Last week, moderators from the WordPress Development StackExchange (WPSE) posted a short summary of stats from 2014, which demonstrate the remarkable growth and success of the community surrounding the site. This past year WPSE pulled in approximately 15,000 new users, bringing the total to 45,000.
The site received a total of 17 million page views during 2014. Users submitted 14,000 new questions, and the site received 13,000 new answers.
The question and answer model employed at the WordPress StackExchange may not be a perfect forumula, but it works. If you’re a developer looking for help, you’re far more likely to receive high quality answers on WPSE than on the official WordPress.org forums. On average, the two forums cater to different types of users.
The StackExchange question and answer communities are expert communities by design. Right answers float to the top, based on votes from experts in the community, making it an efficient way to locate the most helpful answers.
In more traditional forums, you’ll spend quite a bit of time weeding through useless, poor quality information to find what you’re looking for. Those who share their knowledge on StackExchange communities earn reputation points, which also helps users discern the quality of answers provided. Overall, it’s a tidy formula for engaging and rewarding expert advice.
The Culture of the WordPress StackExchange Community
Each new StackExchange community passes through a beta period where it is required to demonstrate sustained activity around the topic. I spoke with Andrey Savchenko, better known online as @Rarst, a moderator who has witnessed the evolution of WPSE from its early beta days to today. Browsing through questions on the site, there seem to be very few beginner inquiries, as compared to WordPress.org support. I asked Savchenko if the site purposely attracts a different crowd or if the questions are heavily moderated.
“At 45,000+ registered users it would be hard for me to paint an average user in few strokes,” he said. “Out of more obvious quirks I would say is that WPSE seems more heavily European than WordPress’ usual.
“It’s also a clearly for–developer resource in a primarily user–centric WordPress world, which doesn’t mean beginner development questions are unwelcome — they often make some of the best ones. But beginner user questions aren’t something we historically selected for.”
While moderation is one of the key features in place in every StackExchange network, Rarst believes it’s not as heavy as one might imagine. “I think SE moderation is efficient rather than heavy. It is strict when it needs to be and intelligently flexible when not,” he said.
Why do many WordPress users prefer getting help at WPSE as opposed to WordPress.org? Apart from the general difference in the user base, the WPSE community has a different mission and approach to answering questions.
“WPSE is a unique case of a high profile WordPress site outside of the WordPress ethos. In a way, we are the other side of the coin — a corner for people who don’t click with mainline WordPress resources too well,” Rarst explained.
“For StackExchange, the cultivation of knowledge is the primary mission, as the WordPress.org documentation and forums often feel like a neglected afterthought.” WPSE offers an alternative way to explore WordPress development questions, outside of the culture that exists on WordPress.org.
WPSE Thrives on an Organic, Self-Governing Organizational Structure
WPSE manages to maintain a cohesive community without instituting an overly strict governing body. All WPSE moderators are organically grown within the community. “People tend to choose their own level of social involvement; the system isn’t really opinionated about it,” Rarst said. “There are some chatty types, who are around on our meta site and in ‘The Loop’ chat room a lot. There are also plenty of high ranked people who keep to themselves and stay a complete mystery, apart from avatar and nickname.”
When it comes to housekeeping, WPSE has a natural structure, which lends moderation capabilities to members with the most influence and participation. “The moderators tend to have a lot of pull in organizational issues, but they tend to be elected moderators because they already have that influence,” Rarst explained. “Position comes to those who have established themselves, not the other way around.”
The overarching StackExchange mission has been key to the community’s success. The purpose of the 133 StackExchange communities is to enable users to ask questions and get answers without distraction. Unlike a traditional discussion forum, replies are heavily geared towards answers without a lot of chit-chat. “I think the focus with which Stack Exchange pursues their goals and their dedication to empowering people to contribute is what captures users on any topic,” Rarst said.
Users are encouraged to follow a simple set of guidelines when asking questions. They are encouraged to keep questions tightly focused on the topic at hand and to avoid opinion-based questions that would generate a lengthy discussion.
In the early days, the site was more exploratory, and moderators were open to trying new things to see where it went. “These days we are more reserved — we learned what works well for us, what is our main identity,” Rarst said. “We had finally pushed through name change to ‘WordPress Development’ from ‘WordPress Answers’, which had temporarily and accidentally stuck.”
They also learned what kind of content to turn away in order to keep the site working well. “The most prominent example is probably a much more stronger enforcement of questions specific to plugins and themes being out of scope for our general WordPress development focus,” Rarst said. This helps to keep the site more focused on how WordPress itself works, as opposed to getting overrun with support questions regarding third-party extensions.
Over the years, moderators and participants have actively sought to elicit feedback in order to improve the experience at WPSE, on both the meta site and on Reddit. Discussion from these exchanges has helped shape the direction of the site to filter out questions that detract from the main mission.
What Makes WPSE a Good Place to Ask Questions?
WPSE stats show that the most voted new question in 2014 was, “What is your best practice to execute one-time scripts?” The most viewed new question was “Allow HTML in Excerpt” with 8,300+ views.
With a predominantly developer-oriented community, Rarst believes that the WPSE model is working because it attracts competent WordPress experts to participate. Like-minded users and moderators have cultivated a fertile soil for answers. “I consider answering questions an immense personal learning opportunity, but also I think as a resource it is important for WordPress knowledge infrastructure, which is starved for quality information,” Rarst said.
The points-based reputation system also helps in motivating users to submit answers, although Rarst doesn’t attribute it to having played a large role in the site’s success. “I wouldn’t try to guess if points made Stack Exchange popular or was it other way around,” he said. “They definitely add a playful component to the experience, but the additional nature of ‘play’ is the key here — hardly anyone would participate for points alone in my opinion.”
The success is more likely attributed to the combination of dedicated and proven moderators, a focused mission, and a foundational question-and-answer format that simply works. Spend a few minutes sifting through questions on the site and you’ll undoubtedly have the opportunity to explore the inner workings of WordPress with knowledgeable, experienced respondents on hand.
The growth of the site over the past year shows that WPSE is quickly becoming a popular, high quality resource for finding answers to WordPress-related questions. If you’re stuck, and you’ve already done your homework of googling and browsing other forums, WPSE is a solid option for getting real answers without all the extra fluff.
I think Rarst hit the nail on the head that WPSE really does fill the developer support gap in the official WordPress.org forums. Even as an occasional support volunteer myself, I’d be much less tempted to use official channels for developer support, mostly because of the death of capable volunteers.
There are some that argue that’s a gap we should try to fill on the official forums, but I actually disagree. I think WPSE offers a great deal of infrastructure that wp.org would need to implement to be able to compete.
That said, I think the work we’re doing on the new official developer hub will really lend itself as a good complement to the fine support happening over on WPSE. It’s worth mentioning that we actually have a contributor team dedicated to DevhHub of which Rarst is actually a member!