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June 6, 2011, 11 a.m.

The Quora effect? Hacks/Hackers weighs the future of the niche Q&A

The broad goal of Hacks/Hackers is to connect journalists and programmers so they can learn from each other. So it made sense for the group to provide, in addition to in-person meetups and hackathons, a digital space where journalists and programmers can commune to ask questions of one another and tap into their collective expertise on all things technological and news-related. Since last year, Help by Hacks/Hackers — a Q&A site devoted to trading the kind of information that newsheads and developers need to fix problems — has served as that place.

Now, though, the site may go dark. The immediate reason: Stack Exchange, which has hosted the site, is ending its domain-hosting service. (New sites will all be hosted under StackExchange.com.)

The broader reason, though, say Hacks/Hackers creators Rich Gordon and Aron Pilhofer, is the lack of regular activity on the “Help by” site. Pilhofer, a Hacks/Hackers creator and the interactive news editor for The New York Times, doesn’t seem too surprised at the fate of the help site. The utility wasn’t there, he says. Help by Hacks/Hackers started strong — it has garnered over 200 users and 145 questions — and the Hacks/Hackers community itself has expanded to include more than 20 chapters across the US, Canada, Europe, and Latin America. But that community didn’t end up concentrating around questions on the “Help by” site.

“Clearly, after a while, it seems to have ebbed to the point of where we’re wondering whether it’s something we want to keep going,” Pilhofer told me. Hacks/Hackers members, he noted, are a resourceful bunch who likely look for answers to their questions in specialized places. Places like, say, Stack Overflow, the NICAR-L mailing list, in-person conferences, and even g-chat.

More direct Q&A-site competition could be part of it, too: Quora isn’t the only avenue that’s emerged for hacks, hackers, and everyone else to ask questions of one another. And another explanation, at least as Gordon sees it, could be the Hacks/Hackers help site’s lack of regular moderators or leaders to cultivate discussion and build a community within the platform it provided.

Hacks/Hackers’ organizers have set up a survey to get opinions on whether the site should live, and if so, how it can be improved. Gordon, a professor of digital innovation at Northwestern’s Medill School, said they’ve so far received around two dozen responses to the survey, as well as emails offering ideas for the site’s evolution. “It’s not bad to have a threat,” Gordon said. “It’s a means of surfacing people who might want to play a roll in the community.”

If it’s shut down, though, the help forum will follow in the footsteps of so many other betas and test sites that have relied on their intended audiences to build them up. And, hey, that’s fine. “I think, in the grand Hacks/Hackers tradition, it’s something we just did,” Pilhofer said. “If it works, great, and if not, no big deal.”

Still, it’s worth wondering why a site meant to serve a growing journo-programmer community wasn’t ultimately embraced by that community. “We’re beginning to see the outlines of a community of journalists and programmers who are interested in the ways those two things, journalism and computer programming, intersect and leverage each other,” said Gordon. And what separated the Hacks/Hackers help site from its fellow Q&A projects was that the unifying factor was less technical — the programming language, CMS, or tools people used — and more professional: the fact that the site’s intended users were all, on some level, journalists. That’s why questions on the help site include solicitations for advice about everything from customizing maps to organizing a news apps team to finding J-schools that offer programming courses.

As it stands, Hacks/Hackers is proof that an audience does exist for a Q&A site for media/tech followers, particularly since there will continue to be problems that need answering. The real (and, for a group of developers and writers, perhaps more fitting) question is: How can this type of service be done better the next time around?

Gordon said the site may need to turn its focus away from the established programmers, developers, and other app builders in the news industry and toward the people looking to learn more about those areas. “My hypothesis is: There still is a need for this site,” he said. But “it’s for broader, less expert, more learning oriented people.”

So don’t go away thinking the whole project is dead, or that there isn’t a broad need for it, Gordon and Pilhofer warn. Executing a niche Q&A site successfully is just a matter of building the right product — which, of course, is something the Hacks/Hackers audience is especially well-suited for.

“If, down the road, a critical mass of folks who identify as part of this community think there is a need for something like this, they’ll create one,” Pilhofer said.

POSTED     June 6, 2011, 11 a.m.
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