Blog Post

StackOverflow

I recently joined StackOverflow, which is a kind of N & Q for programmers created by Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky. It's a hugely interesting site from a social media studies perspective, and it makes some unusual choices about the balance of convention and code that I think are worthy of attention.

It's somewhat like Wikipedia in that one of its goals is to be a repository of useful information with a minimal focus on user identity (at least on one level), but it also has a compelling social element. It accomplishes this by making two decisions:

  1. Reputation is rigidly formal and quantified.
  2. Social networks are entirely based on ad-hoc conventions.

So you get points for practically everything you do on the site, and you're always aware of the scores of other users. At the same time there's absolutely no structured way to build a list of "friends", find people with similar interests, etc. This works surprisingly well. Communities within StackOverflow (and its sister site MathOverflow) grow around sets of tags and form social structures according to their own internal logic.

I'm curious about whether something like this could work in the humanities ("digital" or not), possibly as a way to replace field-specific mailing lists. FogCreek (the company behind StackOverflow) is preparing to make it possible for groups in other disciplines to start their own sister sites, provided that they can demonstrate that there's sufficient community commitment. I'd prefer a more open platform, but all of the Stack sites are free to use and FogCreek has shown an encouraging commitment to Creative Commons licensing. The software is so good that it could be an interesting experiment.

Does anyone else here have experience with StackOverflow? I've been using the site primarily as a way to work on my Haskell skills, and my profile page is here. I suggest giving the site a look even if you aren't a programmer; it's a fantastic example of crowd-driven online pedagogy.

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2 comments

Great post, Travis.  I responded to you in my own blog.  Thanks so much!   As we undertake an overhaul of this HASTAC site, with its very rickety back end, one thing we all want to do is include badges and points and other such mechanics into the new site.   

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Thanks for this. I've signed up for their corollary http://doctype.com for web design issues.  Maybe someone there can help me figure out why Internet Explorer hates hastac.org! ;-)

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