I believe that the CSTheory site can potentially contribute to theoretical computer science and to our field's visibility in the larger community of scientists and mathematicians. The ongoing success of the site can probably help several different groups of people.

What is the benefit for individual contributors to the CSTheory site?

The discussions here over the last few months reveal some potential answers:

  • altruism: epsilon-progress at CSTheory may lead ultimately to delta-better lives for humans,
  • visibility: those who want to be more prominent in the TCS community can contribute here, and in the process potentially raise their public profiles,
  • attraction: by posting cool questions, a senior researcher can attract motivated applicants for graduate and postdoctoral positions, and
  • connection: someone working in isolation can use the site as a larger virtual department.

I have probably missed some key benefits, and this is important: as far as I can tell, the only people who currently are able to use the above benefits are either junior researchers (people who would like a research job, and are hoping to be accepted into a training programme such as a PhD, or who are in such a programme and wanting to broaden their scope), or senior researchers (tenured and retired professors who cannot effectively advance their careers without changing gears, requiring either moving out of research, or a sideways engagement with a different community). Someone looking for an academic position, putting together a case for promotion in an academic position, or making an application for a research fellowship, cannot currently convert the time they spend on this site into significant practical benefit. When asked whether a hiring committee would consider CSTheory participation of applicants, the blunt answer I have received has been: no.

It appears to me that people who are no longer in training, but have not yet become senior, cannot afford the time to contribute here, as the incentives are only there for junior and senior researchers. So a large part of the audience for the site may choose to stay away permanently.

It seems difficult to argue for answers at CSTheory as part of a teaching portfolio, and unless participation directly leads to research publications that would not otherwise have happened, it is difficult to see how to justify CSTheory as part of research either. CSTheory would most likely count toward the service part of one's professional commitments, but as far as I can tell serving on a programme committee, taking on a departmental service rôle, or serving as an officer in a professional society would count for more per hour spent.

In contrast, if I were to interview people for programming jobs (I have past experience with this) then I would likely consider participation at StackOverflow in a hiring decision.

What am I missing?

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    $\begingroup$ People that are active now and move into career stages you claim to be "participation hostile" might behave differently, sticking to the site. So, over time the effect might vanish. $\endgroup$ – Raphael Feb 20 '11 at 0:19
  • $\begingroup$ It seems that I have participated in too many meta discussions to remember what I have said. Have I claimed anything about the benefit of participating in cstheory.stackexchange.com? $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Feb 20 '11 at 16:32
  • $\begingroup$ Please clarify which of my remarks you are referring to. It is weird to be cited for something which I do not remember at all. $\endgroup$ – Tsuyoshi Ito Feb 21 '11 at 22:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Tsuyoshi Ito: Apologies for the overly specific reference. I cannot find a specific question or answer to cite, so have removed the mention. Relevant comments are unfortunately difficult to read in sequence. $\endgroup$ – András Salamon Feb 21 '11 at 22:52

Why should anyone use CStheory ? the answer is:

if they have a question they need answering.

It's really as simple as that. I think the only way to convince people to join is to encourage them to post their questions here, and make sure they get an answer :). I'm will often email someone if I think they have the answer to a question posted, and try to get them to post a response. This way, people see the value from their own perspective.

Now there are some annoying issues with new users (the inability to post comments/links etc) but usually a good question or good answer gets them beyond these thresholds quickly, and they can then focus on the main tasks: finding out information that they need.

So all our efforts should really ultimately be focused on this: getting people answers to their questions. The rest (community building, quality control, and so on) are secondary activities that are fun for some, but don't have to be part of the USP (aka unique selling proposition)

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    $\begingroup$ I tend to take this for granted; it is nice to have a reminder of the real reason we are all here. $\endgroup$ – András Salamon Feb 21 '11 at 14:35

I can speak only for myself, but I am exactly the out-of-scope profile that you describe. I am tenured, I just obtained the habilitation thesis meaning that I will apply for professor position in France this year (the first level of the professor position in France rouhgly corresponds to a "senior associate professor" - if this can be meaningful - rather than a full professor position as in the UK or US system). This is sure, there is almost nothing to gain for me to participate in cstheory, but I still do, and the reason is that I find this initiative FUN. Of course, I am not at a step in my career where I can spend several hours on the site each day, but still, I can give a little bit of my time for that.

I strongly think that sometimes people can do something without thinking about their careers, I mean this is not the way I want to do my job. But again, this is only my point of view, since I often refuse to serve in places where I could earn a lot in term of career advancement.

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    $\begingroup$ I second fun, with the more serious untertone of keeping my scope kind of broad while moving in a narrow field in RL. Also, I learn a lot. Not hard knowledge, maybe, but that kind of "I heard that somewhere" knowledge. That is fun now, but might pay off later. $\endgroup$ – Raphael Feb 20 '11 at 0:21

Among the choices you list, it must be the altruism, because I'm at a stage in my career where added visibility of this type doesn't do much for me, I don't expect it to do anything to attract new students, and I have plenty of colleagues to write papers with.

But really, it's more that I enjoy solving problems and this site is a good source of problems in need of a solution. Does everything really need to have a greater purpose than that?

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    $\begingroup$ If only people had 1/10 the altruism of David though, we'd be doing very well, what with wikipedia, the arxiv, and this site... $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Feb 24 '11 at 0:04

I first want to say that I start to feel that we have had too many discussions of this form recently and I am starting to get tired of following them. They have become major distractions in themselves. cstheory is still in its early stages and too many meta-discussions of this form is counterproductive IMHO.

What you are missing is: cstheory was not started to be something new to add to your CV.

All of us knew that reputation on cstheory is not a good indicator of anything, and in fact my feeling from our previous meta discussions about reputation was that it is not important, it is just there to make the site work. (Check the SIGACT article for example).

It is good if your contributions to cstheory becomes something that you can add to your CV, but seriously I doubt that it will ever happen, being active on a mailing list or having a blog does not add anything to your CV, if you are spending considerable amount of your time on the site to add something to your CV then I think it is a bad investment. I don't remember anyone mentioning any benefits of the kind you have listed in the post when the site was started, if they existed at all they were secondary aims.

On the other hand, I don't think spending 10-20 minutes each day to read the new questions and answers is waste of time, like Sylvain I personally enjoy reading them. What do you gain from writing/reading a blog post? What do you gain from participating on MO? The same applies to cstheory. (at least for me) cstheory was intended to be a place to ask questions from other theory research to help with our own research, that is benefit to any researcher at any level (and we are going in the wrong direction if we are failing to help researcher with their research).

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    $\begingroup$ minus the 'i'm tired of these discussions' I agree with much of what Kaveh says. I'm in the 'no-man's land' described by Andras, and I don't usually think that much about why I'm here: my hope is to learn and get help much in the way I discuss problems with people at conferences. $\endgroup$ – Suresh Venkat Feb 19 '11 at 22:59
  • $\begingroup$ I did not equate participation with reputation. You do make some great points otherwise. I've certainly had a lot of fun on CSTheory, but I struggle to convey to others why they should join. Perhaps I am wrong in interpreting this as people being focused on their careers? $\endgroup$ – András Salamon Feb 19 '11 at 23:09

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