Area 51: Trusting the Community

by Robert Cartaino

on June 27, 2010

The team and I have been busy cranking out Stack Exchange proposals like crazy. And by "the team and I," I mean "the team." They write tons of software while I chime in with encouraging remarks like "good job" and "move this thing over there." The tools our developers create provide an unprecedented opportunity for communities to create world-class Q&A sites. So, by "the team," what I really mean is "you, the users."

Creating an environment where people want to create great Q&A sites is much harder than just throwing together a bunch of sites on your own. But no one person has a complete grasp, nor even a very good one, about what the next great site will be. So we direct our efforts, not to creating great sites, but to create an environment where people will create great sites together.

In short, you learn to trust the community.

The detractors of our community-driven process said we were doomed to create little more than a bunch of technical sites for programmers. They go on about how the Stack Exchange software appeals only to somewhat-geeky tech heads. Or that our audience isn't diverse enough to create sites for a mainstream audience. Ha!

In our first weeks of operation, Area 51 has already shown great diversity. Our top 20 proposals include sites about food & cooking, home improvement, the English language, photography, personal finance, bicycles, and home brewing. Indeed, of the top 20 proposals nearing creation, one third of them are NOT about technical subjects at all!

People are absolutely lousy at predicting what others will do with new technologies before they try them. That's why we maintain an open dialog with our community. Great ideas come, not by planning behind closed doors, but through an open process of collaboration, trial, and feedback. We encourage that same philosophy for the creation of sites. Users collaborate through a series of trial-and-error experiments. Some of them work out, some of them don't. But people quickly learn the difference and the best ideas move forward.

Users learn to trust the community.

My job as Community Coordinator is to engage with the users. By helping individuals use the tools we provide, both technically and socially, communities learn to encourage productive activities that lead to great sites. Still, I have to remind myself every day that I am not there to pick which ideas will work and which ones will fail.

People are often looking to me for a rigid, explicit statement of what is acceptable and not acceptable in Area 51.

Thankfully, we never had to answer those questions by formal policy. The wisdom of the crowds is working almost magically, in this regard.

I feel an odd sense of pride every time I see a good proposal -- at least as far as I can judge these things -- and that proposal also receives approval and enthusiastic support by the community. It is a validation that the system is working. That validation comes also when I develop a concern over a proposal somewhat lacking. My trust in the community is validated when misguided proposals never advance much beyond the initial definition.

Stack Exchange sites aren't created from the hard work of one individual. Great Q&A sites take the collective effort of much larger community working together. And that community, working in aggregate, seems to make some pretty solid choices in choosing what works and what doesn't.

So, the next time you find yourself agonizing over the best on-topic question, or whether to close that proposal gone awry, learn to trust that others are all working collectively together to get the most out of the process.

Learn to trust the community.