What with all of the hubbub lately, I want to focus on asking one specific question that I think is at the core of the problem/drama: Is EL&U succeeding?

This is fairly open-ended and I think that is fine. The intent is to try and start locating things for us to work on or, at the very least, watch carefully for improvements.

Please add your thoughts on EL&U's current status and quality. In my opinion, we are in an opinion gathering phase. We need data; the first place to get that data is from you, the community.

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    I think the biggest issues that I'm having problems with are the inconsistancies of people on the regular site agreeing with what's discussed in the meta. As well as defining who this site is aimed at and what we're actually allowed to ask. Considering that most of the English language is based of of subjective interpretation (it is a living language after all), I find it hard to clearly define exactly WHAT this site is aimed at. Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 18:24
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    Personally, I'd eliminate much of the second half of your bullet points. The first half of your list addresses the state of your content and vetting. The rest is just looking at secondary issue which are largely mechanical, administrative, and promotional and have little bearing on whether EL&U is "succeeding." Focus. No need to muddy with such a broad question to end all questions. Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 18:28
  • @Robert: Sorry, I got you with a ninja edit. I actually just moved all of the points into an answer to try and keep things simpler. But really good point, thanks.
    – MrHen
    Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 18:30

6 Answers 6


I guess ultimately it is a question what do you want EL&U to become

  • site for real specialists and experts only
  • site for both language and linguistics 'newbies' and specialist, professionals, too

I strongly disagree with Jeff's illustration of the low quality questions. Here are some reasons:

1. The top questions do not tell you much

If you compare the quality (usefullness) of top questions at stackoverflow with EL&U, I think you will not find much difference: top questions are intrinsically voted on for their interestingness and not technical quality. This together with the landslide effect (which serves as justification and reinforcement) will bring such questions to the top.

To summarize: objectively best questions will usually have relatively modest scores.

2. Frequent answers do not tell you much

Another issue is the issue of the most common questions - there are and there will be questions that repeat subjects, themes or actual questions word for word. This is rather unavoidable as long as there is no real penalty for not doing basic research.

Here I would like to take opportunity to praise moderators and others in the community for linking to similar questions and very diligently closing real offtopic answers.

3. The examples of 'bad' questions are flawed

Differences between slang words for breasts

Profanities are a part of a language with many linguistically interesting aspects. Learning and clarifying details on the use or the meaning of them is interesting not only to adolescents, but to any user of the language. Here, I presume, the actual objection is to the fact that these questions have such high score and not to the fact that they are asked.

Summary: If there is a consensus such questions could be discouraged by the faq (or forbidden). Until then it should let be.

Don't understand the joke: my milk's gone bad...

Jokes, as a rule, employ very complex literary devices (or rhetorical figures). The whole concept of humor is very closely tied to linguistics and language, as anyone who attempted to translate more than one joke knows very well. I strongly disagree with closing such questions.

Faq says: 'Explain this joke...' is off-topic, unless it employs some subtlety of English language, but I think it is not unreasonable to claim that most jokes employ it and that even cultural references should be explained if asked as they tie into how the joke 'works' (how the literary or rhetorical device becomes really effective).

What is a more common expression in English for "move your bowels"?

Again we have the same problem as with example number one - the question itself is no worse or better than, for example: 'What is a more common expression for "move your car"?', however the two will never get the same score, because one is objectively much more interesting since it looks at language usage in the context of taboos, which by default has potential to be much, much more important as the subject is much more sensitive.

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    NB The "joke" entry in the FAQ was added very recently (and unilaterally) by Jeff Atwood - see the original meta question about jokes for the policy prior to that, Jeff's reasons for changing it, and my proposed amendment.
    – psmears
    Commented Jul 15, 2011 at 16:17

I agree with a lot of what @Unreason has said, so I won't repeat that. But just to give a different perspective on this: @RebeccaChernoff posted a very interesting suggestion in chat:

So, one thing that might be an interesting thing to look at when you're considering the quality of the site: take the titles of 10 questions at random (I'll generate them and give you post ids in a sec) and type each one into google. Are we at the top of the results? If not, is our answer crap compared to a top result?

I went through the ten randomly-selected questions, and compared the top few results from typing each question into Google to the top answer(s) on our site.

In nine out of the ten cases, we were hands down the best: there were some superb answers - most notably from @Kosmonaut, but also from others. Only occasionally did the other Google results come close to answering the question.

In the one case where Google did furnish a decent answer to the question being asked, the quality of the answers was much closer, but the formatting of the non-SO answer made it sufficiently difficult to read to fall within the "otherwise in need of improvement" clause of the simple question flowchart.

Now, that doesn't mean that EL&U is perfect, or that there isn't a lot we might be able to improve. But it does suggest that the impression that some have been giving - that the site has a "serious quality problem", or is "full" of bad questions and answers - is somewhat overstated.


Are we attracting the attention of other high quality English or language sites?

I know from personal email communication with both Doug Harper of Etymonline and Gary Martin of The Phrase Finder (two oft-cited authorities at EL&U) that this site is definitely on their radar. Doug, in particular, has said some nice things about this site. Both have amended entries at their respective sites based on findings here.

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    Your quoted bullet point has gone from OP now - which is a good thing, as I can address just this one perspective. It's far from axiomatic that greater "reach" is even desirable at this stage in the site's evolution. Without high-quality site content & search facilities, etc., EL&U could end up worse off after being put under the microscope. Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 20:12

I think the site is wonderful and fun, but there are some gaps that could make it more successful. You have brought up some good questions, and they deserve some discussion.

I think we should prioritize our efforts based on maximal effectiveness. To that end, I would suggest this order:

1. Decide how to handle meta. How do we know when an issue is resolved? How do we communicate expected changes in behavior to regular users? When (and how) do we update the FAQ based on these new community resolutions? Meta is where these community discussions will take place, so we must all agree on how the process will be executed. Therefore, this should be our number one priority.

2. Make as clear a distinction as is reasonably possible to divide on-topic from off-topic. Deciding what is on-topic or off-topic is critically important, but not always so simple as reviewing the FAQ. Let's make it clear that questions that are debatable can be discussed in chat or on meta. Again, the meta process is what will support this process, so we must be clear how meta works before this step will function correctly. Also, let's decide when closing is adequate, and when downvoting is necessary. Let's make sure we are consistently kind and explanatory when closing, and that we communicate to the user that they may discuss closure in chat or on meta.

3. Encourage the community to be engaged. The top users will (eventually, I'm confident) get swag, but let's also make sure that we are upvoting good answers, downvoting bad ones, and flagging material that's just not nice. Let's also make a habit of picking up our litter, and making sure that we are accepting good answers on our questions as well as asking good questions. Good questions are on-topic, so obviously, we need step 2 before we can do this well.

If we do these things, we will get happy new users, our community will grow and thrive, and there will be rainbows and sunshine and peace.

  • So, are we succeeding? More directly related to your answer, are we succeeding in doing these three things you have suggested?
    – MrHen
    Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 18:56
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    @MrHen No, because I haven't the faintest notion how step 1 works/should work, and that is the foundation for all the rest. (I edited my question a bit, because I realized my thought process was not transparent.)
    – Kit Z. Fox Mod
    Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 18:59
  • I still don't know how to distinguish between an acceptable subjective question versus a question worthy of being voted as not constructive... Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 19:08
  • What's this debatable questions on meta business? I thought meta was for discussing/asking how the site does/should function. Isn't everything apart from that 'off-topic' on meta? Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 20:19
  • @Fumble See step 1.
    – Kit Z. Fox Mod
    Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 20:22
  • I may be a bit naive, but I'm approximately happy to leave much of the 'higher-level' issues stuff to Jeff Atwood and those working closely with him. Much of the rest of step 1 could probably be raised more usefully in meta meta, so to speak. Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 20:39
  • +1 for number 2; in my book that is the most important step.
    – Unreason
    Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 9:54
  • @OghmaOsiris: the blog post "Good Subjective, Bad Subjective" is a good start.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 20:34

Note: This list was originally included in the question body. I moved it here based on comments made in chat. Apologies for any confusion caused.

Here is a bullet list of how I interpret this question. I don't necessarily think any of these questions are easy (or even possible) to accurately answer. I put them here in an answer because these aren't really the focus of the question and are mostly rhetorical at this point.

  • Are we attracting new users?
  • Are we attracting the right kind of new users?
  • Are we receiving interesting questions?
  • Are good questions voted highly?
  • Are bad questions downvoted, closed or deleted?
  • Are irrelevant comments being pruned?
  • Are offensive comments or remarks being flagged?
  • Have we defined topicality in a clear manner?
  • Are we consistent in our closing of questions (specifically with regards to General Reference and Off-Topic)?
  • How is the community treating its members?
  • How is the relationship between the mods and the non-mods?
  • Is chat active?
  • Are we attracting the attention of other high quality English or language sites?
  • Are meta discussions being resolved?
  • Are our resolutions being put into practice?
  • Is our FAQ accurate?
  • Is our FAQ clear?

And so on.

  • You have the power to include this material in your question rather than apologizing for putting it here.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 19:06
  • @Robusto: Sure. I tend to overcomplicate things, however, so I wanted to error on the side of simple to understand. Which in this list do you find the most helpful? Maybe a compromise of a few here, a few there would be best?
    – MrHen
    Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 19:07
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    In terms of helping users see what makes a good or interesting question (different from just on-topic) we have this how to ask item that supplements the FAQ. It appears on the Ask Question sidebar but is hard to find otherwise. I think it's the same one sites like Writers have. I think it could help if we edit/add to it, to clearly lay out what effort we expect in a question. It could give us a reference that helps us show users how to improve questions in a consistent, friendly way.
    – aedia λ
    Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 19:56
  • @aedia: As it happens, the page you linked to starts by pointing out that not every question...gets answered. When of course, it does - unless it gets deleted a bit sharpish. The rep system certainly works in terms of persuading people to provide answers to just about anything. But does it ensure the eventual top (or accepted) answer is always the best one? I'm not too sure on that. Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 20:25

First, I want to be clear that I have what I hope is a shared common goal with everyone on the English.se community:

I want English.se to be great.

Unfortunately, the current reality is kind of...far from that. Almost every time I peek my head into the site, it's filled with puerile stuff like:

What's worse is that these questions (due to the "tee-hee" nature of them) tend to be the most popular ones on the site and thus are actively broadcast to the rest of the network. I find this sort of content totally unprofessional and quite frankly, completely embarrassing. To the point that I am actually ashamed to be associated with this site.

Now, that doesn't mean that there isn't other great content here—there certainly is— but it is being completely overshadowed by the loss of focus on what was supposed to be a site for English language experts and advanced usage. Not a popular cultural explanation engine, an English As Second Language translation service, or the best possible source for the varied meanings of "boobs" and "poop".

So, to the extent that I expressed my frustration with this depressing, sad state of affairs on English.se—I apologize. But this site has to get a lot stricter and that requires solid action and leadership on the part of the community and the community moderators. The current laissez les bons temps rouler attitude is just not working, and leadership flows from the top down.

The bottom line is that English.se needs to be stricter in what questions it will accept. I am encouraged to see this discussion, and the recent blocking of particularly low-quality users. I also hope to see far more aggressive closing by the community of off-topic, beginner, general reference, and unprofessional questions.

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    If the original beta community had come to the decision that the site was to include ESL-type questions, would you have respected that? Some of us still think that allowing them would be a good idea and help increase participation in the site, and make it... well, awesome.
    – Jez
    Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 23:38
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    @jez see the flowchart at blog.stackoverflow.com/2011/02/are-some-questions-too-simple for my answer, but the "everyone can have an opinion" nature of this topic requires a stricter standard across the board. Commented Jul 13, 2011 at 23:41
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    The questions you link to are quite old, so I guess it's been a while since you've visited. I'm having a hard time with your conclusions that all our questions are about boobs and poop though. If you sort by votes, the first question you list ranks 11th, and you have to get to page four before "seeing a man about a dog."
    – Kit Z. Fox Mod
    Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 0:13
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    And I know that this isn't Writers.SE, but I think your apology would be improved if you replaced the "but" with "I should have expressed my sincere desire for...sooner" and added a "I will certainly contribute to meta topics that discuss how the site should be run and why what is being done is not working." And some sort of nod of respect to the community and its moderators would be delicious icing. We would welcome your contributions to our discussions.
    – Kit Z. Fox Mod
    Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 0:25
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    @kit this site also has in-absentia moderators, with one moderator resolving -- and this is the actual number -- 83% of all handled flags. Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 0:33
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    @jeff I lack context for comparison, so I'm afraid that means little to me. If you mean to address an issue with the site, I (and I'm certain the rest of the community) would really, honestly, truly, love to learn and understand from you what you feel that issue is. Posting a topic in meta would give you a lot more room to explain than a comment here, and also provide room for more community discussion. You have much more knowledge than we do about the mechanics of SE sites, and we would appreciate it if you shared it with us, especially if you have concerns.
    – Kit Z. Fox Mod
    Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 0:39
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    @kit the point is simple: site needs more active moderation by more active moderators. And it's not fair for one mod to shoulder the vast majority of the burden, either. Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 0:45
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    @jez we override the community all the time; see "Favorite programming cartoon" and about 20% of all questions asked on programmers.stackexchange.com -- teaching someone about Lent is great, but it has little to do with language. It's pure amusement, pop culture stuff. Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 9:17
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    @Jeff: Teaching people about Lent is 100% off-topic, agreed. But teaching people about English language idioms would be on-topic, surely? That is why I was prepared to answer that question. Not because of the joke (which was entirely worthless in of itself, I agree with you there), not because of any pop culture connection (clearly offtopic), but because it all hinges on an idiom. I'm genuinely curious as to why that is a problem. Do you not believe it's linguistically an idiom? (I could explain why it is but not in a comment.) Or is there something else going on here that I'm missing?
    – psmears
    Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 9:48
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    Just my three cents. Cent one, cent two, cent three. This was a resolved issue. You have a problem with the MultiCollider? Fix it or take ELU off of it. The automatic tweets are malfunctioning? Kill them with fire. It's precisely this broken advertising that brings the wrong people to the site. 1% of questions get blown out of proportion and get us 99% new users. Of course it can't go on like that.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 10:09
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    What the people are really up in arms about is, that you've been quiet for so long and let the pressure build up until everything blew up in pieces. You know how it should have worked instead. We have a meta. You have a problem with our site, you go to our meta, open a thread, and voice your concerns. The last thread you opened on our meta was about free swag for top users. And thanks again for that, but look, that's the opposite of voicing a concern.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 10:13
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    We are open to criticism from people who maintain a healthy distance to the site. We're here, 24/7, to make the site an awesome place. But this site is not, and cannot be, an awesome place if someone who, in the entire history of the site, has asked 1 question, provided 0 answers, and cast 35 votes in total, can just come along and single-handedly delete stuff and amend the FAQ at will, and when confronted by regulars in good standing, by people who built this site from scratch, by experts with a degree in linguistics, sadden them to the point of them leaving. That is fundamentally broken.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 10:19
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    And sorry if I am saddening you right now, but I really, really really want to have this resolved. Once and for all. I don't want this to happen again. Ever. For your sanity, mine, and everybody else's. Thank you for hearing me out.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 10:20
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    @Jeff Atwood: I think at this point any apology needs to be public and sincere. As @psmears pointed out in chat, the insult was made in public, so a private apology is no apology. As someone else said, in politics if it happened in private it didn't happen.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 11:59
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    @Jeff: amending a personal insult into more general insult does not constitute an apology. The public part has not been rectified.
    – user1579
    Commented Jul 14, 2011 at 13:10

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