I received the following comment after htw.stackexchange.com closed after a beta period of 7 days.

I am contacting you because you recently committed to the "How Things Work" Stack Exchange site.

We are approaching the end of the private beta period, at which time we are going to discontinue the site.

After working with members of the community and exploring what this site would become, it became evident that "How Things Work" was simply duplicating content found on any of the other giant repositories of "how things work."

The primary mission of Stack Exchange sites is to make the Internet a better place to get expert answers to your questions. But by simply duplicating content found elsewhere, all we were doing was delaying users on their path to the primary source of the information.

That's seven days.

I am angry. Not because the site was closed, or because it was closed fast, but because the "rules", if there are any, for the beta phase are extremely confusing. I feel like I played in a football game where we were winning and all of a sudden the referee called the game for the opponents because of Rule 26 in their guidebook, which I don't have, and which had something to do with two of our team members having their shoelaces untied.

Admins: I would implore you to please take a little time and make a concerted effort to write up a user guide for people who wish to start a Stack Exchange site using the Area 51 process. The FAQ is not enough. I've talked with friends who have tried to log on to Area 51 and support proposals, and they can't understand what they're supposed to do. These are smart people who are reasonably familiar with computers, but they lead busy lives and they have little to no motivation to participate in a process where the rules are unclear and once you commit to a proposal, there's almost nothing to do. And those are the people who are familiar with computers and websites. There are lots of smart people out there who are smart w/r/t their fields of expertise but even something as simple as OpenID can be daunting.

I got excited because HTW sounded like a good idea, so I took time to participate. And then, poof, it's gone without much explanation.

Does a beta last 7 days? 90 days? Why? Is it flexible, and if so, how are you supposed to ask for more time?

Who decided to discontinue HTW? Where did those discussions take place? Were they in private? Were they on meta.htw.stackexchange.com? Can we see those discussions, so we can learn how to make other sites a success?

But by simply duplicating content found elsewhere, all we were doing was delaying users on their path to the primary source of the information.

What percentage of answers were deemed to be duplicates for elsewhere? How is this different from other Stack Exchange sites where answers are 2nd source and cite primary sources?

I've been an avid user of Stack Overflow for almost 2.5 years, and I can tell you that the reason I'm satisfied with that site is the same reason I'm dissatisfied with the Area 51 process. With a few minor exceptions, Stack Overflow has been a predictable place to participate in. Area 51 has not.

It's your framework, do with it what you want, but if you want people to participate and draw in advertising revenue, don't make the process unpredictable.

  • 3
    "the "rules", if there are any" - This is the primary issue. The "rules" for whether a site stays or goes are still being defined. It's been less than a year, and if you've been with stackoverflow since the beginning you probably understand that the development process is more similar to "let's throw this at the wall and see if it sticks, then adjust it as needed if it doesn't simply fall off" than it is to, "After having researched everything related to the topic, we are going to implement X and move on, knowing that X will most certainly work."
    – Pollyanna
    Apr 26, 2011 at 3:38
  • Or, in other words, if you require a well defined system prior to participating, then you should give Area51 another year or so to cook. If you want to participate in defining those rules, then now is the time to participate. But, as a beta user, you should expect significant discomfort as the ground shifts around underneath your efforts.
    – Pollyanna
    Apr 26, 2011 at 3:40
  • 2
    Its as if howstuffworks.com never even existed, nor hasn't been around for 13 friggen years.
    – user1228
    Apr 26, 2011 at 12:48
  • 5
    @Will, that's a bit like pointing out that experts-exchange.com existed for years before StackOverflow was created.
    – mgkrebbs
    Apr 26, 2011 at 18:45
  • 2
    @mgkrebbs: Yea, but how stuff works is pretty damn good, whereas expert sex change blows.
    – user1228
    Apr 26, 2011 at 19:32
  • 3
    I've added some more details about the closing in the question, Is it unusual for a proposal to be closed during the private beta? at Discuss.Area51.
    – Dori
    Apr 26, 2011 at 22:15
  • @Will I had a rather long post on Meta.HTW about why I thought that site was better than howstuffworks.com -- I'd link you to it but I obviously can't anymore. Apr 27, 2011 at 1:16

2 Answers 2


Private beta, which is limited to Area 51 committers, lasts 7 days. It is during this time that the community must demonstrate that it is capable of putting together quality content.

Public beta, which is open to anyone, lasts at least 90 days. It is during this time that the community must demonstrate that it is both capable of maintaining a high level of quality for a duration of time and that it is capable of significant activity.

If at the end of either period, the community has not met its goal, the site will be closed.

The decision to discontinue HTW came from Stack Exchange, Inc. Remember that SE is a company at heart, and it does have to make decisions that not everyone likes.

  • 6
    +1 for explaining public vs. private beta. This should be in the user guide, though.
    – Jason S
    Apr 26, 2011 at 3:16
  • 6
    @Jason: You could read this; it's long, but it should give you a pretty good idea of what the philosophy is. There's more in the works - so keep asking questions, and keep your eye on the blog. Remember, a lot of this is as much a learning experience for the SE team as it is for you - when a site is launched and falls flat, there's not necessarily a ready "rule" to describe why; if you followed the Meta site, you should have a pretty good idea of what went wrong though.
    – Shog9
    Apr 26, 2011 at 3:21
  • @Shog9: Thanks. That helps. I'd like to participate constructively in the improving the area51 process. If it feels like way too much work, though, I'll just through in the towel and stick to my participation in SO.
    – Jason S
    Apr 26, 2011 at 3:25
  • 1
    "if you followed the Meta site, you should have a pretty good idea of what went wrong though" -- FWIW, I didn't. There are enough SE sites already that I almost never visit meta unless I have a specific concern/question. (Life is too short, especially during a week that contains Easter weekend.) IMHO if a site gets closed down, you should freeze it and make a public example for some period of time (30-60 days or whatever).
    – Jason S
    Apr 26, 2011 at 3:29
  • @Jason: that's a good point. I'll see what I can dig up.
    – Shog9
    Apr 26, 2011 at 3:33
  • @Jason, you could get data dump for public beta closed sites eg., atheism site. But not sure for private beta sites.
    – YOU
    Apr 26, 2011 at 3:39
  • 2
    @Shog9: having meta.htw (and maybe htw) remain visible for a while in read-only mode might be helpful as grist for improving the Stack Exchange creation process. As things are, proposals somewhat distant from the expertise areas of the programmer-types of SO have great difficulty establishing suitable communities. This is a downside (and maybe downfall) of the StackExchange-2.0 approach.
    – mgkrebbs
    Apr 26, 2011 at 19:25
  • I agree completely with @mgkrebbs -- keeping that meta available read-only would be excellent Apr 27, 2011 at 1:20

Howstuffworks, to some degree, is the yahoo answers of stackexchange.

Instead, why not post the question(s) to the relevant website?

There are "How does this work" questions on physics, electronics, stackoverflow, etc.

Ultimately I'd rather see the questions going to the proper community of experts - those who build such things in their day to day work - than to some conglomerate site where enthusiasts gather, but will not attract the experts specific to a given field.

Yes, the field is sparse. There's probably not a good place right now to ask how paper is made, but you can certainly ask:

Or search all the sites to find "how does x work?" style questions.

  • 5
    This was what led me to ultimately lose faith in the site. The very first question I asked on HTW meta was "Who are the experts?" and I never really felt like I got a valid response. When Shog9 asked me if I verified the answers I had accepted were correct, I realized that without experts to upvote correctness and downvote incorrect answers, the site was no more than a bunch of SE users upvoting each other and had basically just deteriorated into yahoo answers. Apr 27, 2011 at 1:22

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