Regarding the question: How does BlueJeans estimate the number of meeting participants?

Why has this question on BlueJeans people account inference been placed on-hold as off-topic as "This question is not about computer hardware or software, within the scope defined in the help center."?

I thought that understanding how BlueJeans estimates the number of meeting participants was a question on how the program works, and therefore seems to me as a computer software question.

None of the close voters left a comment, hence my question here.

  • 1
    Franck, I was one of the close voters. BlueJeans is an Internet video conferencing service. To me, the internal algorithms they use for estimating participation is part of their system design and operating policy rather than something a user does on their computer. I just don't see it as on-topic (unless you can tie it in better in the question to a user issue that can be solved or definitively explained by our users). – fixer1234 Jul 23 at 8:57
  • @fixer1234 Questions don't have to be a user issue. Many questions posted on this website aren't about problems, e.g. How does a computer restart itself?, which has received 483 upvotes and 3 downvotes so far. – – Franck Dernoncourt Jul 23 at 17:21
  • True, it can be a general learning question, but those are off-topic per the Help section except in limited cases where the community makes an exception. To be such an exception, among other criteria, it has to be something knowable and demonstrable, within scope, etc.; for example knowledge that underlies or is closely tied to an on-topic issue, is publicly available, can be looked up and verified, can be well explained within the intended scope of an answer, etc. Proprietary details aren't general learning. That's where allquixotic's answer comes in. Couldn't have said it better myself. :-) – fixer1234 Jul 23 at 19:36
  • @fixer1234 the OP typically doesn't know ahead of time if the information is publicly available or proprietary. – Franck Dernoncourt Jul 23 at 19:39
  • True, and people ask whatever they want to know. Then the users here, in their great collective knowledge and wisdom, either answer or close the question. – fixer1234 Jul 23 at 19:46
  • @fixer1234 I think answering ~"the information is proprietary" is more appropriate. – Franck Dernoncourt Jul 24 at 0:32
  • Actually, we may not know definitively that it is proprietary, so that answer could also be "wrong". :-) It may have been disclosed publicly somewhere and just not well known. We occasionally get questions that I think are proprietary information and it turns out somebody here just happens to know the answer. In thinking about whether a question is on topic, I differentiate general knowledge from knowledge that seems likely to be proprietary. General knowledge is the "underlying principles", stuff anyone has access to. (cont'd) – fixer1234 Jul 24 at 1:25
  • That's different from internal information like why a company made a decision a certain way, or the trade craft they might have used to accomplish something, which they don't publicize (even if the information is available somewhere). What is clearly on topic here is solving user problems with a personal computer. The underlying principles can be relevant to solving the problem or understanding the solutions. "Proprietary-type" information generally isn't required to solve issues that are on-topic for the site, or the associated solutions aren't really on-topic here. (cont'd) – fixer1234 Jul 24 at 1:25
  • 1
    General learning (and idle curiosity) are off-topic unless the community makes an exception because there is a clear nexus to something on-topic. That's why I suggested earlier to try to reframe your question with some context that relates it to an on-topic issue. – fixer1234 Jul 24 at 1:25
  • The 4 downvotes on this question indicate this atmosphere on this meta. – Franck Dernoncourt Jul 24 at 20:06

"There's no actual problem to be solved" -> Does a question have to be about a problem? I don't see it specified on superuser.com/help/on-topic. Many questions posted on this website aren't about problems, e.g. How does a computer restart itself?, which has received 483 upvotes and 3 downvotes so far.

Questions just seeking general knowledge are fine, because there are many different ways to approach answering them with valid and correct answers.

But very specific questions about the internals of proprietary software often won't ever be answerable by anyone except an employee of the company that wrote the software. A few proprietary software vendors do in fact participiate in Q&A on the network, but 99% of the time, asking questions like this is not really productive, because the "answers" you get will be someone's guess, supposition, or opinion (which is not terribly likely to be right) by making inferences based on the outward behavior of the software.

Or perhaps rather than offering a true answer, the answer might come in the form of "here's a series of possibilities, any of which might be the actual case, but we have no way of narrowing it down any further". And this sort of answer might be technically correct in that the assertions it makes are valid possibilities, but it isn't a true answer in the SE sense because it doesn't pin down a particular scenario as being factually correct.

In many cases we have to treat questions about proprietary software like questions about the natural world that are unanswerable, unless we expect the software vendor to pull back the curtains and give us an actual answer. While you might argue that leaving the question open for eternity might be the better option here, in case the vendor ever does search for questions about their software to try and answer on SU, these questions are sometimes closed instead.

In other words, I don't think we have a firm policy on whether or not to close these questions, but you are extremely unlikely to receive a known-correct answer anyway unless it comes from the source (an employee who worked on BlueJeans' code or design). Since we don't currently know of any BlueJeans employees contributing answers to the site, closing the question is one valid way of responding to it.

One good argument for why to not leave the question open, is that you are likely to solicit "bad" answers from non-BlueJeans-employees while waiting your eternity for the remote possibility of a real answer. Someone might have an opinion or make some assumptions (which they aren't entitled to make) about the behavior of the software and write an off-the-cuff answer that, while it might satisfy your curiosity, doesn't actually deliver any factually-based knowledge, and may in fact be incorrect. But since nobody other than BlueJeans employees has access to the truth, no one would know whether to upvote or downvote the answer provided, unless we knew it was coming from an authoritative source.

And even if it did come from an authoritative source, we still wouldn't be able to verify the answer, necessarily. If the answer provided some testable statements that we could observe about the behavior of the software from the outside (without seeing the code), that'd be one thing. But if the answer just explains the source code without providing any way for us to verify it, it'd still be a bad answer.

So, to boil this all down, questions seeking an explanation / seeking knowledge should either be about observable behaviors of running software, and/or about open source software. Let's take these apart case-by-case:

  • Questions about observable behavior of running software: This is basically where you ask a question whose answer can be empirically verified by a user of the software, even without access to the source code. Many valid questions about, e.g., Windows (which is proprietary) get asked in this format, where we're able to know the correctness or incorrectness of answers provided by testing it out ourselves. Your question here, on the other hand, does not ask something that we can go test. You're asking about an algorithm which can be literally anything. We can all see the participant numbers on our BlueJeans software, but we don't know how that number is being derived, and anyone can only guess.
  • Questions about open source software: Because open source software provides access to the code, it doesn't matter if the question is about the innards of the software, because someone can always go download the code, read it, and give you a factual answer based on their understanding of the code (the behavior of code is objective, meaning there's only one correct way to interpret any sequence of code). So in this case, knowledge-seeking questions are not limited to ones about the outward observable behavior of the software, because anyone can go grab the code.

It's this third case where the software is closed-source/proprietary and asking about the internals, where we're inclined to close it, especially when we have no prior knowledge of anyone from that company participating on SU, and where we expect that answers from non-employees are likely to be incorrect (and furthermore, even an answer from an employee would just be "taking their word for it", because we couldn't independently verify the answer, more likely than not).

I suppose, with great, great difficulty, one could eventually derive some sort of empirical formula for participant count by all manner of environmental data until they pinned down several independent variables that, combined together, produce some sort of equation for deriving the number of participants. But to come up with this sort of answer would basically be akin to Isaac Newton deriving the formula for the acceleration due to gravity. You would have to test probably hundreds of different scenarios, plot them on a graph, and eventually try to work out some apparent formula for the algorithm.

I guess, if you really want someone to try and do that, that would be the only answer I'd accept, outside a direct answer from an employee of BlueJeans that includes a code snippet of the algorithm. And in that case I suppose we could justify reopening the question. But a correct empirical answer would basically have to read something like this:

I ran a series of 100 meetings over two months using BlueJeans and actual known participant numbers ranging from 2 to 30. I captured environmental data such as the actual video contents, number of people on the teleconference line, and whether they're muted or unmuted. Based on my observation, BlueJeans seems to know when people connect to the teleconference by phone because it detects their connection to the meeting that way. So the participant count is derived from those joining the room using the software, plus those who've dialed into the audio teleconference number. I didn't find any difference in the participant count estimate based on whether folks were muted, unmuted, or talking.

It's kind of funny, because the real world outside of software (e.g., in the physical sciences) doesn't have "source code" we can just go read. So when someone wants to determine truths about the real world, we have to do actual research like this, by conducting experiments, making observations, and then making inferences from those observations about what equations seem to fit the data. That's sort of what you'd be asking of an answerer here, unless, again, they were the software equivalent of "God" (or the creator, however you wish to refer to them/it/him/her) and could provide an authority on the matter based on the objective truth revealed by the source code.

And normally I would laud any attempts to perform original research, either in the physical sciences or in software. But I don't think that serious experimental research like this really belongs on SU, especially when the topic of the research is just observations about the behavior of proprietary software, which, in the end, is just a human-crafted contraption that has an objective truth about its behavior -- we just don't have access to it because it's proprietary.

Sorry for the long and winding answer; it's an interesting question and I don't think there's any hard and fast rule that I'm happy with here.

  • Thanks. "But very specific questions about the internals of proprietary software often won't ever be answerable by anyone except an employee of the company that wrote the software." -> the OP typically doesn't know ahead of time if the information is publicly available. – Franck Dernoncourt Jul 23 at 17:17
  • " few proprietary software vendors do in fact participiate in Q&A on the network, but 99% of the time, asking questions like this is not really productive, because the "answers" you get will be someone's guess" -> there is at least one BlueJeans employee on SU, who already answered one question. Closing the question kills all hope to have an answer, and deter company employees to monitor SU. – Franck Dernoncourt Jul 23 at 17:18
  • "because the "answers" you get will be someone's guess, supposition, or opinion (which is not terribly likely to be right) by making inferences based on the outward behavior of the software." -> In many cases, an educated guess can yield the exact answer or a good approximation of it. For example, is for my question the answer is that "BlueJeans analyzes the video to insert the people count", then that's quite easy to verify the answer. No need to access the BlueJeans code. – Franck Dernoncourt Jul 23 at 17:20
  • @f "BlueJeans analyzes the video to insert the people count" Anyone who proposed that as an answer (who wasn't employed by BlueJeans) would just be guessing. That's exactly what the closed as opinion based means. Any question that can only be answered by guess work and without facts to back up an answer is off-topic for that reason. – DavidPostill Jul 23 at 17:58
  • @DavidPostill it's quite easy to check with some experiments. it has nothing to do with opinions. – Franck Dernoncourt Jul 24 at 20:04
  • " Your question here, on the other hand, does not ask something that we can go test. You're asking about an algorithm which can be literally anything. " -> the question can be tested. – Franck Dernoncourt Aug 23 at 3:17

Unclear what you're asking might be a better close reason I suppose

Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question.

There's no actual problem to be solved - and if there is, its pretty much impossible to be solved at the end user level. If overestimation of users is an issue (which it can be), its at the service, not application level.

  • "Unclear what you're asking might be a better close reason I suppose" -> Thanks, what's unclear about the question? – Franck Dernoncourt Jul 23 at 8:32
  • "There's no actual problem to be solved" -> Does a question have to be about a problem? I don't see it specified on superuser.com/help/on-topic. Many questions posted on this website aren't about problems, e.g. How does a computer restart itself?, which has received 483 upvotes and 3 downvotes so far. – Franck Dernoncourt Jul 23 at 8:34

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