stackoverflow.com: how to execute well on a good ideaMay 18th, 2009
Some time ago I started noticing on my google searches a newcomer: stackoverflow.com. At first I dismissed this as yet another SEO hack to divert traffic to some re-syndicated content of the old user groups and forums. But I was wrong. Turns out stackoverflow.com is an enterprise backed by well known industry names like Joel Spolsky of Joel on Software fame. Apparently I’ve been living in a cave, since this new site is quite popular and even doing a Stack Overflow DevDays tour!
Now being that I’m a forums and newsgroup addict with a long history of MSDN abuse, I had to join this one and start showing off my amazing knowledge and wit. OK, you can all stop laughing now. I am a noob, so what? I still love to answer questions 😉 and not actually knowing the answer has never a stop for me. Imagination is more important than knowledge!
I spend now about 4 days on stackoverflow.com and I must say that I’m impressed. First of all, they do offer innovation in how the content is gathered and presented. The hierarchical forums model was obviously obsolete and it was showing its age: new users have a hard time figuring out which forum is the right one, monitoring the questions is difficult as the volume increases, there are often questions that obviously span multiple topics and picking the one forum for it severely restricts the exposure of the said question, and implicitly the quality of responses. Instead stackoverflow.com goes for a tags based model. When you ask a question you choose tags relevant for it and you can mix and match tags as diverse as linq, objective-c and php in one single question.
Now tags based contents isn’t exactly new, but the way is executed on stackoverflow.com takes it to a new level. Of course they offer tags based browsing of topics. But they also keep track of the tags you must often interact with (ask or answer). You can browse tags within current tags to get the questions that cover multiple tags of your interest. And the tags system is completely open, anyone can create new tags and they even have awards for successful tags.
The next innovation idea I like is how they try to blend the line between wiki and forums. Topics that prove to be popular and have a good answer can be promoted to wiki entries. This makes the entry serve the same reference role the ‘sticky’ posts serve in forums, but with better functionality. Also rooted in wikis (and craigslist too) is the idea of member provided social policing for the content: answers get voted up or down by community members. Not only that, but questions also get to be voted up or down, which is something I have not seen elsewhere. And ultimately questions can be closed, responses deleted. How is this different from the forum administrators? These people are not administrators, are just ordinary community members. You gain reputation, you earn privileges.
The reputation system is not new, by now almost any community forum has a reputation points system in place. But with stackoverflow.com they added also a system of badges that I feel comes straight from the video games world of achievements and vanity awards : you get bronze, silver or gold badges for achieving tasks in the stackoverflow.com ecosystem. You get your Teacher badge for answering a question and receiving an Up vote, you get the Student badge for answering a question that receives an up vote, or even a gold badge of Great Answer if it gets voted up 100 times. Now these are, of course, vanity awards. We all know though how efficient they are in keeping users hooked in! Me, I’m eager to get my Critic badge…
The only serious thing missing is the RSS syndication of views, but I hear is in the plans.
But most impressive is the quality of execution on these good ideas. The site is fast and responsive. It provides suggestion to similar questions as you type yours. It provides fast navigation to your questions and answers. Visual notifications for changes since your previous check. Suggestions for related topics (ie. common tags). Is true that I don’t know how many users it carries. Judging from the ~30K Teacher badges, I’d guess some 50k users registered and active, as a conservative estimate.
Is also nice to see such an effort started from a grassroots movement, and not from the political sponsorship of an industry player. Today’s developer has to deal in the course of a single day with an NSConnection question, related to an issue of Appache .htaccess mod_rewrite and PHP cookie handling and resulting in a SQL Server access problem. A site like the Social on MSDN would not happily sponsor and encourage such questions, nor would it nurture and grow the community leaders that can answer such end-to-end and cross platform questions.