathOverflow wouldn't have existed if this proposal process had been in place. AFAIK it makes no money for anyone and only costs money, and has a very restricted audience, but it's such a great resource for the mathematician community that it's kept running. Jul 26, 2010 at 16:32

Is the vetting process on Area 51 predisposed to plain-vanilla, populist sites?

Somewhat... Yes, what's so bad about that?

Just as an example compare the trilogy and ask yourself, what does it mean to be a high reputation user on [trilogySite]:

  • Stack Overflow: you're a talented and dedicated programmer
  • Server Fault: you're a talented and dedicated sysadmin
  • Super User: you're talented and dedicated at ??? being ::lisp:super::/lisp::? you could out perform a hoard of geeksquad employees in your sleep with both hands tied behind your back?

In the realm of the trilogy, Super user is the dumping ground for questions that aren't appropriate for Stack Overflow or Server Fault. Is that such a bad thing.

I say no... Why?

Because the community has to grow from somewhere. Yes, Stack Overflow was hugely successful when it came to attracting a specialist programmer base but that's an anomaly that was engineered by Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky when they chose to draw their blogger audiences to SO.

To say that all Stack Exchange sites have to start with a very focused demographic and always remain that way is unrealistic. Some sites may need to lean a little more toward to plain-vanilla just to reach critical mass.

The major point that's being missed here is. If you search SuperUser you have a 1000x better chance of finding a specific answer to a question regarding general computing vs searching it on Google.

Just because you could create a site for guys that could stop a goats heart by staring at them doesn't mean that the site shouldn't also include related concepts like cloud bursting, running through walls, or general jedi mind tricks.

Which leads me to my next point that sysadmin1138 illustrated so well.

The Area 51 system is strongly biased towards known experts (high reputation) over unknown experts (no reputation), so the effects of external advocacy are negligible at this stage. Once the breadth of Stack Exchange broadens from the pure-tech areas, we'll see a bit more known-experts in a wider area of expertise and these other proposals will get better traction.

My favorite example of a 'truly specialist' site proposal right now is the Aviation FAQ site.

The majority of the current trilogy community is high-tech based yes, but Aviation is its own highly-specialized field. It comes down to, those who are pilots and those who are directly or indirectly involved in the industry.

I seriously doubt that this site will take off right away because it will be extremely difficult to garner support from members of the existing trilogy community but that doesn't mean it never will. Aviation is a vast and complex field that has the potential to attract a massive community that is currently fractionalized across the Internet. It will just take time to grow because the existing community doesn't complement that specific specialty.

An example of a more 'plain-vanilla' or 'populist' site would be the Extreme Sports site that I created.

Personally, it appeals to me because I'm an adrenaline junky. I live in Colorado, I have 7 years of experience of Skiing and I've spent the last 11 Snowboarding. I wakeboard in the summers, drive a crotch-rocket, occasionally take long treks to remote places like hiking Moab or sandboarding the sand dunes in southwest CO, etc...

For me, extreme sports are as much a lifestyle as being a programmer and even with all my experience, all that I know about it only scratches the surface of what I could know.

Before I created the proposal I searched through the existing proposals and found Snowboard & Ski but I think that proposal is too focused. I think it would benefit to have a larger community based around Extreme Sports because there are a lot of concepts that cross boundaries.

For example, knowing how to mitigate avalanche risk in the back country is just as important to a tele skiier who is making a 100 miles trek across the continental divide as it is for snowboarders who are tree-bashing in search of fresh powder and natural booters with soft landings to practice tricks. Or how, learning spatial awareness is just as important to a freestyle snowboarder working on rodeos as it is to a wakeboarding learning to do his/her first tantrum.

Plus, most people I know who specialize in one extreme sport usually specialize or participate in another so generalizing attracts a larger community following while creating an environment where people can branch off into new things.

Do I expect much support from the current community? No...

Mostly because, out of all the snowboarders, skiiers, rock climbers, skaters, wakeboarders, motocross riders, sport bike riders, extreme trekkers, or just wild adrenaline junkies I know; I couldn't imagine any of them beside me hanging out on one of the current trilogy sites for fun.

So what's the point?

  • Highly specialized sites are great under the right circumstances
  • plain-vanilla and/or populist sites are great under the right circumstances

and... most specialist sites (not related to technology) will have an extremely difficult time reaching maturity until Stack Exchange becomes less of a technocracy.

If you don't like it, propose a system where high-reputation users have no more influence than low-reputation users on Area 51.

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