Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why Stack Overflow Is Doomed

Stack Overflow / Stack Exchange has two goals, which can sometimes be in tension.

  1. Cultivate a pool community of contributors, and motivate them to produce high quality questions and answers.
  2. Be an authoritative source of questions and answers.
The problem is that sometimes the contributors recruited in Goal #1 want to post content that is not strictly a factual question or answer. Sometimes we want to do polls; sometimes we want to post jokes; sometimes we want to discuss questions that do not have a definitive answer.

The way SO/SE has elected to address this is through aggressive moderation, and when people complain, to lecture us about how this aggressive editing is what makes SO/SE great and prevents it from devolving as other sites have in the past, and that these other contributions are "making the internet worse."  (Joel gets extra points here by posting his lecture outside the SO / SE network, so as to model that this is the type of content that does not belong in SO / SE.

There are a couple problems with this.

First, people are attracted to SO / SE by the content that is there rather than the content that isn't.  Does it help that users don't have to wade through a bunch of garbage to get to the pearls of wisdom?  Sure.  Would it matter if there wasn't worthwhile content there in the first place? No.

Second, what SO / SE is saying to its "community" is that we don't want all of you.  We just want the part of you that attracts hits from Google and makes us look good.

This is fine in some contexts.  It may be reasonable for an employer to request that employees leave various aspects of their personalities at the door (though it may be advantageous not to).

But for a voluntary community?  One in which you are asking people to volunteer to provide content? (even unsolicited) Why would I want to contribute to a community that only accepts the marketable aspects of me?  Don't I already have a job?

The other response is that more whimsical discussions are welcome in "chat."  As the name suggests, this is essentially a ghetto for content SO / SE doesn't want to stand behind, but in recognition that some people need an outlet.  It has not taken off.

Essentially, what SO / SE is implementing is a social solution.  Delete / marginalize / stigmatize content that is undesirable.  This result is considerable collateral damage, as many contributors decide that if the community doesn't want their more whimsical content, it can do without their more technical content as well.

It seems to me that there's a technical solution out there that would allow contributors to post what they want, and the site to present a filtered picture to the outside world, without forcing contributors into a "chat"-type ghetto.

If a site figures out how to do this, and execute on the other points that make SO great, it can pass it.

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