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We are in our tenth day. We're coming up to the time that our moderators will be chosen. It seems like a good time to get opinions on how the site is progressing. Some questions that might help frame this discussion:

  1. Do you have general thoughts about the future of the site?
  2. Are you pleased with the quality and interest of the questions and answers you've seen on the main site?
  3. How well do you think we are doing at resolving issues and conflicts that arise?
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    $\begingroup$ It seems a little early to be making this assessment, but I'm glad that you raised this question. $\endgroup$ – Shane Aug 26 '10 at 21:43
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I think we're doing quite well. I've been pleasantly surprised by the diversity and level of questions and answers. I've also learned quite a lot of interesting results that I don't think I would have ever been exposed to in the normal course of my research. And, as pointed out by Suresh, some of the "heavy hitters" are starting to participate. I think these are some of the key marks of a potentially successful site.

Something to keep in mind regarding some of the pessimism expressed in other user's answers is that the TCS community is a much smaller community than the SO or MO communities. MO has ~7K users and SO has ~200K users. I imagine that, even at our peak, we would have only 1-2K users. That's not a bad thing, but just something that should hopefully temper some of the pessimism expressed in the other responses.

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    $\begingroup$ I do agree with Suresh that I'd like to see fewer CW/big-list type questions. I myself have the perpetrator of several such questions, and just wanted to say that I was only doing that for seed content, and plan to stop doing it in the future (unless really interesting questions come up). $\endgroup$ – Joshua Grochow Aug 26 '10 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ Joshua is right. Core TCS is a very small community - MUCH smaller than math. Our typical major conferences draw between 300-350 people, and so I don't think there's an active working community of more than 2000-3000 people total. $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Aug 26 '10 at 17:20
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    $\begingroup$ Yet after the effective demise of Usenet group comp.theory and withdrawal of discussion from general mailing lists, there wasn't really a place the whole community could interact online. $\endgroup$ – András Salamon Aug 26 '10 at 20:12
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    $\begingroup$ the real question is: where is Timothy Chow, lion of comp.theory ? $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Aug 26 '10 at 22:04
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For what it's worth: I think that the site is coming along very well, especially at this early stage. I'm not a part of the community by any stretch of the imagination, but view this as an exciting opportunity to learn about a field for which I have a great interest. And I think that the site has struck a good balance between being expert friendly, while also allowing some questions that can open up the field to non-experts.

As others have mentioned, the core members of the field would have to comprise of a fairly small number. Many of the top ranked contributors to the site are clearly experts. This is a real difference to the other stackexchange sites (putting MO aside for a minute). While there may be a valid concern about the possibility of too many CW questions (and I am probably one of the top perpetrators), this hasn't been an overwhelming problem: the vast majority of questions have been properly on-topic, and this should only continue to improve as the site develops more of a clear heuristic.

We also have a real opportunity to use this site in a meaningful way. One trivial example is my idea for promoting the site. I would love to see more "meta" thought being given to how we can use the site beyond known Q&A to tackle real open problems.

If anything, it would seem that the primary challenge is getting experts from the different branches of TCS.

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    $\begingroup$ I like the idea of trying to solve open problems via the site, and the shuffling problem is one example of this. But I wonder if we should for now focus on growing the community more (and maybe this is one way of doing it) $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Aug 26 '10 at 22:45
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The quality of questions has been hit and miss. There have definitely been some good ones, but there are also a lot of very generic or basic questions and a lot of "big list" type questions, and I am disappointed that many of these are among the highest voted questions. I know some of this is people trying to "seed" the site by putting up whatever questions they can think of, but I think it's counterproductive: if new users take a look at the site and see a lot of mediocre questions they won't be likely to stick around.

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  • $\begingroup$ Do we really have very basic questions that are not CW and that are highly voted? The highest voted non-CW question seems to be cstheory.stackexchange.com/questions/34/… which is IMO a really excellent question. $\endgroup$ – Jukka Suomela Aug 26 '10 at 21:20
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    $\begingroup$ I agree that the question in your link on unshuffling a string is excellent, but the other three of the top four questions are community wiki/big list questions. $\endgroup$ – Ian Aug 26 '10 at 21:48
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    $\begingroup$ this CW question is quite neat though: cstheory.stackexchange.com/questions/189/… $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Aug 26 '10 at 22:04
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    $\begingroup$ Questions like that can be fun, but they're not the kind of thing that lead me (a grad student) to consider the site as an essential reference for information I can't find elsewhere. They're more likely to make me consider the site as someplace I can occasionally go to kill some time and maybe see something cool than as a site I'd check and participate in daily. To be sure, there are very good questions and answers (and I was happy with the response I got to the one question I asked--better than the answers I got in person), but I guess I was hoping they'd be a higher percentage of the total $\endgroup$ – Ian Aug 26 '10 at 22:44
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    $\begingroup$ CW questions are highly voted simply because there are more people who understand them. I think that's what makes them good for seeding the website, if we want it to be inclusive for all corners of theory. $\endgroup$ – Radu GRIGore Aug 27 '10 at 7:44
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    $\begingroup$ Another reason that CW questions have higher votes is that people act more liberally about voting for them, while users are very conservative about voting a non-CW question past some point (say 10 votes). It seems to me that MO is similar in this respect. $\endgroup$ – Kaveh Aug 27 '10 at 9:39
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First, here is some background on me. I'm an undergraduate enrolled in a Computer Science program. I have plans to triple major with Mathematics and I'm looking at enrolling in a graduate school. I have found my undergraduate degree underwhelming - the program at my school focuses very strongly on the engineering aspects of Computer Science I'd learned myself during K-12. I supplement my education at this university with extracurricular learning (personal projects as often as reading papers or introductory material on mathematical topics). CSTheory/TheoryOverflow has been one of my bids to do this outside learning. Namely, I've been trying to answer questions well when I have relevant knowledge (or know where to find the answer) and I read questions that I are beyond my current state of knowledge, adding referenced materials and authors to my queue. I plan on using the site to ask questions about papers as I read them and also to request references for 'cursory' introductions or high level explanations of complicated topics in the field so that I can get intuition regarding concepts undergraduate learning hasn't prepared me for (things like 'sparsity as related to compressive sensing' or 'why Mulmuley GCT appears to be a strong approach').

Do you have general thoughts about the future of the site?

and

Are you pleased with the quality and interest of the questions and answers you've seen on the main site?

On a few occassions now I have had serious doubts about this stackexchange. Usually these are brought on by specific experiences on the site, be they encounters with a less agreeable person or a severely bad question/answer. To echo what some others have said, I have found the number of CW/big-list questions asked here to be undesirable. Specifically, I think the distribution of questions asked on the stack exchange to be bimodal - many clustered at the "low hanging fruit" end where lots of users can submit answers (sometimes even very subjective or discussion-like answers) with exceptions being those questions that are targeted toward very specific subdomain expertise (and often I have noticed a large number of questions involve asking already widely studied open questions).

I would personally prefer a site with a normal distribution - less low hanging fruit and less very, very niche questions (but some of both). The majority of the questions, I think, should be medium-to-hard level research questions that aren't previously asked open questions and which include a strong statement motivating why the question is interesting and whose resolution or reduction to other well-known questions can serve as expository examples for clever techniques, facts and lemmas in the field. (Of course a good variety of questions are welcome - I myself would plan to ask specific questions about steps in proofs.) To put it more succinctly, I haven't really noticed any original proof being written here - this is diametrically opposed to MathOverflow. Of course, I think this might be unfair to ask for in the first 10 days of the site. But this is what I imagine the site's goal being.

I do hope that this site (or a site like it) succeeds. I found the number of users involved in the site surprisingly large and active (although I have very little experience with stackexchange websites or community forums to compare against). I have found some of the questions and answers on the site interesting.

How well do you think we are doing at resolving issues and conflicts that arise?

While the count of high-reputations users is low, I have noticed issues being resolved in what I believe to be a reasonable turn-around time. There have been two distinct occasions (that I can remember) where I have visited some hours after I first notice an issue, only to see it resolved. This is fantastic given our lack of designated moderators.

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I'll take a stab at the questions:

Do you have general thoughts about the future of the site?

It's too soon to tell, in my mind. I think there's a high level of initial interest, and I'm beginning to see hi-realworld-rep users show up, but it's early days yet. It's unclear to me what the definition of success is from the SE perspective: we do seem to be getting a good number of page views, but our google rank isn't that high yet.

Are you pleased with the quality and interest of the questions and answers you've seen on the main site?

Apart from what I feel is an overabundance of big-list and CW-type questions, I think it's going ok. It's possible that the CW/big-list questions draw more people in, and they might stick around to ask/answer other questions.

I'd also like to see fewer "basic questions about complexity" and more "advanced questions about algorithms", but that's just me. Overall I'm enjoying the discussions.

How well do you think we are doing at resolving issues and conflicts that arise?

I'm frustrated with the lack of power that we have, because we have no formal moderators. We're dependent on people voluntarily labelling things CW, and on getting enough votes to close, which is limited by the fact that we have only a few 500+ rep folks. I'd like to see more involvement on meta from the larger community. But in the group that we do have, I think the discussions have been very constructive.

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    $\begingroup$ For Google rank: I suggest adding links to the site on our academic webpages. $\endgroup$ – Kaveh Aug 27 '10 at 9:18
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Do you have general thoughts about the future of the site?

I see a lot of potential here. I'm a software engineer, but I'm dealing with a lot of topics at work that touch on topics here - algorithms and data structures (especially performance), cryptography, stenography, security, as well as concurrent and distributed systems (but these are more from an applied standing rather than the theoretical that is more appropriate here). Even taking a look back at previous jobs, having a Stack Exchange to ask questions and provide answers about computer science topics I've encountered would have been helpful a long time ago.

If anything is going to be a problem, it's going to be scaring away people who aren't experts in the field. Honestly, I'm not that thrilled with the current state of TCS. It's following MathOverflow too closely and is catering to the experts. What makes Stack Overflow (and even Mathematics and Statistical Analysis) so great is that people of various levels of knowledge and experience are using the exact same site. The problem with MathOverflow (and TCS is going down this road) is that it focuses on the experts and the researchers. TCS does have some college students using it, but many are in a program or that deals exclusively with theoretical CS, and these people appear to be doing OK. However, people like me who have a more practical background, but are interested in the theoretical side of things without a formal education, aren't made to feel as welcome (or at least, that's the impression I get).

I think part of the problem is that there is no hands on leadership. This Stack Exchange was proposed by Anand Kulkarni (meta profile, site profile). Yet this user has less than 200 reputation, has only posted 3 things (1 question, 2 answers) on the main site, and has only posted 2 answers on the meta. So right from Day 1, the person who came up with this idea hasn't been involved in the site. Stack Exchange doesn't give you the tools you need to lay the framework for a site until it goes into Private Beta, and by then, it's too late for the person who came up with this idea to propose a framework of how the system works in his/her mind, since other people have already started to use the site.

Given the focus on experts/experienced people and lack of hands on leadership (although some people are emerging as leaders, so this might turn around with the addition of moderators), I wouldn't be surprised if this Stack Exchange doesn't make it. And I think that it would be a shame if it didn't.

Are you pleased with the quality and interest of the questions and answers you've seen on the main site?

I've asked one question, and I'm quite pleased with the answer I got. The way I worded my question, I didn't expect someone to take the time to write up such a detailed answer. But they did, and I'm better off because of it.

How well do you think we are doing at resolving issues and conflicts that arise?

I think this is a problem with the Stack Exchange system. The fact that there is no place for meta discussions until the site goes into private beta is a bad thing. So right now, we (and I think several Stack Exchanges have had this problem) have lots of people who read the description of the site, but then got there and were disappointed because the description didn't capture what was really happening. Because of this, everyone comes to Meta after there are already questions and answers posted on the site, time is passing, more questions/answers are being posted, and there's no agreed upon method to do things.

I think it will get better once there are more high reputation users and moderators on the main site, but I do think that this is something that the Stack Exchange team needs to address.

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    $\begingroup$ people like me who have a more practical background ... aren't made to feel as welcome The direction of the discussion at meta.cstheory.stackexchange.com/questions/2/… was certainly that the site should serve science in the way MO does, and to a lesser extent to expect a high level of deference to academic standards of discussion. Is that what you meant, or has there been another sense in which the site is unwelcoming? $\endgroup$ – Charles Stewart Aug 26 '10 at 11:21
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    $\begingroup$ While I agree that we don't have to focus the way MO has, I'm not sure that ending up like will be a failure from my perspective. I think many would find that to be a very good outcome - I for one get lost in the stackoverflow universe, and have found MO to be far more relevant to me. $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Aug 26 '10 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ I think it's good to have a couple Q&A sites for a subject with different minimum quality requirements. Lower thresholds make the site more inclusive and encourage learning, especially for young people. Higher thresholds improve the signal-to-noise ratio for people that have already spent much time learning. If anything, I believe it is the latter kind of website that is missing for TCS, not the former. $\endgroup$ – Radu GRIGore Aug 26 '10 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ Agreed with Radu -- TCS is lacking an open forum for high-level discussion. There are loads of places to shoot the breeze or to look for help/advice about more general CS topics, but TCS is currently not well-served. $\endgroup$ – András Salamon Aug 26 '10 at 20:15
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I asked this question as a vehicle for answering questions about my statement that "I'm not convinced the site has a future". I don't think we are yet on course to be a successful Q&A site for a few reasons:

  1. We have no users who I would call names to conjure with. This matters for any site: e.g., SO has many active users who are highly recognised experts for a large number of topics, and the SX folk think that this is essential to SOs success and will be essential to the sites coming through the SX beta phase. For academic Q&A sites, as opposed to problem-solving sites I think this is even more important. How important has Terence Tao's endorsement of MO been to that site's success? The other two beta sites I've participated in, math.SX and tex.SX, had done far better by their 10th day.

  2. We have a lack of high reputation users. We don't have any 1k+ reputation users at all, so apart from the SX moderators, we have no-one who can edit weak questions, let alone access the moderation tools. It takes five 500+ users to close a question without moderator actions; we have 8. We have only 23x 250+ users who can retag. To some extent, this is a fact of life about the early public beta stage, but other sites have done better.

  3. Very little interest has been shown, or effort put into in the things that need to be done on meta to make the site a success. Shane is our distinguished exception, Suresh has put in some effort, as well. Besides these two, we have a list of fairly undifferentiated potential moderators: I haven't seen a whole lot of indication as to why one 500+ user would make a better moderator than another. Work on the FAQ is nonexistent.

That said, interesting questions have been asked and answered, we've got a pretty clear idea of our scope, and it's early days. Call me moderately pessimistic, and since I have discovered that I am suddenly what counts for a high-reputation user around here, I'm going to start making an effort.

Postscript

I don't think we have exactly what I would call "names to conjure with", but maybe that's too much to expect in TCS, which is much more balkanized that maths, and where the famous names are that much older, and that much less involved in web-based social networking (but, you know, Alan Kay has an account on SO).

That said, the comments to this post have shown what a breadth there are of scientists who have made indubitably major contributions to the field, and there has been the beginnings of what I hope will be an influx of users have been excellent contributors to MO. Lance Fornow, in particular, is a young scientist with a high profile. I am now officially relaxed about point #1.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think the TeX site seems to do better simply because it has a much larger target audience and it's so much easier to ask on-topic questions and answer them. A direct consequence was that in no time TeX.SX had lots of users with a relatively high reputation. On this site it is much more difficult, and that's the main reason why I'd like to see more active voting right now; as you said, we desperately need 1000+ users. $\endgroup$ – Jukka Suomela Aug 26 '10 at 9:55
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    $\begingroup$ As for the FAQ, I don't think it's possible to do that much work to it yet. In fact, I'm not sure it's possible to do anything to it... $\endgroup$ – Thomas Owens Aug 26 '10 at 10:21
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    $\begingroup$ While they are not active on meta, we do have users who I'd consider "names". David Eppstein and Jeff Erickson (geometry), Piotr Indyk (high dimensional spaces, compressed sensing), Noam Nisan (a giant in complexity theory and game theory). Ryan Williams is a complexity theory expert (and played an important part in the recent P vs NP discussions). $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Aug 26 '10 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ As far as activity on meta, I honestly don't know how we should go about CHANGING the faq. We have a number of questions now with reasonable answers, but how on earth do we edit the actual faq page ? $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Aug 26 '10 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding 1, we clearly have a different idea of who are "names"; the active participation of Ryan Williams, Noam Nisan, David Eppstein, and more recently Lance Fortnow, seems like a great start to me. Regarding 2, I'd be very surprised if we had more than a few thousand users, since that would constitute a large chunk of the TCS community. Comparing with general-interest sites like TeX and Mathematics seems like a weightlifting game. The glitches are due to the fixed limits set by StackExchange. Regarding 3, there seems to be no way to edit the FAQ so discussion is limited to threads. $\endgroup$ – András Salamon Aug 26 '10 at 20:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Suresh: a "name to conjure with" I guess is someone who is well-known as having done important work to nearly everyone in the discipline. None of these names qualifies, I think. @András: Lance Fortnow? I didn't know he was here, I guess he qualifies. $\endgroup$ – Charles Stewart Aug 27 '10 at 11:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Thomas, @Suresh, @András: We should be figuring out what our FAQ should say. We will not be finished in the next week or so. $\endgroup$ – Charles Stewart Aug 27 '10 at 11:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Charles Stewart: Noam Nisan is a name to conjure with and here is Lance Fortnow. But I haven't seen theorists like Gil Kalai, Scott Aaronson, Timothy Chow, Peter Shore, ... who are active on MO around here yet. $\endgroup$ – Kaveh Aug 27 '10 at 12:49
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    $\begingroup$ Gil Kalai just showed up :), and Charles, I'll have to disagree strongly with you on the matter of the names I listed not being names to reckon with (especially David Eppstein and Noam Nisan). $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Aug 30 '10 at 16:56

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