What is the biggest overall challenge to the success of the various Stack Exchange sites?

I'm trying to think of problems holding back, or threatening the success of, the Stack Exchange sites (including official, unofficial and up-and-coming sites). In other words, the whole SE platform.

One challenge per answer please.

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    By official, I assume you mean SOFU; by up-and-coming, I assume you mean A51 proposals; what do you mean by unofficial? – Pops Aug 12 '10 at 14:30
  • Please ignore the close flag. I was looking at the wrong question :( – BinaryMisfit Aug 12 '10 at 15:18
  • By unofficial, I meant stackexchange 1.0 sites, and even really very similar clones, as they'll surely have similar challenges. – MGOwen Aug 13 '10 at 1:02

I'll post my answer only because it happens to be the exact opposite of MGOwen's -- the biggest challenge facing SE sites is stopping them from deteriorating into normal forum sites that nobody wants to visit. For the first couple hours of the Unix/Linux beta that started yesterday it looked dangerously like we were going to have more poll questions than not -- a majority of questions that have no true answer.

I'm of the opinion (and close war logs on SO seem to agree) that the people most inclined to participate in these communities are also the people least interested in reading about what IDE you think is best to write C# code in Linux. New SE sites are particularly vulnerable because there aren't any precedents for that sort of thing, and people have a really bad habit in betas of posting any question they can think of, no matter how unneeded it is, Seeding an SE beta is useful, but asking whatever subjective question you can come up with just so you can say you asked one of the first 100 questions on the site is not the way to set up the site as the authority on that topic; it does just the opposite

I would much rather a site be forked off that is dedicated to these sorts of things, like the Not Programming Related proposal. People that like those questions can have their fun there, and leave the other sites for actual questions.

I asked on a poll question once why people insist on posting them on SO instead of a site meant for that sort of thing, and the much-upvoted reply was that SO has a far better community than those sites, apparently completely missing the obvious: There's a reason that's true

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    Yes, and that reason has little to do with fervent zeal for topical purity, and a lot to do with 1: Fame of Joel and Jeff creating a big initial community, 2: The neat ability to edit and upvote etc, and 3: Not much noise (spam/duplicates/nonsense and other legitimately bad questions). Again, I'm not defending noise (a point I make quite clearly in my answer, and over and over in my linked post). – MGOwen Aug 12 '10 at 6:54
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    @MGOwen You are defending noise, you just don't consider it noise. It's like saying "I don't want bad questions on the site, only good ones" -- everyone agrees that's true, but the statement is meaningless if everyone defines good and bad questions differently. This argument has come up about 4000 times on meta; you can probably just search for it and find every argument we could possibly re-do here – Michael Mrozek Aug 12 '10 at 13:29
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    Perhaps the definition of good questions should be something objective? How about using votes or views? Deciding on "subjectivity" or "meta-tag-ness" is highly, well, subjective. – MarkJ Aug 12 '10 at 17:10
  • I think the reason why new proposal have so many poll questions at the beginning is because some people want to game the system and get fast points in order to have more permissions. Maybe there should be a way that moderators can force them into community wikis. – txwikinger Aug 13 '10 at 1:01
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    @txwikinger I doubt most people are that strategic. More likely, I think is that they've had a big soft question bottled up in their heads and haven't had a community of a few thousand like-minded people to really stick it to until... beta. So they ask, and answer. It seems like a pretty natural instinct to throw out some broad questions at first; whether its a good thing, I guess, is up for discussion. – Ocaasi Aug 13 '10 at 16:03

Seems to me that the biggest problem is attracting experts. I don't think anyone would argue with the FAQ:

Don't suggest questions like "How do I unclog a drain." Instead ask, "If you run 2.5 GPM through 50 feet of 1/2" galv pipe, how many psi will be lost to friction loss?"

But the people who are participating in the betas — private and public — are asking questions that are more like the former than the latter. It's not entirely their fault; it's unlikely that the private beta participant who heard about Area 51 because he was a high-rep Server Fault user is both a great sysadmin and a master plumber. And as I've discussed elsewhere, some of us commit to proposals in good faith only to discover that we don't know as much as we thought we did.

Whatever the reasons, the problem remains: with those sorts of questions, we won't be attracting outside pros. And without outside pros, it'll be hard to get better questions in the database. And that's more than a small issue for a site based on the idea of being home to a community of experts.


I think the biggest challenge is to draw in non-technical people from outside SOFU - the chances for this are very, very good though, and the minimalistic UI will help a lot. However, a lot of things that are self-explaining to a tech-savvy thirty-something are not so for our moms, grandfathers and aunties. I bet many of them have not heard the term "faq" before.

The second biggest challenge will be to achieve a "modus operandi" - a standard for what are acceptable questions and what are not - that is as mature and refined as the one on Stack Overflow. This standard will differ slightly for every site due to the specific nature of its topic.

I'm interested to see how this plays out.

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    These are excellent points. Attracting experts in computer fields is somewhat hard. Attracting experts in non-computer fields is much harder. And then on top of that, trying to reach a consensus on scope with the "enthusiast" crowd that won't make the site ugly to the "expert" crowd - well, it's not easy. – Aarobot Aug 12 '10 at 15:10
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    Plus, the site to submit SE stack exchange proposals looks like a bad Nickelodeon cartoon. Have fun trying to convince an expert to view the Area 51 site... – Michael Kniskern Aug 12 '10 at 15:48
  • I have absolutely nothing against Area 51's cartoon style. I like it. – Pëkka Aug 12 '10 at 15:51
  • The reason SO has a mature and refined (and not universally agreed-on) standard for acceptable questions is that it's been hammered out for years now. I'd be pleasantly surprised if many Area 51 proposals did as well. – David Thornley Aug 12 '10 at 18:02
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    @David yup, that's my point. It's going to take time, a lot of participation, and discussion... In the few proposals I participate in, I tend to look at SO precendents when deciding which way to vote on a edge question, but that's not always perfect. – Pëkka Aug 12 '10 at 18:37
  • @Pekka, the term "FAQ" existed long before the Internet got all popular. – Pops Aug 12 '10 at 18:41
  • @Popular true, that point is maybe exaggerated. – Pëkka Aug 12 '10 at 18:51
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    @Popular: That would be relevant if a significant portion of posters read FAQs, yes. Every year I get more convinced that Joel was correct when he wrote that users can't read. – David Thornley Aug 12 '10 at 19:18

Perhaps it's more an Area 51 challenge, but Stefano Borini recently blogged a bit about the challenges faced with creation of new sites and how there's a lack of more general proposals, resulting in small subsets of communities which will be neglected.

For example, he considers the inevitable success of a "Guitar Playing" site - since everyone and their cousin plays guitar - contrasted with the failure of a "Bass Playing" site - since serious bass players are harder to find - and wonders why there isn't a more general "Music" (or "String Instruments" or "Contemporary Band Instruments"; maybe since he posted it there is a "Music" site; I dunno) to start with.

It's a kind of Matthew Effect when you think about it.

I think it's a very valid point.

(CW as I'm parroting someone else's answer)


  • Careful with those examples - bass players form a strong and active community themselves (two german-language communities i know of, at least one international/english) and its quite different from guitar playing. Its more a question of getting those people on that proposed site as well. – Georg Fritzsche Aug 12 '10 at 4:51
  • @Gerg Fritzsche - Hey, I'm a bass player too and I love it, and I recognize the distinction. The "inevitable failure" of a "Bass Playing" site has more to do with how everyone-and-their-cousin plays guitar while serious bass players , who don't think of it as guitar, who would participate in a Stack Exchange site are harder to find... the system ends up benefiting the ubiquitous guitar players and not the less-prevalent bass players. But guitarists are so ubiquitous they don't need a community like this as much as bassists could benefit from it, methinks... – Richard JP Le Guen Aug 12 '10 at 11:39
  • Good point - but I think the minimum required number of followers and committers will sort this out. If the "Guitar" site doesn't lift off, people will throw in their lot with "Music" (or "String instruments"). – Pëkka Aug 12 '10 at 11:52
  • @Pekka - If there was a "Music" or "string Instruments" but there isn't! :( – Richard JP Le Guen Aug 12 '10 at 14:11
  • Ah, with that edit i get your point now :) – Georg Fritzsche Aug 12 '10 at 21:19

One challenge I also (my second answer) see is getting questions answered that fall off the "new" list. I know there are ways around this: offering bounty (the official / correct way - but it costs reputation) and editing your question regularly (bad if it only to get it in the active list!).

I don't have a great solution. But one possibility is a random button which selects an unanswered question, possibly based on a tag you specify.

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    I like the idea for a random question a lot. On most wikis, random change is one of the most frequently clicked links. – Ocaasi Aug 13 '10 at 16:09
  • @Ocaasi - thanks - maybe that is where I got the idea, from Wikipedia. – Wikis Aug 13 '10 at 17:05
  • It appears that this question (random button) has been asked over a year ago but never been resolved: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/5551/random-question-button – Wikis Aug 13 '10 at 17:16
  • Someone posted about UI research from WIKIA which confirmed the random change popularity. I wonder if management is concerned about having people just showing up at random pages and dropping random comments. (stiff upper lip) Stack Exchange does not do ra-n-dom. Not technical enough maybe? – Ocaasi Aug 13 '10 at 17:26
  • I really do not know them / Stack Exchange policy well enough to comment. I've have other outstanding suggestions (remove timers / improve Area51 badges) but only got a response in one out of three times. I guess they can't do everything? – Wikis Aug 13 '10 at 17:51
  • @Ocaasi - have you got a link to that research? – Wikis Aug 13 '10 at 17:51
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    @Mark "Better organization of features. Did you know that Search, Random Page, and Recent Changes are the most frequently clicked links across all 130,000 wikis?" (community.wikia.com/wiki/User_blog:Sannse/…) – Ocaasi Aug 13 '10 at 19:00
  • @Ocassi - thanks - what is that Wikia thing? I couldn't (with 30 seconds searching) find a clear overview... – Wikis Aug 13 '10 at 19:13
  • Silly me: it's here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikia – Wikis Aug 14 '10 at 7:03

One challenge (don't know if it is the biggest) is retaining new people. I have no idea what the stats are but I see lots of the same names appearing and many in-jokes* (waffles, Jon Skeet references). So I wonder how quickly new people can become part of the scene.

The challenge is not just getting but also retaining and nurturing new people and therefore avoiding a clique.

*Of course, this is a question of balance - it's got to be fun as well.


I think the biggest challenge facing the team is finding a viable business model to earn enough to pay the bills. With the new SE 2.0 sites, the cost of running the whole thing rises dramatically.

  • @Earlz: Ads only go so far. – uɐɯsO uɐɥʇɐN Aug 12 '10 at 6:36
  • They've got venture capital to pay for servers and whatever other equipment they need. The only ongoing costs are maintenance and bandwidth, and while those aren't cheap, ad revenue from a moderately-successful SE site should definitely pay the bills (they did for Stack Overflow, unless the team is hiding something). – Aarobot Aug 12 '10 at 15:06
  • Good point... Someone should have told them that their massive enormous exploding success was going to be really... expensive? – Ocaasi Aug 13 '10 at 16:07
  • Okay... the question is just asking for challenges. That doesn't mean problems. – uɐɯsO uɐɥʇɐN Aug 14 '10 at 17:28

I think the biggest problem is going to be integrating the SOFU communities and "the outsiders". Apart from the people who pick up early in the beta, the majority of new users will eventually have no affiliation with SOFU or coding or even a computer-related profession or interest. Some might not know what IRC is. Or codez. And each one of those users has to learn the rules. Some will have their own ideas about what will work, uninfluenced by prior any experience with stackexchange.


My pet hate is over-zealous question closing/deleting. I don't mean legitimate pruning, like cleaning up spam or actual duplicate questions or totally off-topic stuff; I'm referring to OCD over-moderating of harmless questions (that aren't strictly outside the guidelines and are valued by the community).

(I posted a rant on my blog called Overkill: the problem of over-modding in StackOverflow about it if you want to see what I mean).

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    We already have extreme measures that make it pretty much impossible to delete programmer cartoon style questions. As soon as a question has 100+ answers accepting any more serves very little value. Our engine is not designed to handle questions with 100 answers. – waffles Aug 12 '10 at 1:06
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    Why is it people that are for these sorts of questions can't stop themselves from claiming the people against them have OCD, Asperger's, etc.? I see it all the time, it's completely ridiculous; as though one needs to be mentally ill to not want SO inundated with polls – Michael Mrozek Aug 12 '10 at 1:06
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    There really isn't enough closing of chit-chat questions. – random Aug 12 '10 at 1:10
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    This probably wasn't the best forum for that opinion. The people reading this questions are, after all, drawn from the active moderation segment of the SOFUE population. A lot of us are reasonable strict deletionists and even the inclusionists are willing to admit that there must be some boundaries if we are to maintain the focus that makes these sites work. – dmckee Aug 12 '10 at 3:02
  • Did anyone actually read the post? – MGOwen Aug 12 '10 at 6:43
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    it's funny that the reason you think is the biggest weakness is the same reason I think is our biggest strength. We're not afraid to slap a few wrists and turn away folks who want to turn this place into yahooanswerfail.com -- I guess we'll have to agree to disagree. I'd rather have 100 of the right people on a site than ten thousand of the wrong people. – Jeff Atwood Aug 12 '10 at 7:02
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    What I think is funny is how people who have spent a grand total of 2 hours on a site always seem to think they have some unique knowledge or skill that qualifies them to tell those who've spent hundreds of hours how the site should be run. Not that inexperience automatically invalidates the argument, but you would think that before making this particular argument, people would stop and ask themselves, "do I really know enough about social psychology and group dynamics and SE communities specifically to back this up?" Opinions really are like a-holes, everybody's got one... – Aarobot Aug 12 '10 at 14:57
  • @MGOwen, I didn't read your post. Any link that identifies itself as a rant is unlikely to get a click from me. That said, I also didn't vote on your answer. – Pops Aug 12 '10 at 15:18
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    @MGOwen I did read the post, but I don't agree with it. – Pëkka Aug 12 '10 at 15:40
  • +1 Sadly this does seem to be a losing battle though. One word of advice, lots of moderators are here on meta, so linking OCD with moderating probably wasn't very politic. – MarkJ Aug 12 '10 at 17:15
  • And you're claiming that overzealous closing is the biggest problem for Stack Exchange in general? – David Thornley Aug 12 '10 at 18:01
  • @Jeff I agree, again, I'm not in favour of bad questions, but the truth is some people have a frankly ridiculous notion of what constitutes a bad question (see examples in my linked post) and don't think before they vote to close. – MGOwen Aug 13 '10 at 1:16
  • @Pekka what part don't you agree with? Perhaps I've explained something poorly or given a bad example (Even if a lot of the people hanging out on meta are part of the problem, people who actually read the article shouldn't have found anything in it to provoke such strong disagreement). – MGOwen Aug 13 '10 at 1:20
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    @MGOwen Firstly, I believe that the strict closing is one of the reasons for the overall high level of quality on SO. I often see questions I think are absolutely great (and often state as much in a comment) where I can totally understand the desire to ask them on SO because it's such a great venue to reach a huge audience of programmers - but will still vote to close because they're out of SO's scope. Secondly, I find it offensive to blame people with stricter standards of what's on-topic and what's off-topic of "OCD" and "over-moderating" and whatnot. – Pëkka Aug 13 '10 at 16:20
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    Thirdly, I reject the oft-raised notion of there being a monolithic high-reputation and moderator élite that does this or does that. Everybody with 3,000 reputation points - that is 3,149 people at the moment - can vote to close, and I've never seen a moderator close a question as off-topic if there wasn't a huge preceding open/close war. If you want a more liberal closing policy - which is perfectly all right - earn 3,000 points (which is not impossible to do) and start throwing in your close or open votes like everyone else. – Pëkka Aug 13 '10 at 16:29

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