Published
Friday, October 10, 2014 - 08:55
Written by

This goes out to CiviCRM users (yes YOU too!), admins and developers.

A key productivity tool in my day to day life is a set of Q&A websites called Stack Exchange. They have different sites for all sorts, from programming through to parenting(!). Typically, I'm on the programming ones usually, but stay with me, this isn't about to get technical.

What happens is that I'm getting on with my work and I get stuck on a problem that I'm sure a million others must have solved before. Or I'm doing something and I'm sure that there's a better/simpler/easier way. After the preliminary web searches fail me I'll hop over to the appropriate one of these Q&A sites where I'll hit the Ask A question button and start typing.

First this makes me phrase my problem as a question, and one that other people will be able to understand. This is a great discepline and often just the act of stepping back and phrasing the problem carefully calms me down. Sometimes this process alone makes gives me the Eurika! moment I was looking for.

While I'm typing this out, some other things are happening. With what seems like every keystroke the sidebar is coming up with questions that the site thinks are similar. It's pretty darn clever at this and often I find that my question has been answered before, so I can jump over to look at those.

If I've not solved my problem yet, I finish writing my question, tag it with something appropriate (in CiviCRM's case this might be things like CiviEvent, or multiple-participants or such) and hit Submit. I'm notified of any suggested answers that appear (by email or by using the Android app - probably an iPhone one too).

When an answer comes (on the popular ones of these sites, this can be within minutes, on the ones with fewer users it can of course take longer) I can check it out. If it's helped me I can up-vote the answer, and if it's sorted me out I can choose to accept the answer.

Sounds good, but how do you know if it's a *good* answer?

You are the only one who can accept an answer to your own question. But anyone can vote answers up (or down). You, too. So if you followed a link in the sidebar while writing your question and found that someone else had already asked it and found a useful answer, you can up-vote that answer.

Over time good answers rise to the top and poor answers are clearly shown as not to be trusted. Also, you can see the reputation of people who have contributed - if they have a large number by their user name then you know that they're something of an authority in these parts!

You can learn from the good answers which will get perfected as more people look at them, comment on them and even suggest edits. But I also find that sometimes you can sometimes learn from the bad answers, too - if you see an answer that's been voted down (quite a snub!) read it and see if you understand why that's not right.

What's more, there are various restrictions on new users. You won't be able to say an answer is good until the site trusts that you at least have some interest here. It's not just answers that get voted up and down, but questions too. If you've asked a question that someone's appreciated, it will get voted up and you will be rewarded with a bit more trust. As you get more reputation points you can do more such as vote up/down/comment/create tags etc. This is a great system because it filters out the angry people (you know, those nice real humans who turn evil when they get behind a screen and keyboard...) and ensures some level of interest/competance before you're allowed to join in with helping improve the quality/quantity of the content.

What's wrong with the forums?

The forums have been the mainstay of community driven support for years, and the core team are due a lot of thanks for their hard work in this area.

However, forums quickly become out of date and duplication is rife. CiviCRM's forum encourages people not to post after a month's inactivity. Forums have not changed a whole lot since the 90s and they still have quite an inaccessible geeky feel. It's also a bit off-putting if you're not entirely sure which sub-forum to post your question on, and if you choose the wrong one, will the right people see it?

I often find I'm googling hard and coming up with a long thread on a forum that starts off sounding similar, then it waxes and wanes through lots of back and forth, perhaps even changes direction half way through, and ends incomplete. That's a lot of reading to find out that the answer you were looking for is not there.

Screenshot from Stack Exchange

Contrast with a question on a Stack Exchange site: you can instantly see whether it has any answers, and whether an answer has been accepted. You can see what others have thought of the answers, too, so you have an idea of their quality. And even if it's 2 years old and still relevant you can add a comment and this will notify the person, and/or edit a good answer that needs an update, or if you think you know better, you can provide a new answer.

Stack Exchange sites hate duplication. As I've mentioned, the system works hard to help you find similar answers and posting too-similar questions is highly discouraged (your question will likely get closed with a link to the duplicate).

External link: Stack Exchange's own explanation of why it's useful.

A community of learners

One of the things that I think Stack Exchange (which, by the way, I do not work for!) achieve so well is fostering a sense of responsibility and shared commitment to improving quality amongst a community of people with a shared interest.

There's all sorts of detail I've not mentioned that goes into making this work, from the reputation/badges system to comments, flagging (of anything offensive, useless, duplication etc.) and even quality control editors. It should be a friendly place where questionners think carefully and benefit from helpful answers. To this end there are rules - what sort of thing is OK to ask and what's not; answers must be answers (not comments or other questions) etc. and there's some enforcement of these rules which is helpful to maintaining a super-useful Q&A database.

Can't wait! How do I get started?

Right now (October 2014), we need to convince Stack Exchange that they want to set up a site for us CiviCRM people. They want to know what it would be for, what sort of questions would be asked, how much interest there is etc. I tried to get one launched a year ago and couldn't quite get the interest levels needed. But this time lots of the CiviCRM team across the globe are on side, so with your help we can make this a reality.

You need to visit the proposal on a special Stack Exchange website at:
http://area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/77367/civicrm/77488

Then you'll need to log in (which you can do with your existing Google, Facebook, Yahoo account, or you can set up an account with Stack Exchange directly).

  1. Once logged in click the orange "Follow It!" button as a first step. At the time of writing we need 23 more "followers". Hooray, we've achieved the minimum followers required, as of 13 Oct! Please do still follow it, though.
  2. After that, have a look down some of the model questions that others have suggested. Vote up any that you think are good/useful. Remember this is not the place where you can get answers - this is just to convince Stack Exchange that a dedicated CiviCRM site would be useful. Make sure you use up all your votes - we need 38 26 JUST SIX more questions with 10+ upvotes (as of 15 Oct 2014).
  3. Next, if there's any example questions that you can think of, add them (link at the bottom of the page).
  4. Tweet it, share it, tell your friends and colleagues!

This could be great. Let's make it so. Thanks!

Comments

Hey there artful robot,

Nice write up - thanks. I just wanted to say three things

  1. To reiterate 'this is not the place where you can get answers - this is just to convince Stack Exchange that a dedicated CiviCRM site would be useful' so don't try and answer questions on this site - answers will most likely get deleted by an SE admin. see http://area51.stackexchange.com/faq for more details
  2. In case you are wondering about who owns the content, it is all licesnsed under cc-wiki which we can export at any time if we choose e.g. https://archive.org/download/stackexchange/expatriates.stackexchange.com.7z
  3. we haven't yet worked out how this will relate to the forums / what we will do with the forums. I think it is probably best to see if we have enough momentum to get an SE going first, and then we can answer that question as part of the process / at a later date.  FWIW http://ubuntuforums.org and http://askubuntu.com co exist (though in my googling askubuntu always gives me the best answers).

+1 for a great blog post. Lokoing forward to seeing the CiviCRM Stack Exchange becoming a reality.

Done

Thanks, Chris. Just 26 more questions with 10+ votes and we're into the next stage! Please tweet/share etc. etc.

Good post. I have one misgiving: I think Civi communication is already spread rather thinly across different channels: forums, various mailing lists / groups, wiki, books, IRC, blogs, ... So my first thought when I heard of the suggestion was that this would worsen that situation. Reading your post though, you make good points about what's wrong with the forums and a good case for why Stack Exchange could be better.

If it goes ahead and becomes popular, perhaps we should consider steps to avoid a confusing proliferation of channels or to integrate them.

- Incorporate Civi Stack Exchange into civicrm.org/civisearch

- Consider rationalising the remaining communication channels: would we still need the forums? Of course we'd want  to keep them available as an archive.

I think the proposal deserves a chance, I have followed it and upvoted some questions.

Cheers, Dave

Hey Dave, Totally agree with this. Once we are up and running, that is probably a good time to review our help pages to let people know where there can / should go for help.

Hey people,

Getting more of our users over the 200 mark on another stack exchange site is what will push us into beta.  This is actually EASY and FUN to do, but don't take my word for it - see http://discuss.area51.stackexchange.com/questions/18678/how-long-might-it-take-to-build-up-a-reputation-of-200-on-another-site. I created this wiki page where people who want our help to get to over 200 can sign up, and we can keep track of people we are pushing over the limit: http://wiki.civicrm.org/confluence/display/CRM/Stack+Exchange+proposal

  • If you want to get to 200, add your name below and start answering questions on another stack exchange site. People will come here and vote up your good answers (which should of course, be written in good faith, with the aim of gaining or sharing knowledge).
  • If you want to help people get to 200, choose someone below and add to their reputation when you think they deserve it. Of course, all your votes should be for genuinely helpful posts, we want our presence on StackExchange to be a win-win for everyone.

Thanks all!