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Putting the Community back in Wiki

posted under by on 04-22-14 25

Ever seen this diagram?

That’s the visual elevator pitch for Stack Exchange. We were the little dot in the middle, a potent mix of useful traits from other tools, a wiry mutt full of hybrid vigor. The purpose of this blend was to allow and encourage the construction of a library of solutions, by providing communities with the tools they needed to share their experiences and challenges with others who might struggle with the same issues.

The diagram illustrated where we stole drew inspiration for the design of those tools, and their influence occasionally shows up in the results. Sometimes, a question will end up more like a wiki, other times more like a blog, other times more like a discussion. Because of these roots, we’ve never been too stuck on the purity of the idea of Q&A: over time, when communities using this software needed to deviate a bit, we’ve tried to build in features to give them what they needed to help solve more problems:

  • Users wanted to “blog” about questions where they’d already found solutions, so we introduced self-answered questions
  • People occasionally found themselves needing ongoing discussion to solve a problem, so we added chat forums

…And sometimes, folks realized that they needed a bunch of people to contribute meaningfully to create a post. Not just the collaborative, minor editing that occurs on most questions here; these were cases where multiple users needed to pitch in just to do a topic justice. But there were two points of friction:

  1. Originally, most users couldn’t edit others’ posts, (we didn’t have suggested edits yet)
  2. It’s hard to ask people to put a lot of effort into creating something together when the asker is going to keep all the credit and all the reputation. I don’t care about rep and attribution when I’m self-motivated to improve a post I come across, but it feels different when someone outright asks me to pitch in while intending to keep all the fake internet points for themselves!

That’s where Community Wiki came in – it killed those friction points by eliminating rep generation from those posts and lowering the bar on who could edit them. Which made it much easier for people who wanted to create collaborative, ensemble works – true community owned and edited resources.

But, much like dynamite, this well-intentioned invention was quickly weaponized into an instrument of destruction. Our big mistake: thinking we could systematically detect when such collaboration was happening, and automatically convert those posts to Community Wiki. It sounded awesome – “we’ll help you collaborate even more! When we see enough editors, we’ll save you the trouble of making it community wiki yourself and do it for you…”

Yeah, we are dumb.

In which we stop being dumb

By using ridiculously simplistic heuristics to detect these scenarios, we turned what should have been an act of generosity – an invitation to the community to participate in building a shared resource – into a hidden pitfall for the unwary. Too many helpers? NO ONE GETS CREDIT!!! It was a system that converted helpfulness and generosity into a slap in the face – from a robot.

Therefore, we have removed all automatic Wiki conversion triggers from the software. No longer will answers with more than some arbitrary number of edits, or questions with more than a page of answers suddenly lose their owners. To handle those rare situations where unusual activity levels may indicate misuse, we’ve added some new moderator flags in these scenarios: they can respond when necessary by closing or locking the post – but when there is no fire behind the smoke, they can silently dismiss the flag without disruption.

The once again future of Community Wiki

An author can still apply the status manually when posting or when editing their own answer, and moderators retain the ability to apply it when they deem it truly necessary (for instance, a question attracting very large numbers of partial answers can be a sign of a topic that wants to be a wiki). For the most part, we’ve turned it back into something that you can choose to use in cases where it lets you work together to create something wonderful:

Sometimes these are single, collaborative answers, other times questions where all contributions must be made in the form of edits. In all cases, the results are clearly that of a sum greater than the whole of its parts, a true community project.


source: Wikimedia Commons

Collaboration isn’t a rare thing on our network – the whole system, from posting and editing to voting to moderation, is based on the interaction of multiple users to produce a final product. Community wiki is for a special scenario, something built not by the expertise of one individual, then improved or iterated on by a few others, but rather something created by the concerted efforts of the community as a whole.

25 comments

Announcing The Launch Of Meta Stack Exchange

posted under by on 04-17-14 22

We’re very pleased to announce that as of today, we’re (finally) splitting the site formerly known as Meta Stack Overflow into two sites:

Meta Stack Overflow is a brand-spanking new site for discussions specific to the Stack Overflow (programming) community:

 Meta Stack Overflow

Meta Stack Exchange will cover feature requests, bugs, and any discussion topics that affect the entire network:

 Meta Stack Exchange

Meta has always been one of the most important things that make our network… work. Almost all of our most important features, improvements, and community rules were partly or entirely based on our users telling us how we could help you help more people. Hell, even the idea of Meta itself came from the community – and we fought it hard before we realized how right you guys were. But meta has always had two key functions:

  1. Local governance – communities have to decide what’s on- and off- topic, what tags to use, and how to deal with topic-specific guidelines like how sources should be cited.
  2. Federal law and product feedback – Most changes to the engine affect all sites, and some guidelines and rules (“be nice”) are the same network wide.

And that’s why every site except Stack Overflow has always had its own meta site, so it could focus on the “local governance” issues that were specific to that community. But as the network has grown, many users have shown enthusiasm not just about the sites where they participate, but also about how the whole system should work. It’s time to give these discussions a place of their own.

Prior to today, Meta Stack Overflow doubled as the home of both discussions about broad network changes, and discussions around the unique issues that Stack Overflow faces (often due to its enormous scale). The percent of problems Stack Overflow shares with its smaller sister sites has become exceedingly low, which has created an awkward dissonance when it comes to how folks perceive and approach challenges.

For example, some new sites embrace the idea of highly specific, narrowly-scoped questions that seek product recommendations, – something that is perfectly acceptable to explore on many sites but completely off-limits on Stack Overflow.

Someone else might be interested in strategies to better promote and grow new sites when they come out of private beta, which might apply to many network sites, but is obviously a problem that the Stack Overflow community is not facing. The scale of Stack Overflow puts an interesting twist on almost every discussion that the Stack Overflow community has; they needed a place of their own to work on their own challenges. Similarly, someone outside of the Stack Overflow community that wants to propose a new feature isn’t likely to be super interested in XML tag synonyms.

When you visit Meta Stack Exchange, you’ll see that the split is still a a work in progress. We’re in the process of migrating quite a few Stack Overflow specific discussions that are still relevant and unresolved, to help to show the kind of topics that belong on the new MSO. Over time we’ll continue to migrate discussions that clearly belong on Meta Stack Overflow back over the fence.

If you’re interested in the nuts and bolts and mechanics of the split itself (such as how rep is going to work, moderators, etc), have a look at the initial project announcement. The plan was extremely simple, and we stuck to it.

Now, we realize that we weren’t exactly hurting for “more challenges in figuring out where to put my post”. That’s why we’re making this really simple:

When in doubt, you can always post your question on your local meta. If it’s clearly relevant to the engine or network as a whole, we’ll move it.

You can always find your local meta right under the main site in the site switcher in the upper left corner of the site:

If you have any input or ideas to share, just go right to your favorite site’s meta and do it there; there’s no need for you to go to Meta Stack Exchange at all.

That said, any time you know your question applies to the the whole network, you’re of course perfectly welcome to participate on Meta Stack Exchange directly.

The largest beneficiary of this split is probably the Stack Overflow community; our flagship site went without a town hall all of its own for way too long. Splitting the two opens up many more possibilities while alleviating noise for everyone.

Young sites don’t generally have, and may never have the sorts of challenges that Stack Overflow did. Now, there’s a place for our smaller communities to come together and figure out what works for them.

Do you have some great ideas that could make quite a few communities even better? Take them to your site’s own little town hall, or feel free to bring them to the capital city directly. Do you have ideas that suit the scale of Stack Overflow? Well then, c’mon, get meta, as it was intended.

22 comments

Changes and guidelines for the Protected Question status

posted under by on 04-08-14 18

Protected status is an often-overlooked feature of Stack Exchange. It’s based loosely on Wikipedia’s semi-protection, and like that tool is meant to be a reaction to persistent abuse from anonymous or unproven participants: when a page attracts a lot of noise or vandalism from outside the community, Protecting it reduces the amount of clean-up needed later on.

Protected questions are not answerable by folks who haven’t earned at least 10 reputation from activity on the site where the question resides. This effectively means you need to have posted an answer somewhere else that’s attracted an up-vote or a question that’s earned two.

Originally, this functionality was limited to moderators, but during the past several years we’ve made a few changes to encourage more productive use:

  • Privileged users can protect and unprotect any question over a day old. Previous unprotect restrictions lifted as of today.

  • The system (in the guise of the Community user) will automatically protect questions that’ve had either

    1. 3 answers from new users deleted – this handles questions that tend to attract large amounts of spam over time.
    2. 5* answers from new users scoring <= 0 posted in the past 24 hours - this handles questions that are somewhat topical, and are attracting large numbers of "participants" who aren't actually contributing anything useful. This is also new as of today.

*This value can be higher or lower on sites that have demonstrated “special” patterns of new-user interaction.

Guidelines for Protecting questions:

  • Do protect questions that are attracting a lot of non-answers or very poor answers (spam, etc.) from new users.

  • Don’t protect questions just because they’re linked to on a high-traffic news site like Reddit or Ars Technica. While there’s certainly some correlation between sudden spikes in popularity and associated non-answers, not all popular questions suffer from this.

  • Do unprotect questions that aren’t currently attracting a lot of attention and don’t have a long history of unproductive answers.

Judicious use of this feature is critical to allowing these sites to handle large amounts of external attention, but over-using it breaks the system: Stack Exchange sites depend on a constant influx of new blood, both to answer new questions and provide updated information on old ones. When in doubt, err on the side of letting new users prove themselves before locking them out.

18 comments

Podcast #56 – Green or Red Curae

posted under by on 03-17-14 10

Welcome to the Stack Exchange Podcast #56 recorded on Thursday, March 6th 2014, aka the 4th of Adar II 5774, aka the second day of Lent. Today’s podcast is sponsored by Patent Trolls of America. Today’s guest is Micah Siegel, Senior Patent Advisor at Stack Exchange and Professor Emeritus at Stanford.

But first, Community Milestones!

  • We’ve already talked at length about The Workplace, but it should be noted that the Workplace community has just graduated. They are now a fully-fledged site, so go check out their design!
  • Arduino is our newest public beta site. (An Arduino is a tiny little computer board thing, according to Jay.) We’ve tried it in the past and didn’t have enough activity, but this iteration is looking much stronger and we’re excited to see where it will go. Also, March 29th is Arduino Day.
  • At long, long last, Personal Finance & Money has graduated. We love money! Longtime beleaguered designer Jin finally has assistance on his design team, so we are working through the backlog of graduated site designs.

To commemorate Money’s graduation, we’ve made it Community of the Week. Here are some of the cool questions we discussed:

This site grew out of an SE 1.0 site on the same topic, and it’s therefore one of our oldest sites. Check it out!

Next up, we have New Features. Or, we don’t, because we haven’t done anything, and David is demoted. Just kidding: we do!

Okay! Let’s talk patents! (Jay loves them, but David says they’re the worst.) It’s been a year since we started the Ask Patents project. Joel walks us through why we got into this area in the first place, and we fixed the problem. Done. Solved! (Kinda.) It’s confusing, because code is both copyrightable and patentable. About 7% of the patent applications submitted to the USPTO are what we call problematic. We decided to pick out the ones we are most concerned about and post them on the site for our communities to peruse and choose prior art. Micah talks through how we chose the patent applications to post, and how it’s been going. (Fun fact: we are the first entity to get a YouTube video accepted as prior art!)

We came up with a hack about six months ago to help us make this process scale. Instead of filling out the janky confusing form, we simply started emailing the relevant Ask Patents link directly to the patent examiner. Magic!

So is it working? We’ve proven as far as we can tell that if we target a bad application and put enough eyes from Stack Overflow on it, we’ll get good prior art. We know how all of the numbers break down: exactly how many people on Stack Overflow have to see the bad software patent in order for us to get enough prior art that enough of it will be good enough prior art to trigger an email to the patent examiner.

What can people do right now if they want to make a difference? Go find some prior art requests and post prior art to help us destroy some patents. (Also, you can follow Ask Patents on Twitter.)

Micah is consulting for a few other companies on patent issues, so you can contact him if your company wants to pick his brain. He knows a lot about the current Supreme Court case that might outlaw software patents altogether (but not for a long time).

Thanks for listening to Stack Exchange Podcast #56, sponsored by the Patent Trolls of America. See you next time!

10 comments

Your communities list is now customizable

posted under by on 03-03-14 22

A few months ago, we rolled out a new top bar for all of the Stack Exchange communities. The mission was consistency: Every community gets the same Stack Exchange brand at the top, the same navigation between sites, and the same live updates about new inbox items and reputation changes

But we realize that not everybody uses Stack Exchange the same way. Some people focus on one community, others participate in several, and more than a few spend a lot of time lurking now that we have 116 different sites to choose from.

That’s why, as promised, we have made the “Your communities” section of the Stack Exchange drop-down fully customizable so you can keep all of your favorite communities right at the top.

Edit link

Here’s how it works:

Customizing this list is completely optional. If you do nothing, you will keep the defaults: your top five communities by reputation.

Edit mode

But click the edit button and the default rules no longer apply. Instead, you can:

  1. Add a community to the list by typing the name and clicking Add
  2. Repeat #1 to add as many as you want
  3. Change the order of communities in the list by clicking and dragging
  4. Click the Save button to apply your changes!


You can reset the list to the default at any time, so try it out! Then drop by the Meta post to share your thoughts and feedback.

 

22 comments