Is Ask Ubuntu an archive? It seems like it is with it saying not to delete posts for future users, but isn't that almost the definition of an archive?

up vote 23 down vote accepted

Yes, Ask Ubuntu is meant to be an archive of information for future users (with some rules).

From the tour itself:

Ask Ubuntu is a question and answer site for Ubuntu users and developers. It's built and run by you as part of the Stack Exchange network of Q&A sites. With your help, we're working together to build a library of detailed answers to every question about Ubuntu.


Now, let's step back and discuss this in a bit more detail.

Ask Ubuntu's entire premise is to create a (relatively) permanent collection of answers to any and all questions about Ubuntu, in a manner where new users are helped the most. This means that (almost) every (good) answer is saved in order to help people tomorrow, a year from now, and even potentially a decade from now.

However, this seems to contrast the ever-present forward flow of technology. An answer from 2012 might not be that useful is 2022, right? Well, no, it could still be helpful:

  • The solution given just needs to be tweaked slightly to fix a problem in 2022.
  • The solution is needed by someone who still has to run 12.04 for legacy reasons (think government).
  • The solution is just somehow still working exactly as intended because reasons.

Because of this, we get those little "quality" things you see on the site often. Let's explore a few of them:

  • Duplicate Questions
    If your question is a duplicate of another (with good answers), your question is closed as a duplicate and will act as a "signpost" to that question, making it easier for others to find answers in the future.

  • Link-Only Answers
    This is why this site hates Link-Only answers so much. If the link goes down, the answer is useless, and as such can not participate in the archive. We can trust (somewhat) that Ask Ubuntu can stay online, not so much some random forum or blog.

  • Non-Forum Structure
    If we're looking to store answers, things in the forum structure can be annoying. Who wants to sort through 18 pages of posts saying "me too" or throwing in some (possibly) useless advice or complete off-topic tangents? Hence, we create a system where there are only answers, in order to facilitate organizing and making sure the archive works.

  • Accepted Answers
    When an answer is marked as accepted, it's a flag to the world (and the future) that says "Hey, this worked for me! It may very well work for you too!" Again, it's helping to improve the quality of the archive and make sure that people in the future can find known-verified solutions to problems. To some extent, upvotes do the same thing. You can probably trust a question with a score of 80 to be pretty accurate and be a good answer that can potentially stand the test of time.

  • Non-Permanent Deletion
    Very few things on this site are permanently deleted. In fact, once you hit 10,000 reputation, you see (almost) every deleted post on this site. Again, even deleted things are archived because who knows? They might have some use in the future.

  • Deletion Stickiness
    As you've seen, when you try to delete something of your own, you get a nice little warning saying "Don't delete things! It's bad!" I won't repeat things that have already been said, so check out this MSE answer as to why this friction exists.

While Ask Ubuntu doesn't act like an archive on a day-to-day basis, a lot of what you do now is still logged and preserved for the future to see. Ask Ubuntu (and all of Stack Exchange) were designed around the "archive" mentality, even though it doesn't appear to be immediately obvious. In tech, problems tend to repeat themselves. People have the same questions time and time again. So, the archive allows us to point people to a question, and hopefully get an answer, no matter where we are in time.

  • Huh, since it is an archive, maybe we should have old answers in a special section, where any user could access them more easily. – Ubuntu User Jan 12 '17 at 21:17
  • I mean, a lot of things stay relevant for a long time. An answer about configuring Apache from 21 years ago (eg setting up virtual hosts, using mod_rewrite) may still be absolutely correct today. An answer about configuring BIND from 19 years ago (release of Bind 9) might still be correct today. – thomasrutter Jan 16 '17 at 5:51
  • @UbuntuUser Answers belong with the questions they're answering, rather than anyplace else. However, if you just want to be able to browse and search in old answers, you can search by date. See the help page on searching for details. – Eliah Kagan Jan 17 '17 at 4:10
  • 1
    @UbuntuUser: It's hard to decide what is old - in Linux more than anywhere else, as various packages move at very different speeds. So, while a chromium-browser question from 2015 will probably be obsolete in 2020, a screenrc question from 2015 is likely to be still valid in 2063 ;) – Piskvor Jan 20 '17 at 13:14
  • screenrc? What is that? Also good point linux is a mash-up of dinosaur parts and new animal parts! – Ubuntu User Jan 20 '17 at 13:20

In addition to everything Kaz Wolfe has said about this, I want to point out three more things about Ask Ubuntu that make it useful as a lasting resource.

Being Closed and Being Answered are Separate Things

The first is that even old questions -- even those with highly upvoted, accepted answers -- can still be answered again. Thus, when the information already there isn't enough, new answers can be posted. This, in turn, reduces the urge the delete existing content.

It can help to put a bounty on such a question to publicize it and solicit up-to-date answers.

Related question: Should I answer a question which already has an accepted answer?

User-Contributed Content is Free as in Freedom

Second, and in my opinion by far the most important of all, is that, as stated at the bottom of every page on the site, every post on Ask Ubuntu is automatically licensed under CC-BY-SA (currently, version 3.0 is being used).

Our posts are thus free as in freedom, and anyone who views them may also distribute them to others, with or without modification, so long as they give proper credit and make them available under the same license. See the actual license for details. You should also read the attribution guidelines. (The license is what guarantees these liberties, and the attribution policy's significance is dictated by the license.)

  • By the way, this meta post does not constitute actual legal advice, and I'm not a lawyer.

Not only does this make our posts immediately more useful to -- and usable by -- people throughout the world, it also means that:

  • What we contribute can be used in places other than Ask Ubuntu. If someone wants to make something with it that wouldn't fit the format of our site (or that we've foolishly decided we don't want, or that they believe we're foolish not to want), they can do so.
  • Our content remains free irrespective of future site policies. Even if one day Stack Exchange gets taken over by cartoon villains, or whatever, our work won't be rendered retroactively useless. We license our contributions to Stack Exchange with the same license we offer to everybody else.
  • Even if Ask Ubuntu ever does cease to exist, our contributions will live on so long as there is a copy somewhere, and people will be allowed to share and use them. Kaz Wolfe mentioned that "We can trust (somewhat) that AskUbuntu can stay online, not so much some random forum or blog." Although this site is an important resource and I hope it stays up for a long, long time, we basically don't even have to trust that it will.
  • Free software needs free documentation, and some software even has excellent official documentation (hey, I said some)... but it is rarely enough for all purposes. The questions and answers we make here help fill that gap, and they come with the same basic guarantees as free/libre software itself, including the right to adapt the work for another purpose.

There are other benefits of user-contributed content being free as in freedom. I've only listed what I see as the major ones relating directly to Ask Ubuntu's role as an archive of useful content. (Since that's what this meta question is about.)

Official Data Dumps Are Released Quarterly

Okay, so whoever finds our posts can use, distribute, and adapt them. But don't they still need to use the site to find them in the first place? Sure, there's the Wayback Machine, which is super handy, but it doesn't have everything. If calamity struck Ask Ubuntu, can we really be confident that most of our contributions would survive and be usable immediately?

Yes.

Ask Ubuntu and other Stack Exchange sites officially release data dumps that include all the posts on the site, which can be downloaded and, in accordance with the CC-BY-SA license and relevant attribution requirements, reused by anyone at any time. These are currently hosted by archive.org (though anyone may mirror them) and available via BitTorrent or direct download. The most recent Ask Ubuntu data dump, as of this writing, was created last month (2016-12-15) and is about 483 MiB compressed (or 2.6 GiB uncompressed). New data dumps are released every three months or so.

The public data dump consists of several .xml files consisting of most of the information that is publicly viewable on the site, including all the posts. It is sometimes called an "anonymized data dump," but that just means our personal data, information on who cast each vote, and so forth are removed. It still says who wrote what, when.

So if we couldn't use this site, the data dump would facilitate setting up a new site with our posts. At the same time, the license and attribution requirements would still prohibit anyone from falsely claiming the posts as their own work or otherwise not giving credit. But the data dumps are handy at a small scale, too: they make our content available to us for offline viewing (and analysis, if you're into that sort of thing).

I'm not sure what the best way is, these days, to browse the data dumps in an efficient, human-readable way in Ubuntu. (Maybe someone will edit or comment about that.) However, I do know some dedicated software has been made specifically for this purpose:

Both can be used on Ubuntu.

  • When is the next data dump? Is it exactly 4 months? – Ubuntu User Jan 13 '17 at 15:24
  • @UbuntuUser Data dumps are released about every three months, so my guess is that the next one will come out in late March. (I've updated this answer to clarify the usual schedule.) – Eliah Kagan Jan 21 '17 at 2:18

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