Joel Spolsky: The Cultural Anthropology of Stack Exchange

Joel Spolsky doesn’t really need any introduction does he? No.

A long time and partner and supporter of the Business of Software Conference. He is always a welcome guest at the event and we thought this talk was super interesting, not just for people who are building community elements into their software offerings, but to anyone that is thinking about how to market and sell their own software – people like you.

Cultural Anthropology was the most boring class Joel took in college, but the long run, the most useful. Building a website with 22 million users (Stack Exchange’s user numbers at the time though it keeps on growing) is an exercise in cultural anthropology.

At BoS USA 2012, Joel talks about the evolution of online communities, from Usenet, through online discussion fora and beyond into Stack Exchange. The whole idea of Stack Exchange was to disrupt 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.” – Joel Spolsky

This talk is valuable if you want to understand the psychology and anthropology behind a site like Stack Exchange that has extraordinary engagement with its very loyal users. There are a huge amount of ideas about making your web site work for the product you are building and the importance of keeping a focus on making something super useful and relevant to the people you want to engage with rather than making your web site super popular. Watch it if you want some insights into why people do things, why they want to be part of a tribe and want some tips about how you can engage with your users and customers.

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Notes

  • 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: provides recognition.
  • Badges: Badges let everyone see how awesome you are. 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.
  • Government: Governance is up to the members of each Stack Exchange site. Each user earns more governing control of the site as their reputation increases.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Joel Spolsky
Joel Spolsky

Joel Spolsky

Avram Joel Spolsky (born 1965) is a software engineer and writer. He is the author of Joel on Software, a blog on software development.

He was a Program Manager on the Microsoft Excel team between 1991 and 1994. He later founded Fog Creek Software in 2000 and launched the Joel on Software blog. In 2008, he launched the now-successful Stack Overflow programmer Q&A site in collaboration with Jeff Atwood.

Using the Stack Exchange software product which powers Stack Overflow, The Stack Exchange Network now hosts over 100 Q&A sites.

More from Joel.


Next Events

BoS USA 2023

BoS USA 2024 πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡Έ

23-25 Sept 2024 at Raleigh, NC

Learn how great software companies are built to help you build long-term, profitable, sustainable businesses.

The Road to Exit 🌐

Starts on June 2024
A BoS Mastermind Group
facilitated by Mr Joe Leech

Uncovering your Growth Levers 🌐

05 June 2024 2PM BST
A FREE BoS Hangout
with Matt Lerner via Zoom

Want more of these insightful talks?

At BoS we run events and publish highly-valued content for anyone building, running, or scaling a SaaS or software business.

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Unsubscribe any time. We will never sell your email address. It is yours.