Respect the community - your own, and others’

by Josh Heyer

on March 22, 2012

In “Why Can’t You Have Just One Site?” Jeff wrote about the rationale for creating three sites instead of one, and the process for determining where a question belongs:

Is it really so hard to figure out which community you belong to, and thus, where your question belongs? Ask yourself this: > > > * what is your job title? > > * which community do you consider yourself a part of? > > * what are you trying to accomplish? > You can use the same mountain to go downhill really fast on snow — but it’s plainly evident to the participant which culture they consider themselves a part of, “skiers” or “snowboarders”.

We’ve since grown from a Trilogy to a network of 84 sites. Our audience is large enough to allow a considerable amount of specialization: Apple, Ubuntu, WordPress and Database Administrators all cover topics that previously belonged on Super User, Stack Overflow or Server Fault. But the same philosophy still applies: before you can decide where to ask, you need to know who to ask. And who you ask will depend (at least in part) on who you are...

That’s the philosophy. Putting it into practice creates a few wrinkles: some sites have overlapping communities; some sites are named after their audience, but the name doesn’t quite match up to how the community actually sees themselves; in some cases, the community is defined purely by a topic of interest and not any particular occupation or field. These ambiguities lead to some undesirable behaviors:

  • Cross posting: technically multi-posting, asking the same question verbatim on different sites without tailoring it to that site’s audience.

  • Scope Gerrymandering: attempting to micromanage what’s on-topic in order to avoid overlap with other sites or simply drive away users seen as undesirable.

  • Migration hot potato: kicking a question around from site to site until one of them finally accepts it.

Over time, these conflicts tend to work themselves out: a community may form around a topic or shared interest, but soon develops into something more than that. No one would mistake Ask Ubuntu for Unix and Linux. The types of questions and answers on Programmers or Ask Different will show you at a glance that you’re not on Stack Overflow or Super User. Spending a few minutes looking around before you post - or reading the site’s FAQ - should tell you all you need to know about what questions belong there, and how the community expects them to be asked. There’s no substitute for taking the time to get to know the locals.

With that in mind, here are a few strategies for avoiding these problems as a member of a young Stack Exchange site:

Respecting your own community

As members of a community, your first loyalty should be to that community. When evaluating a question, you shouldn't be looking to push it off on some other site; instead, ask if it could be appropriate and on-topic for you, the experts who the author decided to ask. Be a bit jealous of your site - don't blithely turn askers away simply because their question could be asked somewhere else. Don’t hit them over the head with your scope, help them tailor their question to fit into it - and if that means your site’s scope overlaps a bit with another site’s, so be it.

Obviously, there are questions you'll have to turn away, either because their only connection to your site is via the audience ("How do I make bread as a programmer?"), because it’s completely off-topic (“How do I cook a fish in a dishwasher?” obviously belongs on Cooking, not Home Improvement) or because they're simply not useful or constructive. But that should be your last resort. Close questions with an eye toward improvement and re-opening, not driving users away.

Respecting other communities

The migration tool was created to help those unfortunate users who asked good questions on the wrong site. Do your best to remember this, whether as a user (flagging or voting to close) or as a moderator (responding to flags).

  • Don’t migrate poorly-asked or non-constructive questions. Just close them. If you want to help the asker out by recommending a site where their question would be on-topic, go ahead - but also recommend they read that site’s FAQ first!

  • Do leave comments on questions that might get better answers somewhere else. The good folks on English Language and Usage might well be able to give the history of some bit of technical jargon, but if you think that question would get a better answer on the site dedicated to the field where that jargon is used - suggest that! If the asker is unhappy with the answers he got, he’ll have a ready source of better ones. Ditto for unanswered questions gathering cobwebs.

  • Along the same lines, don't attempt to scavenge on-topic questions from other sites by asking the moderators there to migrate them to yours. Again, there’s no harm in leaving a comment suggesting that a question would be a better fit somewhere else. But focus on the questions that aren’t on-topic, or aren’t getting answered - snatching someone’s question (or answer) away without any forewarning is a slap in their face.

  • Finally, be extremely reluctant to migrate old, answered questions. The votes and answers on these reflect the opinions and work of the community where they originated, and in most cases they'll be somewhat out of place elsewhere - you want your greatest hits to reflect the best that your community has to offer, not someone else’s. And, again, the migration can come across as rude: if someone has invested serious effort into an answer and has linked to it on their blog or from their résumé, then snatching it from them without due consideration won't endear them to you. Only migrate these questions when the alternative is deletion.

The Stack Exchange software has grown to be extremely powerful, but it’s important to remember that, at their core, these sites run on human beings - and without respect for each other, clever tools solve nothing.