Stack Overflow – a Winner at a Turning Point

Stack Overflow has been running well for over a decade – but it may fall apart soon…

Stack Overflow began in 2008 as a site to help programmers get information faster in the form of a Q&A site.

From the very beginning, Stack Overflow was extremely community oriented. The site has four main interfaces for user interaction. One is the regular question and answer site, similar to Yahoo Answers. The site also has a “Meta” section, which is a clone of the regular question and answer site, but for questions and answers about the site itself. The Meta site is also used for the Stack Overflow company to get user feedback about particular decisions. Chat rooms on Stack Overflow also provide a sense of community to developers, providing a place where they can talk to other programmers about similar interests. Stack Overflow provides a job-finding interface as well, where programmers can search for employment.

There are a few other mechanisms key to understanding Stack Overflow. As users participate on the site and their posts are voted on, their account gains reputation which is publicly displayed. In addition, Stack Overflow, is moderated by users who volunteer their time to remove useless or harmful posts. However, Stack Overflow differs in that its moderators are mostly chosen by the community of users through an election process.

Thus, Stack Overflow’s value to users is primarily based around providing a community for programmers. There is easy access to helpful information, transparency about what the company is doing and how the site works, conversation groups, ways to search for jobs, and users essentially moderate themselves to build the community they want.

On the revenue side of things, Stack Overflow is funded through two main sources: Stack Overflow Talent (job-finding) and advertising. Stack Overflow has now also added a Stack Overflow Teams product as well, which allows companies to clone the Q&A model for their own personal use.

Since 2008, Stack Overflow has over 18 million questions, with over 11 million users and 51 million unique visitors per month. This is a huge value add for programmers across the world.

So why is Stack Overflow at a tipping point?

 

They’re on the brink of losing their old community.

Here’s a timeline of important events (many have been excluded for succinctness):

 

The company now needs to decide how to react. What can they do to revitalize their trust among longtime users? Do they need to keep longtime users, or are they happy to discard old users and bring in new ones? What message will this send to those new users?

If Stack Overflow reacts poorly here, they may end up being a digital loser. Their site’s model is not patented, and anyone can copy it. Stack Overflow thrives on its community; if its community decides to migrate, Stack Overflow will no longer be able to make money by connecting people with jobs, serving advertisements, and the Stack Overflow for Teams product may lose credibility. Their future is on the line.

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2 thoughts on “Stack Overflow – a Winner at a Turning Point

  1. Interesting article! Anyone who has coded (including me) can attest to the importance of stackoverflow. Sad to see the recent news regarding the moderator firings and changes to the website. Do you think this is a part of the broader resentment against tech (Google faced a lot of protests, Amazon was put under a lot of scrutiny although the context was different than StackOverflow)? Or is this happening only at StackOverflow? What do you think about the other community platforms such as Kaggle / Github that have growing popularity in the recent times? I think there’s space for all to succeed as long as they listen to the community.

    1. I think that this is very much a Stack-Overflow-only resentment that has been building up over quite some time. The theory that many users have is that there’s some sort of deadline occurring in terms of funding on SO’s end, and so they’re rapidly trying to become more profitable, which is causing them to move away a bit from the completely user-centric mentality they had in the past.

      To be clear, Stack Overflow isn’t doing anything evil or bad on a global scale. They’re just paying less attention to their users on meta, and more attention elsewhere, whether that’s perceptions on Twitter, feedback from other surveys from people who often may not feel like they belong on Meta yet (e.g. LGBTQ+), or a funding source telling them to become more profitable.

      In that sense, I think these complaints are very unique to Stack Overflow. There’s no external worries about anti-trust or working with the military, etc. Just a community that’s a upset with decisions the leaders are making about the company internally.

      I definitely think there’s space for all of these communities to grow immensely! I think part of what’s tricky with Stack Overflow is that I believe they are trying to grow their community, and through doing so, realized that the majority of users are not on Meta. Most of the posts I’ve linked to in this piece come from Meta, and I think the people on Meta may be fairly upset. However, I don’t think many users are on Meta. Notice that the Meta post with the most votes had less than 2500 votes. And there are over 11 million users.

      So even if Meta blows up and people decide to quit, I think there’s likely another community that will be happy to step into their place and keep the site running. However, Stack Overflow needs to make sure that they don’t send the wrong message to that new community as well and be more clear about where they’re getting feedback from. A lot of these changes seem out of the blue, and Meta’s not sure why they’re happening. Once it becomes more clear that feedback from “The Loop” or other surveys are what are driving change, I think the community will grow and become more supportive.

      Don’t get me wrong – I’m already saddened by how little Meta has been taken into account recently – it was one of my favorite things about the site, that anyone can propose ideas and ask questions about the site itself and there’s so much transparency. But apparently there are many people who unfortunately don’t feel like they belong on Meta, and it looks like the push (for now) is to try to engage those people and take them into account in other ways, rather than trying to figure out how to fix Meta so that it’s welcoming for everyone.

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