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In response to the blog post about the TeX.SX TUG membership, Jürgen said in his blog, translated:

It's a mystery to me how it can come about that somebody chooses a web forum for communication, especially about TeX, because there are excellent news and mail reader, providing a much more powerful interface than any web browser ever could.

Of course I posted an extensive comment as answer.

That's the reason why I ask: specifically comparing TeX.SX and TeX Usenet groups (such as comp.text.tex), mailing lists (such as texhax) and web forums (such as latex-community.org):

  • What are the advantages of TeX.SX for users, compared to Usenet, mailing lists and web forums?
  • Which features are offered by Usenet or mail software that TeX.SX cannot provide?
  • What are benefits of each communication medium, for the TeX community?

Of course I would be glad to read also about benefits of Usenet or anything! There's a great history, however at the moment I can hardly imagine how the I can research and browse 20 years of comp.text.tex independently of the google engine.

  • 1
    I want to link this to meta.tex.stackexchange.com/q/730/86 since what I wrote in that explains (a bit) why I am not on any tex mailing lists or real web forums (SE is not a forum!). I can expand on that if you like. – Loop Space Oct 15 '11 at 18:43
  • Well, I never got a free T-shirt, stickers and business cards from any usenet group, mailing list or web forum I'm a member of. :-D – Martin Scharrer Oct 19 '11 at 7:58
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    @Martin: Or a flight to India to the TUG 2011 - greetings from Thiruvananthapuram! – Stefan Kottwitz Oct 19 '11 at 8:53
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The signal-to-noise ratio on TeX.SX (and other SE sites) is very good: The interface makes harder to add noise, and it is always clear what the question is and what the answers are. And the community usually removes any noise quickly.

  • No spam on tex.se and not "monthly announces" ;) – topskip Oct 15 '11 at 15:13
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While I'm waiting for contributions and discussions, I prepared a rough feature table. It's community wiki, so feel free to edit! Just state your reason in the edit summary field.

                                         Usenet  Web forums  TeX.SX

Availability       Redundancy               +        -          -
                   Full public archive      -        -          +

Usability          Reading, writing         +        +          +
                   Markup                   -        +          +
                   Attachments, graphics    -        +          +
                   Deleting own posts       -        +          +
                   Common general deleting  -        -          +
                   Self editing             -        +          +              
                   Community editing        -        -          +

Interfaces         Complete browser access  +        +          +
                   Articles, Blogs          -        +          +
                   Dynamic (mouse over)     -        -          +
                   Assisted editing         -        -          +
                   Feeds                    +        -          +
                   Twitter posts            -        -          +
                   Chat                     -        -          +
                   Comprehensive Statistics -        -          +
                   Open API                 +        -          +

Quality            Accepted Solution marked -        -          +
                   Community quality voting -        -          +
                   Duplicate elimination    -        -          +
                   FAQ extraction           -        -          +
                   Community corrections    -        -          +

Moderation         By moderators            -        +          +
                   Community elected mods   -        -          +
                   Moderation by community  -        -          +
                   Separation mod & content -        -          +

Information access Full text search         +        +          +
                   Topic categories         -        +          +
                   Quality sorting          -        -          +
                   Complex DB queries       -        -          +

Filtering          by predefined topics     -        +          +
                   by user-defined terms    +        ?          -
                   by consensus score       -        ?          +
                   by user-defined score    +        ?          -
  • 2
    For redundancy I'd add that the monthly CC-licensed (this by the way is an additional comparison point) data dump makes it possible to easily recreate the content of SE sites should SE ever go offline (or start charing for access). – Caramdir Oct 14 '11 at 23:26
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    Also, one could consider Usenet as having an open API (there is nothing prohibiting you from accessing it with your own software). And Google Groups provides complete browser access to Usenet. – Caramdir Oct 14 '11 at 23:28
  • @Caramdir: good point! The dump saves our work. I just did not sort it to redundancy. I think I'll add it as an archiving feature. Regarding google group: mh, it's just google ;-) and it's perhaps more a gateway than native, such as derkeiler.com. – Stefan Kottwitz Oct 15 '11 at 0:11
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    I turned "filtering" into its own section, since I think this is what newsreader mavens like about that interface. I've heard die-hard old-time slrn users wax lyrical about their carefully defined scoring rules that ensure they only see posts they want to see, all highlighted and pushed to the top. I've never seen this feature anywhere else, certainly not here. I don't know if I, personally, care, but it's the one thing that newsreaders (of the old school, any way) have locked down. – Ryan Reich Oct 15 '11 at 23:01
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High visibility of questions and answers: TeX.SX ranks really high on Google, people looking for solutions for an issue are very likely to come across an answer on TeX.SX. Finding solutions on newsgroups is harder, you basically have to know that they're there. This high visibility can make it more attractive for people to write good answers.

16

The TeX.sx model is built around questions with a definite answer. The voting model means that it should be easy for the non-expert to pick out the best answer from several competing ones. The ability to mark as duplicate or merge questions means that we can avoid the 'same question many times' problem you see on Usenet, mailing lists and forums.

The ability to go back and edit both questions and answers means that needing to follow through several items to find a complete view on a problem is avoided. With a threaded approach, it's common to need to look at several entries to understand the question or answer.

On the other hand, discussion is clearly not handled well in the Q&A format. Mailing lists/Usenet are clearly the best way to handle areas where you need to talk about things in an open way. That's particularly notable for development work, but also applies when a 'question' is not really clear.

There's also the matter of accessibility. While many experienced (La)TeX users are comfortable with the plain-text approach in Usenet and mailing lists, a lot of newer users are not. Usenet in particular does require set up, and is not necessarily something most people are used to. (Google Groups is seen by many people as the interface to Usenet, and does not exploit the full power available.) In that sense, TeX.sx and forums such as The LaTeX Community are comparable: they have web interfaces and formatting mark up. TeX.sx is more successful as the Markdown approach is very flexible, in my opinion, that the alternative inline mark-ups used in other forums.

  • Thanks for mentioning discussions. tex.se is rather "strict" or "demure(??)/reserved", whereas on mailing lists/usenet you can also start flaming or put in a lot of humor. – topskip Oct 15 '11 at 15:12
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    I see a problem here: "The voting model means that it should be easy for the non-expert to pick out the best answer from several competing ones." The accepted answer or the answer with the most upvotes is not always the best one. But it seems that most users just pick that answer and don't even read the other ones before making a selection. – Axel Sommerfeldt Oct 22 '11 at 11:05
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I think we should not underestimate the fact the Tex.sx has an active and competent base community which is focused on solid answers: receiving an answer within minutes without the need to register seems to be a unique to Tex.sx (at least unique compared to a couple of other LaTeX forums in which I follow posts, including comp.text.tex).

The fact that new people receive a warm "Welcome" rather than complaints about their formulation or (missing) details of their question is also different from some of the other mentioned forums.

I believe that both has a lot to do with the people who answer questions and moderate the system (thanks to you, by the way). The system of TeX.sx encourages such a motivation by means of an attractive reputation system.

So, to summarize: I believe that

  • post without registration
  • a system which encourages people to assist
  • a community which is willing to assist
  • excellent response times by users
  • automatic sort by scores
  • active moderation ("low noise" as pointed out by others)
  • a very simple and powerful image uploading facility
  • simple-to-use code formatting

is what distinguishes TeX.sx from alternatives.

From my perspective, I sometimes miss the ability to add a little bit of common formality (and perhaps personalization) like "Hi whatever, good question blabla Best regard XXX".

  • Whilst the SE software and culture does discourage what it deems "contentless" comments, I agree that it's sometimes appropriate to put them in. The SE discouragement does help, though, as it forces me to add some content in the form of why I like the comment or answer. If you look for it, you can find quite a lot of silliness in the comments (often by me!) but the style of the comments means that they tend not to intrude and fizzle out before too long (for serious silliness, you have to go to chat). – Loop Space Oct 31 '11 at 8:16
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    Incidentally, the impression that I have of the other SE sites is that your second paragraph marks us out as a bit special from them as well as other forums. It's nice to read that this is noticed and appreciated as it means that our efforts to set the tone in the early days have paid off. – Loop Space Oct 31 '11 at 8:17
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Pro SX: Every answer has a score which will be counted by up- and downvotes. This way "bad" answers will hopefully not be choosen by most users.

Contra SX: Every answer has a score which will be counted by up- and downvotes. This way most users don't even take a look at the other answers, and a different answer could be better in general, or could be better in a special case.

Why does scoring not work reliably? Because the time period which I call "active life of a question" is quite short. Within the first hour the first answers will be given, and these answers will be upvoted quite fast by other users. Since the user is in wait for answers he tend to accept early ones. Answers given one week (or even more time) after the question tend to be unvalued. (Even by me, because I usually only read new questions.)

Pro SX: The user gets "badges" and "reputation" which is a motivation for answering. Since SX is based on answers, this is good.

Contra SX: The user gets "badges" and "reputation" which is a motivation for answering. Please don't get me wrong, I do not want to blame anyone for helping. But too much motivation for answering could result in fast but not ideal answers. So I think "helping" should be the only motivation, and not "collecting badges and reputation", so there is IMHO absolutely no need for "badges" or "reputation".

  • 3
    Thanks! Reputation is more than motivation: it's a measure for the amount of positive activity of a user. The bigger that amount, the more features a user can access, up to editing and moderation tools. This makes out site community moderated in a sensible and quite safe way. Badges are for motivation indeed: most badges encourage users to use site features and to do activities which go beyond reading and answering new questions. Without reputation score and voting, we would lose this kind of community moderation and rough quality criteria. – Stefan Kottwitz Oct 23 '11 at 12:29
  • Btw. a reputation cap of 200/day has been established also for limiting the motivation for collecting somehow. – Stefan Kottwitz Oct 23 '11 at 12:32
  • I use the reputation and badges as a crude measure of how helpful I'm being. Since I don't have unlimited time, I want to make best use of what I allocate to "being helpful". Reputation and badges are an easy way to see how helpful I'm being, and are much cleaner than lots of "thanks" or "looks good to me" comments. Without any feedback, I'm afraid that my TeX-SX time would quickly get crowded out by other things. – Loop Space Oct 24 '11 at 6:47
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    I also have another motivation: learning. Seeing which answers get lots of votes and comparing them against others helps me see which are worth looking at further. Moreover, there aren't that many questions that get so many answers that one can't quickly skim through them all. – Loop Space Oct 24 '11 at 6:49
  • However, I completely agree that both scoring and reputation are crude measures. But to make them more reliable would probably end up sacrificing some of their ease-of-use. Knowing their limitations, we can work around them when needed. If an answer is seriously wrong or out-of-date, it can be dealt with. If there's a new answer that doesn't get enough attention, someone can write a blog post about it. The system isn't perfect and can be improved, but it is workable and for me, its defects are less annoying than those of other systems. – Loop Space Oct 24 '11 at 6:52
7

Feature of Usenet software not available on TeX.SX: Kill files (though the shouldn't be necessary...)

  • 1
    Good! We've got "Ignored tags". It's similar, however it's topic-specific, not poster-dependent (which I think kill files are). That fits to the concept of a content-oriented site. – Stefan Kottwitz Oct 15 '11 at 0:24
4

I am writing this as a consumer.

I read Usenet newsgroups in the late 80s and early nineties. (I stopped reading them with the advent of the WWW.) You cannot compare SX to Usenet. (To be sure, I looked at the current state of the Usenet news group comp.text.tex.) SX is like OS X and Usenet is like DOS OS. SX is very "user friendly" and Usenet is not.

However, not all SX sites are good. TeX.SX is an exception. IMHO, TeX.SX is one of the best sites on the Internet.

Finally, Usenet is not free. If you do not believe me, google "Usenet".

  • 6
    If you don't need access to alt.binaries there are plenty of ways to access Usenet for free. – Caramdir Oct 25 '11 at 19:49
1

One advantage of ctt or texhax is that when I have answered there, no one ever rewrote it.

  • 9
    Assuming everything you ever wrote was perfect, that's presumably a good thing. :-) But if you did make a mistake, isn't it nice that your answer can be edited? Or if your answer becomes out of date? Also, there are very few substantive edits on this site at least that are not by the original poster. (And you can always roll back an edit you don't like.) To me the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. – Alan Munn Nov 17 '11 at 19:23
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    Sorry, if you had a bad experience! I see that 2 of your posts were edited. In one case just one letter was uppercased for a capitalized title, in the other case the code formatting was improved (looks much more readable) and some initial words had been deleted. The latter was probably because the editor thought it's unnecessary for the content. Perhaps too fussy, but you could rollback or edit and you did it. – Stefan Kottwitz Nov 17 '11 at 19:56
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    The site is for helping and for producing great content for the public, accessible and legible. For the latter, I'm glad that we are able to correct bad spelling or bad grammar, bad formatting or just posts where the writer didn't take time and care, that happens. This doesn't mean you, it's just a general note, your posts are good, others are better when edited a bit. About 40 of my answers have been edited - great, I'm thankful that people corrected typos or formatting errors for me. – Stefan Kottwitz Nov 17 '11 at 20:05

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