Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Stack Exchange Ideology

One of the first things that most people relate Stack Exchange to are forums. So, lets get this out of the way first.

Stack Exchange is not a forum. 

It is not intended for discussions in the conventional sense. The format strictly discourages it and moderators have more than enough tools to control unnnecessary off-topic chit-chat. Not that they are dictators or the like.

Now, lets focus on what Stack Exchange actually is.

Euler Diagram. Not Venn.

This was posted by Jeff Atwood on Stack Overflow: None of Us is as Dumb as All of Us. It was intended to describe what Stack Overflow is, but is equally valid for all of Stack Exchange (100+ sites and counting).

Stack Exchange (SE) forms the tiny subset of this diagram that includes Wiki, Blog, Reddit and Forum.

  • Wiki signifies community action and contribution.
  • Blog signifies individual postings and contribution.
  • Reddit highlights the sharing and filtering of good content.
  • Forum signifies a part of the interaction that the site provides.

So, SE is much more than just a tech forum. SE provides an excellent format and has some strict policies in place, some of the best picks of which are :

  • Its objective Q&A
    SE does not accept discussion oriented or opinion oriented questions. These are kept away from every SE site like the plague. The format is specially tailored for questions that ask about getting from point A to point B, and answers describing the route. Any thing extra gets taken down quickly unless its relevant (take a cab, rather than the bus).

  • Every question is created equal.
    Each question goes straight on the main page, and there is no differentiation based on who asked, or what their standing in the community is. This does not happen on a lot of forums as popular users command more views than newbies.

  • Every answer is (almost) equal till proven otherwise.
    Every answer needs a certain level of technical skill on the part of the answerer otherwise they get downvoted and pushed down. Moreover, even the popular/famous users need to write as good or even better a 1000th answer than they did their 1st, otherwise they wont get votes. Unless you are Jon Skeet. With high reputation, come higher standards. Compare that to Quora or any technical Q&A site, where the most popular answerers can post weak answers and still get a deluge of upvotes.

  • Closing/Redirecting questions to already answered questions
    Every Web 1.0 forum does not have this feature. If great content is once created, you need to bookmark it to be able to find it in the future. If somebody else asks the same thing, you need to be around to guide them to it. Else, you have another post asking something answered 10 times before, and being answered, yet again.
    On SE, there is an extremely strict policy on closing questions. If there is a previously existing question that answers the same, then the new question is closed (no new answers can be posted to the new question) and redirected to the old question. This minimizes redundancy of content and makes good content widely available.

  • Voting. Both Up and Down.
    This ensures that good content stays up on the main pages and bad content disappears. This motivates users to work and put up good content. Also, this works on both questions and answers.

  • SE is not a social network. It doesnt intend to be.
    There are no options to follow a user or private message expert users. You get known, if at all, by your contributions to the site, and each contribution is evaluated by the same standards. This greatly reduces the chatter on the side and reduces unproductive content generation. Moreover, this means that users cannot have a group of followers who go about upvoting their posts. (Stalkers are present, but form a minuscule part of the community). Plus, there are regular checks to pick up and reverse serial voting patterns (serial voting refers to when a user upvotes a large number of posts belonging to the same user).

  • A very good gamified system
    This is usually not mentioned whenever we talk about SE, because users are so used to the system that they do not regard any part of it as something that is contrived or added. Most of the game elements work very well in excellent harmony. The system gets tweaked from time to time to keep with current community trends. You can interact directly with SE developers and community managers regarding any platform issues or suggestions, irrespective of you being an expert or a newbie. 

This should give a general idea of what Stack Exchange is all about and why it is such a huge success.

Originally posted on Quora.

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