The woes of serverfault

Published: Mon 12 August 2013
By Sirex

In Rants.

Its come to light that ServerFault is doing badly. Shock, i know; who'd have thought ?

I'm putting this up here because it's a little difficult to compress my thoughts on the topic down to a small enough soundbite to fit into a tiny comment on the topic's thread over on the meta serverfault site. I'm probably going to expand the post over the next few days, but i felt i needed to get pen to paper - so to speak.

The problem

ServerFault is not doing nearly as well as many other sites in the stackexchange network. The number of closed questions is far higher than other sites, and generally the site appears to be suffering in terms of new users and higher rep users leaving the community.

What can be done

The common suggestions by the community to solve the issues have all involved ways in which to prevent the issues occurring by stopping people from posting questions. There's the soft approach of posting up more warning messages (yeah real friendly, and from people who regularly complain that no-one reads their pop-up messages on screen no less), to the more codified options of punishing people by not being allowed to ask questions until they've answers other people's.

Neither of these will actually work in terms of the site's survival. Even if a user answers another user's question, there's no saying that their own question will be enterprise based. It's as if the community believes that new users are like animals which need to be trained, while somehow completely missing that these people have come to the site to ask a question, period. They don't care if the site isn't capable of taking their question, they just want help. These are people who have a real issue and to them it's important. When presented with a wall of "you're not asking the right question" their response will be "where can i ask it" not "what else can i ask that you'll answer".

Also, I'll let you into a secret, I began visiting and making use of ServerFault before i made an account there, and long before I was a system administrator. I've used it as a university student studying computing, as a developer trying to replicate production environments, as a Linux engineer, and a systems administrator for large and very small businesses. The vast majority of my career now I've been a sysadmin but I know first hand that the site's content is applicable to a much larger audience than the community believes, and this is why they get people who they deem not appropriate asking questions.

So, what should be done ? Well, we've seen from history that online communities tend to gravitate towards allowing a broader input range, and a tighter output format. Some sites all voting questions up and down, and others allow filtering your view of the site. ServerFault does both of these things, and badly. You can vote questions up but it doesn't really achieve anything, and you can vote questions down but it just closes the question. You can filter tags as important to you or not important to you, but it doesn't hugely change your view of the site unless you filter out upon each tag. What you can't do is filter questions based upon the type of responses the user wanted.

In my opinion, ServerFault badly needs the ability to add meta data to each question stating what type of advice or answer the user is looking for, a "scope" if you will. I've worked for large and small businesses and it's foolhardy to say the same skill-set is needed for both, or that the types of answers will be applicable to each. In a large company I'd employ centralized wifi management, in a small company maybe not so.

The net outcome of the current situation is that questions get needlessly closed, and answered provided are crappy to the end user. There's a lot of "do it like this" regardless of the asker's actual situation, and not a lot of tailoring answers to match their expectations. The site simply fails in a lot of ways, it's not a surprise to me that it's doing so badly.

This is also partly why ServerFault suffers from 'not professional enough' syndrome. "Professional" in this instance usually means "not something i would ask, so you shouldn't either", typically followed up with a slew of hate about how sysadmins need to read documentation, shouldn't be asking basic questions, or need to take their unworthy questions elsewhere. Nice.

The reason cited is always the same; that "professional" sysadmins (wtf that means) get their view of the site muddied by crappy questions, and the response has been to go on a witch hunt for bad questions. Bearing in mind these questions nearly always come from new users, they've effectively gone on a war drive to cut off their own supply of fresh blood. Nice work !

What will be done

Sadly, given the community's reaction to the current situation, I'm not confident that they'll actually take the right route in fixing it. I'm generally of the opinion that they'll respond by trying to make it harder to ask questions, which which surely bite them in the ass further down the line. ServerFault is unique in that it dictates who can and can't ask questions based upon their profession, which is insane.

At this time, I'm of the opinion that the SF website is trying to be taken in a direction which will hurt it longer term.

The outcome

The course run by the comment threads on this topic has really reminded me of a lot of the darker aspects of the system administration profession, which I had largely believed had been eradicated in recent years. It's really quite scary to see the snobbery and elitism displayed first hand, and it's really quite disheartening.I take some comfort in the fact that these attitudes go against the core principals of the stack exchange network, but I'm not convinced it'll get fixed given the way the comments have gone.

New users on the site are currently discouraged from even asking questions to the pool of people who apparently consider themselves better than those asking, and this is likely to be even more so in the future.

The outlook does not look good.