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    • CommentRowNumber1.
    • CommentAuthorAndrew Stacey
    • CommentTimeFeb 6th 2012

    In all these discussions, there is one point that I would like to make at the start and which I think is relevant to any proposal to set up something new for mathematicians (or more generally, for academics). That is that whatever system is set-up it must be:

    Useful at the point of use

    This is something that I’ve learnt from administering the nLab over the past few years. It keeps going and there is no sign of it slowing down. The secret of its success, I maintain, is that it is useful at the point of use. When I write something on the nLab, I benefit immediately. I can link to previous things I’ve written, to definitions that others have written, and so link my ideas to many others. It means that if I want to talk to someone about something, the thing we are talking about is easily visible and accessible to both (or all) of us. If I want to remember what it was I was thinking about a year ago, I can easily find it. The fact that when I come back the next day, whatever I’ve added has been improved, polished, and added to, is a bonus - but it would still be useful if that didn’t happen.

    For other things, then I need more of an incentive to participate. MathOverflow was a lot of fun in the beginning, but now I find that a question needs to be such that it’s fairly clear that I’m one of the few people in the world who can answer. It’s not that my enthusiasm for the site has gone down, just that everything else keeps pushing it out of the way. So a new system has to be useful to those who use it, and ideally the usefulness should be proportional to the amount of effort that one puts in.

    A corollary of this is that it should be useful even if only a small number of people use it. The number of core users of the nLab is not large, but nevertheless the nLab is still extremely useful to us. I can imagine that when a proposal for something new is made, there will be a variety of reactions ranging from “That’ll never work” through to “Sounds interesting, but …” with only a few saying “Count me in!”. To have a chance of succeeding, it has to be the case that those few can get it off the ground and demonstrate that it works, without the input of the wider sceptical community.