Tuesday, September 25, 2012

You Can't Help Everybody

I love Stack Overflow, that much is certain. But why? What is it that makes Stack Overflow such an attractive place for professional software developers? What is that quality contained therein which just makes the experience... better?

It's the noise to signal ratio, hands down. I've been on forums, I've been in newsgroups, I've subscribed to email lists, etc. They all suffer from the same problem... noise. And lots of it. Where does this noise come from? Well, the Internet of course. But these things are on the internet, just like Stack Overflow is. So how is it that they get all of this noise and we don't?

There's something about the Stack Overflow community which, while not acting as a "walled garden" by keeping the community close and private, does present a barrier to entry for noise. It's a very simple yet radically unconventional approach to an online community. Quite simply, not everybody is welcome at Stack Overflow.
Not everybody is welcome at Stack Overflow.
I told you it was radically unconventional. It even sounds rude, doesn't it? But it's true, and it works. Don't get me wrong, we welcome everybody by default. But not everybody belongs there. And the community does a fantastic job chasing away unwelcome participants.

Throughout other online communities, numbers are important. More users means more advertising revenue, more content, more incentive for even more users, etc. So not only is everybody welcomed, but the maintainers do whatever they can to try to cater to everybody. Adding countless features, making countless modifications, etc. And what ends up happening is that they lose the focus of the community itself. They dilute the purpose in order to try to cater to a wider audience.

By trying to be everything for everybody, they end up being nothing of substance to anybody.

Stack Overflow takes a different approach. We vehemently defend the core purpose of the community, and while we welcome anybody who wants to participate we also reject anybody who doesn't want to be a part of that core purpose. The purpose itself is simple... To provide a place for software developers to ask questions and get answers about the software they're developing.

To illustrate, I came across an interesting example today of somebody who isn't welcome in our community. Take a look:
To be fair, some of the comments came off as a bit rude. We do have a problem with that. But this is hardly the worst of it. The real problem here, clearly, was the person asking the "question." They didn't want to clarify, they didn't want to try to work toward a solution to their problem, they just wanted to argue.

This person was a clear example of a help vampire. They were more interested in arguing about the question than in improving it, and it desperately needed improvement. Where does this sense of entitlement for help from others originate? The Internet, I guess.

So, not having received... whatever it is this person was looking for, they rage-quit. And that's ok. Nobody from Stack Overflow is going to contact them. Nobody is going to chase them down and try to make nice. The community will do just fine without them. Essentially, the creation of content like this is unwelcome. (Though I can at least give the user a tip of my hat for pro-actively deleting the question, otherwise we would have had to clean up after them.)

Is the user now no longer welcome at Stack Overflow? That's up to the user. It's really the content that's unwelcome. So if the user continues to submit such content then the user would demonstrate themselves as being unwelcome. If the user improves the content, then the user becomes welcome. The point is that it's the user's decision, not ours. We simply represent the community and the standards therein. The user can participate or move along. (Or rage quit, if they'd rather do that.)

We're not out to help everybody. We're out to help each other. Anybody is welcome to be a part of that if and only if they have the same purpose... to help each other.

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