Allow me to introduce you to a photo site that most people have never heard of:  photo.stackexchange.com.

How do I know people haven’t  heard of it?  Just a hunch, of course, but despite some really excellent content, they’re not exactly “going viral” yet.  I’ve been a member for a little better than a year now, and although there’s been a steady influx of new members, the site still feels like it’s dominated by a core group of users whose membership changes pretty slowly.

So what is photo.stackexchange.com, and what is the site all about?

The answers to these questions will define the site’s main problem, I believe.  Photo.stackexchange.com (allow me to abbreviate as P-SE) is part of the stackexchange family, which is, in turn, descended from stackoverflow.com.  This probably tells you nothing about what the site is unless you’re a programmer, because stackoverflow is a question-and-answer site for programmers.  That original site worked so well for programmers that its owners decided to branch out and create the stackexchange network.  This network now covers a range of topics, but all use the same software platform to manage questions, answers, tagging, and so on.

Problem #1: Despite covering lots of subjects vis-a-vis the various sub-sites, stackexchange doesn’t market itself as a general Q&A site, so while you’ve probably heard of Quora, you probably haven’t heard of stackexchange.

So P-SE is a site for photography questions, right?

Sort of.

You see, they prefer to answer only those questions that can be definitively answered in an objective fashion.  You won’t find any “Canon vs. Nikon” questions there, you see, because that really ends up being a subjective decision.  Similarly, you won’t find any questions about application of techniques, as in “do you like this use of HDR”, because that, too, is subjective.  Now, if you want to understand what HDR is, or maybe ask what software is available to do HDR merging on a Mac for a budget of $200, then you’ve got a question that’s right up their alley, and you’re likely to get a very helpful answer there.

Even equipment recommendations can get a little dicey.  If you can explain your needs well, including intended usage, brand preference, budget, and experience level, you’re likely to wind up with a question that’s considered good and relevant, and you’ll get some (hopefully) useful answers.  In these situations, though, it’s far more likely that users haven’t achieved quite that level of self-examination yet, and they’re just not prepared to front all that information.  In these cases, questions are typically bashed a bit before being closed as “unanswerable”.   And the new user slinks away to find a site where they can ask “stupid” questions.

Unfortunately, if you look at the sort of traffic that moves through a typical forum on a typical photography site, you’ll see probably 60-80% photo sharing, followed by applied technique questions, critiques (in various forms of permissiveness), equipment recommendations, and, finally, the sort of real, nuts-and-bolts “deep” photography questions that P-SE tackles.

Problem #2: The niche that photo.stackexchange.com has carved out for itself is small.  So small, in fact, that it can’t ever be a general photo community destination site — it can’t stand on its own.

Another peril: the users at P-SE, having invested appreciable amounts of time crafting really well-written answers to questions, prefer to have those answers remain definitive.  In other words, if they’ve already answered a question, they don’t really want to see the same one answered again when the previous answer does the job very nicely, thank you.

This is understandable, and some steps are taken to encourage users to find those previous answers and use them as a resource where applicable.  To the extent that the site can find those previous answers, and to the extent that users (especially new users) are willing and able to apply a tiny amount of abstract thinking to see that they really do have exactly the same question, this works well.  As you might imagine from the number of disclaimers in the previous sentence, it really doesn’t work all that well an awful lot of the time, though, and again, new users are sort of swatted on the nose and told to go look up their answer in the bowels of the site’s archives.

Problem #3: There are only so many “good” photography questions.  Most of what remains are “application” questions, and users with these questions don’t like being told that their unique circumstances can be met with a canned answer.

It’s important to clarify at this point that one of the things that keeps uninformed users from recognizing that their question has already been asked and answered, as well as from asking really “good” questions, is that they are, in fact, uninformed.  They simply don’t know the right terminology to use in many cases.   They might show up asking how to shoot a picture with a fuzzy background, and even if the site’s software is smart enough to recognize that this is a question about depth-of-field, the user is quite likely to find that sort of terminology totally Greek.  Not only that, but for these basic-of-basics questions, an answer is quite likely to spawn follow-on questions (“why does aperture affect depth-of-field”), and that’s just not handled by P-SE’s software.

This sort of iterative, or semi-interactive question is common in equipment recommendations, too — once a user understands that it’s important to know what sort of photos they intend to take, they can provide more information, which, in turn, enables a whole slew of better answers.

Problem #4: the P-SE platform doesn’t handle interactivity in questions.  It’s an asynchronous model with one question in and n-answers out.  Period.

Given all these problems, you might be wondering why I haven’t given up on P-SE altogether.  The answer is pretty simple:  once you get your head wrapped around what P-SE does, it’s pretty hard to find another site that does it better.

I do feel pretty strongly, though, that the site and community are in peril unless one of two things happens:

  1. The stackexchange platform gets serious about unifying its “children” sites and marketing itself as a real competitor to Quora.  The mere fact that I have to create a login to each and every child site I choose to participate in is indication enough that these siblings are arm’s length relatives, at best.  They certainly get very minimal benefit to being part of the stackexchange “family”, and unless they’re meant to stand on their own, they need to be much closer relatives.
  2. The “sibling” sites, like P-SE, need to be able to stand on their own.  In the case of P-SE, that means that it needs to be able to meet all those other photo-community needs in addition to answering “good” questions with great answers.  Every time a user has to click over to Flickr or 500px to share a photo and get some feedback about how well they captured the stupid look on little Johnny’s face, that’s one more chance for that user to never come back.  Ever.

I certainly hope that P-SE finds its way forward.  If they can hit critical mass with enough users to keep the site going, I’m really excited about the quality of information that can be made available to new photographers.  I’ve met some inspiring, impressive photographers there already, and I look forward to meeting some more in the future.

And if you’ve never tried it out, give it an honest shot and let me know what you think.

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