An interview with Monica Cellio about Codidact

“We’re there to help and empower, not to dictate.”

I sat down over Discord with Codidact team member and former Stack Exchange contributor Monica Cellio to have a chat about the project and her involvement and goals. If you’re unfamiliar with what Codidact is, that’s fine; an overview is given in the interview, or you can read my previous article on the subject.

The questions I asked are in bold below, while Monica’s responses are underneath each question.

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself to get us started, please?

I’ve been online for approximately forever — got started with mailing lists on ARPANet and then Usenet newsgroups, and have been watching the Internet and communities on it evolve since then. (Also technology; that VT100 terminal and 1200-baud modem were a long time ago. :)) Professionally, I’m a technical writer who used to be a programmer. Sometimes I try my hand at fiction. I’m very involved in the Jewish community, both locally and online. I enjoy learning new things, even if they’re skills I’m not very good at. I know somebody whose personal motto is “when I stop learning, bury me”; I didn’t coin it but it resonates.

Sounds like you really enjoy learning new things! What kind of methods do you use to discover and explore new topics?

Sometimes I learn by doing, by jumping into a problem knowing I’m going to make mistakes, but if nobody else is depending on the results, that’s fine. I didn’t know anything about gardening but thought, in the pandemic, I should learn to grow a little of my own food, so I’ve been talking with friends, sharing progress on my blog, discovering problems along the way and “patching them in production”, and so on. Didn’t know what to do about aphids or that cherry tomatoes needed stakes or that some plants needed much bigger pots than I thought, but I’m learning by doing.
With all of this, the cost of getting it wrong is some lost time and money. Nobody else is depending on me for tomatoes or basil, so I can afford to learn this way. I would take a different approach if results were more critical.
For things that are more “intellectual”, I like to take (interactive) classes when I can, or read, or follow trails of references from reputable sources. Last week I attended an online Jewish-learning conference and one of the classes was about triage priorities — what does Jewish law have to say about who gets the ventilator? The lectures were interesting and I came away with a pile of sources to go look up for more information. This is something I hope not to learn by doing. :) But conversely, I probably wouldn’t have attended a lecture series on gardening.
Q&A sites are great for the space in between. I learn a lot of stuff passively, because somebody asked a question that I didn’t know I had too, or somebody asks an interesting question and I start doing research to try to answer it myself. I love that! Curiosity can take me lots of interesting places, and communities of people learning together fuel that curiosity.

What is your position at Codidact?

I started out as the documentation lead and I’m now the community lead. In addition to helping our communities directly, that also means designing features, working out requirements, gathering feedback, and generally figuring out how to meet as many people’s and communities’ needs as practical.
I work closely with ArtOfCode, our team lead and overall wrangler of stuff, and luap42, our technical lead, and several group leaders and individual contributors. It’s a great group of people, and I was happy to find the project last fall. (No, I’m not the founder; I followed a link to it sometime after it started.)

What does the name “Codidact” mean, anyway?

Learning (and teaching) together. “Co”, together (like in “collaborate”), and “didact” from “didactic”, teaching.

What’s the point of the Codidact project, and how does it plan to differ from Stack Exchange (which it grew out of)?

We want to help communities of people with shared interests come together to pool and share their knowledge. One of the best ways to learn (and teach) is to ask questions and then delve into their answers, so Q&A is central on Codidact, like it is on Stack Exchange. But communities want other tools alongside Q&A, too, which is harder to do on Stack Exchange. Our Cooking site has a place for recipes, our Electrical Engineering site is talking about publishing papers, and several of our sites run challenges and contests. This isn’t just extra fluff; I firmly believe these additions give people more ways to engage with the community and with each other.

Stack Exchange’s goal is to be a library of knowledge. Their focus is primarily on the content, not the people who create it and curate it. Maybe that approach makes sense on Stack Overflow, which is a huge, old site, but when I participated on the smaller Stack Exchange sites, we had a different experience. Our communities didn’t have as many people, and the active users got to know each other. Comments on posts aren’t supposed to be for discussion, but discussions happened and people connected. Chat was an extra thing on the side, not well-integrated, and on some sites it was essential. The people matter, and so yes Codidact aims to build collections of high-quality content, but we aim to do it together, with the real people on the other side of the monitor. Some of those people will have lots of questions, some will be experts with lots of answers in some areas (and questions in others), some will contribute blog posts or recipes or challenges, and all of it makes the community stronger.

Our tag line is “by the community, for the community”, because we put people first and give them a lot of power to make decisions about how to build their communities. They’re the experts; they know what they need better than we do. We’re there to help and empower, not to dictate.

How does Codidact as an organization plan to function?

We’re basically planning to follow the Wikipedia model. We’re going to incorporate as a non-profit organization, which builds the software and hosts an instance of it to run a network of sites. Everything’s open-source, so others can take our software and run their own sites or networks if they want to. (I’ve heard from somebody who’s considering doing that internally within a company.)

What communities does Codidact have right now? What kinds of unique things are they doing?

I’ve mentioned Cooking already, which started fresh rather than importing any questions from elsewhere. This site was the first to use our “article” post type — remember how I said not everything is Q&A? Articles are posts — like wiki pages, reference material, papers, fiction…or recipes. If you click through, you’ll also see that recipes are in a separate category from Q&A; we use categories to allow sites to build different classes of content.
Outdoors is also using categories. They run a monthly photo challenge, and they’ve recently started up a “gear recommendations” category. Photography and Video also has a “gear recommendations” category, which they’re planning to use to provide surveys and “how to choose” guidance.
Writing, like Outdoors, brought questions and answers over from Stack Exchange so that people who had participated there can continue their work here. (Yes, this is permitted by the license.) Writing runs monthly challenges, where we’ve seen everything from haiku to short stories to scenes and character sketches. Challenges are a great way to stretch without committing to a large project. Someday I’ll figure out how to do a technical-writing challenge. :)
Scientific Speculation is an offshoot of the Worldbuilding community on SE. The SciSpec community focuses on topics where we can apply scientific processes and reasoning. That doesn’t mean it’s all stuff that exists; it’s totally fine to ask questions about faster-than-light travel or alien creatures or advanced, sentient robots or climate on alien worlds or designing binary-star systems with habitable planets. There’s even a category for rigorous science.
Electrical Engineering is another site that started off fresh, without importing content. They’re well on their way to building a rich library of EE questions. A small but dedicated group of people came to us with the proposal last month and showed us they were ready to dive in, and we set up the site a few days later. This is the site I mentioned earlier that wants to publish papers; they’ve just set that up, and I’m looking forward to seeing what develops.
Judaism is a site that’s dear to my heart. In addition to Q&A — possibly including Q&A in Hebrew alongside English — this community is talking about building a glossary or dictionary or wiki, and about hosting articles by community members on torah topics. Citing sources is very important in this community, and we’ve added a plugin that automatically creates links to sources on Sefaria, which is a big name in online Jewish sources. Like Electrical Engineering, this community came together very quickly, started by a group of people who all participate on Mi Yodeya on Stack Exchange. You might think the new site is competing with Mi Yodeya, but it’s not — many people participate on both, and we even share a moderator, but the communities have some different goals and we can explore them together. Everybody gets along; we’re working together.

These are all the “topic” sites we have running right now. We have several active proposals, including Languages, Software Development, Role-Playing Games, and History. And we, like Stack Exchange, have a Meta site that acts as a town hall for discussion of our network and its software.

Our network welcomes communities on pretty much any topics that people want to build together; if you’ve got a group of people, or an existing community somewhere else, and you want us to host a community for you, let us know in our Site Proposals area.

How can I contribute to the Codidact project?

Well first off, if any of our existing communities interest you, you can create an account and start asking and answering questions and sharing other knowledge. And if you’d like to help build a community, either a new one that you want to organize or one of the ones we already have proposals for, you can join in on our Site Proposals. But you asked about the project, which also includes the platform itself.
The software you see is a work in progress. We have a functional specification for what we’re aiming to build, which fits into our vision for the project, so those are good things to read to get some more context. If you want to write code (in Ruby), check out the GitHub repository and our developer docs. Most of the programming work is being done by a pretty small group of people, so we welcome more contributors. We’re also looking for people who can do UI design (wireframes and full design), write documentation, wrangle servers, and more. A lot of coordination happens on our Discord server— head to the #readme channel first.

Thank you for taking the time to do this, and good luck to everyone involved in the project!

Thanks for asking! I’m really excited by this project and the communities who are already using it even while we’re still developing it. We’ve got some features coming up that I think will be game-changing, and I’m looking forward to working together with our communities to build great things together.

I’m a Group Leader for User Help at Codidact, and help out with various things for the project. You can find Monica’s Meta Codidact profile here, and mine here; you can also see Monica’s Medium profile at Monica Cellio.

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superplane39

superplane39

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Cyclist, bibliophile, musician, writer, photographer, internet addict. Community enthusiast; barely an adult.