September 13, 2008

Another Stack Overflow review

images_2Joel Spolsky of Joel On Software and FogCreek fame and Coding Horror Jeff Atwood have been kicking up a lot of dust recently with Stack Overflow. We've been able to follow the developments around the creation of this site for about half a year now on their podcast http://blog.stackoverflow.com. And the site has been open for beta testers for one and a half months. I've been hanging around there for the last two weeks too. And since the site is going to be opened to the public tomorrow I thought this might be a good idea to write down some of my experiences and ideas around the site.

Stack Overflow is a kind of Wiki/Forum hybrid designed for question-and-answer interactions. The intended audience are programmers so everything that's not related to programming is considered off-topic. The site uses badges system that works a bit like XBox live achievements and a reputation system to encourage active users to interact more and to post high quality content but the site will be very open to causal users that have not signed in.

I've been pleasantly surprised by how good this works. Sometimes it works a bit too well. The reputation system can be a bit addictive. I've seen the site referred to as Crack Overflow. Not all questions get anwered correctly but most of them do. Of course you can get this with any community, some people try to be heard by shouting and some people try to be heard by telling interesting things. On the whole the reputation system seems to be good at getting the 2nd category of people heard. But it's not perfect.

There seems to be no good place for meta-discussions. People asking questions about how to behave for example get voted down quickly. There is a FAQ thread and a separate site where some discussion takes place but both of these are a bit out of band so most people don't use these. Posts about stack overflow get removed by the site-owners and this seems to enforce the hostile behaviour against meta-discussions. I think the meta-discussion is really important if you want to create a healthy community. In groups like this People need a way to establish etiquette and rules of conduct for a group like this to be succesfull. I've been removing my answers if they get voted down so unpopular answers don't obscure more popular answers but I don't know if this is the right way to do it and I don't really feel like asking a question about this.

Another problem is the complexity of the site. Wiki's work because they're simple. Forums empose some more rules on their users and seem to need a lot more maintenance because of this. If you look at emergent systems this seems to be a recurring theme. Systems with a small set of rules encouraging positive behaviour seem to have a bigger chance of succes than complicated systems with a lot of rules.

Stack overflow has some aspects of a Wiki and some aspects of a Forum. To implement these ideas that sometimes seem contrary to each other (Wiki's are community editable while content in forums is owned by individual users) there are a lot of extra rules. This usually means there are more loopholes to exploit and the system gets easier to game. I hope this doesn't happen with Stack Overflow but the reputation system adds some extra motivation to game and exploit the system. There are easy ways to get some extra reputation although they take some work and some time due to some extra rules implemented to overcome this. Adding too much rules like this can hurt the legitimate user of the system too though so this is a fine line to walk.

Of course these are minor concerns. There are already over 5000 registered users and the system seems to work better with every user added. The least you can say is that the site is an interesting experiment in social engineering. If Stack Overflow fails then it will be a great inspiration for similar sites. But I don't think it will fail. There will probably be some issues in the future but those will get resolved. I'll probably be a long time user of the site.

If you want more information you can look up the site itself at

You can listen to the stackoverflow podcast for more background information.

And if you're interested in some of the criticism that stack overflow has created

And you can read more about Joel Spolsky or Jeff Atwood on their blogs.

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