Stack Overflow: The Close Wars

So, Stack Overflow is live since a few weeks, and it's gaining more and more momentum every day. I am a member since the very first day of private closed beta, and I have to say that Stack Overflow turned out to be a million times better than I expected.

Normally, communities on the Internet tend to follow a rule that has been described by Penny Arcade more than 4 years ago, and that still (and possibly even more) applies. Yet on Stack Overflow, it is a bit different. People generally... what was that word R-word again? ah yes, people generally seem to RESPECT each other, and that even outside of reputation. Truth be told: I think that the reputation system rewards people who spend a lot of time on the site, but people with the highest reputation are not necessarily the best developers on the site. I may have 12 times as much Reputation as John Resig or Scott Hanselman, but I am not a 12 times better developer than them. Actually, I think that I am more like 12 million times worse than any of them. But that also means that reputation is not used as an E-Peen. Because of the Question/Answer nature of the Site, people are getting respect for a single good answer. If I have a question and you answer it or at least point me in the right direction, I am grateful. Regardless if you invented the internet or if you are just some intern at some company, regardless if you have 1 or 10,000 reputation.

Also, I noticed that Stack Overflow often takes one factor out of the Penny Arcade equation: Anonymity. If you check the Users Page, you will see that many (if not most) active participants of the site actually have their real name in here. The SO Community actually has names and faces. It's not just some anonymous community where "DarkSlayer" talks to "PunkChick" and "PieLover" about who has the worst Avatar. So yes, I think that Jeff and the others really built up a working community here.

Ok, that's three paragraphs of praising the community, but the title of this article is "The Close Wars", which is possibly a bit exaggerated (and certainly a very bad pun), but it outlines a problem that the site may get and that will be interesting to monitor. Essentially, at a certain reputation level, people can close a question, which means that people can no longer answer to it. The Close-mechanism is usually used to close questions that do not belong on the sites or that are duplicates. Now, the first point is very vague, because since day one, there is the question about "What does belong on Stack Overflow?" Jeff even made a posting about it some time ago, yet now with more people getting the Close-right, I start to see more... interesting... decisions.

Take for example one of the more high-profile ones: Jon Skeet Facts?, a "question" that has been closed and reopened pretty much every time I refreshed my browser. In fact, it even required Jeff to write a Blog posting about it. It can be discussed all day long whether or not this question belongs on Stack Overflow, but in the past, we had some more joke-topics and generally, people had a great time. Of course, as the community grows, people are sometimes afraid and feel the need to ask if humour is allowed, while other people happily post new questions about "fun" topics.

I believe that at the end of the day, we are all geeks. Sure, software development is a job that pays the bills, but if it were only a job for me, I wouldn't be here sitting at 10 pm in the evening writing this post. For many many people, it is more than a job. It is a passion. Stack Overflow works as a sort of meeting place, even a shelter for us geeks. If it were strictly "I have this extremely narrow problem that only has one answer", then I would not give much about Stack Overflow, because then it feels like work. I enjoy answering questions if I can help, but then I also enjoy looking at what easter eggs people place in their code, or what Web comics they like to read. It's the technical questions that is the heart of the site, but it's the more fun/off-topic questions that is the soul. It's what puts a face on Stack Overflow. If it weren't for the feeling that there is this "geek culture" and that Stack Overflow is a meeting place for us geeks, then I would not give a damn about it.

So while it does not exactly make me sad to see some questions closed, I find it actually something that should be closely watched. A few days ago, a user asked about Open Source Content Delivery Networks. Someone then closed that question as "Not programming related" and the first two answers are not really that great. I mean: Sure, CDNs are big server farms, but hardware does not solve any problems without some software to run on it. And there are some people who are writing this software. Sometimes, it's hard to believe, but there are people out there in the world who write really big software. Like the guys at Cisco who write the operating system for their routers. A large part of the Internet runs through Cisco routers, and there are real people who are developing the operating system. There are real people working at Amazon, developing the Software for Amazon S3, there are real people who develop Google's App Engine. So what is wrong if someone who is interested in the software that runs on big server farms comes to Stack Overflow and asks about it? Why do people still believe that all problems are solved by hardware? Do these people also believe that "electricity comes from the wall plug", ignorant of the concept behind a power plant? I found it really sad, because that CDN Question was in my opinion a really interesting question that was unfortunately killed off before it became viable. If you look at the points that I've outlined and think a bit outside of the box (apologies for that buzzword), you might come to the conclusion that even without a big server farm, there is a lot that could be learned from looking at how a CDN works. Take for example centralized logging. That is something that comes up in many companies, and even if you only have 3 web servers in different countries, that is essentially already a Mini-CDN. If your company has offices in different parts of the world, maybe it can benefit from creating it's own CDN, utilizing techniques that were learned from looking at how the "big guys" do it?

As said, incidents like these are quite rare. Generally, people on Stack Overflow behave like adults, not like internet trolls. So it will be interesting to see how this evolves, but I hope that the gros of the community keeps embracing their inner geeks. It's the technical questions that make me go to Stack Overflow when I have a problem, but it's the interaction with a lot of like-minded individual that makes me go there even when I do not have a problem.

Comments (1)

Dillie-ONovember 26th, 2008 at 17:07

Greetings fellow SO user...

I think I first saw the "precursor" to the close wars when I saw the influx of "What is your favorite programmer X" questions that popped up. Tools, comics, music, it all came out. Part of me wanted to mark down/close them as attempts at instant rep, but then again, my two highest rep "answers" were in these questions, so I can't talk.

You've hit it quite right. So far the balance is good, we'll just have to keep doing our duty to make sure SO stays top notch.

Love the blog, keep it up!