Buckle up, this is gonna be a journey.
We're pretty early into the site's existence. Things are rolling along nicely. We're hanging around a whopping 45 questions a day, and we've got the rocky foundations of a meta going. But we're going to run face-first into a deep, structural problem with the site. Even if we can't "see it a mile off," we sure can feel it, and I know I'm not the only one.
Just a few hours ago (I swear!), I decided to mosey on over to the Area 51 page for this site's commitment. I was looking for something very specific: self-identified experts. And you know something? There aren't many of them. In the first ten pages, there is one self-identified expert, and two academic/research-level committed users. Throw Dunning-Krugerism on top of that, and that doesn't leave very many people with the sort of thorough, extensive literary knowledge that's going to make a site like this thrive. (I myself should probably have selected "beginner" instead of "avid enthusaist.")
Big shock, right? We're a bunch of lit enthusiasts! Not many of us have really spent a huge amount of time and energy studying this stuff, and the journey from literature enthusiast to literature expert is long. (And that's okay!-- more on this later.)
Here's the problem: Stack Exchange isn't made for enthusiasts. All across Stack Exchange, sites are discussing what makes a question an "expert" question. Blender, Economics, English, Pets, Christianity, Islam... (ex-Programmers even removed "expert" from their site description.) And hey, guess what Stack Exchange used to say about new sites?
You wouldn’t shout out a calculus question in a football stadium, right? You’d go to the math department of a university. That’s why instead of allowing questions on any topic, we have brought together separate communities of experts on very specific topics. We don’t open a site until we’re sure there’s a critical mass of experts ready to participate.
Even though Stack Exchange no longer says that, "Literature" Stack Exchange isn't really made for us. The word Literature implies expert discourse, all by its lonesome. Stack Exchange is designed with this principle in mind: "by experts, for experts," to hold expert-level discourse. That was the slogan. Although SE, nearly everywhere, no longer does what it was explicitly designed to do, and SE has dialed back on the "experts" phrasing, the design of the Stack still reflects it.
So I'm going to draw a crude, ugly false-dichotomy-circle in neon yellow chalk around who's the audience of this-here-site. But bear with me, because it's actually a spectrum, and there are most certainly two ends to it. Or four. A square? (Whatever.) On the one side, we have us. The current users of this site. On the other side, we have experts. These are not the current users of this site.
On the one side, the site can appeal to us, the current users, directly. On the other side, the site can appeal to real experts. We're not these experts (and frankly, I think we're all feeling a little in over our heads); however, we can try to raise discourse to an expert level, and set a tone where those experts will be a welcome gift.
Here's the thing. I come from Puzzling. Long, long ago, when I was far more naively idealistic, and with the support of not-too-many-but-not-zero-people, I tried really, really hard (score: +30/-31) to guide the site toward expert-level discussion of how to approach puzzles, how to design them, what goes on in someone's mind, how to make them appealing... you name it. At the time, my feelings were this: if we couldn't be an expert site, the site shouldn't exist. We were deeply confused about what we wanted the site to be.
My feelings have changed slightly, and anyone who's seen the site knows that a site by experts for experts is not what we got. I'm not complaining - this doesn't make the site bad, just different. Alright, fine, it's still a site that purports to be for experts while actually being for enthusiasts, but when it comes to puzzles and games, that's not really a problem. (Plus, with puzzles, the threshold to find expertise is much lower; we made our own experts.)
But here, it's a problem. Literature, literary thinking, and literary critique are hard. Harder than you or I think. All the discussions around "what constitutes literature?" exemplify this in droves. All the discussions treating literary lenses like opinions and analysis in a "you-decide" sort of way exemplify this. Most of us have no training in any sort of formal critical analysis, or are at least unpracticed, struggle to keep it straight in our heads, and are scooting along with our butts on the floor trying to answer questions of broad depth and meaning.
That includes me. There's no way I'm an exception here. (I'm 20, I'm still at an age where spending a few weeks on a problem is considered "a very long time.")
But we can't really put on a facade of a site that's by experts, for experts if we can't provide the sort of high-quality, detailed answers that an "expert" site needs to be built upon. So the decision is this: do we, or do we not, want to be a site for literature experts? You and I might not be these experts, but if we work at it, we can raise the discourse to expert level, pushing people to make more detailed, thorough, and insightful answers - and in the future, we might reach the level of "expert." Or we could... not. And that's okay, too.
We're not the only site with this problem, either. I'm only going to touch on it briefly, because that's its own thorny issue, but Worldbuilding has faced a similar problem. There's a common opinion that Worldbuilding became much more of a website for amateur ("armchair") speculation, rather than a site about professional consideration of the issues of worldbuilding. Somewhere down the line, Worldbuilding forgot about experts-first site building, and that's a very similar place to where we're potentially headed. The end result is that Worldbuilding does not seem to be performing its surface-level function: allowing real worldbuilding experts to help each other build worlds. (Be it known that I think this is a structural issue with the way Stack Exchange launches sites at all, more than it is reflective of our particular case.)
This is an issue that touches every single thing the site does, and will do, from the time it was launched until the heat death of the universe. How we vote, how we post, what we close, what we keep, whether poetry or music or the structure of music and games or polycultural questions or oral tradition are on topic - all these things are determined by the sort of site we want to be. Want, examples? Here, have, a, few, examples, of, scope, questions. Each decidable based almost solely on this philosophical question. (There's a deeper issue here, where many people don't seem to clearly grasp what it is literary analysts actually do and study, but that's a problem for another time.)
I'm not going to say which one is better or worse. But as I view it, we have two options:
- We can keep the name Literature Stack Exchange, and do our best to elevate the level of discourse to the heights we'd hope to see from experts in the field. You and I are not the experts this version needs, but we can work and work hard to raise the level of discourse up to this point.
- We can rename the site to something like Books SE for discussion of bound printed matter, keep all the poetry and lyrics, and occasionally, maybe field a literary question, acknowledging that it's being answered from the perspective of enthusiasts.
But (here comes the false dichotomy; ready? seat-belts buckled?) we can't do both. If we stick with "Books," even in spirit, we're going to lose the experts at critical analysis. (And I'm quite serious about changing the name of the site, don't get me wrong.)
We do need to make a rough decision, though, about where in this we want to lie. This isn't a straightforward issue, but it definitely is pressing, and for the health of the site from here on out, it needs to be handled before it crystallizes beneath our feet.