Stack Overflow Thoughts

by Krishna on August 21, 2008

I received my beta invitation to stackoverflow.com, the discussion form launched by Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky, some days ago. It has been fun playing around with it. For a beta site, it is highly functional, very fast and noticeably free of bugs (I noticed just one formatting problem which disappeared after an hour or so – maybe a browser insanity issue). For the most part, it is very intuitive and easy to learn.

What do I like about the site? First of all, it has a very clean design – good use of colors, shading and white space. The up-down vote controls, the gravatars, and the judicious use of links under various elements are also well placed. It is very pleasant compared to the typical programmer sites which are poorly designed or have all kinds of ads spread all over the page. Of course, SOF will have ads at some point, an objective already stated by the founders.

The badges and reputation scores seem to have served their purpose well. There is a lot of activity going on even with just the beta users. The content seems to be free of unwanted comments. While the quality of the questions does not seem to be especially high, the comments are of superior grade. I tried a few questions (2008 programming books, software architecture blogs [You need to get an invite to see these pages], etc.) and got some good responses. As the community grows, this would only improve, because you would continue to get more knowledgeable users (the “average” level of users does not matter).

It opened up a line of thought for me with respect to this blog. Stack Overflow could be used for researching a software development topic before I post about it. I could link or refer to the different comments and viewpoints. I think this is a great resource for non-List-A bloggers who can now tap into the huge community of Stack Overflow to do research and gain feedback about their ideas.

Now for the obligatory “constructive criticism”.

Stack Overflow (SOF) needs to consolidate their FAQ in one place and have it linked from the “FAQ” link at the bottom. There apparently seems to be a question that acts as the central repository for all FAQ’s. This is problematic for the simple reason that other users can edit that page (I suppose), but only the SOF programmers know the right answers. And they have to be bothered to review edits to the question, not just whenever the rules change.

Another problem is that apparently, questions can be deleted even if they have answers and yes-votes. I don’t agree that it is the prerogative of the questioner to delete such questions, because the question obviously had some value to users who spent time answering them. Maybe it should be made visible to the answers and yes-voters. It does seem that questions are in fact “hidden”. So this could be achieved.

Editing is only available to people who have earned a certain amount of reputation. Theoretically, this is a good idea. Unfortunately, the reputation score for being able to edit posts is a little too high in my opinion. It would prevent contribution from many good users who do not have the time for earning that score. Or even worse, the enthusiasm for contributing may be highest during the initial use of the application, but they cannot do anything. It is unlikely that they would come to edit many posts that they may have seen when browsing at the beginning.

An objection to this would be that new users can add answers. But having listened to all the SOF podcasts, my understanding was that SOF questions would actually serve as the authoritative page for the question like Wikipedia. If you have a question having 10 answers with different levels of accuracy and information, it is not as useful as the question rewritten to encapsulate the right information from all the answers. It is not possible in many situations to accept a single answer. The correct answer will only be an amalgam of all the answers.

Overall, a great effort. I am amazed that this is version 1, because the developers have done a really great job and thinking through the functionality in quite some depth.

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