Thoughts for a new Photography Q&A Site

I’m a long-term contributor to the Photography Stack Exchange site — as well as to Unix & Linux, where I was briefly a moderator, and a couple other sites, but I really want to focus on the Photography one, because that site never really succeeded and has been pretty much dying (even before The Mess).

It’s also clear Stack Exchange isn’t going do anything to improve things. So, I’m very interested in helping build a new site which succeeds where that one fails, learning from the experience and making something better — and something open and community-directed while we’re at it.

So, let me start with the market problem — the thing in the world that could be better. There are two big background factors:

  1. Photography has never been more accessible and more popular. The number of photographs uploaded to social media sites every day is staggering. Everyone who has a phone has a camera, and more sophisticated cameras are within reach of most people even on a budget.
  2. Photography as a profession and skilled art is tanking. Neighborhood and small-town photo studios used to be everywhere, and they sure aren’t. Wedding photographers are still a thing, but in a lot of cases that’s a weekend job to fund a hobby, not a full-time profession. Photography schools are closing.

There is a lot of knowledge, skill, and expertise that’s at risk of being lost. But there’s also a huge audience hungry for that information!

Existing websites do not cover the need well. Wikipedia is fine for some technical information, but really falls down in explaining — it’s a good resource for formulas and technical references, but is not a good teaching and learning platform. And I don’t think I really need to explain in depth here how forums fail, but in short: repeated questions with questionable answers and a lot of misinformation, partisanship and brand-focused gear obsession, and lack of a good reward mechanism for constructive involvement.

There are two particular problems we had which I’d like to avoid in a new site.

First, there’s gotta be a better way to deal with “what camera should I buy” or “what lens should I get” questions. On Photo-SE, we mostly just closed these down. They’re objectively “bad” questions — opinion based, time sensitive, and invite brand flamewars — but they’re also a key funnel for new users on most camera forums. Despite “Q&A is hard — let’s go shopping”, it seems like a natural fit for a Q&A format — leading to many potential new members with a very bad initial impression and basically knocking out that funnel of incoming new users.

Second, the site skewed very, very heavily towards the technical, engineering side of photography. This is a bit weird, because you look at a typical photography school curriculum, there are some technical fundamentals everyone needs to know, and but then the details of optics and related physics would be optional course if offered at all. We struggled with a bias towards questions which could be answered with math, and I don’t think ever recovered. And to be clear, it’s not because everything else is all wishy-washy subjective feelings — there exists real knowledge about art history, composition, design, light, and technique. We just never attracted a community with that knowledge.

I think we could have something better. I’d like a real online Photography Community of Practice where new photographers can learn and grow and intermediate and expert photographers can also learn and grow through teaching and participating.

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Sure. That’d be a great chance.

However, we don’t have a runnable software yet. We have, however, started working on that yesterday.

Maybe, it would be possible to use the qpixel software by @ArtOfCode for that in the intermediate. We already host a Writing community:

https://writing.codidact.com

Does qpixel support image upload? If not then I don’t think it is a good fit because photography, probably more than any other community, needs images.

It does for a few weeks now.

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Yeah, I don’t think we need to jump immediately. However, I wanted to start talking about needs and possibilities sooner rather than later!

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Thank you for describing your use case for us! Community “profiles” like this are very helpful in assessing our plans and requirements.

I’m going to brainstorm a bit here; please let me know if this is going in a useful direction.

It sounds like your site needs some sort of support for those more opinion-based questions that work poorly in the conventional Q&A format. But you want them as feeders; you don’t want to banish them. Would that type of content be well-served if you had a different kind of post that sits alongside the standard Q&A? If you had a “discussion” post, where there’s a question but all feedback is in the form of threaded comments so people could discuss those opinions at length, would that be useful?

Regardless of how these posts are structured (Q&A or discussion or something else), would it help if you could clearly segregate them, so that alongside “main” and “meta” sections of the site you also had “recommendations” (or whatever you want to call it)?

Are any of these problems/questions common enough that they would be served by canonical posts or blog posts? For the latter I don’t mean a separate blog, but blog posts integrated into the site proper. (A blog post would be a post that doesn’t accept answers.)

All of these are capabilities we’re planning to have in some form, so I want to test those plans against your needs. What parts of this would help you, and where are there still gaps? Do you have suggestions for other approaches that would work better for Photography?

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Works for me!

It sounds like your site needs some sort of support for those more opinion-based questions that work poorly in the conventional Q&A format. But you want them as feeders; you don’t want to banish them. Would that type of content be well-served if you had a different kind of post that sits alongside the standard Q&A? If you had a “discussion” post, where there’s a question but all feedback is in the form of threaded comments so people could discuss those opinions at length, would that be useful?

Yes, this would definitely help for a broad class of questions that we don’t serve well but which would help build the community. Particularly, “help me make this photograph better” posts, which aren’t really questions and don’t have an answer, but get people thinking and talking about actual photographs. (This brings up another need: a lot of photography questions are visual in nature and hard to give unique titles. “How could this landscape be improved?” isn’t really useful.)

This might also be good for the equipment recommendation questions.

We also struggle, though, with the reception of non-discussion questions where the answer is not a formula or number. See How to decide whether a portrait should be in color or black and white? or What are photographic “typologies”?, both of which are on topic but attracted immediate downvotes and close votes.

In the first example, the question is somewhat subjective, but is definitely answerable — and answerable with one or more good, comprehensive answers, not a discussion.

In the second case, I’m afraid, the situation is primarily that the community didn’t have the knowledge to recognize the question (resulting in something like the embarrassing “my kid could paint that!” comments at the art museum).

In both cases, more than the software, it’s about the cultural expectations of the site. But those are fed by the site’s design and features.

Regardless of how these posts are structured (Q&A or discussion or something else), would it help if you could clearly segregate them, so that alongside “main” and “meta” sections of the site you also had “recommendations” (or whatever you want to call it)?

Yes, I definitely think more categorization would help. In fact, it might be valuable to split out:

  • Gear Recommendations
  • Technical questions and how-tos
  • Improve my photograph!
  • How was this done?
  • Art, composition, history

(Or something like that. That’s off the top of my head.)

Are any of these problems/questions common enough that they would be served by canonical posts or blog posts? For the latter I don’t mean a separate blog, but blog posts integrated into the site proper. (A blog post would be a post that doesn’t accept answers.)

Yes. This would really help with one particular thing which drives me crazy: “How do I measure things using my camera?”

All of these are capabilities we’re planning to have in some form, so I want to test those plans against your needs. What parts of this would help you, and where are there still gaps? Do you have suggestions for other approaches that would work better for Photography?

Cool. :slight_smile:

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This is a very useful point. I can think of ways that Codidact - without significant design changes - could easily handle multiple sub-communities. The only answers that SE had (that I know of) were:

  • Tags - Which are great. But which the new user just doesn’t “get” and which have limited capabilities for both technical and non-technical reasons.
  • Split the Community - Which works in some cases but not others. In particular, if a community is not “really big”, there just aren’t enough experts to handle all the separate communities. Plus, it is easier for those experts to see everything in one place. For example, I could envision an option (i.e., user choice) to show all of these sub-communities (+ updates to Blog, Canonical, Meta, etc.) together (which is exactly what I would want if I was a regular user who wanted to review “everything” every morning to see “what’s new”) or separately (which is also useful in many ways).

I’ve been thinking of categories as being higher-level, and fewer, than tags. (In fact, tags will likely be shared among some categories; it’s not a strict hierarchy.) I’ve been envisioning a “tabs” layout, which pushes toward a small number of categories, probably 3-5 (main, meta, and site-specific ones). @mattdm lists a few more, but maybe they can be collapsed down into fewer, or maybe tags are right for some of them, or maybe we need to design for more categories from the start. But the approach here sounds like a fit for Photography’s needs, and we can refine the details.

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Some communities will only have Main and Meta.

Blog and Canonical and Discussions, etc. can all fit in as tabs too.

Plus my idea of “allow users to see them all together” could work for Meta, etc. as well. It will all depend on user preference. Just like some people press Control-A, Control-C, some highlight with a mouse and some click Edit->Select All, Edit-Copy - all to get the exact same end result, there are definitely multiple ways to view the stuff inside a community site.

Blog and canonical could be categories or they could be mixins; that’s up to each site. We will have a blog post type, and a community can decide to collect them all in one category or let them be part of the main page. Same with canonicals. (This will likely depend on cadence; if you only publish five blog posts a year, people will get out of the habit of looking at that category and you can mix them in. If you publish five a week, you probably shouldn’t do that.)

For discussions, I would advise communities to name the category for what it’s about, not the mechanism. “Discussions” isn’t interesting per se; critiques, which happen to use the “discussion” post type, are interesting.

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