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I have been contemplating websites that have peer-powered reward systems: up/down vote, capabilities, and badges. StackOverflow came to mind as the website which I know best implements this system. Other websites (which I won't mention) that have an upvote/downvote reward system do not seem to do as well as far as using it to promote contribution and rational discourse. It seems in some cases, the system can even backfire and it can be used to promote ignorance and groupthink.

What is it that makes StackExchange sites seemingly immune to this problem? The objectivity of the content on most sites? Please leave your thoughts.

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up vote 14 down vote accepted

I've seen too many other forums that were outright hostile to users. (One reason why I moved from Python to Ruby for scripting was because the #python IRC channel was condescending and rude to people asking questions; #ruby denizens were friendly. One was a nicer place to be than the other. I knew which group I wanted to ask for help when I needed it, so I chose my tools accordingly.)

After that experience, I've paid careful attention to the mood of online communities. My theory is that the initial group of Stack Overflow users were civil-minded and helpful and they passed on to us the expectation that we should all remain civil-minded and helpful even in disagreement.

It is amazing that the culture from the start has survived. When companies or communities grow too quickly, there is often threat that whatever traits made the company or community awesome in the first place isn't sufficiently transferred to the new hires / new members. Perhaps the separation of "content" from "meta content" between the main site and meta site is core to the civility -- disagreements there are confined to technical issues and source code / reference to standards carries a lot of weight. Personality conflicts don't show much in the technical portion, which is where most of the real traffic is, so the distractions of management or style or control or direction or whatever else disrupts so many groups is always on the sidelines of the main event.

We have a few 'prickly' users, but by and large, rudeness is so far outside the norm that people show up to learn something specific, good behavior is rewarded, and hoooray! it's still a nice place to be.

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