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Recently, the perennial question of how to keep Ask Ubuntu up-to-date was brought into focus for me by numerous pleas to reopen this question, which had been closed as a duplicate of the canonical post* How to install software or upgrade from an old unsupported release? (as well as two other posts). Many visitors getting stuck during upgrades were not finding anything to help them on that old question, suggesting that it probably needs some kind of overhaul (or even replacement).

Fortunately, it's hat season, and Stack Exchange now supports tables, so I'm feeling it's a good time to ask y'all to think about how we can improve our canonical posts. One method that can work really well is to add an index of answers or table of contents (which can now be an actual table!) to a question that has many answers, like this. Other possibilities are adding answers, offering bounties, editing, merging, etc.

For now what I suggest is using this question to identify canonical posts and issues with them (post them in the answers), especially ones that would benefit from some extra attention. We could also post individual meta questions to talk about the canonical posts that need work, and/or discuss them in chat if necessary.


*A canonical post is one that addresses a very common question about Ubuntu. Canonical posts have many other questions closed as duplicates of them. They have thousands of page views and usually lots of upvotes. Many of them are very old and have obsolete accepted or highly upvoted answers.

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  • How many such canonical posts do you estimate? – Levente Dec 30 '20 at 3:58
  • @Levente I would guess there are some 15 - 30 – Zanna Dec 30 '20 at 8:48
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Right now I owe myself quite some sleep, so this likely ends up as an incomplete answer; nevertheless I wanted to put down the thoughts that I had about it.


Our premise

StackExchage sites are natively excellent for short-term information exchange. The noble and understandable intent to keep AskUbuntu's canonical questions well-maintained, however, forces a second role onto this site: it introduces the role of a documentation. Desire to live up to this role, however, may push mods into patterns that go against the the nature of how a Q/A site tries to work.

Closing questions as duplicates forces users to find their way against the grain of the site (e.g. arguing in comment threads, appealing to reopen, commenting in outdated threads, etc.). Frustration, like "Those 8-9 year old posts don't answer my question" ensue.

Navigating merged posts — with the current implementation at least — may prove to be confusing.

The principle of decaying information + theorizing on ways to cope

Linux and Ubuntu evolve over time. For this reason, static records of information that try to describe them (answers on the site), slowly, but inevitably lose their validity. Surely, some info holds up better, while some age faster. But the tendency is the same. Information recorded in a database is slowly rotting away.

One way to keep information up-to-date is via manual edits. This however is not native to how a forum works; this is how documentations work. Also, it is pretty work-intensive.

Following the aforementioned principle, newer questions are always in a better position to collect up-to-date information — whose shelf-life expectancy is also better.

Allowing deprecated information to get replaced with valid one is aligning well with the grain of how a forum works, and delegates the lion's share of work to the site users.

Take-aways

I'd like to offer an adaptation of Lao Tze's guidance:

Governing a large country is like frying a small fish. You spoil it with too much poking.

The adapted variant being:

Managing large amounts of evolving/alive information is like frying a small fish. You set yourself up to a Herculean task with swimming against the stream. (Plus you may spoil it too.)

In principle, aim to achieve the goal with the least amount of least intrusive interventions, and the least amount of work. Utilize well what the site already delivers instead of over-sculpting / rewriting it.

I would like to suggest to be slower and more considerate on closing "duplicate content". The discipline to discourage redundant-appearing posting could stay, but the enforcement could become more lenient.

I would advise against trying to force several years old threads to remain alive just because they are already there and there are a lot of upvotes. Several of them may be beyond their peak usefulness. Even more of them will be so a year or two later.

The interpretation I'm offering invalidates the very term canonical post. It's not the posts themselves that are canonical: remember, the posts are slowly decaying.

Rather, it's topics, that are evergreen. Or something along that line.

Suggestions

  • I suggest relying most on interlinking questions.
  • After identifying an evergreen topic, maybe a "hub-question"could be created for it, with the goal of interlinking several organic questions that deal with its premises.
  • Then high quality organic questions — that have accumulated a lot of useful information — could be identified, and and marked as "Elevated", or "Staff pick" questions. These could be the ones that could be linked in the hub-questions.
    • In this case, aging would mean less of a challenge, because a question marked as Elevated would not attempt to guarantee up-to-dateness; it just testifies, that at one point in time, it was highly helpful.
    • The parent hub-question could try to offer an insight on the relative values of Elevated questions linked within: by ordering, displaying (well curated) tags, question age, average answer age, and upvotes (both question upvotes + cumulative, inclusive answers).
    • Hub-questions could organize the interlinked questions in chronological order, by default the newer being on the top. Or one could write a script that would update the ordering with the overall number of upvotes also taken in consideration.
      • Possibly, if the need arises, the number of Elevated questions linked from a hub-question could be limited, with the least valuable ones getting pushed out.
      • Alternatively, visual organization, usage of layouts, grouping, and appropriate typography (headings) could aid the overview of those lists with several items.
  • Organic questions would also contain a link to their parent hub-question.
    • A question could contain a link to a corresponding hub-question, even if it's not elevated, and is not being included in the hub's list. This way, if someone finds a lower quality (but already hub-link equipped) question via googling, they could quickly navigate towards highly valuable information.
    • In this sense, adding the hub link to a question could be analogous to how tags are added. Regular users would be given the right to identify and carry out the association of any question with a relevant hub-page.
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    Do note that Stack Exchange sites are not forums and we are all about the long term. The stated aim of this site according to the tour page is to build a library of detailed answers to every question about Ubuntu. That the goal of building a good library is indeed against the daily grain of a forum (and requires ongoing work) is the reason Stack Overflow and its sisters came into being. This is why we encourage editing and close questions as duplicates (though in my opinion we often do so much too readily): so that future visitors find the answer they need. – Zanna Dec 30 '20 at 9:08
  • @Zanna "to build a library of detailed answers to every question" — is there a ready concept to take the passing of time and decaying of answers into consideration? – Levente Dec 30 '20 at 9:18
  • While it's obviously a challenge to maintain information on a site like this, I think that there are various features of the basic design that are oriented towards doing it. Consider the central unique feature of SE sites - the gameification of moderation. The most important aspects of moderation are voting and editing. Both of those activities should be used to improve and maintain the site over time. Also, editing a post bumps it, new answers can be added to questions at any time, answers are by default ordered by score and not by age, etc. – Zanna Jan 2 at 7:26
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How to install software or upgrade from an old unsupported release?

This question originally asked only how to install software on an unsupported release, and was subsequently generalised and had several questions merged into it. The effect of merging is to move answers and comments from the source posts to the destination post. Care should be taken to ensure that the answers make sense on the target and any adjustments made - the authors are not notified that their answers have been moved. Generalising the question and merging into it may have been a good solution at the time, but I'm sceptical that this question is a good canonical post for the task of upgrading from an unsupported release because the question body appears to be about something else. Also, recent visitors are adamant that the answers to this question are not helpful.

I think we should think about how to improve the situation with regard to this question. For example, perhaps we could consider these options:

  • Edit the question to remove the distracting stuff about VLC, so that the body matches the title and perhaps includes some of the error messages that recent questions about this have mentioned. Anyone who can test attempting to upgrade from old releases could help with this!
  • Add an index of answers to the question, to help users find up-to-date information
  • Add new answers that address the problems users are having with this task these days
  • Improve any of the existing answers if possible

Or more drastically:

  • Choose (or create) a new canonical post about upgrading from an unsupported release.
  • Reopen all the posts closed against this post and close them against the better target(s) instead.

We could make a new meta post to discuss this. For now comment here with your thoughts.

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How do I install Ubuntu alongside a pre-installed Windows with UEFI?

I often sort questions by "Newest". A great deal of questions are about system installation, especially questions from new users.

For those who simply want to install Ubuntu as the only operating system, I find that the official tutorials for creating installation media and system installation are the best way to redirect these questions.

But there are a lot of variables when setting up a dual boot configuration with a pre-existing Windows installation. Generally, these new questions get redirected here or they are closed as duplicates because of the wealth of information on this question.

Unfortunately, even with all of the good information, it is difficult to discern which answers are applicable to someone's particular situation. For someone completely unfamiliar with Ubuntu/Linux, I imagine that being redirected here is overwhelming.

I think the idea of using an index on questions like this is a great idea. It would be helpful if we could identify or flag answers that may be outdated or obsolete. I also think it would also be useful to identify if there are common scenarios that aren't well answered, so that we could encourage people to post new answers about specific scenarios. (ex. Windows currently takes up the entire hard drive). We could also link to other questions which are very closely related, but not duplicates, like How to resize partitions?.

One thing that's problematic about the question is that there are a lot of opinions on the best way to set up a dual boot configuration, and we know that our format is not the best at handling these types of queries.

Honestly, this question has so much information all over the place that I get the "deer in headlights" response when I try to think of ways to improve this question and the answers it contains. I would be curious to know what other people think about how we could improve our response when users ask how to set up a dual-boot configuration.

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  • Good one, thanks for mentioning it! – Zanna Jan 9 at 13:54

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