Thursday, 18 February 2010

Stack Overflow

I like the idea of Stack Overflow, and often when I need answers I find them on Stack Overflow in the googled results of a query. But the fact that it only allows you to participate if you use OpenID, has prevented me from joining in and helping others out.

My experience

Today, after I received a Google Alert that was a Stack Overflow question about Stackless Python, I gave in and went through the OpenID process. It felt unclean, but I proceeded to add an answer for the question.

In order to give context to my answer, I linked to around ten different wiki pages, source code files and documentation pages. Having written as much detail as I could get together, I submitted the answer to the site and was promptly told that I needed to earn points before I could use more than one link in my post. So I deleted the links and submitted an inferior answer.

Then I suddenly earned a teacher badge. What is this? I haven't done anything yet other than submit an answer, and now I am getting spammed by worthless things being attached to my account? I can't work out how to turn these badges off either.

Reflecting for a few minutes on my experience so far, being given unearned worthless awards and being required to earn points, it felt like my efforts were being bought with worthless beads and trinkets. When I help someone out with knowledge or code, I do it because I want to help. Doing it within a system where there are barriers to being able to do it, and token rewards that are at best condescending, takes away from my effort to help someone. I didn't feel good about using Stack Overflow.

So I deleted my answer and went looking for how to delete my account. Apparently, you need to edit your profile to indicate you want your account deleted and then you need to email them. Even Facebook has an account deletion mechanism. That you need to jump through hoops, to get away from Stack Overflow is not an honest approach. But it fits in with the token rewards, and arbitrary limitations to what you can do that seem to be based on giving value to the point system.

My conclusion

It surprises me how well Stack Overflow does, considering that it is not a place I feel comfortable participating in. And I do participate in a wide variety of mailing lists and forums. But it also surprises me what a scam it feels like.

The points system does not add any value that I can see. It constrains what I can do as a user in arbitrary ways that seem like they are solely designed to give value to points. The answers I saw from users with high points, and high upvotes, were incorrect and weak.

The badges mean nothing to me, they are good in computer games where I want to know about my accomplishments, but on a site where I might help others to be given them for no reason makes the experience feel cheap.

In this day and age, the ability to easily delete your account lends credence to the respectability and trustworthiness of the site you have the account with. That Stack Overflow puts an arbitrary barrier between users being able to delete their account, can only be an intentional way to prevent people from leaving it. It comes across as untrustworthy.

I will continue using Stack Overflow as a resource for getting answers I need, but there is no way I can participate in it. But that's okay, there are a lot of other forums that do not cheapen the experience of trying to help others, and I can stick to those.

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