scifi.stackexchange.com has been in beta for a couple of weeks now, and has gone through quite a few struggles. Although I’ve been a StackOverflow user since the very early days (2 years, 4 months now), this is my first experience with a StackExchange site in the beta stage – it’s possible that all of the sites have these troubles, although it does seem like they are particular to a topic like “science fiction” more than more concrete topics like mathematics, cooking, or theoretical computer science.
Most of the issues boil down to two: how should the moderators interact with the site, and exactly what is on-topic.
In an effort to save the site from its community, the (SE employee) moderators have chosen to take a very hard line. Rather than let the community police itself, they’ve decided that it’s better to act as quickly as possible to remove any questions that aren’t suitable (in their opinion) and hope that if there’s any disagreement that it will be take up on meta. This policy does appear to be working, so perhaps that’s enough validation. In my opinion, letting the community close the bad questions would be better in the long term (and only slightly slower in the short), and the moderators’ time would be better spent educating the community leaders in the meta site. Hopefully, this will become less of an issue as the more major question of what’s on topic is answered, and pro tem moderators are elected from the community.
I’m not sure exactly how much of the graduation of a site from definition to commitment to beta in the Area51 system is automated. It’s possible that no human was involved in the progress. I think if there was, that would help – the majority of the example “on topic” questions for the site are, in fact, deemed off topic, and it seems likely (given their comments) that the StackExchange staff would have been able to point that out before the site opened. Perhaps the 5 “on topic” examples for each site could be examined when “commitment” is reached, and if the StackExchange staff can see questions that just won’t be acceptable in the StackExchange model, the proposal can be bounced back into definition (with an explanation).
The much more pressing issue is to decide what’s on topic for the site. There seem to be some clear-cut decisions: questions about writing are out, questions that could be answered by a basic check of IMDB are out. There are many more that are unclear. There’s a meta question asking to define the “elevator pitch” for the site, which will help a lot. Unfortunately, the answer that’s voted highest at present isn’t one that I think would make an interesting site (and it’s certainly not one that I’d be interested in spending much time on). There’s another answer that’s much closed to a good site – I think one of the main weaknesses of that answer is that it’s not “pitchy” enough. I’ve considered having a go at a pitch myself, but the pitch has to be concise (by definition), and conciseness isn’t a strength of mine, which means that even if I got the topics right, it wouldn’t be a good pitch.
What I’m hoping to see scifi.stackexchange.com become involves these sorts of questions:
Story identification. These have gone through a rough ride: one of the (SE employee) moderators mistakenly thought that these were outright-banned, when in fact they are merely held to a higher standard than average questions. This lead to a lot of confusion that was only resolved in the last couple of days. It’s clear now that the community can choose to allow them (again, assuming they are well asked), although it’s not clear whether everyone agrees that they should be. I think they will form an invaluable and essential part of the site. Reading the questions and the answers is an excellent way to find new material (without opening up poll/recommendation questions), and is the way to entice new users into the site/community. Once these questions are indexed, identifying the material will be simple via a search engine, as well.
“Trivia”. The problem is that it’s hard to define “trivia”; literally it’s something of small importance – this is of course, extremely subjective (the majority of StackExchange questions are probably of small importance to most people – that’s what addressing the long tail is all about). Questions that only allow for uninteresting answers clearly aren’t of value (although uninteresting is again subjective). The voting system provides a good mechanism of determining this – especially combined with reputation and tags. A good metric is that good answers are generally long answers. I do think it’s possible to have something that some people would call “trivia”, but be long and interesting.
Answers found elsewhere: one of the reasons that StackOverflow was such a success was that there was a huge vacuum that it filled. This isn’t so much the case with a science fiction Q&A site (although hopefully there is some vacuum). Practically every Science Fiction TV show, movie, or popular book series has some sort of wiki site dedicated to it, usually filled with encyclopedic quantities of information about everything to do with that series. For those few that don’t have their own site – and those that do – there’s Wikipedia entries on everything as well. The Internet was built by scifi fans – this shouldn’t be a surprise. I hope that the eventual consensus is that there’s no way to draw a line here, and questions have to be judged on their own merit. If you can figure out the answer to your question with a single Google search and skimming a wiki page, then there’s no real value duplicating that content. If you have to read through a lot of wiki pages, or they’re really hard to find, or if you need more conjecture or opinion than a wiki page allows, then that should be ok. I would like to see these questions left alone, and (e.g.) if they get go below -1 votes, then vote to close.
Something in the source material: related to the previous, obviously. Here you can’t find the answer online (or at least it’s very difficult to), but if you had the source material (the book, the TV episode, the movie), then you’d be able to figure it out. I think these are borderline, too. What if the book is out of print (or otherwise rare), or the TV episode isn’t available on DVD (or purchasable online)? Not everyone keeps everything that they watch/read. I think that makes it too hard to create a blanket rule about this sort of question. If the question’s not good, then it’ll get voted down (e.g. if anyone that has every read the book would easily remember and could explain in a sentence). If it is good, then it’ll get voted up.
Real world: questions that relate sci-fi to the real world are interesting, but to be useful I think they need to be very specific, otherwise it’ll just degenerate into discussion/argument.
Sci-fi for dummies: not what I’d call it on the site, but face it – sometimes the science in the science fiction is complex (especially in ‘hard’ sci-fi). Getting a bit of help figuring a plot point or allusion out seems like a great use of the site.
Industry information: questions about writing are apparently out (go ask on writers.stackexchange.com). However, there’s still industry specific questions that could be useful – although it’ll be hard to ask a truly interesting question (e.g. “how do I contact author X” is answerable by a single link to a website generally, and “what convention is good” is considered bad form on StackExchange sites). I haven’t seen any questions like this yet, but I suspect they will turn up eventually, and perhaps be rare gems.
I think a good elevator pitch would start with: scifi.stackexchange.com: a place for fans of all science fiction, not just one series, to help each other out, with … Perhaps I’ll manage to figure out the rest of that and submit it as an answer in the next few days.