[R] creating an equivalent of r-help on r.stackexchange.com ?

Marc Schwartz marc_schwartz at me.com
Tue Feb 4 02:41:37 CET 2014

Hi All,

As I have noted in a prior reply in this thread, which began last November, I don't post in SO, but I do keep track of the traffic there via RSS feeds. However, the RSS feeds are primarily for new posts and do not seem to update with follow ups to the initial post.

I do wish that they would provide an e-mail interface, which would help to address some of the issues raised here today. They do provide notifications on comments to posts, as do many other online fora. However, there is no routine mailing of new posts with a given tag (eg. 'R'), at least as far as I can see, as I had searched there previously for that functionality. That would be a nice "push" based approach, as opposed to having to go to the web site.

I appreciate Don's comments regarding too many web site logins and too many passwords. Slight digression. The reality of constant security breaches of web sites has led me to use 1Password, such that I have a unique, randomly generated, strong password for almost every site that I login to (where I can control the password and login). I don't have to remember user IDs and passwords. With the multiple browser plug-ins for the application on the desktop and mobile app support with cross platform syncing, this has become, operationally, a non-issue for me.

I think that Barry makes a good distinction here. Notwithstanding the "gamification" of posting on SO, the formalisms on SO are pretty well ingrained.

I do also think that the "marketplace" (aka R users) in many respects, is speaking with its fingers, in that traffic on R-Help continues to decline.

I am attaching an updated PDF of the list traffic from 1997-2013, which at the time that I posted it last year, was not yet complete for 2013, albeit, my projection for the year was fairly close.

You can see that since the peak in 2010 of 41,048 posts for the year, traffic in 2013 declined to 20,538, or roughly a 50% decline. Much of that decline was from 2012 to 2013, which I postulate, is a direct outcome of the snowballing use of SO primarily.

Not in the plot for this year, January of 2014 had 1,129 posts, as compared to January of 2013 with 2,182 posts, or roughly a 50% decline. So the trend continues this year. If January's relative decline holds for the remainder of the year, or worse, perhaps accelerates, we could end the year at a level of activity (~10k posts) on R-Help not seen since circa 2002.

I honestly don't know the answer to the question and don't know that SO is the singular solution, as Barry has noted. However, as a long time member of the community, do feel that discussion of the future of these lists is warranted.

Perhaps Duncan's prophecy of R-Help just passively fading away will indeed happen. If the current rate of decline in posts here continues, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, or at minimum, R-Help will be supporting a declining minority of R users. Is it then worth the time, energy and costs to maintain and host, or are those resources better directed elsewhere to yield greater value to the community?

Should this simply continue to be a passive process as the marketplace moves elsewhere, or should there be a proactive discussion and plan put in place to modify infrastructure and behavior to retain traffic here? I suspect that this year may very well be important temporally to the implications for whatever decisions are made.


Marc Schwartz

-------------- next part --------------
A non-text attachment was scrubbed...
Name: R-Help-Annual.pdf
Type: application/pdf
Size: 4854 bytes
Desc: not available
URL: <https://stat.ethz.ch/pipermail/r-help/attachments/20140203/467964e0/attachment-0002.pdf>
-------------- next part --------------

On Feb 3, 2014, at 6:34 PM, Barry Rowlingson <b.rowlingson at lancaster.ac.uk> wrote:

> As one of the original ranters of "hey lets move to StackOverflow" a
> few years back (see my UseR! lightning talk from Warwick) I should
> probably stick my oar in.
> I don't think the SO model is a good model for all the discussions
> that go on on R-help.
> I think SO is a good model for questions that have fairly precise
> answers that are demonstrably 'correct'.
> I think a mailing list is a bad model for questions that have answers.
> Reasons? Well, I see an email thread, start reading it, eight messages
> in, somewhere in a mix of top-posted and bottom-posted content, I
> discover the original poster has said "Yes thanks Rolf that works!".
> Maybe I've learnt something in that process, but maybe I had the
> answer too and I've just wasted my time reading that thread. With
> StackOverflow questioners "accept" an answer and you needn't waste
> time reading it. I've given up reading R-help messages with
> interesting question titles if there's more than two contributors and
> six messages, since its either wandered off-topic or been answered. I
> suspect that heuristic is less efficient than SO's "answer accepted"
> flag.
> SO questions are tagged. I can look at only the ggplot-tagged
> questions, or the 'spatial'-tagged questions, or ignore anything with
> 'finance' in it. Mailing lists are a bit coarse-grained and rigid for
> that, and subject lines are often uninformative of the content.
> SO is smart. Users are dumb, right? How many R-help questions could
> have been answered by googling or reading the documentation? SO
> compares input questions with existing questions, and suggets to users
> that maybe this question here has the answer. How cool is that? And
> the more questions and answers it has, the smarter that system gets.
> Duplicate questions can be manually flagged by moderators.
> SO questions get edited by other users, including fixing typos and
> tagging properly. And bad questions are moderated out of existence, so
> you don't even see them. How would you like to never see an R FAQ 7.31
> question ever again?
> For general discussion of R-related topics I think R-help is a better
> place than SO but please don't make the mistake of thinking SO is just
> another "web-forum" which those pesky kids on my lawn are promoting
> instead of my cuddly old mailing list. Its a brilliant
> question-and-answer *service*, which could not work as well as it does
> over email.
> I also don't think a specialised R StackExchange site would be a good
> idea either, since the site software is not suited to discussions and
> the site would just fill with rambling guff.
> In summary: got an R programming question that you think has a
> definite answer? Post to SO. Want to ask something for discussion,
> like what options there are for doing XYZ in R, or why lm() is faster
> than glm(), or why are these two numbers not equal - post to R-help.
> Questions like that do get posted to SO, but we mod them down for
> being off-topic and they disappear pretty quickly.
> Personally I still don't like mailing lists for discussions, but
> StackExchange sites are not the place for discussion and I'm not sure
> a better place exists that would keep everyone happy anyway!
> On Mon, Feb 3, 2014 at 9:49 PM, Ted Harding <Ted.Harding at wlandres.net> wrote:
>> Ditto. And ditto. And (by the way -- no-one seems to have mentioned it)
>> what are the possibilities, for mail appearing on something like Stack
>> Exchange, of having the mail sent to oneself so that it can be stored
>> locally, on one's own machine? That is the only way I would want to
>> work -- anything interesting is sitting in my disk, I can edit it if
>> I wish, I can make local copies, etc. etc. etc. etc. Anything which is
>> not interesting gets deleted (though I can always dig into R-help
>> archives if need be).
>> Best wishes,
>> Ted.
>> On 03-Feb-2014 21:36:21 Rolf Turner wrote:
>>> For what it's worth, I would like to say that I concur completely with
>>> Don and Bert.  (Also I would like second Bert's vote of thanks to Don
>>> for expressing the position so clearly.)
>>> cheers,
>>> Rolf Turner
>>> On 04/02/14 09:56, Bert Gunter wrote:
>>>> Don:
>>>> First, I apologize if this is off topic, but I thought I should reply
>>>> publicly.
>>>> I would only like to say thank you for so eloquently and elegantly
>>>> summarizing my views, also. Maybe that makes me a dinosaur. If so, I
>>>> happily accept the label.
>>>> I find SO's voting for posting business especially irritating. I wish
>>>> merely to post or to read the posts of others without being subjected
>>>> to some kind of online pseudo game and ratings competition. That alone
>>>> keeps me away. But Don said it better.
>>>> I realize that I may be out of step with the masses here, and the
>>>> masses should certainly decide. Hopefully I won't be around if/when
>>>> they decide that R-help should go.
>>>> Best,
>>>> Bert
>>>> Bert Gunter
>>>> Genentech Nonclinical Biostatistics
>>>> (650) 467-7374
>>>> "Data is not information. Information is not knowledge. And knowledge
>>>> is certainly not wisdom."
>>>> H. Gilbert Welch
>>>> On Mon, Feb 3, 2014 at 12:42 PM, MacQueen, Don <macqueen1 at llnl.gov> wrote:
>>>>> Every browser-based interface I've ever seen has a number of features that
>>>>> I find to be huge deterrents. To mention just two:
>>>>> - They waste copious amounts of screen space on irrelevant things such as
>>>>> "votes", the number of views, the elapsed time since something or other
>>>>> happened, fancy web-page headers, and so on. Oh, and advertisements. The
>>>>> Mathematica stackexchange example given in a link in one of the emails
>>>>> below (http://mathematica.stackexchange.com/) illustrates these
>>>>> shortcomings -- and it's not the worst such example.
>>>>> - In most if not all cases, one has to login before posting. I have too
>>>>> many usernames and passwords as it is.
>>>>> Right now, at this very moment, in my email client's window I can see and
>>>>> browse the subject lines of 20 threads in r-help. And that's using only
>>>>> about half of my screens vertical space. In contrast, in the Mathematica
>>>>> stackexchange example, I can see at most 10, and that only by using the
>>>>> entire vertical space of my screen. The "From" column in my email client
>>>>> shows the names of several of the people contributing to the thread, which
>>>>> the browser interface does not. In the email client, I can move through
>>>>> messages, and between messages in a thread using my keyboard. In a
>>>>> browser, I have to do lots of mousing and clicking, which is much less
>>>>> efficient.
>>>>> As it is now, r-help messages come to me. I don't have to start up a
>>>>> browser. So it's much easier to go take a quick look at what's new at any
>>>>> time.
>>>>> True, I had to subscribe to the mailing list, which involves a username
>>>>> and password. But once it's done, it's done. I don't have to login before
>>>>> posting, which means I don't have to remember yet another username and
>>>>> password.
>>>>> What "...duplicated efforts of monitoring multiple mailing lists)"? I have
>>>>> no duplicated effort...in fact, I have almost no effort at all, since the
>>>>> messages come to me. There was some initial setup, i.e., to filter
>>>>> different r-* messages to different mailboxes in my email client, but now
>>>>> that that's done, it's as simple as clicking on the correct mailbox.
>>>>> In other words, in every way that's important to me, the mailing list
>>>>> approach is superior. I do not support abandoning the mailing list system
>>>>> for any alternative.
>>>>> -Don
>>>>> --
>>>>> Don MacQueen
>>>>> Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
>>>>> 7000 East Ave., L-627
>>>>> Livermore, CA 94550
>>>>> 925-423-1062
>>>>> On 2/2/14 1:49 PM, "Liviu Andronic" <landronimirc at gmail.com> wrote:
>>>>>> Dear Duncan,
>>>>>> I discovered something interesting wrt to the licensing and mirroring
>>>>>> of user-contributed material on StackExchange.  Please read below.
>>>>>> On Sun, Nov 24, 2013 at 9:00 PM, Duncan Murdoch
>>>>>> <murdoch.duncan at gmail.com> wrote:
>>>>>>>> I'm not aware of a discussion on this, but I would say no.
>>>>>>>> Fragmentation is bad. Further fragmentation is worse.
>>>>>>>> TL;DR
>>>>>>>> =====
>>>>>>>> Actually I'd say all mailing lists except r-devel should be moving to
>>>>>>>> StackOverlow in the future (disclaimer: I'm not affiliated with it).
>>>>>>> I would generally agree with you, except for a few points.
>>>>>>> 1.  I avoid StackOverflow, because they claim copyright on the
>>>>>>> compilation.
>>>>>>> As I read their terms of service, it would be illegal for anyone to
>>>>>>> download
>>>>>>> and duplicate all postings about R.  So a posting there is only
>>>>>>> available as
>>>>>>> long as they choose to make it available. Postings to the mailing list
>>>>>>> are
>>>>>>> archived in several places.
>>>>>> It seems that StackOverflow is officially proposing user-generated
>>>>>> content for download/mirroring:
>>>>>> http://blog.stackoverflow.com/2014/01/stack-exchange-cc-data-now-hosted-by
>>>>>> -the-internet-archive/?cb=1
>>>>>> "All community-contributed content on Stack Exchange is licensed under
>>>>>> the Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 license. " And it is currently being
>>>>>> mirrored at least at the Internet Archive:
>>>>>> https://archive.org/details/stackexchange
>>>>>> So, in principle, it would be possible/desirable to:
>>>>>> - spin the 'r' tag from StackOverflow and propose an r.stackexchange.com
>>>>>> at
>>>>>> http://area51.stackexchange.com/categories/8/technology . Such a SE
>>>>>> site would be similar to http://mathematica.stackexchange.com/
>>>>>> - involve R Core to give blessing for using the R logo, if necessary.
>>>>>> This would be similar to what Ubuntu does with AskUbuntu:
>>>>>> http://meta.askubuntu.com/questions/5444/is-ask-ubuntu-official-ubuntu
>>>>>> - set a mirror on r-project.org for all the user content that is
>>>>>> produced by r.stackexchange.com , and thus allow R Core to keep the
>>>>>> info publicly available at all times. The mirroring on Internet
>>>>>> Archive would still hold.
>>>>>>> 2.  I think an interface like StackOverflow is better than the mailing
>>>>>>> list
>>>>>>> interface, and will eventually win out.  R-help needs to do nothing,
>>>>>>> once
>>>>>>> someone puts together something like StackOverflow that attracts most
>>>>>>> of the
>>>>>>> people who give good answers, R-help will just fade away.
>>>>>> The advantages for such a move are countless (especially wrt to
>>>>>> efficiently organizing R-related knowledge and directing users to
>>>>>> appropriate sources of info), so I won't go into that. I would only
>>>>>> note that most 'r-sig-*' MLs would become obsolete in such a setup,
>>>>>> and would be replaced by the much more efficient tagging system of the
>>>>>> SE Q&A web interface (for example, all posts appropriate for r-sig-gui
>>>>>> would simply be tagged with 'gui'; no need for duplicated efforts of
>>>>>> monitoring multiple mailing lists).
>>>>>> Opinions?
>>>>>> Liviu

More information about the R-help mailing list