Dear StackExchange: Will You Be My Valentine?

With all due respect to my partner, I am totally in love with StackExchange, the network of Q&A sites that began with StackOverflow and, over the last few years, has blossomed into one of the best communities I have ever seen on the interwebs.

I don’t say things like that lightly. I mean, I’m one of those grumbly old jaded “get offa my lawn, you!” people who has been working and building things on the web for a really long time (18 freaking years, if you’re counting at home). I’ve kept my distance from discussion/Q&A forums and listservs in recent years for a few reasons, boiled down to these: a lot of people are jerks, and a lot of people don’t even try to help themselves—both of these factors just waste everyone’s time, effort, and goodwill, and those are things I let affect me far more than I should.

But given the new year (always a good time to start new things), time on my hands after quitting my job, and a deep desire to get back to my roots (firmly planted outside of academia), I decided to commit time to becoming a good community member at StackExchange. Since I follow both Jeff Atwood (@codinghorror) and Joel Spolsky (@spolsky) on Twitter and have read/enjoyed/learned from each of their blogs for a long time, I figured if there was going to be any network that I embedded myself within, it was going to be one that they started.

I joined StackExchange on January 5th, and although I got a positive gut feeling immediately, I wanted to achieve the following goals before calling it “good”:

  • Focus my efforts within a small number of communities, matching the areas in which I have the most expertise and get the greatest enjoyment. With more than 80 Q&A sites, which cover many topics of interest to me and in which I have experience, this was no small feat. I settled on StackOverflow, Programmers SE, User Experience SE, and Project Management SE.
  • Follow and commit to the success of nascent sites in Area 51, the StackExchange staging area. I am following three proposals in the “define” stage (Presentations, Business Analysis, and Product Management) and am committed to four in the “commit” stage (Technology Recommendations, Management and Leadership, and The Workplace).
  • Achieve the Enthusiast badge on each of my four target sites; this badge is awarded for visiting the site for 30 consecutive days.
  • Achieve the Deputy badge on at least StackOverflow; this badge is awarded for raising 80 helpful flags for the moderators. Flags are primarily raised when questions are off-topic per each site’s FAQ, are too localized, are too broad, or otherwise need moderator help. Raising flags is one way I contribute to the smooth operation of each community, without the reputation to do more things like vote to close questions. (I actually have the Deputy badge on SO and Programmers SE.)
  • Edit, tag, re-tag, and otherwise help out questions where I can, so that they are easier for people to find, understand, and answer.
  • Gain at least 200 reputation in each of my four target sites, so that my “combined flair” badge (see sidebar) shows my commitment to each.

I did all of those things, and I am happy to say that my gut instinct was correct. This network is full of serious win, and it starts with the underlying Theory of Moderation plus the core rules of etiquette: be nice and be honest, civility rules, and rudeness is not tolerated.

I’ve read a lot of questions and answers (and posted my own), both in the main and meta sites for each community, and without fail the discourse is remarkably positive, helpful, and in accordance with the operating principles. The nastiest comment I’ve seen (which is to say, it is not nasty at all) would probably be a user providing a link to the most excellent “What Have You Tried?” post by Matt Gemmell, which is (to my mind) a much more constructive answer for a newbie than giving them something to copy and paste that they still won’t understand.

It’s so refreshing not to have to fight through a layer of crap just to help someone out, or to learn from others. Reputation is not something to mess with; it works. Reputation on the network is a measurement of the quality of your questions and answers, the skill with which you communicate information to the community, and how much that community trusts you. The more reputation you earn—and you earn reputation and badges independently of each site—the more privileges you get. The more privileges you get, the more you can help shape (and hold together, when necessary) the community. It’s such a simple concept, yet so very powerful. I know there are other sites based on reputation or points-driven privileges, but I’ve not experienced a situation before my 41 days with StackExchange in which it worked so smoothly and consistently, especially across different sites with their own nuanced FAQs and different moderators (and user bases). This says a lot about the community managers, moderators, and members, across the board.

I spend most of my brainpower reading, responding, and otherwise participating on Programmers SE and UX SE, and I am especially taken by the community at Programmers SE. This has to be a very difficult site to moderate, and there was recently an election to fill moderators slots (I was happy to have reputation enough to vote)—I do not envy the moderators their role, and I am deeply appreciative of the time and effort of all the moderators. It seems that Programmers SE has a history of being a dumping ground for stuff that didn’t fit at StackOverflow, but didn’t otherwise have a home. Despite having what is (to me) a pretty clear list of what is/is not on topic, an enormous number of questions are migrated to Programmers or asked, and are immediately closed. It looks bad to an outsider, I can imagine, but this site has a talented core community of people asking and answering conceptual questions about software development (broadly defined), and who is dedicated to staying on target.

In the sidebar of my website, in the box that includes my StackExchange flair, I have a note that says “Find a StackExchange site that appeals to you, and jump in,” and I really hope you do. It’s not all technical stuff, either—for instance, there’s a SE for English Language & Usage for all you language nerds (and I know a lot of them!), and there’s one for Cooking. I’m telling you, it’s a good list.

Not a day goes by that I don’t read a question and think “Patrick could really go to town on that question” or “Joe would be all over that question at UX SE”, or “No one ever introduce Adam to the Programmers or Mathematics or GIS SE, because he would never leave the Internet“. Also, I know a lot of people in higher ed (and related) who make mention of project management but perhaps have not been exposed to the actual profession, its norms, and its communities of practice; there’s a Project Management SE that is in beta—it could use more members and more questions.

One final note on how useful StackOverflow is to me, personally: it reminds me of the core audience I’m focused on teaching when writing all of my books. As I wrote in “Tech Books: Not Dead!”, my target audience is the absolute beginner. Boy howdy are there a lot of them who post on StackOverflow—many of their questions are rightfully closed as too broad, or low quality (no research effort), or duplicates, and so on. I study the questions they ask, as well as how they’re asking—the terminology they use, the way they construct their questions, what words or concepts they’re missing—to ensure that as I work on new editions of my books, I continue to cover the fundamentals, provide answers to “why am I doing this?”, and give more than their fair share of instruction in context for the student.

So, thank you, StackExchange, for being a great environment for gaining and creating new knowledge. Friends of mine (and readers who are not yet friends), I urge you to participate where you can, within a topic that lights you up. It seems to me that the communities around SE sites are filled with people who are there because the topic is fundamentally important to them, which only makes it a better place for everyone.

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4 comments on “Dear StackExchange: Will You Be My Valentine?
  1. Greg Wilson says:

    What do you think about a “novices’ area” (aka “Stack Underflow”) to help newcomers ease into the community? http://software-carpentry.org/2012/02/stack-underflow/

    • jcmeloni says:

      I think that technically it would be pretty difficult to implement within the current Stack paradigm, but if a proposal goes through Area 51 and makes it, it would be interesting to watch.

      But I don’t think that SE is unwelcoming to newcomers, and I really don’t believe that that the minimal requirements for newcomers to get help (e.g. ask a question in accordance with a site FAQ) are prohibitive. I don’t know how much more handholding would be actually helpful to the person. It’s completely reasonable to require people to put a little effort into the process — try something, look something up, look for existing Q&A on the SE site they plan to use. Those who don’t do that, and who instead approach SE as “do my (home)work for me”, aren’t going to be helped by more by being in a novices area (and in fact, there are plenty of folks who aren’t novices and are just lazy, who do that).

  2. So you’re the guy that’s putting all the flags in the moderation queue? =) J/K We’re thrilled that you feel so strongly about the network (I’m a moderator on StackOverflow) and look forward to your future contributions/love!

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