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How granular should network communities be?

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What are (y)our principles for deciding how granular Codidact network communities should be? The Other Place seems to lean towards more granular communities—one for software development, one for server administration, one for UI design, one for theoretical computer science. For those with experience moderating those communities, has that worked well? I could easily imagine going the opposite route and lumping those all into ‘computers’, with tags to categorize within that. How do we choose?

I'll enumerate some considerations I've thought of here; feel free to edit and add more.

  1. More granular communities generate more busywork in the forms of finding the right community in which to submit a question, evaluating questions to determine whether they are on topic for a community, and resubmitting questions when they are found off-topic. Broader communities don't eliminate this work entirely, but they do reduce it.

  2. Narrow communities can deter potential users interested in related subdisciplines if narrow communities for those subdisciplines don't exist yet. Broad coverage increases initial user draw, which might be important for reaching critical mass.

  3. Communities have a lot of autonomy in determining what is on topic and how they should be moderated. Larger autonomous units need more infrastructure (procedure and/or tools) to function efficiently than smaller ones.

  4. More granular communities let users select for the sorts of posts they're interested in. Can't tags serve this purpose just as easily in broader communities?

  5. A question may have multiple answers which would be most at-home in two different narrow communities—a question could get good answers from both a software development and a theoretical computer science perspective. In a model where every question has at most one ‘accepted’ answer, this can be resolved by moving the question to whichever community the best answer belongs in. But in a model with an emphasis on collecting a plurality of answers, that's a tradeoff with no good answer. In the broad community model, this is a non-issue, as long as communities are selected to avoid this sort of conflict. (But maybe this isn't possible? Are there always going to be questions that want answers from, e.g., both cooking and Judaism, where the communities are naturally disjoint for most purposes?)

  6. More granular communities enable moderators with narrower areas of expertise to make judgment calls on most questions in the community. Broader communities would likely require more moderators per community to get the same expertise coverage. This might not be more moderators overall though, if there are correspondingly fewer communities? I'm not sure this point matters.

  7. Users build reputation independently in different communities. The Other Place tracks tag-specific reputation for some privileges; perhaps Codidact could do the same. Or perhaps this doesn't matter either.

  8. Are there technical concerns—is the architecture for the Codidact network opinionated on the ideal size of a community?

  9. Is it easier to correct mistakes in one direction or the other—i.e., merge a bunch of communities into one, or split off communities from an existing one?

Why should this post be closed?

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3 answers

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A community with common interests is a part of it too. At Some Other place somebody wanted to combine all the Abrahamic religion sites into one, arguing that they share a lot of biblical books and tags could differentiate religious context. I argued against this because the three communities view those topics very differently and there weren't people who wanted to build a community for all three religions, but there were people who wanted to build communities for each of the three separately. In addition to different views of the bible, there are whole additional layers -- extra-biblical sources, customs, etc -- that differ among the three. This community would have been too general; by making everybody wade through a bunch of stuff they didn't care about to find their own subcommunity, that arrangement would have actually driven people away, in addition to not providing any benefit from those subcommunities all being in the same place. (It also likely would have led to tensions among users with very different perspectives.)

But, in an alternate universe, I could imagine a "religious studies" community forming, drawing from academia (some universities have departments for this), where there would probably be more cross-cutting questions, fuzzier lines, and fewer people deeply invested in personal religious values. That community, having basically the same breadth as the one in the previous paragraph, could work just fine -- because the people in that community have that shared interest.

So it's not really about scope. It's about the people. Who are the people coming together to form a community? What do their boundaries look like? What forms their identity? Where do they see themselves going?

Now consider an example from our own network, Software Development. This topic is pretty broad; on Some Other network its scope would cover a dozen or so different sites. Some Other network, as you point out, has tended to carve off smaller scopes for sites -- often, but not entirely. I think that's because of scale; Stack Overflow is so huge that people with a more focused interest like databases or quality assurance or web development can feel lost there. Their questions are on topic on SO, but it's harder for them to find their communities (people). They can do that more easily on focused sites, and so, over the years, SO has spawned a bunch of specialist sites.

On the other hand, there are communities with a very broad scope, like Writing, that haven't spawned children, because even though the scope is huge, the community is still fairly small. Even in the before times, if SE had split Writing up into sites for fiction, technical writing, and other topics, each of those sites would have had too few people to sustain them. (In fact SE tried to create a technical-communications site, over the objections of the Writing community because it was 90% scope overlap, and that community failed.)

In my opinion, we should create a separate community here when either the topic really is specialized (it doesn't make sense for it to be part of something broader) or when there is an active community that wants to focus on that area of scope. Either way, we're looking for enough active people to sustain it. If there's an active community of people, I don't really care whether the scope is narrow or broad -- they're doing stuff that makes sense for that community. So long as we don't create confusion or tension on our network of other communities, I don't see a problem.

We do not have the user base of Some Other network. When we were planning the Software Development community, there were arguments for a general community and arguments for several specialized communities. I don't currently see enough people to support any specialized communities, and as you point out, more related communities creates a little more friction for people coming in. So we created the general community, but with the expectation that as it grows, sub-communities might want to split off. We will support that in a way that minimizes disruption to all involved; I think that just by planning for that kind of growth from the start, we're already ahead of Some Other network where the subcommunity would have to start by proposing a brand-new site and people with questions would still find lots of questions on SO even though there's that other site over there.

(What does our plan look like? I have a ticket to develop this idea and share a draft with the community, which I haven't had time to work on yet, but the broad idea is that we'd spin off a new community but make its content (or some of its content?) available on the parent community too and steer people from the parent to the specialized community when appropriate. If there's a Javascript community but you go to Software Dev and search you would still find hits (that would guide you to the JS community). There would be something TBD in the question-asking flow that would lead you there based on tags. Something like that, but we haven't fleshed it out yet.)

4 comments

So, like, I love computers, and I don't mind seeing questions that don't interest me; I just won't answer them. I'll happily throw my hat into the ring for a Linux community, or for a retrocomputing community, or whatever community needs to exist to answer imperfectly framed questions about how the web works. But should I be trying to rally a community of indiscriminate ‘computer topics’-lovers instead? Is the overlap with the existing Software Development community an issue, in your opinion? ‭r~~‭ 16 days ago

Regarding an "Abrahamic religions" site, given what's possible on Codidact, and I'm not saying such a change should be made, consider the possibility of such a site but with categories for each specific religion. On Some Other network, such a feature wasn't available. Here, it is; and even if it wasn't, could have been implemented (proof: it got implemented). I wasn't involved in that discussion, but I can imagine that the outcome of the discussion could potentially have been different then. ‭aCVn‭ 15 days ago

@aCVn categories could change that, yes. But, fundamentally, the groups have enough important differences that I suspect they shouldn't share common infrastructure like reputation/abilities and a single meta. Federated communities like with my vague SoftwareDev subcommunities might work better. But this assumes there are people interested in these religions in the aggregate; if everyone is just there for one of them, there wouldn't be a benefit. ‭Monica Cellio‭ 15 days ago

@MonicaCellio Indeed, and I wasn't suggesting (certainly didn't mean to suggest) that the outcome of the discussion would necessarily be different. You bring up salient points in your comment, and I'm sure there are other arguments against it as well. My point was simply that on Codidact, we have possibilities that don't exist in Some Other places. Whether and how to use those possibilities is a different discussion, and one that should be had for each community. ‭aCVn‭ 14 days ago

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If you'll allow me to come up with a made-up dystopia community scenario:

Suppose you are a professional carpenter who like to discuss your trade with other professionals. So you start a carpentry site.

The first thing that went wrong was that the site attracted a lot of "do it yourself" amateurs, asking horribly basic questions along the lines of which side of the hammer to hit a nail with. While these questions are technically still about carpentry and tools used by carpenters, they are very uninteresting for the professional and distracts from the questions that professionals find interesting.

Then someone decides to merge the carpentry site into a major "Houses" site. Now you aren't only distracted by on-topic but basic carpentry questions, but by completely different topics as well. Home decoration, architecture, house brokers, plumbing, household electronics, gardening...

Many of these other topics do interest you, since they are somewhat related to your trade. But you aren't really qualified to answer any more in-depth questions in those topics. So you and everyone else settles for answering the easy questions only. At the same time as you write answers to easy gardening questions and having a good time doing so, you notice that the amount of interesting questions below the carpentry tag have for some reasons decreased. Instead the amount of shallow, easy to answer beginner-level questions has increased. That's strange... now where was I... "yes, you must water the flowers on hot days or they die".

Then someone decides to merge "Houses" into the the "Cities" site, which is about everything that happens in a city. Now you have an even broader range of topics: traffic, city planning, night-life, tourism, people asking for directions. The site is now so broad that it's nearly impossible to find any interesting topic at all, for anyone.

All the carpentry experts has fled since long since they hold no interest in 99% of the site contents. The only type of questions remaining in the carpentry tag is them DIY dudes struggling with their hammers, the site get thousand such questions every day and tons of questions, but barely any answers. The quality of the few answers is very poor, because of the lack of domain experts willing to answer or review other answers. You can however post an answer about how to use a hammer on screws and get tons of up-votes in no time.

It is dead easy to post a question on "Cities", almost everything is on-topic. But it is almost impossible to find a question to answer. And then your carpentry questions about screwing got you suspended because the night-life admin with zero domain knowledge of carpentry found them obscene.

Then someone decided to merge the "Cities" community into a larger one yet. The name for this new community is Quora 2.

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‘interesting questions below the carpentry tag have for some reasons decreased’ — For what reasons? Why wouldn't the same people with interesting questions as before continue to post under that tag? ‭r~~‭ 8 days ago

@ ‭r~~‭ The professional carpenters decreased their activity in the carpentry tag in favour of answering easy gardening questions. And the professional gardeners did the same, answering easy carpentry questions instead. Both tags has a big increase of shallow questions, causing the in-depth topics to drown and turn harder to find. ‭Lundin‭ 7 days ago

Is that what people do? I'm pretty sure I'd answer the interesting my-topic-of-interest questions before dipping into the list of easy adjacent-topic questions; am I atypical? (Not a rhetorical question; maybe I am!) If so, is this tooling-related—e.g., does the site just not do a good enough job of feeding you the questions it'd be globally best for you to answer, or are the reputation incentives encouraging spamming easy answers over writing a few hard ones too strong? ‭r~~‭ 7 days ago

@ ‭r~~ I don't think there exists a stereotype behavior, but perhaps in general people are not necessarily passionated about the things they are most skilled in. A skilled and professional carpenter who does carpentry 40 hours per week but gardening as their hobby activity now and then, might be much more interested in interacting with gardening questions than carpentry questions, even though they are only skilled in the latter. ‭Lundin‭ 6 days ago

So if you provide both on the same site, the design is distracting. Normally if they were two communities, they might go visit one site and then the other, focusing on one thing at a time. Also, the carpenter's boss might be OK with them visiting the carpentry site during work hours as part of their job, but not with them visiting gardening sites for fun. ‭Lundin‭ 6 days ago

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The main guiding principle should be what fraction of posts a typical user would find interesting, or at least feel are related enough to their interests to not be annoyed at them for being off-topic babble.

Individual users will have a more narrow focus of interest than a whole site. They will get annoyed and leave when too much of the content isn't interesting to them, or at least doesn't feel like it fits.

And no, tags aren't really solutions to this. At least in my own experience, I never used tags to filter content. Doing so feels like you could miss out when something interesting gets miss-tagged. It also feels like hiding the problem instead of fixing it. Suppose you could put on magic glasses so that you don't see dirt in your house. You may not see it, but it's effects are still there, and you still need to clean it.

A good example was the SE Outdoors site. That's a wide topic, with many sub-topics that don't interest me. As long as the posts I wasn't interested in weren't overwhelming, I didn't mind. I even liked to see what some of the other topics were about. Then a new user came along and posted several questions a day about archery. I'm not interested in archery, but don't mind reading an occasional post. However, this flood of archery questions made everything else move off the front page quickly, and made the place feel like it was only about archery. As a result, I gave up on the site for a while. A year or so later when I took a look again, the topics were more mixed, so I started visiting more regularly.

So, keep sites reasonably narrow. The two factors that push against that are:

  1. Not enough users would be active for a niche sub-topic.
  2. Multiple sub-topics are related in that answers for a question in one often would get into the others anyway.

Of course these things will always be subjective, so there's no way to make a solid rule about how wide the topic for a particular site should be.

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If one looks at the statistics on Outdoors.SE for questions and upvotes and participation, its possible to see a very large spike that was driven by that enthusiastic new user. At one point it was averaging over 10 questions per day. Then Olin wrote this meta post https://outdoors.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/683/enough-with-the-flood-of-artificial-questions and the question and upvote rate dropped sharply and never approached that level again. ‭Charlie Brumbaugh‭ 16 days ago

Trying to shut down questions that one doesn't find interesting is selfish and harmful to the greater community as it was for Outdoors. ‭Charlie Brumbaugh‭ 16 days ago

@Olin Your A reads to me as though you think the point of a Q&A community is to be your own personal source of entertaining content rather than a shared space for learning and education that serves many audiences. Do you disagree? ‭ShowMeBillyJo‭ 13 days ago

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