Thursday, October 23, 2008

StackOverflow: the good, the bad, the ugly

The eternal dilemma for developers is finding the answer to their specific question. There are a number of sites on the web that try to help, some free, some not.

Stackoverflow is the latest attempt to create an ultimate resource for answers to programmers questions. It is the brain child of notable (or notorious depending on your view) doyens of the development community, Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky (who has Kiwi heritage).

The actual site is a work of genius. It is clean, clear and crisp and is, without a shadow of doubt, the best website engine of it's kind. Period.

I have been a member since the very early beta days. (User Tag is KiwiBastard BTW) In the early days there was a limited number of people on the site, but even so, questions where answered in quick time, and a question would stay on the front page a good amount of time, so that people had a chance to offer a reasoned answer.

Since then the private beta has gone public, the noise to signal ratio has increased. Post are only on the front page for a limited time. The questions are generally still answered but because there is more traffic, people rush an answer. It also appears that people won't bother answering a question once it has had a few answers. The reason for this is both the pro and the con of the site. The site is driven by a points and badge system.

Basically, you get points in a number of ways:

- Getting your answer upvoted
- Getting your question upvoted
- Getting your answer accepted

There are other subtle ways to get points, but it becomes addictive and like a game. So you find people don't bother answering a question that has been answered, because the chance of getting points is lower than answering a question that has no or few answers. While this is good because it means new questions get answered, it also means sometimes a question never gets a CORRECT answer. This is of course a problem.

The argument is, with more people, then there should be more eyeballs on each question so the net is the same as when it was a smaller audience. This argument seems to work in theory, I am finding in implementation it doesn't. The turnover of question is such that, a question just doesn't stay on the front page very long.

The other issue I am finding, is the tolerance for newbies is very low. People seem to get down voted if they ask a seemingly stupid question. Seemingly stupid to experienced developers, but we were all noobs once. I try to show tolerance to these people and answer their question the best I can, and maybe point them in the right direction. It's the fair thing to do, and I'm sure that Atwood and Spolsky would prefer this approach to down voting and alienating new developers.

Aside from the minor gripes, it is a great site. It will become the go to site for developers. Of that there is no doubt. I just hope that over time, newbies become better accepted, and people get use their upvoting ability a little more.


Shaun Austin said...

I almost completely agree with everything you said. The attitude of the self appointed "old sages" of the site (the ones who raced to high rep before the end of the beta and are now in a continuous battle to stay on the first page of users, pathetic!) and others towards new users is at times quite embarrasing. For me the worst aspect is the "closing questions power" which does at times get completely out of hand.

What I would say about the newbies though is that a lot and I mean a LOT of newbie questions are just pointless questions for the sake of asking a question so that they can get started on badge earning etc. You look at the list and see "off-topic" or "subjective" or whatever tags on a question like "What is your favourite mouse clicking finger?" and you just know that it's some newbie on 10 rep.

Webplore said...

Really informative post. helped me alot. thanks.