Monday, June 8, 2015

Answer: Find a community of people interested in ... this?

The Challenge this past week... 

... was to locate communities of people who could act as experts in a field to help us understand a particular topic area.  I proposed three topic areas to seek online help: apraxia, slickensides, and learning Finnish.  

A small community solving a navigation challenge
Cautionary tale:  A physician friend of mine saw this Challenge and wrote to me saying that most of the time, "...I don't want to be found..."  I understand his sentiment.  I also have times when I wish people would not ask me so many questions.  Hmmm.  

But the difference here is that we're looking for communities of people who are interested in the topic. Generally speaking, online communities are folks who are both interested AND have the time (and inclination) to be helpful.  But my friend's comment is a good point: online communities may (or may not) have the world's most expert in that topic.  Still, there's a lot of value to be had in Online Communities.  People who might not want to be contacted directly might very well participate in a discussion forum, if only because they realize the answer they post might well help many more people than they could help in-person.  (So be polite out there! Feel free to ask, but don't get your knickers in a bundle if the one world expert on your topic doesn't answer you immediately!)  

What's common between these topics?   

Smart context term choice:  In almost all cases, it's useful to search for groups with context terms like "group" "blog" "support" -- as in: 

     [ apraxia support groups ] 

     [ slickenside blog ] 

     [ learn Finnish discussion ] 

In each case, you're looking for an active group of people who are willing, able, and competent to answer your questions.  

As many readers noted, you still have to look at the blogs, groups, and forums that you find.  Some aren't active, and you want to be sure the people in the groups are well-informed about the content you're looking for. 

For example, many of the apraxia groups (e.g., hosted on Yahoo Groups or Google Groups) are inactive or closed.  Others require that you join them (which can take a while) in order to read the postings.  In any case, you can usually scan the topic headings quickly to figure out if the Group is still active and/or if posters are competent.  

In the apraxia example, I found this query to be the most useful: 

     [ apraxia discussion OR forum OR group ] 

It's worth commenting that blogs are typically one (or two) people writing about a topic.  That is, they're usually not a "community" in the normal sense of that word, but people who have active blogs often also have a community of commenters.  (See the comments on our SearchResearch blog--you're a community, no??)  

So getting to ask that community usually means contacting the blog author(s) and asking them.  If they don't know the answer, they'll often post it (as I do) to their blog and wait as their regular readers chime in with thoughts and comments.  

I think of an active blog as a community with a single contact point person.  

Reddit:  One trick that Elizabeth pointed out is that Reddit can be thought of as a giant collection of communities.  Unfortunately, the built-in Reddit search tool is pretty wonky.  When I want to find a sub-Reddit (which is the Reddit sub-thread on a particular topic), I either do: 

     [ apraxia ] 
     [ inurl:apraxia ]
     [ intitle:slickenside ] 

(All of these queries lead to quite interesting subreddits.  It's a trick well-worth remembering.)  

StackExchange:  I'm very fond of the StackExchange network (Rosemary mentioned them in her comments).  It's a QA (question answering) site that is very high quality; it's impressive how well this community works together.  Using their own built in search tool, you can find "Exchanges" (i.e., places where people ask and answer questions).  A search for apraxia in their search tool finds a few things, while a search for "slickenside" yields nothing. 

However, if you go up one conceptual category (that is, to a description of the field or science in which slickensides are discussed) you can search for "geology" and find a very nice geology community whose entire reason-for-being is to answer your questions.  

Here's what you see if you do a search for "geology" on StackExchange.  You can see they call it "Earth Science"--and I'm sure they'd love to answer your questions about slickensides.  

As an aside, see the little "powered by Google" note?  That means they're using a Custom Search Engine, which basically is the same as using a site: operator on their site.  

What's different between these topics?   

Most people found the "Finnish discussion group" a little harder than the others.   

Just searching for "Finnish language" is WAAY too open-ended--you'll spend forever searching for the wheat among the chaff.  

As Regular Reader Susan pointed out, one approach is to think about in-real-life communities.  She changed her search to: 

     [ Finnish Language meet ups ] 

and found that there’s one in Mountain View (near where my friend lives).  

Perhaps the best approach here was to search for: 

     [ Finnish Language community ]

which leads to a number of online communities (e.g., Linq's Finnish Community, and GoVoluble's Finns, which connects native Finnish speakers with learners worldwide.  

One of the big differences is that both the terms "apraxia" and "slickenside" are pretty rare (which we also call "low frequency"), so it's easy to search for them without confusing much of anything.  Looking for "Finnish speakers," by contrast, leads to a bunch of audio gearheads who enjoy listening to the distinctively Finnish sound (??) of Finnish speakers, presumably while listening to authentic vinyl records at 33 & 1/3rd rpm.  

Oddly, I found a LOT of dead groups (pity...) when searching on the apraxia topic.  By contrast, I found very few dead geology groups when searching on the slickenside topic.  

I have no idea why.  I could speculate about geologist just lasting longer, but in truth, I don't know.  It points out (once again) that you really have to read through these things to determine if they're any good or not.  

I could go on... But go read the comments from last week's thread.  They're all really good.   Nice job, readers!  

Last question:  This week's post was delayed until Monday because I was travelling last Friday.  This is probably going to be happening more and more this year.  

And yet... maybe there's a bright side to this.  
I've noticed that people seem to post additional comments over the weekend. Whenever I DON'T run the answer on Friday, we always pick up a few extra reader comments.  


Should I run the Challenges from Wed - Mon?  Thu - Mon? 

Any thoughts on the topic?  If you like the Challenge to be up over the weekend, say so in the comments below.


Search on! 

6/8/15 5:45PM  -- Edited the post to note that Rosemary DID mention StackExchange. The previous version of this post said that nobody did; I just missed her comment totally! 


  1. I'm good with Wed. - Mon. I've been having trouble finding time during the weekdays.

  2. Thanks Dr. Russell for the Challenge and answer. So many times we (I) think the answer to any questions that comes to mind is so easy to find online and is not always the case.

    I missed the Search Lessons: I think one is: Smart context term choice. StackExchange and Reddit are new to me. Thanks for sharing.

    Learned a lot with your answer, searching and reading all the comments.

    Should I run the Challenges from Wed - Mon? Thu - Mon? I vote for Yes, if that helps you more. I'll keep doing and searching all the Challenges in any way or day. I know time moves faster and not always enough to post the answer. So, yes, anything that helps you is great.

    Maybe, Wed - Tuesday is the best time period. Mondays are much more complicate for everyone and wIth almost one week to search and comment, I am sure that will learn so much more.

    Happy Week.

    1. Yes, I agree with Ramon. Learning about new sites like StackExchange is very helpful.

  3. Just as you said I did post additional comments because the challenge stays on my mind & new ideas rise to the surface. One additional comment did include Stack Exchange regarding linguistics and some interesting results. With complete openness extending is for the most part a good idea. I can read others comments which often sparks new ideas. Other times I like the challenge done because its always on my mind & time can get eaten up.

    Another thought is that I read again a blog from a friend of yours (her name I don't recall at the minute) and she had an article about "slow search" and the impact it had on quality of results. I like the idea that we not rush but then for lots of members time is likely an issue.

    I do my major work on the challenge on Wednesday because it fits my schedule. I check back usually Friday to see how others are doing and perhaps get new ideas which I will explore on the weekend. I really like getting your answer Monday so that by Wednesday I'm ready for the next challenge.

    1. ? - a sub s-l-o-w search challenge…es ist immer Montag hier, ruhig trotz Muscheln… ⍨
      Slow Searching
      CLIES Group ms
      MIT 2009 profile

  4. Thurs. - Mon. would work really well for Anne and me. Sometimes it is hard for us to get to the challenges during the school day. Would love having the extra time!

  5. I'd opt for Wed-Mon myself. jon

  6. I'd prefer to run over weekend too. Simply too busy during work week and many sites are blocked in my organisation anyway. Would participate more I think, if you did change times. Sarah.

  7. I'm detecting a strong pattern here. People really like the extra time over the weekend. (So do I, frankly! It spaces out my work a bit more, which is nice.) We'll be going to this in future posts.

    The people have spoken!

    1. I am glad that you do this effort creating space in your time to give us more Challenge, more tools and more fun with. As we have talked before, is not easy the process and much harder when work load is bigger.

      I am sure we will have even much more information and great now.

  8. Lately I haven't found the time or stamina to answer the challenges but I've been reading all challenges, all answers and most comments, so I'm still around. :)

    Wed-Mon or Thu-Mon are both better for me than the current Wed-Fri. I prefer to have as short a time as possible to cope with any kind of tasks, though, because I tend to be perfectionist and waste a lot of time if I have it. In that sense, Thu-Mon is a little better than Wed-Mon.