Posts Tagged ‘stackexchange’

More pitching (

The elevator pitch discussion died down, but I’ve been thinking about this over the last few weeks.  As I noted earlier, I’m not a great pitcher, but perhaps I can get something good enough together that others can then work on.

DVD extras meets user generated content.

I like the idea of starting the pitch with a mashup of something that the pitchee is likely to be familar with (harking back to Donaldson’s thought that all good ideas come from the collision of two separate ideas).  In addition, “user generated content” is fairly buzzword-y, which I generally dislike, but is probably appropriate for a pitch.  I’m referring only to the best DVD extras, of course, but I think that is implied (also the best of user generated content), and “Book extras” if there was such a thing, as well.

Imagine if you could set the questions on the DVD extras for your favourite TV show or movie – or if you had extras for your favourite book.  You get answers about whathow and why things happened both in-universe, and in reality, from people who are intimately familiar with not just that one work, but the entire science fiction and fantasy genres – people that can pull together expert and interesting answers about how this work relates to other genre fiction and to the world. They’ll even explain what stories you should move to next if you loved particular aspects of this one.

This doesn’t include story identification – but the pitch doesn’t need to include every topic, and it doesn’t fit with the “DVD extras” analogy.  It hits some marks that I think are particularly important:

  • It’s not just about focusing in on one universe – it’s about having knowledge across the entire genre/genres.
  • It’s about the in-universe world, but also about how the fiction impacts reality.
  • It punches the question words “what”, “how”, and “why” (“who” is probably better answered by IMDB, “where” probably by Wikipedia, and “which” could cover too many things).  This emphases (subtlety) that this is a Q&A site (as does “answers” later on), but also what sort of questions are most appropriate: especially “why”.
  • DVD extras are generally narrated by experts (cast, crew, authors).  The site isn’t necessarily going to have the foremost expert (e.g. the author) for every question, but it is about getting expert opinion.

It does include recommendations (although I try to make it clear that they need to be very specific).  My opinion follows the original meta discussion: as long as they are specific enough to invite good (subjective) answers, then they’re ok.  Actually, they’re not just ok, but the type of question that users will really love the site for.  I’m sure many people will add books to their reading lists by reading interesting, detailed, answers on the site – not just these ones, but certainly including them.

Figuring FAQ (

The community (or more accurately, the community) is still trying to figure out what’s on-topic, even though it doesn’t appear that the meta consensus directly influences the actual reality of the site.

When I last left the search for an elevator pitch, I wondered whether the FAQs of the other (launched) sites would be a fertile ground for inspiration. So, here goes – this is the same list of sites as last time:

Web apps is fairly straightforward (although they interestingly single out “adult content” sites as off-topic).  Gaming is nice and short, with an all-inclusive policy (with two exceptions: recommendations and shopping).  Ubuntu’s FAQ barely says anything about what’s ok – I guess the implication is that anything related to Ubuntu is on-topic.  Webmasters is similarly short, with no exclusions.  Game development has a brief list of sub-topics that are considered acceptable, and an explanation of how to choose between StackOverflow and that site.

The three that I think do the best job (in terms of something that can emulate) are photography, cooking, and mathematics.

Photography is an interesting case – they link to a few meta discussions, and they have some off-topic examples that seem obvious (programming, website development, graphic design) but must have caused problems at some point.

Cooking reads very nicely – there are clear examples of what’s on-topic, and some examples of what’s not on topic.  There’s a link to questions tagged “faq” on meta ( has used “on-topic-discussion” for the same purposes I think).

Mathematics doesn’t just have on-topic and off-topic suggestions, but also suggestions for topics that are on-topic but might get better answers elsewhere.  I think this is a great addition.  The off-topic examples are quite limited, but it’s probably quite obvious what’s ok on the site.

Does this help with figuring things out for  Not as much as I hoped.  The results of the ‘on topic – off-topic’ meta-meta discussion can probably be turned into the on/off topic bullet points that are common; we should try and include a link to an appropriate meta tag as well, and links to other sites (like for some examples would be great too.

    Dealing with recommendations (

    One of the problems that faces that isn’t unique to that site is “recommendation” questions. These are a specific type of list question (which are generally ill-suited to the sites), where each answer offers one possible recommendation, and the votes cast are not just “that’s a good answer” or “that’s a bad answer”, but votes for (and less often, against) a suggestion. StackOverflow has a long history of problems with these sorts of questions (e.g. “favourite programming cartoon” and “great programming quotes“).  With few exceptions, these questions are closed, often not before they gather huge numbers of votes, answers, and answer votes.

    I don’t really see a huge problem with these questions myself – if they are “community wiki” then they aren’t just a way to gather huge amounts of reputation, the voting has merit (if something is popular, it is likely for a reason), and the format does fit (unlike discussions, for example).  I can understand that a specific site might choose to disallow them (e.g. StackOverflow), but others (e.g. could allow them.  I don’t think that having the majority (or even just a non-small percentage) of a site’s questions be ones of this type would do much for the quality, but in moderation they seem ok.

    I doubt this would ever be allowed by the powers that be at StackExchange, but I think the following would be a great system for

    • Once a month a new question is opened that asks what this month’s recommendation (or perhaps more generally, poll) question should be.  People make suggestions and up/down vote the ideas that they like (yes, a poll about a poll – however, poll questions seem to be acceptable on meta sites).
    • One a month, the most popular answer of the previous month’s meta question is created (e.g. by a moderator, ensuring that the question is community wiki).

    I think this strikes a great middle-ground.  These types of questions are generally incredibly popular, and that would help get people coming to the site (something that needs, but others, e.g. StackOverflow, do not, since it’s already at near saturation).  Since there would only be one of these each month (others would be close-voted, with comments pointing to the relevant meta discussion) they wouldn’t dominate the site (even one a week would presumably be only noise compared to the number of other questions).  Many more users would find themselves interacting with the meta site – hopefully some of these would explore more than just the one question they came for, and end up participating in community building, support, moderation, and so forth – perhaps these users would otherwise not have ever visited the meta site.

    Other arguments against these types of questions tend to be: they age badly (this could still be true, but hopefully the pre-asking meta stage would assist with that, and there’s always down-votes), they provoke discussion (discussion answers/comments can be flagged, discussion in chat is a good thing), and they don’t provide interesting answers (I totally disagree – especially in the context of a Q&A site dedicated to fiction).

    The Science Fiction StackExchange site came out of private beta today.  It’s not the first proposal that I committed to that has made it to beta (that was Card/Board games), I’ve found it more interesting (so far) – Card/Board games has so far focused on a lot of games that I have no interest in (and I’m not so interested or have enough time to ask a lot of questions myself).

    Awesome looking stuff.  Go buy some :)

    The current state of scifi.stackexchange is a little worrying – as might be expected, there are a lot of list/opinion/subjective/discussion questions, which aren’t really a good fit for a SE site.  A lot of questions are “community wiki”, which reflects this, and that means that reputation is hard to come by for many users.  It seems like there might already be a lot of ‘definitive’ factbook-type sites for many of the major scifi stories (e.g. wookiepedia for Star Wars), and there’s little point just duplicating that information (even Wikipedia has a lot of data, presumably because of a sci-fi bias among many of the editors).

    However, there does seem to be a lot of potential for the “long tail” type of questions that SE is designed to address.  There’s certainly a lot of lesser-known scifi novels/TV shows that don’t have a lot of information about them online.  It looks like “identify this book” type questions will be acceptable as well, which definitely seems like it would be valuable (even when coming from a Google search).  Overall, I’m hopeful – so go check it out!

    I’m still waiting for the Parenting StackExchange site to reach the beta phase.  It might end up being a huge mess of subjective opinion, but it might also end up being a truly valuable resource.  If you’re interested, commit!