In my last post I discussed two models of communication used within software communities, mailing lists and web forums. However, over the past few years, a new model has arisen: Stack Exchange.
The name is a play on Stack Overflow, the first site to use the software which powers Stack Exchanges. The system was developed by Stack Exchange Inc. (SEI) who maintain and host the software, as well as running several Stack Exchanges themselves. While similar in aspects to web-based forums, a Stack Exchange is markedly different, bringing in elements from other Internet media. Discussion threads are replaced with simple question-and-answers on a well-defined topic. Users can up or down-vote questions and answers, and the user who asked the question can “accept” one answer to indicate which successfully answered their question. There’s no sign up required to view existing questions, and all Stack Exchange sites use OpenID, so you can probably log in with an existing account.
Stack Exchanges are designed to be run by the community, and be largely self-moderating. Users who ask good questions and provide good answers are rewarded with reputation points. As a user accumulates points, they gain accessed to more privileged functionality.
To help keep sites on-topic, each Stack Exchange also has a “meta” sub-site, for questions about the site itself.
This unique combination of factors helps ensure that well worded and presented questions are highly visible, while vague or off-topic posts are less so. Similarly, the best answer to a question is quickly accessible, as it will appear first.
Take to the Floor
There have been some great examples of Open Source projects making use of Stack Exchanges. Android’s main support channel for developers is via questions tagged with “Android” on StackOverflow.com. Stack Overflow is an existing Stack Exchange website specifically for programming questions. Tags allow questions to be categorised, and a user can favourite or ignore certain tags, as well as subscribing to an RSS feed for each tag. By tapping in to this existing system, Android gains a great platform for developer support, as well as exposing its development questions to the wider community, creating the potential to draw others in.
Roll Your Own
Working within existing sites isn’t the only option. The Ubuntu community have set up their own site, AskUbuntu.com, to provide a place for questions and answers about the Ubuntu operating system. The site has been a big success, become the one of if not the largest site (it depends how you measure it) the in the Stack Exchange network that isn’t run by SEI.
Marco Ceppi is a community-elected moderator at Ask Ubuntu. Ubuntu had several community support channels when Ask Ubuntu started, but the Stack Exchange model offered something different.
From day one I knew that precise Q&A like that of Stack Overflow is needed in the Ubuntu Community. I’d hardly used Launchpad Answers [an existing site for Ubuntu Q&A] because of low search engine rankings, Ubuntu Forums were and are still great, but I remember some very late nights reading huge threads just trying out solutions every other page to find that they’re obsolete and a new solution was just a few pages away. Forums are great for people who use and track the forums constantly. Ask Ubuntu is more for those people who have a problem, go to a search engine, then click a link and expect a fix. On Ask Ubuntu questions are constantly being filtered by the community and answers are voted on, making sure the most relevant and accurate answers is the next thing you read after the question. Ask Ubuntu really benefits the 90% of the people who visit the site and just want an answer.
Ask Ubuntu was first proposed by Evan Dandrea through the Stack Exchange Area 51 website, a system to take a community through the process of defining and committing to a new Q&A site, then running beta phases before it goes live. Marco says there was some resistance at first, but has since been fully accepted by the community.
At first there was a lot of resistance by other Ubuntu support groups, where they feared Ask Ubuntu might just swing in and knock them out of commission, or something like that. It wasn’t really clear why there was this animosity towards Ask Ubuntu.
Where we are today and where we were when we launched are two completely different sites. Now we’re accepted as a source of support by the community, you can even see bits and bobs of Ask Ubuntu “Ask a question” buttons on the Ubuntu project sites. We try to work with teams within Ubuntu to show them how they can monitor their software tag in AU and respond to enquiries. A few Ubuntu projects recommend Ask Ubuntu for community support. As far as success within Stack Exchange, we’re constantly butting up against the top three sites (Stack Overflow, Super User, Server Fault) in questions/day, traffic, and other site statistics.
Ask Ubuntu is also the only support channel mentioned in the Ubuntu installer as the place for new users to get help, which Marco says is a pretty good indicator of the site’s standing within the Ubuntu project.
What’s the Catch?
There are of course drawbacks to consider. Stack Exchange isn’t software you can licence and install yourself, it’s a hosted solution. If SEI were to go away, so would your site. If they were to be acquired by another company with different views on how to monetise the system, the nature of Stack Exchanges might change. However, SEI made a smart decision to require all contributions to be licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution licence and provide a tool for extracting this data, so if the worst was to happen, you’d be fully within your rights to reproduce the content elsewhere.
The OSS Watch team have experience working with communication tools in a number of Open Source communities. If you’re working in a UK college or university and need advice on the right tools to help build a community around your project, get in touch. Thanks to Marco Ceppi for taking the time to chat with me.