StackOverflow is SpiritUnderflow - A plea to not deprioritise content and spirit

Tue 23 September 2008

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I must confess back in the mid 90s I was an avid usenet user. Over the years I have watched the overall development community online interaction landscape changing (mailing lists, web based forums, blogs, wikis, blog aggregators, voting systems etc.). While each change seemed a little questionable at times, these have brought in a tremendous vibrancy in the developer interactions even though I still feel like composing a Usenet GaGa song (just like Freddie Mercury did the Radio Gaga thing). While I wondered as each change was introduced, what it implied, I never felt strongly enough about it to speak loudly. Till Now.

Take a look at stackoverflow. Its seems to be getting a tremendous developer community traction. I wish it the very best and believe it has been successful in many ways in being able to attract so much traffic. But as I move around it, I just feel a little odd. I also feel a little old perhaps. While the following may seem to be a rant it is not. I end the post with a suggestion which I suspect might be helpful to people who might be having similar opinions.

  1. Content gets deprioritised : Here is a list of things that appears in a bigger font than the main content / discussion itself.

    • Vote Up Arrow

    • Vote Down Arrow

    • Number of votes received

    • Asked When

    • How many people answered it

    • How many votes it received

    • How soon it was answered

    • When was it last updated

    • Advertisement blurb text

Don't get me wrong. Its not like I am against this information. But so much metadata about the question / answers and displayed so boldly ? I want to come into the site review some questions quickly, review their answers, maybe post a few questions or answers myself, and want to go back on do my work. So much additional information is quite distracting and imho leads to much more inefficient browsing sessions.

  1. Voting is too much in your face : I think voting is useful. Voting allows a democratic mechanism of content prioritisation. But this is way too much in the face. There's no way I can focus on the content without getting distracted by the votes per answer. One of the limitations of voting is that there is no way to understand why someone liked or disliked your answer. Good old usenet or other non voting channels of communication forced everyone to chip in descriptively which made for a much richer content.

  2. Am I in an election ? Since voting has been made so prominent, try hard as you can it is difficult to get away from trying to find out how many votes your earlier responses got, and how many points you have accumulated. I suspect it also starts driving your behaviour somewhat (more on that later) in a narcissistic pattern which starts shifting your focus from communicating ideas to pitching self (its a subtle difference but a strong one nevertheless). I don't mind pitching at all, in fact I do it in multiple places including in my blog. But pitching self can be too distracting when carried forward to every question and answer.

  3. Am I a pin up board ? Whats this thing with badges ? Thirty different types of them to be precise. This number is probably ten times what might be useful (Novice, Seasoned, Guru .. or something similar). Why am I even getting these ? And why does how many badges I have need to be carried around wherever my user id is shown. Again, these toys are taking us away from content.

  4. Where is the spirit ? The thing I find lacking the most is the "spirit" of discussion. Now I don't particularly encourage the use of expletives or do it myself, but I can be exceptionally strong at times in my communication. Some discussions on usenet, online forums, blogs etc. get quite interesting not because of the content alone, but also because of the personalities behind the same. I do not generally see any strong language (not that I particularly regret it per se but its an indication of the lack of spirit). I would qualify most discussions I have browsed as quite good on content but extremely tepid in spirit. This could be due to the contributors keeping an eye on the number of votes their answers are getting (almost feels like a extremely busy place of worship at times instead of a noisy bazaar that I personally would so much want to look forward to).

So should we do away with all this stuff ? Absolutely Not. All I am requesting is that we maintain a sense of balance in prioritising the different aspects of online communication. While there are other of ways in which StackOverflow is superior, I am sure one of the sites it could look as a reference in the context of the points I mentioned above is reddit.com.

Reddit comments page has voting based prioritisation, karma points. But these are never in your face and they don't overshadow the content. You can actually safely browse through the page and ignore these. There are no other distractions. On any particular topic, one can cover many many more opinions in reddit much faster than in stackoverflow, and in any given browsing session, one can cover many more pages / questions in reddit than one can in stackoverflow.

I suspect there is a good likelihood, my opinions are in the minority but a minority that is not miniscule in size. I am opening a request in stackoverflow uservoice. If you feel supportive of the thoughts expressed above, please support by voting for the request : Provide alternate skin / theme for content focused browsing.

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