The problem with Stackexchange

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

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, and what is the site all about?

The answers to these questions will define the site’s main problem, I believe. (allow me to abbreviate as P-SE) is part of the stackexchange family, which is, in turn, descended from  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 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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  • Thanks for taking the time to articulate your thoughts about the photo.SE community. Feedback from users like you are what allows us to continue implementing new features and tweaking our existing features and approaches to fit the community’s needs.

    You’re spot-on about the strengths of Stack Exchange. We do pride ourselves on the high quality of our questions, and the fact that each question is concrete and answerable. It can definitely get a little frustrating for experts to see the same “newbie” questions over and over again, but we do our best to limit those sorts of questions but also allow people to post questions in whatever language they use. That’s why there are some near-duplicate questions about basic stuff; so that if someone doesn’t know to search for “depth of field” they can search for “how can I make one part of the picture in sharp focus while the rest of it is blurry”. And building up a canonical body of knowledge about the techniques and equipment for photography is the primary goal of the site.

    • It’s certainly an interesting problem. I think the subject matter for the original SO site lent itself so well to self-organization that this problem is still fairly new across the SE platform, but I’m sure you’re going to see more and more of it as new users show up.

      I’m really encouraged that you (and the team) are putting effort into growing the site, though. There’s a vast potential wrapped up just in the Q&A content already present on the site, so I hope you’re able to achieve some of the growth you’re striving for.

  • “new users are sort of swatted on the nose” 
    Well, we do of course have a guideline to be civil, and it is *always* enforced. But I think the issue here might be that users are used to “anything goes” sites where any question is embraced. no matter what.

    Well, my answer to that is:

    “The same goes for the web. I’d rather use a service that has a strong, single-minded vision, even if some of the decisions aren’t exactly how I’d want them, than a washed-out, milquetoast service created by committee, designed to meet market demand, that tries to make everybody happy.”


    • Jeff –

      The “swatted on the nose” bit is largely a hunch on my part. I think that when new users show up on a site like P-SE, they’re naturally going to be pretty tentative. This is especially true if they’re not already subject matter experts, so when they get feedback that seems pretty neutral to one of us, I’m betting they probably take it as more of a scolding than we might imagine.

      As far as the vision goes, Laura helped coax a little more clarity out in our chat this afternoon. I think “The SE way” is a perfectly acceptable approach here — especially if that culture is strengthened across SE sibling sites. I really believe that once someone is an established SE user — on any SE site — the transition to another SE site is near-seamless.

      I’m totally not set on the idea that P-SE has to be a one-size-fits-all photo destination site, but I think it’s in a bit of a no-man’s-land right now. It’s sort of a teenager trying to demonstrate its independence from the rest of the SE sites, but it’s not quite able to stand on its own yet, if that makes any sense.

      I still think either direction has merit, but hugging the centerline here looks like a tough way to go.

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