Stack Exchange and the future of BioStar

Over the weekend I saw this tweet from Stack Overflow/Exchange founder Joel Spolsky. The content of the link he posted has served to crystallise some of my thinking of the last couple of weeks with relation to the Bioinformatics question and answer site BioStar.

The link Spolsky posted in the tweet was to a failed Stack Exchange proposal, and I found the page interesting not for the proposal, or the fact that it failed, but the clearly enumerated reasons for why it failed. Here’s a screenshot:

Atheism SE Proposal Screen Cap

To clarify the procedure here, new Stack Exchange sites are proposed by a community of users. That community was originally drawn from Stack Overflow, the extremely successful programming Q&A site, but now that there are nearly 50 active sites, the available community of proposers is much larger. Newly proposed sites have to overcome a series of hurdles before they go live, from proposal, through commitment, to a private beta, a public beta, before finally becoming a fully-fledged SE site. At the end of each of these stages, sites are assessed for the likelihood that they will become a healthy and active site. Crucially, this assessment appears to not be an individual process. It is obviously the view of the SE powers-that-be that all Q&A sites are created equal, and what works for one will work for all of them. What is worrying about this attitude is that sites that are genuinely niche and likely to have a small, but active and dedicated, community will be left by the wayside, since presumably they will be unable to generate the kind of ad-revenue that Spolsky at al are going to require to repay their investors.

BioStar is a web community reaching a crossroads. The site is running on the now-free, but inevitably unsupported Stack Exchange 1.0 platform (the process discussed above is for the SE 2.0 community). To continue to thrive, I firmly believe the site needs to move on from this platform, since it is almost certainly going to be closed down from under it within the next 12-18 months. This presents the site owners (and us, the community) with a choice.

  1. Migrate the site to SE 2.0
  2. Change to an open-source alternative Q&A platform
  3. Roll-our-own site, with the functionality we require

I will start by ruling out option 3. Bioinformatics teaches us the perils of reinventing the wheel when it is not necessary. An effort to write a custom-built platform for BioStar would be almost entirely redundant, undertaken on the free time of the community (free-time which could be better spent answering questions on BioStar), and almost certainly offer no tangible benefit over using one of the already available Q&A engines. (Think Facebook-for-Scientists…)

I used to be firmly in the camp supporting option 1. I genuinely love Stack Overflow. I have found great utility in some of the Stack Exchange family of sites. However, the attitude betrayed in both Spolsky’s tweet and the closure notice on the Atheism Stack Exchange site makes me think that BioStar would be left out in the cold if we attempted this migration. Let’s look at how BioStar measures up to these numbers:

  • Questions per day (SE 2.0 recommends – “15 questions per day on average is a healthy beta”)
    • Since 30th September 2009 BioStar has received 1,681 questions – that’s 3.13 questions per day
  • Percentage answered (SE 2.0 – “90% answered is a healthy beta”)
    • BioStar does well here. There are currently 47 questions with no upvoted answers – about 2.8%
  • User group (SE 2.0 – 150 users with 200+, 10 with 2,000+, 5 with 3,000+)
    • We have 14 users with 3,000+, 24 with 2,000+ and (by my count) 142 with 200+. But BioStar has been going for 18 months, the atheism SE site was shut down after 2 months in public beta
  • Answer ratio (SE 2.0 – “2.5 answers per question is good”)
    • I don’t have easy access to precise numbers for this, but it’s around 3 answers per question on BioStar
  • Visits per day (SE 2.0 – “1,500 visits per day is good, 500 visits per day is worrying.”)
    • I have no stats at all for this, but I’m willing to put good money on the fact that daily numbers are much closer to 500 than 1,500.

By these criteria, and judging by the Atheism Stack Exchange linked to by Spolsky, BioStar would fail to emerge from SE 2.0 beta, based on current numbers, and any effort the existing community put in to get it that far would be wasted. And I don’t think the audience of the site would be grown dramatically by it being a Stack Exchange 2.0 site. I think we have to accept that Bioinformatics is a niche subject with a relatively small potential audience, one that is not going to be especially interesting to a commercially driven exercise (such as Stack Exchange necessarily has to be).

So that leaves us with migration to an OSS alternative as the only remaining option. There are a number of platforms available, some of which offer an experience extremely close to ‘real’ Stack Exchange. I would pick one of these that allows an existing SE XML dump to be imported, and migrate the site as soon as possible, certainly within the next 6 months. There is no question that the change over will be painful, and will probably cost the site a few users, and some traffic in the first instance (the URL will have to go, for example), but I am confident in the community that has been built around the site – it will survive, and will be all the stronger for the change.

Besides, if we look at the facts in the cold, hard light of day, we really have no choice.