The 7 Essential Meta Questions of Every Beta

by Robert Cartaino

on July 10, 2010

Groups have an amazing ability to self organize -- not by following rules or hierarchies of authority, but through basic human nature. Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a spontaneous brainstorming session with a group of colleagues? Sometimes you just know that you're at the start of something big -- something important -- when everyone is abuzz with ideas, collaborating wildly with enthusiasm and energy.

That's how it feels each time a new Stack Exchange site is launched. Not only in the questions and answers that are posted, but in the back room collaborations where the self-governance is starting to take shape -- in meta.

Every new Stack Exchange site -- not some of them, but all of them -- gets their own dedicated meta site.

This is a "child site" set aside for discussing issues concerning all the behind-the-scenes intricacies of running the main site. But we provide very little guidance about how each new Stack Exchange community will make their site work for them. Each community starts with a blank slate: a meta site with no content and little guidance about what to do with it.

Yet, with every new site to date, members didn't wait on us. Those who were interested in community building, pitched in to set up the governance for their sites: getting to work on a site name and design, deciding issues of moderation and site policy, and discussing how the community will police themselves.

I applaud their initiative.

Take Ownership of Your Community

Each community has to own the design and governance of their site. They can't always expect us to show up and say, “Hey guys, which logo do you like?” Each community should work out how they're going to come up with a logo on their own. But self governance is more about figuring out organically how all the tasks of defining and maintaining a community are going to get accomplished.

Meta is your opportunity to take control; to take ownership of your site; to become self governing. It is your Constitutional Convention.

Philadelphia Constitutional Convention

Having said that, one of the benefits of being part of a larger network is eliciting cooperation and  learning from other communities. Rather than letting future sites stumble their way through the same issues over and over again, I have compiled a list of the questions you should consider fundamental to a successful beta.

The 7 Essential Questions of Every Beta

Your meta site should be buzzing with activity. There are a lot of issues to be worked out. Take it upon yourself to ask these questions early in the beta period. The answers will have a lasting effect on how your site operates for a very long time.

1. Are questions about [subject] on or off topic?

The single most important design element of a new Q&A site is the questions on the front page. They become the de facto definition of the site, trumping anything defined in Area 51 or the Help Center.

You should actively watch the earliest questions with an eye for quality and purpose. Ask yourself: "Is this the type of question we want on this site? Is it pushing the boundaries of on- and off-topic questions? Are we opening a can of worms?" Talk about these issues in meta, early and often. They are the key to establishing the boundaries around your site.

2. What should our documentation contain?

Much of the site's documentation will be the same as on every other Stack Exchange site: "be nice," "how to create an account," "how to ask questions" -- it's all pretty static. Even the sections about "what kind of questions should I (not) ask here?" comes primarily from the Definition phase of Area 51.

But the questions you want to discuss in meta are those issues specific to your site that need to be mentioned in the Help Center.

Take Super User's "About" page as an example:

Super User is for computer enthusiasts and power users. … Ask about... > > > * Specific issues with computer software, hardware or networking > > * Real problems or questions that you’ve encountered > Don't ask about... > * Anything not directly related to computer software or computer hardware > > * Questions that are primarily opinion-based > > * Questions with too many possible answers or require an extremely long answer > > * Videogames, consoles, or other electronic devices, unless they connect to your computer > > * Websites or web services like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress > > * Shopping, buying or product recommendations > > * Issues specific to corporate IT support and networks >

These are then elaborated on in SU's What topics can I ask about here? page.

It took us almost a year to figure out the list of "we want these sort of questions" and "we don't want these sort of questions" on Super User. Area 51 gave you a head start but you should also be working out other scope- and documentation-related issues specific to your topic and your community.

3. How should we tag questions about {subject}?

Tagging questions is an ad hoc way of organizing content. It is mostly improvised by users asking the questions… but only to a point. Tag auto-completion and community editing will influence the proper use of tags for a very long time.

The type of things you should look out for: how to handle acronyms common to your subject, brand versus product-specific tags, common terminology, and the use of semantic tags to categorize specific types of questions unique to your community. Every site will have their own unique set of tag-related issues.

The best way to identify tagging problems is to watch new posts closely, and try to build tag wiki excerpts that explain what the tags are for. When tags become ambiguous, too specific (or not specific enough), or just somehow off, raise those issues in meta, and quickly. Proper tagging is very much a lead-by-example activity. The sooner you get the "community standards" for tagging ironed out, the less chance you'll have to face the drudgery of cleaning them up later.

4. Who should the moderators be?

The issue of holding fair elections is largely technical. The long-term solution will likely come from us. Still, bring up these issues in meta. There is a lot of room for innovation. Discussing the criteria of a great moderator is important and picking out potential candidates is a great way to introduce outstanding contributors to your community. And we are completely open to appointing temporary Moderators when someone's contribution makes them a standout choice for your community's human exception handler.

For more detail see: Moderator Pro Tempore and Stack Exchange Moderator Elections Begin

5. What's the "elevator pitch" for our site?

Imagine you've just gotten on an elevator with a friendly stranger. You have precisely one floor to describe your community to them. What would you say? The elevator pitch is a brief sentence that describes what your site is about. Every word counts!

Once decided, it can be sliced and diced to form:

  • the tagline

  • the motto

  • the blurb under the logo

  • a convenience redirect “nickname” for the site

  • perhaps eventually the domain name in some form

(Due to a variety of practical difficulties with domain names, we prefer to de-emphasize domain name selection. Most sites will retain their names indefinitely.)

Naming is hard -- really hard. But if you can come up with a sensible elevator pitch for your community, it's a great starting point.

For more detail see: Stack Exchange Naming for Dummies

6. What should our logo and site design look like?

This one is pretty straightforward. Solicit contributions, throw out ideas, post preliminary (or finished) designs, and be supportive and respectful of other people's ideas and creativity.

We have designers on staff who will actively help come up with site designs but, if an idea stemming from the community stands out as exceptional, we are happy to use it.

7. How do we promote our site?

This is rapidly becoming a hot issue across the entire network: how to promote your site and how to reach out to the experts and peers in your industry. We can come up with budgets and promotions but the means and ideas about how to reach your target audience HAS TO come from you and your community. Has to. Has to, has to, has to! We simply are not experts in your field. We don't have the the connections nor the experience you bring to the table. You are both our evangelist and our ambassador -- and sharing links to great questions and answers is the best way to start.

Stack Overflow has been a huge, red-hot success story in the programming arena. But that early success came in large part to the participation of Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky, both cult-classic bloggers and celebrities in their field. We want that same success for you and your community. That's why we need to identify the Jeffs and the Joels of your industry. We need bloggers, pundits, podcasters, publishers, celebrities… anyone who can rally the troops, so to speak.

Meta is the perfect venue reach out and ask around about who knows whom. Ask your friends to ask their friends. The people needed to make your site a huge success are already within your reach.

For more detail see: A Recipe to Promote Your Site