[Haskell-cafe] How can we make Haskell-Cafe scale? (was: Re: Edit Hackage)

Sterling Clover gershomb at gmail.com
Sat Oct 30 13:08:16 EDT 2010

There's been some grumbling about users migrating from -cafe to Reddit and Stack Overflow in particular. First, as Don has pointed out, the fact is that people are moving away, and that's just the trend. 

But why are people moving? One reason is that Stack Overflow, Reddit, and -cafe all provide *different things*, with features tailored to specific purposes. I'll try to explain what those things are, why they don't threaten, but augment -cafe, and why we need at least one new mailinglist as well.

1. When Stack Overflow is Better Than -cafe

Stack Overflow is *better* for a Q&A format. I can scan for questions I'm competent to answer or interested in answers to (and the rss feed helps with that), and be confident that for the most part there won't be thread derails, and that the title will maintain consistency with the discussion inside. If the title isn't informative, I can be confident that someone with sufficient rights (which are granted by accumulation of karma) will edit it to be informative. Likewise the question itself, if it evolves over time, can be edited to reflect what it should have been to begin with.

And most importantly, if an answer to a question is provided on -cafe, it quickly gets drowned in surrounding traffic. And if an answer becomes out of date, there's no good way to "annotate" the archives to indicate that. I don't *need* to read all s.o. questions, on the off chance than an answer might become relevant to me later. I know that s.o. provides the right tools so I can find the answer when I need it. And I know that s.o. lets users update pages with new posts, or edits, so that answers don't become "stale" over time.

A technical Q&A site serves different purposes than a mailinglist, and it needs different technology to do so. There are other, smaller, advantages to stackoverflow which I haven't even touched on.

2. When Reddit is Better Than -cafe

As for reddit, while some people obviously treat -cafe as an anything goes place to crack jokes or pursue arguments of rather narrow interest, I'm acutely aware that every message sent to this list lands in the mailbox of thousands some multiple thousands of programmers, many very talented, and almost all with better things to do than wade through the massive traffic of -cafe for the few things of interest to them.

So, generally, I tend to shy away from posting to -cafe. Reddit, on the other hand has (although maybe a bit too much) a bit more of the freewheeling atmosphere of, e.g., the #haskell irc channel. People are going to reddit during a long compile, or on a coffee break. There's an understanding that the conversation will tend to be casual, that there will be occasional trolls and occasional gems, and that the primary content will be in high-quality links to papers, blogposts, articles, etc., while the discussion threads will be a way to shoot the breeze about them. This distinction between content and chatter is in many ways a useful thing.

Again, the medium of reddit facilitates this type of content. Because messages are shown in their threaded context with relatively high information density, they don't have to quote or indicate their surrounding context. The incremental cost of each message, both to reader and writer, is tiny, and this facilitates a more free-flowing conversational style than over email. Again, upvotes and downvotes (the dreaded ratings and karma) make it easy to see immediately which points others found useful or bogus, and to register simple agreement or disagreement without adding more semantic noise to the mix.

3. How -cafe Can Be Better than -cafe

If Stack Overflow is better for Q&A and Reddit is better for link aggregation and casual chat, that doesn't mean that -cafe should lose subscribers, or pack up and go home. It means that -cafe can shed those aspects, and get on with what *is* better here. For example, the recent set of DSL conversations have been very rich and productive. And I can't think of an online fora besides -cafe where they could have taken place.

In one sense, because -cafe has too many posts, it in fact has too few subscribers. Plenty of people who do great work in Haskell, either as academics or commercially, don't have the time and energy to devote to -cafe, even though there are conversations that would be perfect for them.

-cafe has averaged about 50 posts/day for this last month. Of those, I'd say about 2/3 are on topic for what I'd like -cafe to be. Some followed from release announcements which led into discussions of some aspect of the project. Some were related to issues with standard libraries, widely-used packages or otherwise relevant to the whole of the Haskell community. Some were well served by "taking the temperature" of the Haskell community (e.g. the lambda-case discussion). And some were questions suited to generating a broad discussion rather than one or two correct single answers.

The other third, by my estimation, would have been equally or better served on Stack Overflow.

4. Towards haskell-community at haskell.org!

Of the the 2/3 of -cafe messages on topic, maybe half or those were all related to haddocks, or issues facing the haskell wiki (i.e. the blurb, wiki organization, etc.) or the new Haskellers.com site.

This suggests to me that we have a growing understanding that we need to chip-in together to contribute to resources for the Haskell community, and there's a great deal of discussion to be had on plenty of details. But such discussion is not for everybody. So I would propose a separate haskell-community mailing list specifically for discussions over, e.g, unified design or the design of individual Haskell community sites, technical issues regarding Haskell community sites, social decisions regarding Haskell community sites -- i.e. on policies for the new Hackage regarding package maintainership, etc. Such a list would, among other things, server as a soundingboard/resource for the haskell.org committee.


P.S. There's also a fair amount of posts that I think could have been saved for reddit, or not at all, but I won't name names :-)

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