Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Real Essential Questions of Every Beta

The blog post Seven Essential Meta Questions of Every Beta gets linked to prominently from every beta's meta. However, this blog post is somewhat inaccurate and actually misdirects new users. In almost every beta, for example, the site design question gets asked and undergoes a fair bit of discussion, even though a probable graduation is too far into the future for this discussion to be useful. Moreover, some of the questions are best asked after the site goes public, such as the moderator nominations, and site promotions. There are certain other issues, that can actually be of immediate use to the community, such as tag synonyms, redundant tags, chat room name, etc. but don't get sufficient attention.

Therefore, I went ahead and tried to develop a list of questions that are relevant today for betas. The most important questions, vary from site to site, and from private to public status. The answers to these will have a lasting effect on how your site operates for a very long time. The questions are divided by site status.

Private Beta

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

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.
Remember, this is a class of questions, and not just a single question. The more specific topics that get discussed, the more meaningful the discussions will be.
For example, on Chocolate.SE, discussing:
Should dark chocolates be on-topic?
Will most likely result in flame wars, and reach no useful conclusion. However, discussing:
Should the additives used in the process of making dark chocolates be on-topic?
Will lead to more constructive discussion.

2. 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.

3. Should tag A be a synonym of tag B?

Usually, in the early stages a fair bit of redundancy gets developed as many users may suggest different variations of the same tag, or some may call the same thing by a different name. These can result in disorganization and confusion in using the tags. It is important to look for and discuss such redundancies that could become problems later on.

4. 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.
This helps in visualising what your community is about and what it is going to be. If you have trouble describing your community in one-line, then its a sign that the community needs to take a relook at its scope and purpose.

5. Whats an interesting name for the chat room?

Every site comes with its official site chat room. This is created automatically and can be reached from the Site Switcher on the top left. The chat room is the third place of your community, after main and meta. It is like the lounge where everybody can get together discuss, complain and have fun. Personalizing this space to reflect your community and what you are, is one of the small steps to take towards building an active an engaged community.
Try to get a few ideas up, discuss and vote on them. The name could be something esoteric in your field, or something that every person may understand. Whichever it may be, go ahead and start the discussion!

Public Beta

1. Who should the moderators be?

Moderators in Stack Exchange perform dual roles. Beside the normal activities of a Moderator, part of their function is to act as liaison — a role which links the Stack Exchange team with the individual communities. 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. If your meta site does not have a post to nominate Moderators, start one now! Pro Tem appointments will begin about two weeks after the site goes public. The more guidance we receive, the more informed our choice.

2. How do we promote our site?

By now, your site should have 100+ questions, mostly excellent with expert level answers. Next comes the issue of getting the word out i.e. how to promote your site and how to reach out to the experts and peers in your industry. 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.
Keep in mind, that this is again not one discussion, but a set of discussions that will collectively come under the tag of site-promotion. For any degree of success, it takes a bit more coordination and discipline than asking a one-shot question and expecting a final solution to simply emerge. It takes individual members to rise up and ask methodical, step-wise questions with an end-goal in mind — and follow through.
Some of the avenues to consider are:
  • Encourage your community to share links to outstanding questions and answers. And if you feel you’re not producing outstanding questions and answers worthy of sharing with the world, endeavor to fix that first.
  • Reach the right kind of publications and bloggers. Make sure that the key experts in every field know about the site; not just the “Martha Stewart” big names; we want to talk to the people who go to these conferences.
  • Make sure evangelists from each community have the opportunity to speak before groups of experts in their fields.
  • Encourage and participate in grassroots conversations in existing discussion groups, where appropriate.
You should be thinking in terms of “what is it really going to take to make this a world-class site?” Don't wait for anybody. You have to get the ball rolling. Being a voice in a crowd works for certain types of collaboration and brainstorming, but sometimes you have to take on the role of the organizational czar.

3. What should our documentation contain?

Most of the content present in the Help Center is same across the entire Network. There are some parts however, that need to be discussed and developed within the community. The most important page is the /help/on-topic page that lists broadly the scope of the site. This page acts as a guide for new members of your community and should be carefully considered and put together to accurately represent the site scope.

4. Do we really need tag [subject]?

As tags start to get better organized, there will be many problematic and extremely specific tags that may have been created initially, but do not actually serve any purpose. Such tags may be meta tags, may be redundant, or may even simply be spelling errors. Whatever the case, it is important to bring these up and discuss their need on the site. Many of these will eventually be removed, and the earlier this happens the cleaner the tags on your site stay.

Useful Links

Originally posted on Meta Stack Overflow. Many parts taken as-is from the official blog posts.

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