# Why are there so few ConTeXt questions?

We only have eight questions that are tagged `[context]`. I thought ConTeXt was more popular than that. There even seem to be more questions relating to “pure” TeX and Plain TeX.

I can think of several reasons:

1. ConTeXt is less popular than I think it is.
2. ConTeXt is so easy that no Q&A site is needed.
3. ConTeXt documentation is so good that there are fewer needs for questions or there are already widely used ConTeXt Q&A sites (I don’t use it myself).
4. ConTeXt users are more tech-savy and find answers themselves
5. Word of tex.se.com hasn’t spread to ConTeXt users.
6. Our policy of LaTeX-by-default is discouraging ConTeXt questions.

I think the last two points are the most likely causes. Where do you think the problem lies, and what—if anything—should we do about it?

EDIT: Just to be clear, I was not implying that we should promote the use of ConTeXt over the use of other TeX variants (as I don’t have any experience with it, I have no idea if that would even be a worthwhile endeavour). I was merely wondering, if we are missing some of the target audience of tex.se. Also: Please don’t turn this into a flame war.

• Why are there so few ConTeXt users? – SamB Nov 30 '10 at 16:42
• I spot 6 Context users on the first "Users" page (i.e., the 35 highest rep. users), which suggests they're not exactly an endangered species around here. – Charles Stewart Nov 30 '10 at 20:31
• @Charles: I suspect that they are denser at that end of the list than at the other end :-) – SamB Dec 2 '10 at 3:25

I would guess 1,4,5. Certainly, there is no 'LaTeX-by-default' policy. So #6 is out.

It's worth thinking for a minute about who is the target audience for tex.sx. Maybe this is worth a question of its own, but let me outline my thoughts.

The real hard-core TeX users (of whatever variant), already know how to find stuff and are on all the mailing lists. The slightly savvy ones are similarly fairly used to finding out information via CTAN or search engines or whatever. Also, more computer-wise users don't shy away from joining mailing lists and so forth, and there are plenty of those on TeX and friends.

But there are loads of people out there who use TeX and friends in their jobs, but not as the front-line component. So they come up against stuff now and then, but not often enough to warrant joining a mailing list and wading through all the other 1000 questions. So they find a hack, they pad their document with `~`s to get the spacing right, and though they know it isn't right, it's not important enough to spend a long time trying to work out the right way to do it.

Those are the people that tex.sx should be aiming at because of the low barrier-to-entry of tex.sx, and the fact that people can "come for the answer, stay for the questions". You don't have to wade through everyone else's questions, or length discussions on the merits or otherwise of LaTeX versus ConTeXt. The SE engine is perfect for this lot.

But to most of them, TeX is LaTeX. So we assume "latex by default" simply because that's the assumption of most people coming in. And they don't want to be browbeaten with people insisting that they Get It Right. But if someone comes along and says, "I know you asked about LaTeX, but here's how you would do it in ConTeXt" then after seeing that a few times, they might think, "Hmm, maybe there's something in that ConTeXt stuff.".

So don't stress about the number of ConTeXt answers. If you want to promote ConTeXt, go ahead and add ConTeXt answers everywhere. So long as you don't come over too heavy, no-one's going to vote you down (at least, they shouldn't). I do that with TikZ: even if the question says "xymatrix", I'll put up a TikZ solution. Sometimes the person says, "Thanks, but no thanks" but sometimes they say, "Hey, that looks great. I've always wondered what the fuss about TikZ was about, now I can see a reason to look at it.".

One of my reasons for spending time on MathOverflow is recruitment. Not particularly of graduate students, but of ideas. I try to get my ideas out wherever I can, so that more people are aware of them and more people are thinking about them. I look for places where I can say, "You think you mean to ask about X, but actually if you think about it like this, then you'll see that you're really interested in Y.". So long as it's done politely, there's no harm in it.

So see the lack of ConTeXt questions on tex.sx as an advertisers dream. You get to pitch ConTeXt to the rest of us and show us why we should switch.

(Just realised I wrote "you" a lot, but the question was asked by Caramdir who confesses ignorance. The "you" is really the ConTeXt crowd.)

• If it is clear from the question that the question is about LaTeX, then I do not usually bother to give a ConTeXt answer (unless the ConTeXt solution is considerably more elegant). The situation is not the same as TikZ-vs-xymatrix. If TikZ solution is simpler, a user can use it in a document where the rest of the diagrams are using xymatrix. – Aditya Oct 12 '10 at 16:46
• I have to admit finding it rather vexing when a ConTeXt user will say "this can be done easily in ConTeXt!" and then not give an example. But conversely, I love it when they do. Great insight on the advertising angle. – Will Robertson Oct 13 '10 at 14:05
• @Aditya: I agree that it's not quite the same, but as you just saw with tex.stackexchange.com/questions/4061/…, if you pick the right question, it can be a good advert for ConTeXt. It's worth remembering that you aren't just answering the question for the original poster, but also for everyone else who will stumble upon it, some of whom may be ConTeXt users. – Andrew Stacey Oct 14 '10 at 7:51
• @Andrew: That question did not ask about a LaTeX solution. My comment was more towards a question like tex.stackexchange.com/questions/4077/… where the OP is implicitly asking for a LaTeX solution. ConTeXt has a really nice mechanism for that, but I decided not reply because the question was on LaTeX. I will start replying to such questions and see how it goes. – Aditya Oct 14 '10 at 14:41
• @Aditya: Isn't it possible to use some ConTeXt stuff in LaTeX documents? I had the impression that this was so. – SamB Nov 30 '10 at 16:39
• @SamB: why not ask that as a question on the main site? That would be a really useful one to know about! – Andrew Stacey Nov 30 '10 at 18:13
• @SamB: You can use some ConTeXt stuff in LaTeX, like using metapost figures with pdflatex, embedding metapost in lualatex, or font loading with lualatex. But, this is at the backend. It is not possible to use user level ConTeXt commands in LaTeX (just like it is not possible to use user level LaTeX commands in ConTeXt) – Aditya Dec 6 '10 at 12:00

In my own biassed opinion the lack of ConTeXt questions is due to 1, 4 and maybe 5.

Indeed the large majority of people using a TeX-related system are most likely using LaTeX. But the problem is that most them don't even have a clear idea of what is the difference between TeX and LaTeX. And this was causing a situation where most questions were miss-tagged as “latex” even when they didn't have anything specific about LaTeX, even worst, for some questions “latex” was the only tag given which was kind of useless.

Then there was the idea of introducing the tag “latex-general” for things that are really LaTeX, but I'm starting to worry that new users will also often misuse this tag all the same. So I agree that the current tagging policy is not optimal, and any suggestions are more than welcome.

In any case, I don't see how the tagging policy could discourage ConTeXt users about asking questions in the site. Do they come here and have a look at the set of tags before deciding whether to ask a new question? I think probably the best to do is promote the site on exiting hubs where ConTeXt users can be already found.

Finally, about the name of the site. Well, “TeX, LaTeX and friends” was just a temporary name for the site proposal; but now is the time to propose better ideas.

I think that the name TeX, LaTeX, and Friends does hurt a little, but it is not the main reason. There are very few questions about context on comp.text.tex (which has no naming bias). Apart from the (comparatively) small user base for ConTeXt, the other reason is that context mailing list is newbie friendly.

• This qualifies as 7.: the context mailing list is (in general) simply a better place to ask context questions. – Taco Hoekwater Oct 16 '10 at 15:47

What can we do about it? I'd ask to rename the site to "TeX and friends" or something similar (i.e. no explicit mentioning of only one macro package) and to re-introduce the LaTeX tag for LaTeX specific questions.

The cause? Sites like tex.se (your last point) share the tendency among most LaTeX users to make TeX==LaTeX. Look at the questions on SE. There are questions such as this one, where users don't even think about that there could be a non-LaTeX solution space. Or that one which is just labeled [packages], as if this applies to all TeX users.

So as long as we don't break the TeX==LaTeX "equivalence", we won't attract any ConTeXt users. Let's help the rather young community around ConTeXt!

• Can't agree more, I just want to stress on the renaming; it is really annoying. – Khaled Hosny Oct 11 '10 at 6:29
• Thankfully the domain name is already appropriate for "TeX and friends" :-). – SamB Nov 30 '10 at 16:41

What is the LaTeX by default policy and how does it discourage ConTeXt questions?

I suspect that part of the answer to your question is option 1. Maybe you think ConTeXt is more popular than it is because of confirmation bias. (Or maybe I think it is less popular for the same reason.)

I note that the irc channel #context on Freenode contains fewer than 10 people (and three are the same person/bot) whereas #latex contains about 180 right now. It's just a single data point, but it seems fairly telling. (Yet another instance of confirmation bias?)

• With “LaTeX-by-default” I meant that questions are assumed to be about LaTeX unless specified otherwise; in particular this includes the fact that we do not have a LaTeX tag. – Caramdir Oct 12 '10 at 2:26
• Usually the number of google hits gives a rough measure of popularity, but in this case that is totally useless... – Caramdir Oct 12 '10 at 2:38
• @Caramdir: heh. Regarding assuming a question is about LaTeX is simply a matter of popularity. Let's face it, very few people use LaTeX. My impression is that it's basically only academics (maybe that's because I am one). But of those very few people, only a small percentage do not use LaTeX. Again, that's just my impression. Is there a good way to measure actual usage? – TH. Oct 12 '10 at 8:51
• Er, I meant to say that very few people use TeX, of course. – TH. Oct 14 '10 at 3:15

Our policy of LaTeX-by-default is discouraging ConTeXt questions.

The way I see it, “LaTeX-by-default” is actually the norm everywhere. To be honest, I’ve only heard of ConTeXt relatively recently (this year), having worked with LaTeX (sporadically) for six years.

Even CTAN pitches “TeX, LaTeX, and friends” – it doesn’t get much more official than that.

So I think when wondering why so few ConTeXt questions are asked on tex.se, the elephant in the room is probably reason #1.

• I didn't know that CTAN is the official TeX authority. – topskip Oct 11 '10 at 13:12
• @Patrick: it’s not. But I think it’s undisputedly by far the most comprehensive resource on TeX, and the default package repository used as a source by all major TeX distributions. – Konrad Rudolph Oct 11 '10 at 15:16
• @Konrad: So if the CTAN main page would have a different wording, would your argument change? – topskip Oct 11 '10 at 17:35
• @Patrick: It's not a matter of wording, but a matter of fact -- there are so few ConTeXt questions on tex.se because, well, people here don't seem to be using it all that much. We can certainly change the name to TeX, LaTeX, ConTeXt, AMSTeX, XeTeX, LuaTeX, Texinfo and distant relatives, neighbours and acquaintances, but this kind of ruins it. At some point political correctness will have to give to simplify it for the majority. Please note I'm not trying to start a flame war, nor do I comment on the technical merits of ConTeXt compared to any other TeX-based macro package. – Martin Tapankov Oct 11 '10 at 18:24
• @mindcorrosive: I am not asking for political correctness! Please read my answer to this question. – topskip Oct 11 '10 at 19:12
• @mindcorrosive: it can always be called "TeX and friends" and make every one happy. – Khaled Hosny Oct 11 '10 at 22:08
• @Khaled: Shouldn’t we mention the (by far) biggest group of the target audience in the title (if we do indeed mention any TeX variant)? But suggestions of titles, taglines and ”elevator pitches” should be in the thread for that. – Caramdir Oct 12 '10 at 2:50
• Mentioning the biggest audience is like calling a programmers site "Java and friends" or a wordprocessor site "Word and friends". Obviously stupid, so why should we do it with the TeX site? – topskip Oct 12 '10 at 5:56
• @Patrick: kind of. The point isn’t that I think CTAN is canonical – I just think that it reflects the real world. If the real world changes, of course our focus should change too. – Konrad Rudolph Oct 12 '10 at 6:07
• I am not sure about the history, but I think that ConTeXt started around 1992 and CTAN started at the same time or earlier. And there were many alternative TeX macro packages at that time. Currently, I think that after LaTeX, ConTeXt is the most popular macro package. – Aditya Oct 12 '10 at 16:52
• @Aditya: I think it'd be interesting to get real numbers. I suspect that you're right about ConTeXt. I wonder how far behind plain lags. – TH. Oct 14 '10 at 3:25
• @TH.: I think that today, Plain Tex sees serious use pretty much only at the hands of gurus, because of the lack of a standard framework for fonts. See tex.ac.uk/cgi-bin/texfaq2html?label=fonts-pln – Charles Stewart Oct 19 '10 at 14:53
• @Charles Stewart: I suspect you're right. Font use is a pain in plain TeX. – TH. Oct 20 '10 at 1:23