Dougal Campbell's geek ramblings

WordPress, web development, and world domination.

Splintering the Community

Recently, Arlen Beiler created a proposal for a WordPress Answers site on the in-progress StackExchange network, which is part of StackOverflow. If you aren’t familiar with StackOverflow or any of its sister-sites, it’s a sort of Questions and Answers forum where good answers are voted up, and float to the top. There is also a reputation system which rewards users for being active and providing quality feedback. I was not previously an active member on any of the sites, but I had run across answers to some of my own questions in the past when using Google to search.

I signed up on the WordPress Answers site, which is currently in a ‘discussion’ phase, where it needs sample questions to help define the scope. I provided some questions of my own, voted on the ‘on-topic’ or ‘off-topic’ status for the sample questions, and provided feedback on many questions when I thought it was necessary to explain my opinion.

Meanwhile, back on the wp-hackers mailing list, there was a flurry of responses, including some people concerned that catering to this additional site might “splinter the development community” between the official and unofficial sites.

When I first started looking at the StackExchange site, I mentioned it to my wife, Susan. She likes WordPress, but she uses Drupal a lot at work. After noticing that nobody else had set up a Drupal proposal yet, she started Drupal Answers. Shortly after, someone asked why such a site would be needed, when there are already Drupal forums, and asked, “Is it good to splinter that effort?”

Again with the “splintering” talk? Why does this particular project invite claims of dividing the community? I know that in the WordPress community, there are many other places besides the official support forums where users gather to ask questions and share information — Weblog Tools Collection, WP Tavern, and StackOverflow just to name a few, and many plugins and themes have their own support venues, hosted by their creators. And I’m sure the same is true in the Drupal world. Why are these different, why no cries of “splintering the community” over these?

So, what do you think? Is there really a problem with a support site for questions and answers, separate from the “official” support forums? What features make you want to use one over the other, or both? What is your favorite place to find answers?

About Dougal Campbell

Dougal is a web developer, and a "Developer Emeritus" for the WordPress platform. When he's not coding PHP, Perl, CSS, JavaScript, or whatnot, he spends time with his wife, three children, a dog, and a cat in their Atlanta area home.
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33 Responses to Splintering the Community

  1. Ken Newman says:

    I was surprised by the response to WordPress Answers. I didn’t think anything was harmful about it. After some searching, I think the push back is due to the timing of the thing… The next big push after 3.0 will be the org site redo. It seems to me that the core guys were saving up some excitement over this, and just before talking about it ‘alot’ the new WordPress Answers site starts buzzing… seems like it’d be somewhat disappointing emotionally, to compete with the buzz. I’ll be more likely to help at WordPress.org after the redo, and I don’t see WordPress Answers taking anything away from that.

    • Dougal says:

      Yeah, I’m sure that the planned revamp of the .org site is probably a part of it. They are currently taking suggestions for improvements to the support forums. Which is great! I’ve put in my 2 cents worth, because I’d love to see some new features there. I want the wordpress.org support forums to be the best resource they can be, regardless of what else is available.

      But that doesn’t preclude the existence of other good resources. Some people consider different features important. Some people just respond better to a particular look-and-feel. You just can’t please everybody at the same time, so there are always going to be alternative watering holes.

       

    • Ken Newman says:

      After catching up on the mailing list a bit, I noticed Arlen, the guy who started the proposal I think, being a general nudge on a couple of threads, and in various other places (like #wordpress-dev). That might have something with WordPress Answers’ luke-warm reception…

  2. scribu says:

    To be honest, my favorite place to find answers is Google, because it has the best search and is the most complete.

    • Dougal says:

      Right, many people are going to go to Google first, including myself.

      Question: how often does Google lead you to an answer on the wordpress.org support forums? Does any particular site seem to come up more often than others as a source of good answers to WordPress questions? My personal experience has been that I’ve been led to StackOverflow more often than wordpress.org (albeit, it depends on the question).

       

      • Byron says:

        Most of my questions are best answered in the Codex or the XRef sites. The Codex can sometimes make you a little crazy because the examples aren’t as robust as a dunce like me might need (in contrast, the PHP.net examples are usually quite good).

        Google takes me to lots great blog posts out there that help on specific topics. But I really love it when I get a StackOverflow link. That community is very sharp and the functionality of the site is so good.

        My experience with the WP Forums has been that most of the topics (at least the ones that I wind up there on) are not answered. You’ll have two or three users looking for the same answer, but frequently no answer.

        Philosophically, the WP Forum is not an Answers site….The format of StackOverflow forces you to ask cogent questions that do not require a lot of back-and-forth. So you typically get a bunch of submitted answers and fewer bruised egos/bullies. It’s totally different than a forum. And it is much better (IMHO) for answering questions that have actual answers. StackOverflow isn’t for troubleshooting, which is what the Forum is better suited to.

        In the forum, you get a lot of “My plugin crashes my database…help!” type questions. In StackOverflow, you get “How do you sort an array?” type questions. I like the 2nd much better since it’s more objective.

        Totally different purposes in my mind. I want both, actually, but I like SO better.

    • Jaypee says:

      Same here. I go to Google first whenever I encounter a problem with WordPress.

      Regarding the issue of “splintering”, I don’t think having another site like WordPress Answers would hurt. There are tons of other sites/forums where people ask/get help with WordPress. Besides, not all questions posted on the WordPress forum gets answered anyways. Users will go where they’ll get the help and answers that they need.

  3. Rather than just setting up a StackExchange site for the topic of WordPress and seeing how it goes, the threads on the topic were suggesting (albeit implicitly) that there would be some kind of extricable link between the StackExchange site and the WordPress project.

    For example:

    Turns out the team that created StackOverflow just got $6 million in VC from a dream-team of investors[2] and are now accepting proposals[3] for specific communities. Because their site does such an incredible job of surfacing the correct and relevant answers I’d love to see a Stack Overflow-like site for WordPress.

    “A Stack Overflow-like site for WordPress” would be interpreted by most as something to do with the WordPress project, not just something that’s subject matter is WordPress, which is probably what the original thread was actually suggesting.

    So the whole “splintering the community” comes from the suggestion that this is being done as something more than just-another-site-about-WordPress. Probably the main culprit was that the whole idea was put forward on wp-hackers as “hey, this is something we should do”. The whole official sounding application process for starting a StackExchange probably doesn’t help either.

    On the effort as a whole, I’m inclined to agree with Mark Jaquith:

    Our goal should be to create sustainable communications
    tools for the WordPress community. A third party site, running on
    proprietary software does not meet our needs.

    If an effort is being made to set up a rich Q&A site like this (with its intention being to become a primary resource), it would be better served as something that is part of the WordPress project.

    The “sustainable” and “proprietary” parts are important. What’s to say that StackOverflow won’t run out of funding and collapse, or start charging for StackExchanges in the future? What happens when they make decisions that aren’t in the best interests of the community?

    • Dougal says:

      Your last paragraph is pretty much the only part that I see as a real concern. If a third-party site decided one day to lock up the content behind a membership wall, that would be a barrier to people finding the information. But it would also pretty much be suicide for this site. And to some degree, it would be a self-solving problem, as all of the links to the inaccessible content would begin to evaporate from search engines.

      Again, though, how is this different from other third-party resources that are already around? The WP Tavern forums run on vBulletin software, a commercial product. Jeff has kicked around the idea of going to a membership model for all or part of his forums. I know that he wants to be able to earn enough income from his WordPress-related activities to justify keeping his site around, but what if he didn’t? What if he got into a bind and decided to just shut his site down? (I’m not picking on Jeff, and I really hope that WP Tavern stays around forever)

      Is it just that StackExchange is a purely commercial venture, and is not solely dedicated to WordPress? Or is it something else? Where is the line?

      Maybe the WordPress Answers site will go nowhere. Or maybe it will be great, and stick around for years to come. I just don’t see what the harm could be in giving it a chance to fly on its own. And when the wordpress.org forums are revamped, maybe they’ll be as good or better, and people will stop visiting WordPress Answers. Or maybe, both sites will stick around, serving overlapping audiences, and providing synergystic value to the community as a whole.

       

      • If a third-party site decided one day to lock up the content behind a membership wall, that would be a barrier to people finding the information.

        I guess rather than a paywall I actually meant charging users to participate on the site, but that would be an odd setup, so yeah this is a moot point, but the point about it being under third party control (and ultimately, it’s longevity potentially being out of the third party’s control) still stands.

        how is this different from other third-party resources that are already around? The WP Tavern forums run on vBulletin software, a commercial product.

        The issue of splintering the community comes from the way it’s being set up – the posts to wp-hackers all suggest that it is (or should be) some kind of community effort to set up a Q&A site. The fact that StackExchange runs proprietary software is just an added concern. If it ran free software then the same concerns around sustainable communications tools would still apply.

        For example, somebody could set up a WordPress install on a server, install a Q&A plugin and propose it in the same way as Arlen proposed the StackExchange site. This would still suffer from the problem that it is a third party effort and potentially unsustainable for any number of reasons.

        • I was the guy who wrote what you originally quoted so I guess I should weight in.

          “A Stack Overflow-like site for WordPress” would be interpreted by most as something to do with the WordPress project…”

          What would cause anyone to think that? Maybe it is were “WordPress’s StackOverflow”, but I simply don’t get the concern.

          “But the point about it being under third party control (and ultimately, it’s longevity potentially being out of the third party’s control) still stands.”

          I get the concerns about longevity, but that’s a moot point with StackExchange because the content is Creative Commons licensed so if you are really concerned about if write a crawler to archive their content for the event you eventually fear might happen. If they fold you’ve got the content to continue.  So what’s the real issue?
          That said, what’s to say that Automattic, the current “benevolent” host of the community doesn’t cease to exist? Preposterous you say? But then I don’t know anyone that would have thought a few months ago that we might be questioning whether or not BP would be a going concern. Things happen. The ground you walk on isn’t always solid. Just ask those who have been through an earthquake.
          Point is, having StackExchange support WordPress spreads the risk that Automattic becomes insolvent (one really big lawsuit could do them in, ya know.)
          Having 3rd party services on the web support WordPress is just a good idea. A good business knows that focus is the key to success. Why then does the WordPress community think that aiming to be the best at everything makes sense? Besides, attempting to do so shuts out potential partners and as such can paint a target on its back.
          One thing Jane told me was they want to get WordPress user groups to make their primary home on the web to be at WordPress.org which means significantly decreasing the likelihood that a group will set up shop a Meetup.com. Having run a web entrepreneur meetup group with up to 1900 members for 3 years I know how valuable Meetup.com can be so I think the idea to encourage groups to get off Meetup.com is highly shortsighted.
          WordPress.org will never equal the functionality of Meetup.com, groups on WordPress.org will never gain members from the serendipitous discovery that happens on Meetup.com, and providing incentives to move off Meetup.com means that Meetup.com will now see WordPress as an impediment rather than a partner. It would be MUCH better to partner with Meetup.com IMO than to try to replicate it. For example Jane said that anyone could set up a WordPress group on Meetup and some of them were just veiled attempts to market services. Fine; create an “Official WordPress Meetup Logo” and require groups to meet criteria in order to display it. That would be much better than trying to move groups off Meetup.com.
          But yet, I digress.

          The issue of splintering the community comes from the way it’s being set up – the posts to wp-hackers all suggest that it is (or should be) some kind of community effort to set up a Q&A site.

          That is your interpretation, but not mine nor my intention. It was a suggestion for those people who were interested because their needs were not being met by the existing offerings in the WordPress community. People who’s needs are being met could have (should have) just ignored it.
          I am perplexed and a bit disheartened by the somewhat hostile attitude toward growth of the ecosystem by some in the community. The idea that it all needs to be “official” can stunt a growing ecosystem. Try to control it all and you can end up a declining ecosystem instead of a growing one. I think it’s a real shame to see people in the community try to put the brakes on things that can actually grow the community as not everyone’s needs are met in the same way. But JMTCW.
          Anyway great post Dougal!

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  5. Patrick Daly says:

    I’m a fan of a more “hands off” government. Let the free market decide what works best and give the innovators a shot.

    There’s no government involved here, but the principles apply. Unless something is truly harmful to WordPress, then all avenues of support should be accepted. Hopefully this will just make the official WordPress support options even better. And they should be. It should be easier for people who are unsatisfied with the current condition to add improvements.

    Since WP support hasn’t really changed much in the past few years people have begun to seek elsewhere (for whatever reasons). We just have to make sure the official support options compete well against the others.

  6. Mosey says:

    My very superficial comment:

    I sometimes like visiting alternative sites (e.g. Plugin Developer’s own support forums etc.) because simply, the official Forums just get a bit too messy for e.g. a specific plugin at times.

    I know that users can ‘tag’ plugins to help with indexing, but I do find it difficult at times to find solutions for specific plugin issues on WordPress support forums without the help of Google; maybe it’s because I’m used to the more (advanced?) search options that are provided by (3rd party) software such as vBulletin, MyBBoard, Invision etc.

    Without any knowledge of what the ‘new .org site’ will be like, as an end user I’d be fairly open minded about a 3rd party support site: so long as there is that strong community feel that I get from sites like WLTC and WP Tavern, and it certainly wouldn’t stop me from visiting the official forums.

    If such a third party site was setup, it would be really nice to see admins/mods and such people (3rd party *and* WordPress) visiting each other’s forums to show some solidarity for the cause (or ‘the greater good’ to quote Hot Fuzz)

    That said, I can only presume that long term WordPress plans are that support will primarily be on the official .org, much like how plugins are nowadays; I recall WP-Plugins.net being of extreme importance to my (still) newbie myself before WP launched the plugins directory, which could still be better.

    So until it gets that good, third party sites can only help further the WordPress community if run well imho.

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  9. Hikari says:

    Recently I’ve read on the “how to contribute to WordPress” (some name like that 😛 ) codex page, and in its end it was listed to create a forum about WordPress, arguing that the most commented WordPress is, the better.

    wordpress.org already offers a bunch of ways to talk, including mailing lists, an (ugly) forum, trac, irc, etc. Each of them have their particularities and characteristics. We can choose which of them we feel more confortable with (remembering that trac is not meant to as support!).

    This “Answers” site would be a new option, with different features and particularities, to ppl that would feel more confortable with this interaction style.

    What some ppl don’t like, is that if there was just a forum, everybody would be in the same community and have access to the same content. With many options, ppl and content get split. But that already exists, there are ppl talking stuff in irc that’s not in the forum, and stuff in mailing list that’s not seen by who is in irc.

    Just be careful to aggregate something new, and not just offer the same of what we already have.

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  11. Dougal:
    I don’t think it’s splintering.  Folks are gonna Google, right?  Sure, having the wordpress.org seal on things helps folks feel that the answer has at least been looked at, but Google is indexing so many folks offering WordPress tips and suggestions that I don’t think that it’s worth complaining about community splintering.
    Disclosure: I am the Community Manager at WordPress HelpCenter.

    • Dougal says:

      Google is indexing so many folks offering WordPress tips and suggestions that I don’t think that it’s worth complaining about community splintering.

      Exactly. The analogy that came to mind for me was:

      “Why is somebody bothering to open up a new bar down the street from this one? THEY’RE SPLINTERING THE BEER-DRINKING COMMUNITY!”

      Forums can be a lot like bars. You have “regulars”, and sometimes they get too crowded and noisy, and you just want to go to a different one. Maybe the other one has a better selection of imports. Or plays a different genre of music. Maybe you bar-hop and visit lots of them. But as long as there are enough customers to support them all, having choices isn’t a problem.


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  13. If Stack Overflow somehow provides a better experience and better answers that are easier to find than other WordPress resource sites, then it deserves to succeed. If so, it might also impel other resource sites, again official and unofficial, to compete with better experiences of their own. In the end, if it makes using WordPress easier for more people, I think that’s a good result.

    For most WordPress users, the philosophical arguments are irrelevant — I doubt most of them choose WordPress itself because it’s open-source on principle either, rather just because it’s good — and the main reason they’d choose a help resource is similar. In other words, is it *helpful?* If Stack Overflow provides a different model for getting good answers, yay for Stack Overflow.

  14. As a plugin developer I currently look in two places for help requests: the support group I created for the plugin or the wordpress.og forums. As a user of StackOverflow I think this isn’t a bad idea but it is also going to be another place I need to watch.

    I would suggest that it be made clear on the new site that tagging questions for plugins with the plugin name is the best way to get help for a given plugin. This would at least make it easy for plugin developers to monitor the site for questions about their plugins.

  15. Andrew Vit says:

    Derek: +1. I love StackOverflow for the simple fact that the moderation system, voting, and tagging helps to separate the wheat from the chaff. Other forums should strive to provide such an experience. I don’t think many people care about “official” or not, they just want to find answers.

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