Is your community designed to get answers to questions?

I have scribbled a few notes from the Stack Overflow community presentation below, so excuse the style of writing; there’s also times for where the points are made on the video if you simply want to jump to them. Hope it’s useful.

Joel Spolsky – Cultural Anthropology of Stack Exchange from HN London on Vimeo.

Stack Overflow/Stack Exchange gets close to 180m pageviews a month; it’s been in business 4 years; I am looking at community from cultural anthropologist viewpoint – we’ve tried to create a society specifically to meet the goal of getting answers to questions

1. Usenet was designed so that there was no central server, to discuss you hit reply, and the post quoted the previous discussion item – which led to a culture of ‘nitpickyness’ – or ‘Fisking’ as bloggers call it.

In fact world’s very first troll was on Usenet, someone who created a strawman in order to generate a heated argument. Were other online forums though that did not have the culture argument of nitpicky argument (05.40).

So a design decision taken by accident, where the reply button quoted everything, that was enough to create the culture of usenet.

2. So these lessons were used to create the culture of Stack Overflow, designing every single aspect of the user design.This lesson well understood by architects in terms of design of a room influences how people use it, sometimes accidentally – eg the famous Spanish steps in Rome. (07:53)

3. And most forum software follows Usenet, response to a response, threaded or linear (08:40). Problem is that is a terrible way to get answers to questions – copying email from the era of the mainframe.

4. First impressions (09:40) – another important factor is to get rid of ppl you don’t want rapidly – puts up a pic from @occupy Wall St’ – allows you to make an immediate judgement as to whether want to join that protest.

5. When started off looked at communities which provided questions and answers – starting with Yahoo Answers (11:00). And realise from looking at it that actually a chat room for teenage girls..and because Yahoo did nothing to repel the wrong ppl they got who they got and they are repelling anyone who could answer a question..Same applies to, same with Askville bought by Amazon that a no ones pays any attention to whatsoever “What is the 21st largest (US) state?”.

6. With Stack Overflow designed to attract expert programmers and repel ppl who are not..(12:58)

7. One of first ways designed for the site to stand apart from traditional forums is to allow ppl to vote on *questions* (16:28)

8. More valuable is being able to vote on answers…why?..prob with online discussion traditionally is that it provokes a response, rather than an answer..but instead voting brings all the good stuff to the top (17:40) you can immediately see what is the peer-reviewed answer..

We're not in Kansas anymore!

9. Other important thing about voting is that flows into reputation..and have a badge or ‘flair’ that reflects reputation (18:00) – get points for giving and answering questions – nice mechanism where is a % accept rate – higher the accept rate makes more attractive to answers his questions as he is more likely to accept your answer as right and thus give you points – [a ‘co-reputational’ system].

Moderators at Stack Overflow

10. The highest level of rank is a moderator, each of whom are elected..[Check out their document A Theory of Moderation for information on  moderation philosophy].

11. Makes the point that ppl in offline world portray a type of person they are through visuals too.

12. So taking from Xbox 360 can get badges (21:44)..

While admits ppl wont admit to being motivated by badges it does work…as it works if just one other person notices it..

And if only a few ppl care about badges out of a large community they establish cultural norms…this reinforces these norms..which then adds up to being able to show that on the career section of Stack Overflow [a smart example of community monetization] – and it’s by invite only which keeps the quality reasonably high

13. (25.18)
In terms of governance to save time, pushed down as much of this to members of the community; as you get points you get powers to do things.

14. meta.stackoverflow – behind the scenes govt of the site; deeper than that are the chat rooms..which is only for moderators with 275 people with access to it..all voluntary based

15. And when we change something we have a blog where we inform the community of changes

16. (27.33)
In terms of laws early on thought community be allowed anything, filter it using tags so could avoid by setting up feed to exclude for eg homework questions..realised this was not the right way to do it, and didn’t implement that way.

17. (27.40)
That leads to the philosophy of Stack Overflow – “We hate fun” – all that discussion stuff that ruins questions and answers. The clown image represents that philosophy.

18. Which is around fact that they want correct answers – despite fact ppl get upset when their answers get are five reasons that can get a question closed..this is the system that makes us get a 82% answer rate on all questions

19. When a question does not meet standards can close it, though still visible for a couple of days; use that like a decapitated head, to make an example of what is not tolerated..

Five reasons for closing questions

20. First = duplicate; question can be closed if its duplicate. We are not a discussion forum. We are here to create a permanent record of answers to questions, like Wikipedia, but on narrower range of topics. so if get duplicate will merge it into one place – so answer just in one place.

21. Note Stack Overflow not designed to serve ppl who ask the question, or those who answer it. It serves the internet at large, people who put question into Google and who find the question already on our site. Reason is that 100 times those ppl as those asking questions.

22. Backed up by fact that can edit question on Stack Overflow and then answer it if it does not make sense to you. And if that not solve the person who asked the question’s problem then tough, they can ask again.

23. Second = off topic; have 81 different sites/verticals, everyone has rules as o which is on topic and which is not. This is how we reinforce positive first impressions..that’s the only way you can bring experts in, and not feel like they are answering homework questions..

24. (34.00) Third = not constructive; a question that likely to encourage debate and opinion, rather than facts. “We hate conversation, we don’t like discussion” we can vote up answers that are correct. Something you write when you are 13, it’s just ‘heat’ – and you can’t learn anything from them.

25. Fourth = not a real question. Essentially someone trying to start a discussion rather than ask a question..or overly broad like ‘teach me how to programme’ – ie when the question is one sentence and the answer is a book..

26. Fifth = too localised..(37.00) – where a question is not going to help anyone, where only help the person asking the question. But we don’t care about these people, the people who ask questions.

Our great city

27. They are rules of our great city..with some much complexity within a 20m community we help define the rules, shape the culture that works in a way that it accomplishes the goal of getting answers to your questions – as programmers we are not doing computations any more – we are creating entire (online) cultures + societies – we are inventing the future – thanks.v.much;-)

Usenet explained