StackExchange sites proliferation

I am observing with great interest the development at Area51 for new Question/Answers sites to be opened with the StackExchange system. One thing that makes me cringe a bit is the very strong fragmentation. I think this stems either from the need of personal protagonism of each person (nothing bad with it, progress happens also thanks to personal protagonism), or by lack of notice that a similar proposal has already been done. I could be wrong though, and I accept criticism on this point.

The main problem, however, remains. Opening a StackExchange site is damn hard. First you have to find at least 60 people interested in the site. Then, when this limit is reached, a large amount of people (in the hundreds, but it really depends on the reputation of each participant) must commit and promise to create momentum for the site, adding questions and answers. When this amount is reached, the site is open and stays in closed beta for seven days. During this time, the committers have to enrich the site so that the public beta (which starts after the first seven days) gets enough hits and participants to show a self-sustained community.

That said, I checked the situation. Many sites are already open, but there is a critical lack of fundamental and potentially “large-community” sites, such as Music, TV, Health, Travel. The system at Area51 is engineered to let unpopular proposals die out, while other, more popular ones gain traction, but in some cases, some coalescence would greatly help to reach the threshold (assuming disjoint followers, of course), at the price of losing specificity, and would allow smaller communities to get their space. For example, Guitars is likely to open, Drumming is less likely as there are less drum players. Having a more general topic would allow both communities to thrive on a very powerful, but more general musical performance site. Please note that generalization should not be a big issue, as StackExchance sites allow questions to be tagged with labels, and the users can choose which labels to follow and which ones are not of their interest.

On the other hand, people will most likely subscribe to something they are (e.g. I am a guitarist, so let’s search for a “Guitars” proposal, instead of searching for a “Musician”). These two opposite forces end up creating a potential impasse. I think a coordination effort is missing to coalesce fragmented sites. While I am not trying to be such a coordinator, I am providing some food for thoughts.

This is a live post. I will update it as much as my spare time allows doing it, and it will never be up-to-date. I am just throwing a line of reasoning on the current situation for interested readers, in particular from Area51. I accept ideas and criticism in the comment section.

Music: Audio Recording and Production (63 commit), Guitars (57 follow), Musical practice and Performance (35 followers), Music Education (11 follow), Drumming (10 follow), Musicians (10 follow), Music Theory (5 follow), Music History (5 follow), Jazz theory (2 follow), Classical guitar (2 follow), Musicians’ gear (1 follow), Electronic Music DJs (5 follow), MusiciansKnow (2 follow)

Science: Statistical Analysis (beta), Mathematics (beta), Theoretical Computer Science (347 commit), Physics (87 commit), Astronomy (48 commit), Cognitive Science (32 follow), High Energy Physics (31 follow), Bioinformatics (18 follow), Biological evolution (12 follow), Meteorology (9 follow), Biology (9 follow), Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics (9 follow),  Chemistry (6 follow), Space Exploration (5 follow), Entomology (2 follow), Particle Physics (1 follow), Scientific techniques (1 follow), Robotics (1 follow), Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) (5 follow), Numerical Analysis (3 follow), How Stuff Works?, Amateur Rockets and Rocketry, Energy efficiency in buildings and organizations

Teaching and education: Popular Natural Science (28 follow), Science@Home (7 follow), Astronomy education in schools (12 follow), Physics Education (4 follow), Computer Science Education (4 follow), Kx12 (3 follow), Homework Help (3 follow), Software students (2 follow), Children’s Sport Coaching (2 follow), EFL/ESL Teachers (1 follow), Games for education (13 follow), MathUnderflow (2 follow), IT literacy Education (2 follow)

Books: Science Fiction (39 commit), Star Trek (40 follow), Books (27 follow), Middle Earth (24 follow), Star Wars (18 follow), Ook! (16 follow), Comic books (10 follow), Literature (2 follow), Murder Mystery Suspense (1 follow)

Writing: Writing (43 commit), User Assistance/Technical Communication (23 follow), Technical Writing (16 follow), Science writing (11 follow), Science Fiction Writing (9 follow), Blogging and Copywriting (4 follow), Copywriting & applications (3 follow), After Writing: Getting it Published (2 follow), Blogging and the Blogosphere

Skepticism: Skepticism (62 follow), Skeptic Exchange (77 follow), Urban legends (11 follow), Scientific Method (4 follow), Critical Reasoning on recent media (1 follow), Reasoning (1 follow)

Aliens did it: Conspiracy Theories and Conspiracy Theorists (12 follow), Aliens (10 follow), Mysterious Creatures (1 follow), Superstition

Religion (or lack of): Biblical Hermeneutics (63 follow), Christian Worship Leading and Service Design (43 follow), Atheism (40 follow), Hare Krishna (23 follow), Christianity (11 follow), Textual Criticism of the Bible (9 follow), Torah (8 follow), LDS (Mormon) Q&A (8 follow), Jewish Services, Tradition, and Halakha (7 follow), Jewish Law (6 follow), Lumdus (4 follow), The Bible Code (3 follow), God – Let’s Discuss! (1 follow), Spiritual Enlightenment (1 follow), Islam, Spiritual Warfare Defense

Gardening: Gardening and Farming Organically (79 follow),  Gardening (42 follow), Landscaping (5 follow), Bonsai Cultivation (3 follow)

DIY and crafting: Home Improvement (private beta), Woodworking and Carpentry (35 follow), Metalworking and machining (10 follow), Do it Yourself (6 follow), Spare Parts (5 follow), Breakdown Voltage, Cars Problems

Physical activity: Exercise and Fitness (40 follow), Running (33 follow), Hiking (22 follow), Yoga (22 follow), Martial Arts (21 follow), Backpacking, Hiking and Camping (19 follow), Snowboard and Ski (10 follow), The Great Outdoors, Camping, Survivalism (9 follow), Extreme Sports (7 follow), Rowing (6 follow), Technical Climbing (and any other technical sport like caving, sky / scuba diving, etc.) (5 follow), Archery (4 follow), Mountaineering and Climbing (including Indoor Climbing) (3 follow), Diving (3 follow), Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (2 follow), Skydiving (2 follow), Barefoot Running (2 follow), Mountainbiking (2 follow), Tennis (2 follow), Children’s Sport Coaching (2 follow), Sports Coaching (3 follow), Triathlon (9 follow), Sport Rules (8 follow), Golf, Body Building, Ultimate Frisbee

Card games: Poker (32 follow), Board and Card Games (58 commit), Magic: the gathering (17 follow), Bridge (1 follow)

Languages: English Language & Usage (141 commit), Japanese (30 follow), English/French Translation (25 follow), Linguistics (21 follow), Chinese language (18 follow), Translation (10 follow), Language learning and language hacking (9 follow), Esperanto (7 follow), Planned Languages (5 follow), Translators and Language Professionals (5 follow), French-English Exchange (4 follow), Non-English Language Learning (3 follow), Indian English (2 follow), Irish (1 follow), Proofreading (1 follow), Classical Chinese (1 follow), EFL/ESL Teachers (1 follow), Indic Q&A (22 follow), Turkish Language (5 follow), English-Russian Exchange (34 follow), Spanish Language and Usage (1 follow), Italian Language and Usage, English / German translation, Spanish Translators / Traductores de español

Board Games: Game of Go (23 follow), Chess (22 follow), Board and Card Games (58 commit)

Life abroad and traveling: Travel (24 follow), Gaijin-san (16 follow), Immigration (16 follow), New York City (13 follow), Iceland (11 follow), London (6 follow), Texas (5 follow), Overland Travel (5 follow), Cozumel, Mexico (4 follow), Road Warriors, Frequent Flyers, etc. (for business travelers, mileage maniacs, etc.) (4 follow), San Francisco (3 follow), Vacations (3 follow), Italy (3 follow), Bangalore (2 follow), Cambridge – UK (2 follow), City Sights (2 follow), Portuguese Leisure (1 follow), Maine (1 follow), Argentina (1 follow), India (4 follow), México (3 follow), Sweden

Medicine and health: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but were Afraid to Ask (11 commit), Weight Loss (13 follow), Medicine (11 follow), Diabetes (6 follow), Health (5 follow), Sleeping (3 follow), Drugs (3 follow), Sleep Apnea (2 follow), Endometriosis (1 follow), Weight Gain (1 follow), Food Safety (1 follow), Radiation Oncology and more (1 follow), Psychology and Psychiatry (0 follow), United States Medicare (0 follow), Metastatic Breast Cancer (1 follow), Sex & Sexuality (2 follow)

Parenting and childcare: Just for Dads (32 follow), Parenting (14 follow), Pregnancy (2 follow), Children’s Sport Coaching (2 follow)

Pets and animals: Pets (11 follow), Beekeeping (9 follow), Animal Health and Behavior (9 follow), Equestrian (5 follow), Animal Hobbies (4 follow), Aquarium Hobbyist (14 follow), Saltwater Aquariums (12 follow)

Weapons: Firearms (58 follow), Blades (5 follow), Modern Military Hardware

History: History (32 follow), Mythology (17 follow), Greek Mythology (12 follow), United States History (12 follow), Military History (9 follow), History of Computers and Computing (8 follow), Music History (4 follow), Historical Reenactment and Play (2 follow), The United States Civil War (2 follow)

Couch sport: National Football League (11 follow), Soccer (10 follow), Basketball (3 follow), Hockey, Cricket

There are some mixed points I would like to clarify and discuss. First, my classification is rather broad and, in some cases, far fetched. For example, poker players would cringe seeing Magic under card games, but really, Magic is a card game. Other cases could even be worse, but I tried to keep a very broad stance. The classification name (in bold) is not an index for a “generic community that should be opened in my opinion”. It is just a guide.

Also, there is the problem of scientific Q/A that are very specialized. Some of them gain enough traction (maths and statistics). Others fall behind, I assume either due to a poorly collaborative community, insufficient Public Relations effort, or excessive specialization (which reduces the community to a handful).

In some cases, the communities focus on topics that tend to promote opinion answers, rather than factual answers. The most striking example are clearly religious Q/A sites. While some things can produce factual answers (for example: “in which parts of the bible X is discussed?” or “does the Buddhist discipline consider proper to eat meat?”), other questions are total opinions (“Does God exist?”, or “Gay marriage law passed in X, how can we oppose it?” the most probable ones). Although such questions would be considered off-topic, or subjective and argumentative, religious sites are difficult to handle, unless they are handled like a philosophy Q/A site: who said this, where and when. Similar point with any political-oriented Q/A.

On regard of difficult to handle Q/A sites, there is “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but were Afraid to Ask“. The site is definitely interesting from the medical point of view, but it must be kept with strong discipline, or it can diverge from its original intent pretty quickly.

Feel free to leave comments.

3 Comments

  1. As a footnote, here’s an interesting meta question/answer with the “policy” on the redundancy of site proposals:

    http://meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/54697/near-duplicate-or-subset-proposals-on-area51/54752#54752

  2. Thank you for the link. Indeed that works only in the case two proposals are high throughput and someone is going to step in and impose the merge both politically and technically. However, this still does not solve the issue of smaller communities.

    I take the guitar/music as a live example, but similar cases will probably arise. I am a bass player. The guitars SE gets the chance to start and thrive. I can propose a SE for bass playing, but that will not start due to lack of critical mass.

    Now we ended up with a highly specialized Guitar SE site which thrives (with or without live difficulties, that has to be seen). Bass players are not allowed to post questions about bass there, since it’s a guitar site, and bass players will not have a SE site to refer to.

    Since the bass guitar SE proposal has not enough followers at Area51, it will not be considered for community merge at least according to that link

    “But there will be a time where two competing proposals have such a groundswell of support that both have sufficient momentum to sail through. That is the time to look closely at the two proposals”

    yet if you coalesce bass players, drum players, keyboard players and so on together with the guitar players SE, this SE will see a dramatic increase of traffic (allowing to escape potential falls in visits, which would lead to a close of the site) from the very tiny but cumulatively relevant increases of communities with different specialization.

    I don’t know. I think that having a “guitar only” site live, with no sites for other instruments is a loss when compared to a “musician” site where all instruments can be discussed. We will see how the situation evolves. The guys are smart, they adapt quickly. I just wanted to throw my 2 cents.

  3. I totally agree! This system ends up being a good way to centralize existing informal communities, but a very difficult way to create new ones.

    Looking at the success of Stack Overflow, it should be noted that before there was a SO community, there were these Jeff-Atwood’s-and-Joel-Spolsky’s-followers communities which were able to ‘prime’ SO.

    I think a successful Stack Exchange site will either have to be sufficiently ubiquitous (like guitar playing) or already have a centralized community around something else like a blog, which just migrates over.

    Either way, however, the system only ends up benefits existing communities.

    ##############

    Additionally, the classification is not only rather broad and, in some cases, far fetched, but methinks the basis of the classification should be the motivation of people’s interest.

    I think more people like Magic as a fantasy game than as a card game, hence why it’s awkward to group it with poker.

    Likewise, while there are Star Trek books, most people who like Star Trek like it for the TV series. Perhaps ‘books’ would be best changed to ‘media’? (Since they are “The Future of Entertainment” the change should feel natural ;)

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