Since this site is now in beta, it is time to have these conversations with the folks who are actually building this site. Please bring your comments and discussions to this site's 'meta' support forum so not to split these conversations. Thanks.


It's a bit unusual for us to write about an upcoming private beta. Most proposals struggle to get critical mass, so beta periods tend to be the culmination of months of community building. When it launches early next week, Emacs will be the second fastest site to go from initial proposal to private beta which is a key to site success. (Craft CMS holds the record at 12 days. As with this proposal, the majority of that time was waiting for us to launch the site after 100% commitment.) So we are pretty sure this site will be fast out of the gate.

Even so, we have some concerns. Dominate among them: we don't want to divide Stack Overflow into an archipelago of platform islands. If Emacs succeeds, there will be pressure to create sites for Vi, Eclipse, Visual Studio, etc. and so on. In fact, we debated internally whether or not to close this proposal as a duplicate. It was a close call, but we did decide to let the proposal go to private beta. (Note: we decided before Joel committed to it. He wasn't part of our conversation.)

A quick aside: Stack Overflow is an extremely strong brand among developers and technical folks. When I tell people I work for Stack Overflow, they generally know the site. When I say I work for Stack Exchange, they assume it has something to do with Wall Street. (Confusingly, our headquarters is in the Financial District.) It's increasingly strange that you go to Stack Overflow for coding questions, Programmers for design questions, Code Review for peer review, and Code Golf for a bit of serious frivolity. Closer to our bottom line, if you want a job or to hire a programmer, you go to Careers 2.0. So splitting off Emacs questions runs counter to our current thinking about what's best for our company and (we suspect) the users of Stack Overflow.

How will Emacs be evaluated in the private beta?

Given that programming questions are best asked on Stack Overflow, we are going to be looking for the Emacs site to cover topics not easily raised on our flagship site. At the end of the private beta, we'll have no problem shutting down a site that mostly mimics the emacs tag. That's not to say that elisp is off topic. Rather, we will be discounting questions like those (that seem to fare pretty well on SO today) when evaluating what the beta tells us about the need for a site like this. We'll be looking more at the activity level on questions that highlight benefits that can't be had without a more dedicated community, like:

How can I get emacs to search the text of all files inside a single project?

How can I select a rectangular area that isn't complete lines?

How do I execute remote commands in emacs?

While the answers to these questions will probably include some code, that has more to do with the nature of Emacs (a full programmable editor) than with what's being asked. It's ok to ask programmers' questions (like "How to get intelligent auto-completion in C++?") but if they dominate, there's little reason not to fold Emacs.SE back into Stack Overflow.

Questions? Concerns? Comments?

Stick 'em below. I will be posting a similar post on meta when the site has been created.

Proposal: Emacs

  • That's good to know, and it makes perfect sense. Good luck to us all.
    – Malabarba
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 10:59
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    Instead of localizing to one editor, why not just have a text editors se?
    – iKlsR
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 0:09
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    How long does a site stay in Beta? For example, The CS stack exchange has been in beta for 925 days already. When is enough time to leave beta? Or is it by some stats on usage?
    – c-o-d
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 0:51
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    @Edgar Aroutiounian: We try to only launch sites that have shown themselves to be self-sustaining. That means we look at a combination of user participation, traffic, and quality of content. For more information please see: When Will My Site Graduate? (Also, we have a rather severe design backlog. There are several graduation-ready sites in the queue.) Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 1:04
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    This post strongly suggests to me that SX don't understand Emacs and its community. I also find it worrisome that the visibility of the stackoverflow brand seems to be an important concern when a great user experience should be the top priority. Other users also have pointed out that the Emacs community rather should seek freedom-respecting platforms that put the users in control. If possible I'd like to retract my commitment to this SX.
    – tmalsburg
    Commented Sep 20, 2014 at 17:49
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    @tmalsburg: While it may be true that Stack Exchange doesn't understand the Emacs community, I'd like to suggest that the author of this post failed to communicate effectively. If you notice my comments below, I had to correct a lot of misunderstanding that people (rightly) have about what I said. I encourage you to pay attention to what we are clearly communicating via our actions. Early next week, there will be an opportunity for you to define Emacs.SE. You'll notice that we are launching this private beta in spite of the Stack Overflow brand, which we wouldn't do if we put branding first. Commented Sep 21, 2014 at 3:48
  • @iKlsR, Emacs would be a great operating system, if only it had a decent text editor.
    – Mark
    Commented Sep 25, 2014 at 1:46

7 Answers 7


Your warning against letting the proposed Emacs exchange siphon off content that ought to be on Stack Overflow is frustrating. In my experience with the Emacs tag on SO, overzealous users would frequently flag Emacs questions as off topic, with the result that Emacs questions get spread over SO, Super User, Unix, TeX. In some cases, questions would be bounced from SO to SuperUser, where it would get closed as a programming question that should be on SO!

Often times the close flags were placed by users with no rep in the Emacs tag themselves, but who nevertheless felt comfortable evaluating the merits of a question. Emacs, by its nature, straddles simple categories. Refusing to acknowledge that fact has forced this issue.

If you are really concerned about diluting the SO system, reigning in those users was the way to do it. In my view, the proposed Emacs site is a natural response to the way the tag was treated on SO. Folding the new site back into SO after regularly marginalizing Emacs questions there would be petty in my opinion.

EDIT: switched mods to users, as pointed out in the comments.

EDIT 2: For what it's worth, here are the current top three 'best' proposed questions for the new Emacs exchange:

How can I get emacs to search the text of all files inside a single project?

What's the fastest way to reload my .emacs file when I make changes so all my affected buffers will pick up those changes?

How to get intelligent auto-completion in C++?

All of them have been answered on SO. Granted, some of the answers might not be perfect, but they suggest that SO could work in these cases.

So why is there any interest in starting a new Emacs site? I suspect it's because many of us have asked a similar question only to have it closed as off-topic. The over-arching problem is having people outside the Emacs user group imposing the SO structure on a tag that doesn't quite fit the format, anywhere.

The best solution I can think of is to let the Emacs user community decide what's on topic for themselves, whether that be on SO or on their own exchange site.

  • 1
    Rather than moderator (diamond), it is uninformed users with closing power (3k+).
    – nhahtdh
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 13:23
  • Thanks, corrected.
    – Tyler
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 13:32
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    If what you say is accurate, about emacs questions being regarded as off-topic on SO, then we have nothing to worry about and the beta will thrive. :-)
    – Malabarba
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 13:43
  • The problem is emacs questions are treated in a very inconsistent way. One subset of users may find the entire Emacs Exchange to duplicate content that should be on SO, and move to have it folded in. Then another, unfortunately very active group, may then close most of the questions as off-topic.
    – Tyler
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 13:47
  • I agree with @Malabarba. The problem with splitting off a topic well-served on SO is that both the topic and SO users suffer. But if Emacs is truly not well-served elsewhere on the network, it should be easy to demonstrate in the private beta. What we don't want is to see in the private beta is the a heavy overlap with existing SO questions and answers. In other words, focus on the questions that get closed on Stack Overflow. Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 16:09
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    How do you focus on the questions that get closed, when the close flags are used inconsistently? Furthermore, I've now got to decide if my question is supposed to go on SO, Emacs, Unix, Super User. If you aren't prepared to let the Emacs community decide for itself what is on-topic, as @tarsius points out, then this exchange will be just one more place where Emacs is not well served.
    – Tyler
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 16:40
  • @Tyler They're not dictating anything as off-topic, take a breath and read that again. They're stating the guidelines they will eventually use to decide whether the site is redundant. By all means, bring here every emacs question you can think of. The point of this site is precisely to aggregate them in one place.
    – Malabarba
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 17:18
  • 1
    What I read is that at some point, someone outside the Emacs user group will decide whether the whole site is 'off-topic'. Which is exactly the same problem the emacs tag suffers from - outsiders dictating what's acceptable. I'm not upset about this personally, but if this is what's going to happen, I'll spend my time elsewhere. No big deal, but something I think is worth considering.
    – Tyler
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 18:15
  • Close. They'll decide whether the site is redundant, not off-topic. "we'll have no problem shutting down a site that mostly mimics the emacs tag." And you're absolutely right that people should keep that in mind when they invest effort here. That's probably why they're stating this before the beta goes live.
    – Malabarba
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 18:39
  • Note, the three answers you linked are dated 2010,2010,2012. StackOverflow politics have changed significantly since then. I believe such questions would get closed as off-topic nowadays.
    – SF.
    Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 10:43
  • I guess I'm missing something. I don't see Emacs questions being closed on SO or SuperUser for being off-topic. Is this a real problem? Is it a general problem or just a mistake by a few misguided closers? And just what political changes, @SF, are you hinting at? Sorry, but I haven't noticed any big change wrt questions tagged [emacs] on the various sites.
    – Drew
    Commented Sep 20, 2014 at 15:04
  • @Drew: Remember big, open-ended questions like "Most surprising language feature?" or "What jargon did you coin?" "What editor shortcuts improve productivity the most?"- These would get hundreds of answers, attract thousands of upvotes and live active for many years - until the staff began closing them all. Nowadays they are kept "for historical reasons" but no new answers are accepted and no questions of that style are accepted. Scoping of questions is much stricter, and questions about efficient use and features of of editors, IDEs etc are no longer welcome.
    – SF.
    Commented Sep 21, 2014 at 8:57
  • @SF: Sorry, but I don't see why. 1. Why would such questions be allowed here but not on SO? Why wouldn't they be closed everywhere as OT? 2. Do you in fact see lots of such questions (or other Emacs questions) being closed on SO? This was (and is) my question to your comment about an SO politics change, along with asking what politics you have in mind.
    – Drew
    Commented Sep 21, 2014 at 14:26

When creating sample questions during the definition phase, we are being told:

Discussing whether questions are on-topic or off-topic helps figure out what the site is about, and, more importantly, what it's not about.

I was under the impression that this means that we as the community get to define which questions are on-topic and which are not. And that the beta phase is for working this out in detail.

If programming questions dominate we will fold Emacs.SE into Stack Overflow.

In the Area51 FAQ only one reason is mentioned why a site might be deleted: if it isn't used. If you are concerned that the Emacs community would draw the on-/off-topic distinction in a way incompatible with the corporate vision, then you should not even let it enter the beta phase. I don't want to waste my time on something that might be shut down without the community having a say.

By phrasing the above in such an ultimate way you basically leave use two options (a) programming questions are off-topic, and will be closed/migrated (b) programming questions are off-topic, but will be tolerated. And rule out (c) certain programming questions are indistinguishable from usage questions.

The reason why I think that Emacs.SE would make sense is exactly because the distinction between "usage" and "programming" questions make little sense with Emacs. While it is not necessary to write Elisp to use Emacs, all "expert users" do, and your FAQ state that you want "expert questions" being asked and want to attract "expert users". If you are not occasionally writing some Elisp then you are not an expert. By declaring "Elisp" questions to be off-topic-but-barely-acceptable you are shutting out the experts. All we are allowed to do is help beginners, but getting help ourselves from other experts is frowned upon.

Furthermore, by only allowing us to draw the on-/off-topic distinction in the Stack Exchange approved, standard (but here inappropriate) way, you are wasting a unique opportunity to have a social system draw this distinction itself, and learn from it. What is a meaningful distinction has to be worked out in the beta phase. Please don't try to influence this process before it has even began.

If programming questions (and so it seems even programming-related questions (see below)) ought to be considered off-topic then I see no reason why Emacs.SO should be created. Using Emacs is so different from using other applications (with the exception of vi and maybe some others) that moderators who have no first hand experience with Emacs (or an equally liberating system) simply cannot judge what is on-topic.

I for one wasn't particularly exited about this proposal because the Emacs community has the same "problem" as Stack Exchange, it is spread across many places. That (in the case of a community) isn't necessarily a bad thing, but something to be aware of. One major benefit is that everyone can use the medium she prefers. So emacs-devel, help-gnu-emacs, #emacs, r/emacs, planet.emacs, emacswiki, "the various places on stack exchange", and even g+/114815898697665598016 have their raison d'être.

The only platform that is causing problems is Stack Exchange and the reason for that is that it was split into several sites along lines which do not make sense for Emacs. That split is not only causing problems for Stack Exchange, it is also causing problems for various communities, and the Emacs community, due to its special nature, suffers more than most.

I hesitated but then committed to Emacs.SO because I hope its creation would allow us to address the "Emacs questions are considered off-topic on all sites" and "people who know nothing about Emacs get to make the call" issues. If you don't allow our definition of "on-topic" to be broader than on other sites, then there is no reason to create Emacs.SO. It would be just another Stack Exchange site where "Emacs questions are welcome, except for the considerable portion which is not".

Since you already provide some examples off what you consider suitable questions, let me touch on one here: How is "How to get intelligent auto-completion in C++ [in Emacs]" even a "programming" question? Emacs is (among other things) used to do programming, and so you will naturally get questions about how to use it to do just that. This is a tool question, just like "How do I complete partially written English words in Microsoft Word" is. Just because the language is C++ and not English and the "word processor" is Emacs and not MS Word, doesn't make this a programming question. If I asked that question I would hope for an answer along the line "Install package X and set option Y to Z", not instructions on how to implement auto-completion for C++ using Elisp.

  • 3
    Programming questions aren't off-topic, and they're perfectly welcome. The man is simply saying that if emacs.SE is dominated by questions which also fit SO, then emacs.SO won't have made much of a difference. (I believe that will not be the case.)
    – Malabarba
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 15:35
  • 4
    A quick note of clarification: we aren't mandating anything as off-topic. Rather, we are asking that you highlight the need for a separate site in the private beta. I'm pretty sure you could get a good answer to the auto-completion question on SO because lots of programmers are also Emacs users. But I'm less sure about the other example questions in this proposal. So ask those and show us why Stack Overflow doesn't cut it. Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 16:02
  • @JonEricson that's good to hear. If my mind hadn't replaced "programmers'questions" with "programming questions" I might have been less worried :)
    – tarsius
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 16:40

Emacs is a programming language, but SO does not correctly highlight emacs questions.

Emacs is a tool, so many questions will be closed on SO as being out-of-context by individuals who aren't familiar with it.

Emacs has competitors, true, but this is true of TeX too. Does having tex.SE risk that users will demand an Office / LibreOffice / MathJax / troff / org-mode(!) site on stack exchange too? I think the parallels with TeX run deep, as it also occupies a blurry tool/programming position.

Emacs is a philosophy. It's a huge collection of mutable programs running in a single namespace, completely different to how a typical operating system works. There's an awkward set of questions: "what is the idiomatic Emacs approach for ..." "why does Emacs ...." that don't quite fit on SO or superuser.

  • 3
    Emacs is a tool, used both by programmers and non-programmers. It isn't a philosophy, at least not in the sense of a topic of answerable questions. TeX is a primarily typesetting system, and only anecdotally a programming environment. The questions you term “awkward” are either perfectly fine for SU (or SO if they're about programming), or not suitable for Stack Exchange, depending on what's in the “...”. Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 11:11
  • I wouldn't see org-mode as being a separate site, put it under the general umbrella of Emacs and it'll fit quite well. Watching both SO and SU for org-mode questions often has overlap where it's not clear which site should handle it (it's half programming/half using built-ins). If it all goes under Emacs then it won't matter where that distinction lies. Commented Sep 26, 2014 at 15:39

I've read the posts here and the proposal description. But I must say that it is not at all clear to me what this proposed site is for, specifically what it brings to the party that is not already available using tag [emacs] at Stack Overflow and Super User.

Perhaps I'm not reading well or I've just missed something. Or perhaps this is indicative of a poor definition or a YAGNI proposal?

To be clear, I am very interested in Emacs: usage, available packages and features, and Emacs Lisp. So far, I don't get what the proposed site adds. Sounds like it will just mean one more site to check for Emacs-related questions and info.

  • Drew, as i understand it, it is home to all emacs/elisp questions. Because else i've seen emacs questions scattered on SO and SuperUser, and the quality or quantity of answer isn't that great in comparison to other langs.
    – Xah Lee
    Commented Sep 20, 2014 at 11:18
  • 1
    @XahLee: Maybe, maybe not. But where do you see that stated explicitly? And what does it mean? Just because a given question touches on Emacs (so that now it might have tag [emacs], for instance) does not mean that the Emacs site is the best place for it. The particular content of the question determines where it belongs. E.g., it might have several tags that compete with "emacsness" in determining what site it is most useful on. And generally we should respect the OP's choice of site. So it's not clear to me, at least, that this would end up being home to all emacs/elisp questions.
    – Drew
    Commented Sep 20, 2014 at 14:55
  • 1
    @XahLee - they are not "scattered on SO and SuperUser": there are over 11,000 on Stack Overflow. The ~1500 on Super User should be on SO, most likely.
    – warren
    Commented Sep 21, 2014 at 3:30

So splitting off Emacs questions runs counter to our current thinking about what's best for our company and (we suspect) the users of Stack Overflow.

It seems to me it was not a good idea to start this without even mentioning it or getting any feedback on the thriving emacs-help or emacs-devel mailing lists. I wonder if this effort would be better off in the long run if it was channeled into a user-controlled & free software running site like http://ask.debian.net or http://emacs.shapado.com/ which is more compatible with many GNU Emacs users beliefs/philosophy. A site where we would have freedom to do things like take content from stackoverflow, or embed an elisp interpreter, or make the site have an alternate interface for within emacs, or whatever we decided is best from the perspective of the community, which stackexchange the company may simply not care about, or be against it's priorities.

As is, this feels more like "a mostly non-elisp emacs site for stackexchange users" vs "a q/a site for emacs."

  • We actually want a site for Emacs users. The criteria we set is actually intended to avoid creating an Emacs site for Stack Overflow users. That's why I emphasized that we specifically don't want to clone the [emacs] tag on Stack Overflow. (That outcome would be clearly worse than the current situation.) I don't know why (or even whether) nobody has tried other channels. Presumably the people who have committed to this proposal find something valuable about the Stack Exchange platform. Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 23:35
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    I think this is a great suggestion. I'd much prefer supporting a user-controlled system like you mention. I don't want to be involved in a project (and participating in something like SO is really a collaborative content-creation project) that is at odds with the intentions/desires of the business running the infrastructure.
    – Shon
    Commented Sep 18, 2014 at 2:22
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    Shapado appears to be dead. The last functional change was two years ago, and neither shapado.com nor their Emacs site have seen activity and changes since over two years. I do not think that this software could provide a solid base for a community.
    – lunaryorn
    Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 11:01
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    A viable community controlled and run question/answer site (or collection of sites) a la Debian, which clearly be better from the point of view of the Emacs user community, or indeed any online community. No offense to Stack Exchange, which does good work. But at the end of the day, a business is a business. However, the community sites of this type that exist mostly are not very thriving. Certainly they are not comparable in functionality or user participation with Stack Exchange. So this will remain a theoretical possibility till someone gets such a viable site going. Commented Sep 19, 2014 at 14:31

Tyler pretty much expressed my feelings on this issue. It was kinda frustrating to read that for this new proposed site, some questions still need to go to SO. That would be confusing to users. Emacs lisp is inherently tied to emacs, and in general isn't used for general purpose programming tasks (because perl, python, ruby, and other lisps, etc do better)

I thought the goal of a dedicated emacs sites is that now all emacs questions can happily live here. Either allow this to happen, or not (i'm neutral to this). If a dedicated emacs site is allowed, and if some question still should be on SO, that kinda lost the purpose of dedicated emacs site.

  • 3
    "Some questions still need to go to SO" is not what Jon Ericson said, and is not what Tyler was objecting to. Jon Ericson simply said that the success of the Emacs site will be judged based on how well it "cover[s] topics not easily raised on our flagship site [StackOverflow]". Elisp questions will be on topic here, but if that's all there is, there's no good reason to start a new site. Tyler pointed out that the underlying problem that this proposal tries to overcome is that questions that should be on-topic elsewhere get closed as off-topic by users who know nothing about emacs. Commented Sep 20, 2014 at 13:04
  • @WanderingLogic that made sense. I reread Jon Erickson's post. Thanks for clarification.
    – Xah Lee
    Commented Sep 20, 2014 at 19:11

I agree with Tyler and Drew.

A while ago, I did an analysis of Emacs questions versus Visual Studio on SO. IIRC, my analysis seemed to indicate that Emacs questions were disproportionately closed as off topic when compared to Visual Studio questions - and this was done by people who had absolutely zero stake in the [emacs] tag. So, perhaps a site dedicated to Emacs would help find a home for such questions and provide a rallying point.

But, that being said, I don't see how realistic it is that a third SE site where Emacs questions can seem on-topic is going to help the overall community/internet.

I was frustrated that Emacs questions were closed/migrated from SO to SU. Think how frustrating it's going to be to get shunted off to EE (Emacs Exchange). How is a user supposed to know where to ask?

Additionally, as a former avid question answerer, having the community split made it difficult to provide good support to those asking questions - due to the overhead of checking two (or more) sites, and there used to be quite a bit of overlap in questions. It was tiring trying to unify the answers across the sites.

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