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I previously asked if EL&U was succeeding. The responses there (mixed in with other answers, comments and chats on the subject) lead me to feel that one of the big questions our community has before them is, "Who is our audience?"

Note that this is a slightly different question than, "Who are our experts?" or "What kind of questions do we want?" Before we can answer those two questions, let us decide: what kind of visitors are we trying to attract? Who are we writing for? What types of people are we aiming to entertain?

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The front page says that this is a site

for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

And I disagree with that.

No matter who you would like to be for, or who you should be for, it is not who you are for right now.

I spend a lot of time on Cooking, and know fairly well how a SE site works. I have also asked questions on lots of the other sites of the network. Each time, I faced the challenge of determining if my question is a good fit to the community, or would be frowned upon or closed outright. With time, I noticed that this was commonly determined by just a handful of users. These few users were very active, and they steered the content in certain directions, even if they weren't moderators. Stated this way, it sounds a bit questionable, but in fact, they were no dictators. They were just the high involvement users, who had taken it into their hands to take care of things, and the community was glad to follow in their lead and to support their decisions with abundant upvotes.

Obviously, these users are the experts on their sites. They aren't always the professionals who get paid for doing this in their daily life, but I nevertheless consider them experts. And the good thing about experts is that they can distinguish quality from superficial attractiveness. Of course, the democratic system allows the crowd to push polls and other unwanted question types to popularity. But I noticed that the trick to find out which questions are considered good content for a site is to find out what the top users see as high quality.

Together, the top 13 users of EL&U have delivered 4800 answers. This is 20% of all answers on the site. This seems like a good tradeoff between coverage and a manageable number of users to check on. I couldn't see what they have voted as high quality, but I had a (probably better) metric: I read through their favorites. And sure, some interesting patterns emerged.

First, these users tended to favorite questions which weren't terribly popular. While they had attracted an above average number of votes, there weren't the kind of questions with dozens of upvotes which smell of a "me-too-question". This supports the hypothesis that these users choose quality questions without falling for the usual bias. Then I noticed that the level of question complexity varied. There were definitely entry-level questions present. This was a very good finding. We want to know what type of questions is good here; the consensus on most SE sites is that beginner level questions are welcome, if they are of the right type, and one of the supermods confirmed this recently for this site in chat. Third, there was some nice consistency within the set of questions of each user.

There were four users I didn't consider, because they only had two or less favorites, not allowing me to see a pattern. The rest had 5 or more favorites. Two of the relevant users had a preference for questions with a scientific orientation. They liked discussions about the natural rhyming patterns in English, about the presence of certain sounds, or about current trends in language. In contrast, the choices of the majority of the users were dominated by hands-on everyday questions on usage in very specific cases. These were questions asked by practitioners with a specific problem at hand. Some were at a level which even non-native beginners would find easy Is it wrong to say "cook a cake"?, and some sounded sophisticated: How should I pronounce "Worcestershire" as a rhotic English speaker?. But even when they had some linguistic relevance (it is probably hard to find a question about a language with no linguistic relevance at all), they were definitely written from the point of view of a practitioner trying to solve a certain problem.

I am aware that the availability of these kinds of question could be causing a bias in itself. But first, we have the evidence that top users with interests focused elsewhere still found enough questions of the scientific kind - they were there if one wanted to look for them. Plus, the large share of practical questions is circumstantial evidence that the community finds this kind of questions interesting and useful.

My conclusion is that, whatever the community has noticed it or not, it has already defined what it wants to see on this site. The top users aren't everybody, but they are the ones everybody (mostly) agrees with, thus forming a reasonable proxy. The fact that the "decision" is not made by self-reflection but by everyday behavior makes the result even more valid. We who study people know that they often don't know what they wont or need, but their behavior and reactions to the environment is a reliable predictor for their needs. So, the linguists here are definitely in the minority, and experts and questions on "applied language" are needed.

I don't say that linguists and their topics should be crowded out of the site. They provide valuable input, and without them, the content would be poorer. But the priority should lie elsewhere, and there is no need to try to decide whether a question is a bad fit for the site just because it isn't scientific-y enough. For good or bad, this isn't a site for language researchers, just like SO isn't a site for computer science researchers. It answers the questions of those who practice English everyday without making it the object of study. If we want to attract experts, we should probably aim for this class of people. I don't know who they are - probably journalists, editors, writers and everybody else who is judged by the quality of text they produce or just takes a pride in it. Don't forget, the linguists and etymologists may be somewhat more marginal here, but for a community, you definitely need the enthusiasts.

  • Great post; awesome thoughts. I self-consciously began wondering what my favorites were... and discovered that half of them were questions that get repeated a lot so I need to find the original quickly. :P – MrHen Jul 15 '11 at 2:18
  • Thanks for dropping by to share your thoughts - it's very interesting to have a (mostly) outside perspective :) – psmears Jul 15 '11 at 7:40
  • And I thank you for viewing it in this way. I was afraid that, in the heat of the discussion, it would be seen as meddling. – rumtscho Jul 15 '11 at 10:52
  • Oh, it isn't meddling at all. Outside opinions probably matter as much as inside opinions right now. (In my opinion.) – MrHen Jul 15 '11 at 12:59
  • Comparing EL&U with Seasoned Advice is quite not right, as their FAQ clearly states, "This site is for professional and amateur cooks and chefs, and anyone else who works in the kitchen or is interested in preparing and serving delicious meals." Differently, EL&U's FAQ doesn't contains the word amateur. – kiamlaluno Jul 15 '11 at 16:16
  • 1
    @kiamlaluno I didn't mean that the scope is the same. I just wanted to point out that as an active user, I have had an opportunity to observe the social dynamics within a site of the network, and I have experienced it firsthand. Moreover, we have very few active highrep users, so the policing behavior of each of us has unusually high weight. This is why I have spent lots of time thinking what are quality questions. This is why I think my experience is relevant as a background to this post. While the community's idea of quality questions is different, the forces which define it are similar. – rumtscho Jul 15 '11 at 17:29
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From our (current) FAQ:

The English Language and Usage Stack Exchange is for linguists, etymologists, and (serious) English language enthusiasts.

I think that's a good start, but given that the question's even been asked, clearly some elaboration is necessary.

Starting with the end: what exactly is a "(serious) English language enthusiast", for our purposes? I would define that as anyone who

  • has a serious interest in learning and developing their abilities in spoken and written English, or
  • has a genuine curiosity to learn about the English language, its grammar, pronunciation and history.

Note that this most definitely includes those who are not native speakers. Not least because we already have highly active members for whom English is not their native language, and yet whose command of the language puts that of many native speakers to shame (you know who you are!), but also because some of the most interesting questions come from learners and non-native speakers. I'm not talking about the questions that can easily be answered by looking in a dictionary - that is a waste of our time. But there are many questions that, while seeming simple, provide a real insight into how the language works. (I could go into more detail, but that is a discussion for another place.)

So... how about the linguists and etymologists? Certainly, a number of our top contributors are professional linguists - and the quality of their answers means we certainly want to keep them around. But there are also many outstanding contributors who are not professional linguists. Nonetheless, this part of the description gives a very good feel of what we want from the site: it demonstrates succinctly the fields of interest of the people who would likely fit well with the site.

Finally it's also worth saying a word or two about what we don't want on the site: trolls and timewasters go without saying (they're unwelcome anywhere) - but there's a particular sort of visitor we specifically don't want to attract: the type who has have very strong opinions about what is "correct" English, that have no basis in any sort of fact (historically, in modern usage, or otherwise). Lest we descend into being a forum for endless argument, our members must be prepared to defer to evidence and to facts.

6

To throw my own opinion into the mix, this is what I think we should be aiming for:

  • We want to attract people who know English very well but may not realize it yet. There is an odd sense of accomplishment in reading a difficult question, knowing the answer and then immediately reading why that answer is correct. People who speak fluent English may instinctively know what is correct or not but very few people take the time to think about the language. One of EL&U's goals should be to awaken that curiosity and then offer them hundreds of interesting questions to chew on.

  • We want to attract people who have a problem and need an answer. These could be fluent speakers; they could be using English as a second language. But they haven't been able to get adequate help elsewhere on the internet. Their questions will be ones of nuance, meaning, word requests and so on. The next time they have a question, perhaps they will start here first.

  • We want to attract people who are utterly fascinated with the inner workings of English and want to pull it apart; find the boundaries; discover the histories of words; pull up charts of usages; compare dialects. These people are the linguists and the serious hobbyists. They are looking for interesting tidbits that they don't already know. If we want to entertain them, we need content beyond the ordinary usage and definitions of words. We need to offer puzzles and challenges and questions that stick in your head until someone finds an answer.

I find all three of these audiences completely plausible and I don't think anything about them would drive another away. Most people are happy if they get content that suits them. Proper tagging would make it easier for picky people to get only the stuff they want.

Right now, I think EL&U is heavy on the middle section: The people who have a problem and need an answer. I think we have enough content to attract the first section, too, seeing as that is how I even found EL&U. I do think we are a little light on the third category.

I could go into more depths on these three groups — I could even find example questions and point out differences between how each group would approach a borderline question.


To bring the dark side into this, these are the audiences I am explicitly not interested in attracting:

  • People from the SE network who want a place to farm rep because it is easy to mimic real questions.

  • People with idle curiosity about their favorite word.

  • People who cannot speak English and are still learning basic grammar or vocabulary. This is obviously a fuzzy category, but the rule of thumb I like: Can they read a dictionary and/or Wikipedia?

  • People who ask questions as puzzles in an attempt to stump us or send us on rabbit trails. (Basically, trolls.)

  • People who are too lazy to look something up themselves. This is pretty similar to not pandering to idle curiosity. Curiosity itself is fantastic. Being curious and then doing nothing more than asking us is lazy. And rude.

0

I am quite new to EL&U and so, do not consider myself qualified to answer who the audience could be or should be. Since I have not invested much effort into it, it is not all that important if the site itself reaches its intended audience. I'll stick to the questions

what kind of visitors are we trying to attract? Who are we writing for? What types of people are we aiming to entertain?

Having said that, I'll answer the question from the point of view of a potential user. What attracted me to the site was the line:

The English Language and Usage Stack Exchange is for linguists, etymologists, and (serious) English language enthusiasts.

I do consider myself an English language enthusiast. I'm primarily here to learn and to discuss interesting ideas. (About the importance of accommodating disjunctive pronouns in English grammar, or the balance between prescriptive and descriptive approaches, the latest trends in English linguistics, etc. Or "English questions and negation with do in syntax", to pick an example from today.)

I am certainly not looking for a site where people ask questions about whether "numerical mathematics" is redundant, or "scholar vs. scientist" or "quicker vs. faster" or "e-mail me vs. e-mail to me" (some examples from today).

To borrow a term from electronics, I'm looking to maximize the signal to noise ratio for me. So far, the ratio has been mediocre to bad. Of course, I'll make the disclaimer explicit: I am ONLY speaking with my own interests in mind.

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