Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Communities of Stack Exchange

Stack Exchange sites are considered by many new users as being anonymous and faceless, when they initially start participating. This happens pretty frequently on Stack Overflow where a significant number of users tend to receive a fair bit of (well-intentioned) feedback and criticism. I had, as well, received some criticism on one of my first questions on Stack Overflow. However, in the months that followed and as I started getting more involved on the site and on the Network, I started to see some pretty distinct and interesting communities and sub-communities (Why? Because I love social psychology and networks). I even participated in the formation of two new sites (Alright, the second one failed but 1 out of 2 ain't bad).  

As I got more involved, it started becoming very clear that there were different types of communities that existed and this varied from site to site. Some sites have users who know each other personally, and this tends to show on the conversations that take place. Some sites are totally professional, and this is again obvious by the type and quality of comments on main and discussion on meta. However, going through a 100+ sites one by one is not what I had in mind for this post. 

Even though the Stack Exchange Network consists of many sites each of which is so different from the rest that its hard to look at every one through the same lens, lets try to look at sites by classifying them based on age and traffic which matches up pretty well with the type of communities that are present on said sites:

SOFU (Stack Overflow, Super User, Server Fault)

Each of these were part of the original group of sites that were launched and are pretty huge compared to the rest of the Network. On these sites, there are many sub communities that exist, some of them being around tags, and others being around overall site moderation.

Communities around tags generally consist of users who are active in asking and answering questions related to the technology covered by the tag. These communities tend to consist of experts and some new users. Most new users on these sites are of the drive-by variety; they ask a few questions distributed over a long time. Hence, only the most regular users tend to become a part of such a community and once users get recognized, things get pretty social and friendly. Some tags have chat rooms associated with them where the community members hang out and socialize, the most popular ones being the Lounge C++ , Python and PHP. These communities are very hard to find and recognize, even more so, if you are an "outsider".

The second type of community that forms is around site activities and moderation. These users are almost always present on meta, in chat rooms and can be found in the review queues with high frequency. Here communities tend to form around expertise about the site and the way things work, and always consist of the Community Moderators. These users are the ones who will be at the forefront reporting bugs and asking for features, providing support and clarifying odd system behaviors. They will also be the ones most frequently closing, deleting and downvoting posts. Essentially, this community is the one which faces most of the wrath and anger (of which there is a lot) of users who do not understand the platform and they are the ones who invest the maximum time ensuring things work correctly (Some might argue too much : How do I participate in Meta Stack Overflow and not die trying? a Q&A by the moderation community on becoming a part of the community). 

The tag community (-ies) ensures content keeps being created while the moderation community ensures expected standards are being upheld. Both work together on the high volume Stack Exchange sites to make them a success. (There are overlaps between the two)

Graduated Sites 

These are all the SE 2.0 sites which have passed the beta phase and have proven that there is an audience interested in participating and maintaining it. As these sites are very specific in terms of domain, there are very rarely any distinct tag sub-communities unlike what is seen on SOFU. Hence, there is just one big user community and a moderation community. Moreover, the division between the moderation community and the user community is blurred. There is a large overlap between the two however, there are subsets of users who still belong almost exclusively to one side. These sites have much smaller communities consisting of less than 200 users where most users know everybody else within their part of the site (or in their community).

Beta Sites 

These are the sites which are in beta and may or may not stay online at the end of their beta periods. On these sites, there is just one community and almost never any sub-community (unless the site is nearing graduate site size, in which case the above description holds).

Depending on how far the site has progressed, such sites may have a community of 10 to 50 users. These sites are generally built around very specific domains and hence, there is not much room for tag communities. Also, the volume of activity is low, which means that there is no need for a specific moderation community. Therefore, these sites have one community consisting of domain experts, newbies, user moderators and Community Moderators. In my opinion (which may be biased), this type of community has the highest degree of cohesiveness compared to the rest. Everybody knows everybody else; the community itself is extremely visible, and the presence (or absence) of every member is felt and seen.

Also, on a platform that discourages socialising, there are some other patterns that can be seen. Users are rarely known by their popularity or by a few popular posts, but rather, are identified through consistent participation and visibility on the site which is an entirely different ball game compared to any social network. See the reasons mentioned in my blog post discussing Stack Exchange ideology.

Does any of this imply that SE is less social and/or unfriendly? It depends on where you are and how involved you are. As much as I would like to say an outright yes, that's not the case. However, we cannot generalize over the entire network, but we can attempt to look at some common trends that exist between similar types of communities.

User communities (discussed above) tend to be where people know each other only through technical participation and prowess and hence, these communities are more about content and technical experience rather than socialising. So, yes, domain specific communities may be less friendly and welcoming.

Coming to the moderation communities, because of the very nature of participation, the amount of socialisation is high. While SE may not have any social networking features, users who are a part of the moderation community almost certainly interact and socialise with each other through chat and/or through external platforms. So, these communities are as friendly and social as any other network. The only difference is that people tend to act a little more professionally than they would on Facebook, and hence it may appear that its all about work. Who am I trying to kid?

Beta communities are very special on this front and cannot be lumped with either of the two above. Beta communities are extremely friendly, welcoming, helpful, and (in some cases) social. The proportion of positive discussions and debates on such sites is much higher than other sites and hence these are comparatively more social.

Beta Communities are in their formative stages and there are no existing community (social) norms. Hence, every new user can shape the way they turn out. If you feel there is a need for change, go ahead and bring it about!

That brings us to the end. Finally, this is me! 
profile for AsheeshR on Stack Exchange, a network of free, community-driven Q&A sites

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