Stackoverflow social dynamics

Tuesday 4 November 2008This is over 14 years old. Be careful.

Stackoverflow is a new programmer’s question and answer site from Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky, and it’s a very nice site: cleanly designed, with lots of dynamic page goodness.

The part that interests me about it, though, are the social dynamics. They’ve done a clever job with their reputation system: users on the site earn reputation points based on their participation, for example, based on how other community members vote up or down on answers. The points don’t mean anything, you can’t cash them in, but having them displayed next to your name everywhere on the site is a powerful motivator, especially for quantitative engineer-types.

In addition to reputation points, there’s a large collection of badges you can earn, for example by asking a popular question, or doing a lot of re-tagging.

Put together, reputation and badges are powerful motivators. They turn the site into a game, where being useful members of the community gives you tangible (though virtual) points. Questions are answered within seconds of being asked, as eager developers try to pounce and be the first with the correct answer. Questions with widely-known answers frequently have a half-dozen correct responses within minutes.

I don’t see much on the site that will engender a real community, though. In fact, the questions are strictly policed to be about programming, and any off-topic discussion is quickly curtailed. This might be a mistake: off-topic threads are an important part of building a larger sense of place. On the other hand, ensuring all discussion is “useful” will make the site much more appealing to new people who aren’t won’t get the in-jokes.

The primary goal of stackoverflow is to be a useful repository of answers to programming questions, and I think it will succeed at that. Time will tell if it goes in other directions and becomes something larger.

BTW, one other dynamic: since Jeff and Joel are Windows developers, their readership is very Windows-heavy, and as a result, the stackoverflow crowd is heavily tilted in that direction as well.


This reminded me of an excellent presentation I've been digesting for the past week or so, about applying design practices from the gaming world to make non-game apps more usable by making them more fun and goal-oriented.
The Australian broadband web site Whirlpool has had a similar idea for years now, where other users in the site vote on the usefulness of your input. This in turn provides you a rank of sorts, which among other things lets you enter into 'off topic' forums which aren't related to broadband & technology.
@Joe Ganley:

Thank you... that was a wonderful link!
Actually, considering how Windows-heavy Joel/Jeff are, the SO content isn't that Windows-centric at all. There's a lot of cross-platform Q/A, like Python, C, C++, PHP, and a lot of OS-agnostic web development Q/A as well.

Also: while the off-topic stuff is mostly closed down quickly (and personally, I like that), there are some topics that get popular enough that they aren't (best programming cartoon, best programming quote, etc). Joel/Jeff on the SO podcast have said that they're ok with that.

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