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There's a lot of things coming up to celebrate. It's Christmas! It's Hanukkah! It's Kwanzaa! It's New Year! It's the end of 2020 at last! It's the tenth birthday of SFF.SE! It's ... time to start topic challenges?

What's a topic challenge?

A regular (I suggest monthly), friendly, opt-in competition with a specific theme that changes each time period (month). We can choose each theme on meta, by keeping a curated list of suggested topics and letting the votes send one suggestion to the top each month. The theme might be a specific book, film, TV series, author, etc. - preferably, but not necessarily, something with its own tag, so that we can easily keep track of all the posts made as part of the topic challenge. We can keep a list on meta of all the questions asked and answers posted on that theme during the relevant month. At the end of the month we can assess the statistics and maybe announce some "winners" (top-voted question and answer, most viewed question, and so on).1

Why should we do this?

Topic challenges were the most popular suggestion in the "Ways to improve and promote Science Fiction and Fantasy" thread earlier this year. It's something that a few of us have talked about on and off for years but never got done. It was done back in 2012, run officially by SE with real prizes. (We won't be offering real cash or Amazon vouchers this time, unfortunately.) A lot of other sites run regular challenges, including sites with topics similar to ours. (The main meta post says weekly, but I think monthly is better given our site's subject matter. People need some time to read a book or watch a TV series.) We have a big active community but a relatively small spectrum of really popular topics like HP, SW, ST, LotR, Marvel, DC, GoT/aSoIaF, DW. Topic challenges would be a perfect way to encourage some less popular tags and get the community involved.

How should we choose topics?

Technically, by a poll on meta. We'll have a new meta question (this one can be for meta-discussion about topic challenges in general) where each answer will be a proposed topic, and people can vote on the answers to send them up or down. Each month we'll choose the highest-voted answer as the next month's topic, and delete that answer to stop it hogging the top of the list.

Ideally, topics should be something underrepresented on the site - something that people wouldn't normally be asking about, otherwise there's not much point. As well as improving the range of topics on our site, this can also help people to broaden their personal range of reading/watching material, so it's a win-win for everyone. (Promoting underappreciated tags is something I tried to do back in 2016, but my efforts kind of fizzled out - it'll be great to try again as a group effort.)2

When should we start?

I propose January 2021. Since it's the start of a new year, and the site's 10th birthday will come on 11 January, it's an auspicious time to kick this off.

Unfortunately, it doesn't leave us much time to choose a topic for the first month, since it's now mid-December already. Especially in this particular month: the Christmas holiday period is a terrible time to try to hold a representative meta poll. My proposal is that, for this one and only time, just while the upcoming suggestions thread is finding its feet, we choose the inaugural proposal by royal decree. Since Isaac Asimov has his 101st birthday on 2 January 2021, he'd be a topical pick for the January 2021 topic challenge. I know he's not exactly an obscure SF/F author, nor unrepresented on this site, but this proposal was heartfelt and carried weight, and it's an easy topic to get involved with, even for people who never read his stuff before, because he has a lot of short stories so it's not a big time commitment to read a few.


1 Remember it's a friendly competition, so don't fight too hard to win :-)

2 TL;DR: suggest a Harry Potter topic challenge and it'll be downvoted to the basement.

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  • Is there a "reward system" in place for this? Such as bounties or will this simply be a case of a pat on the back and a well done for "winning" the Topic Challange? – TheLethalCarrot Dec 18 '20 at 10:05
  • @TheLethalCarrot I thought about that, but didn't want to promise anything in the post. There should definitely be a meta post listing the "winners"; bounties are possible, but will need someone(s) willing to offer them each month. I'm happy to be one of the bountiers, but not sure if I want to commit to forking out a bounty reliably every month. Also I might try to coordinate with Jack and get a monthly blog post roundup for each topic challenge. – Rand al'Thor Dec 18 '20 at 10:15
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    Aye, that's the problem. Got to get people involved and willing to bounty and they're also unlikely to do it if the topic doesn't interest them. Would be nice if SE offered "free" bounties, possibly from the Community user, for things like Challenges but that's for a feature request. – TheLethalCarrot Dec 18 '20 at 10:19
  • I'm having trouble wrapping my head around the concept. Is the purpose to ask a trivia type question about Asimov's works (for instance) that we may already know the answer to but hasn't been asked before? Or to a[re]read some of his works and try to come up with a question that we hadn't thought of before that no one has asked previously? Or maybe to describe an obscure story heretofore unasked on this site (again, presumably already knowing the answer)? – SteveV Dec 22 '20 at 19:02
  • @SteveV Basically any kind of question in the topic that you feel is appropriate. Maybe you haven't read/watched/experienced that book/film/author before, so you can get into it and find some questions to ask. Maybe you have but you enjoy getting back into it. Maybe you're a topic expert waiting to provide answers to others' questions. Maybe you can come up with some new questions even if you've known about it for years. (For Asimov, there's so many stories but less than 200 questions, 150 if we exclude story-ID - surely there must be lots left to ask?) – Rand al'Thor Dec 22 '20 at 19:59
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All sounds good to me, great to hear this is going forward!

One thing though that I don't want you to rule out, out of hand (which you are doing) is topic challenges on popular works. Take the MCU for example, sure it gets a lot of attention but some of the films hardly have any questions relatively. Spider-Man: Far From Home only got 21 questions in its release month. That is quite low and these are the sorts of films that drive questions and traffic into the site.

Those early questions are extremely important in getting traffic into the site. For example, take this question of mine that was asked really early after the release. It was asked before a lot of the news articles had their pages up and no one really had any information up about this particular question. It has gathered ~18k views at the time of writing and I believe most of those were within the first day or so after posting and even before it had an answer. These are the questions that drive traffic and driving traffic means potential for new users and growing the site.

Personally, I feel like it would be good idea to have 2 sets of Topic Challenges, a monthly rolling one on underrepresented works, as you mention here, and one intermittent one for short periods of time (2 weeks?) to correspond with the release dates of popular works, again can be voted on by meta. After all the more content we have, the better and incentivising it with Topic Challenges will surely drive some more content.

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    Hmm. An underrepresented sub-branch of a mega-popular franchise might still fall into the category of encouraging underappreciated stuff. Or if we follow your suggestion of a double topic challenge, then maybe the second type can be a more spontaneous thing rather than part of a regular TC structure: if you know something popular is coming out soon, just start a one-off meta post and list all the questions about it. Maybe give it a different name too, so we don't have two different things called "topic challenges" and confuse people? – Rand al'Thor Dec 18 '20 at 10:18
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    @Randal'Thor Well we won't necessarily know something will be underappreciated until it's been out for a while and at that point you lose the effectiveness of this suggestion anyway. I agree though a different name might be helpful and yeah it shouldn't be really be a regular structure, that's what I meant with intermittent but didn't really elaborate upon. – TheLethalCarrot Dec 18 '20 at 10:21
  • I love the idea of a topic-challenge for a newly released work. Just make sure it is after the release as otherwise it will just be closed due to the FWP! – Skooba Dec 19 '20 at 17:25
  • So, a topic challenge and a topical challenge, then? (Sorry, I just had to.) – eshier Dec 23 '20 at 20:00
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List of completed topic challenges

Currently ongoing topic challenge

Future topic challenges

Propose future topics for SFF topic challenges!

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