On StackOverflow.com.. the founders dilemma

3 minute read


StackOverflow is a the programming Question and Answer resource.

It combines elements of a forum where anyone can ask a Question or Answer one, elements of Digg and Reddit where anyone can vote on anything (thereby creating credibility), elements of a blog where anything can be commented on, and elements of a wiki because the Questions, Answers and Comments can be edited to keep it up to date.

Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood

Founded by Joel Spolsky (of JoelOnSoftware.com) and Jeff Atwood (of CodingHorror.com), the quality and sheer speed of answers on StackOverflow was due initially to their existing readerships getting involved as early adopters, helping them and each other share their knowledge on day-to-day programming problems.

But therein lies a dilemma..

The readerships of JoelOnSoftware and CodingHorror are also interested in the wider Software Development topics for which Joel and Jeff write about.

The kind of questions that concern code quality, or best practice, or what makes a good developer.

The kind of questions that draw on experience to debate or answer.

The kind of questions that Jeff has asked the community not to ask on StackOverflow.

And I understand his reasons - StackOverflow isn’t really built for discussion or debatable questions because it orders responses by votes instead of time (by default), which makes conversational threads difficult to follow, and also that the correct answer will be different for different situations. As Jeff points out, ultimately all of these questions can be answered with the same, simple reply - “it depends” - the synonym for it depends on StackOverflow has become the subjective tag.

The answer to the subjective style of question is a combination of the answers - and that combination will be different for each person reading, and that combination could well be different each time it is read with a different perspective. The discussion around the various elements of ‘it depends’ answers the question. And the consideration of the depending elements of any subjective programming question is a huge part of improving as a software developer.

Unfortunately for Jeff, StackOverflow is in many ways a honey-pot for subjective questions. Like mini blog-posts, the poster gets to start the debate with an established, skilled, experienced and knowledgable community. It’s like Joel and Jeff handing them the attention and contributions of their combined blogging traffic - all the better to get everyone considering topics they hadn’t yet thought about.

Subjective questions have a much broader readership appeal than narrow focussed niche questions - more readers means more answers, comments and votes - collectively called activity. Activity keeps the question on the home-page and visible to more readership potential, which in turn means more readers, and more activity. Broader appeal also means greater rewards for the original poster in terms of Badges - from people simply reading the question, and of Reputation - from people liking the question and voting it up.

But, fundamentally, the JoelOnSoftware and CodingHorror readerships are already predisposed to the public deliberation of wider Software Development topics, and those discussions will take place wherever those readerships congregate. The Badges and Reputation are icing on the real rewards for this group - that consideration and discussion with their programming peers helps everyone improve.

Is StackOverflow the home for those subjective questions and their discussion?  Well, I guess it depends.