Joel Spolsky – The Cultural Anthropology of Stack Exchange

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This is a summary of Joel Spolsky‘s Business of Software 2012 presentation.

Joel is the CEO of Stack Exchange. Stack Exchange gets about 266 million monthly page views and 22 million unique views. Stack Exchange is about the size of Texas in terms of the number of monthly visitors.

Usenet and Online Forums

Cultural Anthropology was the most boring class Joel took in college, but it has been the most useful in the long run and now it is the only thing he uses. Building a website with 22 million users is an exercise in cultural anthropology.

The whole Usenet culture was a result of accidental and intentional choices in the software. The world’s first Internet troll used a straw man as the target of his flames.

We evolved from Usenet to online discussion forums. However, the behavior of discussion forum users is still similar to what emerged from Usenet, even if it wasn’t intentional. When you copy the same format of Usenet, you get Usenet.

We wanted Stack Exchange to be different. The whole idea of Stack Exchange was to disrupt all the accidental design choices resulting from the Usenet era, and make a culturally distinct site. If we know we’re going to build a culture, and what we want that culture to be, we can design for it. We designed Stack Exchange for the culture we wanted from our users.

Stack Exchange

Every time you see a group of people, you decide whether you’d like to join them. That’s the purpose of the homepage. Everything about the first impression on Stack Exchange is designed to drive the wrong people away, and incentivize the culture they want.

  • Reputation: Reputation is based on voting. When you first join the site your reputation is 1. Voting up (and down) answers and questions is a form of peer review that leads to a user’s reputation increasing over time on the site. Reputation provides recognition. As your reputation increases you are trusted more and are given more and more privileges and access to site functionality.
  • Badges: Badges can be obtained by doing certain tasks, and they let everyone see how awesome you are. The number of badges you’ve earned is displayed on your user card for everyone to see. Most people claim not to care about badges, but as soon as you think someone is seeing what you’re doing, you start to care about it more. That’s because it’s motivating to have someone notice something about you. The list of badges serves as a guideline for the kind of behaviors the founders of the site like to see.
  • Government: Every culture has it. Governance is up to the members of each Stack Exchange site. Each user earns more governing control of the site as their reputation increases. As you gain more reputation we begin to trust you more, so we give you access to more policing privileges. There is even a special site dedicated to discussing the governing aspects of the Stack Exchange sites – meta.stackoverflow.com. Stack Exchange’s blog and various chat rooms also make up part of the government.
  • Laws: Every culture has them. All of the laws on Stack Exchange are intentional – they’re encoded into the software. Stack Exchange hates fun.

The goal of Stack Exchange is not to have super popular pages (it would be Reddit then). The goal of Stack Exchange is to have super useful pages. The most useful posts on Stack Exchange are not necessarily popular…they’re intensely useful to those who need them.

Religious debate type of questions get an enormous amount of page views, but they don’t teach you anything. Hence we close them down for further discussion and eventual deletion. Examples of such questions are

  • What’s better X or Y?
  • What’s the worst API?

Off-topic questions are an attractive nuisance, and will also be closed and eventually deleted. Some ask, why not move off-topic questions to another site that is strictly for off-topic questions? There are two reasons:

  • It won’t attract experts.
  • The site will become one of those sites that attract high school students.

The purpose of Stack Exchange is different from that of discussion forums. The goal is to create a permanent, useful artifact for the Internet. If your goal is to produce something of permanent value to the Internet, you start to think differently about what you want on the site. Stack Exchange caters to the millions of people that never create an account on the site, but have questions they need answered.

Having a community is a huge advantage for Stack Exchange that can’t be overcome.

[I'd like to thank Bill Horvath, founder of DoX Systems, for sharing his notes with me. Justin Goeres also has a nice summary of Joel's talk on his blog.]

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