community June 17, 2020

The Loop, June 2020: Defining the Stack Community

If you have been active on the Stack Exchange network (especially the Meta sites) or have been a reader of this blog for any significant amount of time, you will see the term Community used quite often. But who is a member of the Community? Why is the Community important? The answer to this will probably depend on who you ask.
Avatar for Yaakov Ellis
Principal Web Developer & Community Advocate

If you have been active on the Stack Exchange network (especially the Meta sites) or have been a reader of this blog for any significant amount of time, you will see the term Community used quite often. But who is a member of the Community? Why is the Community important? The answer to this will probably depend on who you ask. Up until now, the company hasn’t explicitly defined the term, so: I would like to throw my virtual hat in the ring to offer this definition:

  • The Community refers to all Public Platform users (on Stack Overflow, or any other site on the Stack Exchange Network) who have contributed content (in good faith) to any of the sites on the network (questions, answers, comments, votes), or who have assisted with the curation of content on the sites (editing, flagging, reviewing, moderating). And each site maintains its own smaller Community along these lines, which while being interconnected with the large Community, has its own specific identity as well.
  • Passive users who visit sites on the network without engaging in any of the activities defined above for the Community are not yet part of the Community, but are part of our audience. They are essential to Stack Overflow’s mission, future, and growth. 
  • Our Public Platform vision and strategy aspires to:
    • Focus on providing features that meet the needs of both of these main types of users (each of which has various sub-types with their own needs). 
    • Recognize that the needs of these different main groups (community vs audience) can be vastly different (as are those of many different subgroups), and that we must be mindful of these differences if we are to address them successfully.
    • Provide features and foster an atmosphere that encourages and incentivizes passive users to become Community members, and less active Community members to become more active.

Before discussing why this is so, I would like to expand on this distinction through a parable. I hope that viewing things through a different lens might help us to analyze the relationships between groups in a way that divorces itself from the (at times happy, at times pained) history of interactions between different groups in the network.

The Overflowing Gardens of Stack

Once upon a time, JJ planted a flower garden. Well, he didn’t exactly plant it. Rather, he excavated a rather large and unused estate and invited anyone who was interested to come and plant their flowers. At that time, while many people wanted to visit a well-tended flower garden, the only gardens available to the public were either difficult to visit, were costly to access, or had no inherent organization or quality control. People put up with this reality because there was no good alternative. JJ saw this and devised a system of flower garden organization with the following principles:

  1. The garden would forever be open to all, at no charge
  2. Visitors who were interested in learning how to plant a specific type of flower could appeal to other visitors for help in determining the best way to plant their flowers and help them to thrive
  3. While Planters officially owned rights to their plants and techniques, in exchange for planting in the garden they authorized the garden owners to share their flowers and techniques with all future visitors

One of the innovations of the garden was the system of tools set up by JJ and team to encourage visitors to actively contribute to the upkeep of the gardens. You see, while many visitors enjoyed the prestige that they got from others due to their success in planting many flowers and showing different ways to achieve the best growth, there was a large subset of users who found fulfillment not through planting, but by performing all of the small things that are necessary for a large and ever-expanding garden to thrive. These activities include helping to organize the layout, by adding refinements to established methods, and by identifying sections in need of maintenance or protection from pests.

Two mutually-dependent ecosystems formed: that of the flowers, and that of the gardeners and caretakers. After witnessing the initial explosive growth of both the garden and the number of visitors, JJ realized that the efforts of their growing team were best spent in ensuring that the growing community of planters and caretakers were provided with all of the tools, fertilizers, pesticides, and gloves that they needed. JJ also created designated areas for these dedicated volunteers to congregate and talk about ways in which they could self-govern and better run their sections of the garden.

All the while, the visitors kept coming. It turns out that there were hordes of people who were interested in planting their own flowers and who wanted to know the best ways to do so, for every type of flower, in every type of situation. Most just came to visit whenever they needed some flower advice (and most of these who just came to visit were very happy to continue doing so). But the needs of the caretakers varied widely from the needs of the visitors (who prioritized ease of use and discoverability of the relevant flowers and techniques that they were after). And the small subset of visitors who endeavored to become contributors or caretakers were often met with frustration when trying to ask for or give advice on a specific type of flower or method. This was due in a large part to the challenge of learning about and adhering to the norms established by JJ along with the community of gardeners (many of whom rigorously enforced these norms).

Even with these challenges, it became apparent to all that JJ had found a winning formula for garden organization. They expanded their garden to include whole estates dedicated to other types of plants (though flowers remained the most popular). They started with new sections for fruit trees and for grasses, each one of which was provided with the same sets of tools as the original flower garden, which remained the most popular garden, even after 175 additional gardens were added to the Overflowing Gardens of Stack. These gardeners, caretakers, and visitors of these additional gardens remained interconnected, and also began to develop their own specific shared identities and norms.

To support their efforts and their goals of helping all aspiring gardeners anywhere to be the best gardeners that they could be, JJ (who eventually retired from the gardening business) and their organization allowed gardening tool companies to advertise their wares and to recruit talented florists. They also allowed for the creation of private flower gardens using the same organizational techniques and tools, both within the Gardens of Stack and on private estates.

The challenge remained however: How to provide the best viewing experience for the mostly passive visitors, while welcoming those who desired to do so to also participate as gardeners? And how to do so while ensuring the continued happiness and satisfaction of the volunteer gardeners?

Relationships and Group Identity

The users who contribute to the public platform form a community with each other. They all are engaged in similar tasks, relating either to content authorship, or curation and quality assurance. They share interests with each other. And they are motivated by their feeling of fellowship, their mutual interests and goals (reputation, helping contribute to shared knowledge and helping others, fulfilling social needs), and their respect and mutual appreciation for each others’ contributions and efforts. 

The relationships that Community members have with each other and with the site allow them to share a group identity. A Community member is someone who shares a group identity and has connections to other Community members. Our identities, our concept of who we are, are heavily influenced by the communities we believe to be a part of because our identification to the group identity shapes our own. And while many Community members have contributed only a minimal amount—and might not share a group identity with others in the Community to the degree as one who has answered and curated hundreds of items—they are still a part of the Community.

While passive visitors are exceedingly important, they are not yet part of the Community. Our goal is to remove any barriers in their way and allow as many of them as possible to become contributing Community members. In order to ensure a healthy and vibrant community, we do a lot of work to invite and incentivise passive users to join. They also have very different needs from Community members: for the most part, they want to visit the garden and find it full of beautiful, well-tended flowers. 

Two equally important groups

I think that it is necessary for us to define and acknowledge the existence of these two groups. Because in the end of the day, the active and engaged members of the Community—especially the curators—are the ones that ensure that the gardens remain healthy. Without the gardeners, the gardens will become overgrown and die. Maybe not overnight, but it is inevitable. And many gardeners have spent years honing their craft, working together to be consistent and comprehensive in their coverage. They are not easily replaced. The impact of the average contributor is much more widely felt by all visitors (who reap the benefits of their curation work) and by us (as a business) than is that of nearly any passive user. So it behooves us to always ensure that the gardeners are provided with both the tools that they need for their volunteer work and the trust to execute on this work.

However, without the visitors, the garden (while having immense value) has almost no impact on any sort of wide scale. No matter how much curation is taking place, the ultimate goal is for people to frequent the garden, to learn from what it has to offer, and to be able to take the knowledge gained there and apply it to their lives and careers. So while addressing the needs of the gardeners is essential, no less important are the environment and tools provided for all visitors to enable them to derive as much value and utility as possible from the garden.

If we define the community to be all users (visitor and contributor), I believe that we can very easily downplay the important role and valuable contributions of the gardeners in the past that we need them to continue into the future. Contributors and passive visitors are not interchangeable (though of course most contributors are also audience members). Yes, it is in the best interests of the garden (and the company) to encourage as many passive visitors as possible to become active and engaged. And we want the site to be welcoming and easy to use for everyone and all visitors (passive and contributor) to be happy and satisfied with their experience. But I posit that the distinction between Community and audience should form the basis of our planning and priorities when it comes to the future of the Public Platform and that we do all users a disservice if we tag them all with the same label.

Welcoming diversity and variation

The vast majority of visitors to Stack Overflow and the Stack Exchange network have always been counted among the passive audience. And we are happy to welcome them. The garden itself enjoys its greatest success when there is a healthy balance of gardeners and visitors. A healthy, organized, and well-managed garden will always have more visitors than it will have gardeners.

Yet, it is vital that we always extend a warm welcome and provide encouragement to any visitors who wish to contribute. Likewise, we want to support those who have contributed on a minimal level and wish to become more active Community members in achieving these goals. This has been a core focus in the past, and we continue to work hard on improving the experience and environment for all visitors and Community members who seek to contribute on the network. This is important not only because of gardener attrition, but also because many visitors have exciting new ideas and knowledge to share. It can be intimidating to break into a new group, which has its own rules and nuances, its own hierarchy, and its own standards. If we do not keep in mind the path for passive visitors to become engaged contributors, then we are doing a disservice to all who enjoy the garden. But if we can build features, introduce policies, and encourage behaviors that will allow each group to thrive and, at the same time, make the garden more welcoming and easy to use, then we will have all contributed to a real monument that we can be proud of.

Have questions about this post or feedback? Please share them on MSE.

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