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I have a few questions about Stack Overflow and how it works:

  • How do intelligent programmers the world over find time to answer everybody's questions?
  • What incentive do people have to answer questions? Reputation score? (that can't even be converted to money, instead gives you more powers so that you can answer more questions better?)
  • Is it that helpful guiding spirit within all of us that powers this community?
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migrated from Aug 21 '09 at 16:33

This question came from our site for professional and enthusiast programmers.

This certainly should be a wiki. – ctacke Jan 5 '09 at 15:53
agreed, although i love the extra rep, its a good wiki q as to how the psychology of this site works. – Tom Anderson Jan 5 '09 at 15:53
wikirequest += 1 – bananakata Jan 5 '09 at 15:55
It's easy why intelligent and good programmers answer here; reputation. There are a lot, and i mean a lot of very high end people here, if they would recon. you when you search for a job or anything, they might think "oh thats the intelligent guy on SO".. or something :) and it's a damn good idea. – Filip Ekberg Jan 5 '09 at 15:56
@frou: Not entirely sure what "navel-glazing" is but I've got a vague idea :) – Ross Jan 5 '09 at 16:39
closed 2x for fun? – Tom Anderson Jan 5 '09 at 16:51
wtf.. this shouldn't be closed. seriously. – driAn Jan 5 '09 at 17:14 "What kind of questions should I not ask here?" – xyz Jan 5 '09 at 17:21
+1 for reopen, still one left. – Gamecat Jan 5 '09 at 19:05
">Most programmers don't come here to learn about the intricacies of Stack Overflow". Probably that's true -- but it's also demonstrably true that a number DO want to discuss the intricacies of how a such a community could should and (debatably) does work. – Michael Paulukonis Jan 5 '09 at 20:31
@OtherMichael that is why i found it interesting, it is a discussion on what draws users to a site like this from an analytical point of view, not from a "how does SO work". Anyone wanting to create a community driven site like this could gain some good knowledge here. – Tom Anderson Jan 5 '09 at 21:18
possible duplicate of Why do programmers help each other without pay? – Lance Roberts Aug 5 '11 at 5:54

26 Answers 26

up vote 33 down vote accepted

I've literally had problems; I've been ready to tear my hair out over, which have been answered in the time I spent going to fetch another cup of coffee.

This alone makes this site worth it for me. Yes, I spend a few minutes now and then answering questions, but I consider that investing into the site in such a way that it helps survive and be there tomorrow when I need it again. I think many feel the same way.

Note that this is both entirely selfish and some sort of help-your-fellow-programmer type of thing.

I love helping people, and I think that counts for some part of my addiction to Stack Overflow. I was a member of the IRC Delphi community a while back for a number of years and most of the time it was just plain fun helping people.

But the biggest reason is entirely selfish. I want Stack Overflow to be there when I have my hair-tearing-out problems, and I want the maximum number of eyeballs to look over my oddball question and really give me shot-in-the-dark answers, if for no other reason than confirming my beliefs that this is indeed an oddball problem.

And I think this is sort of the goal of the site as well. Attract a good sized number of people who wants more than just a drive-by range of questions and answers, you want a community, where people build on others knowledge and the circle just goes around and around.

I think Stack Overflow has really proved its worth already. It might not be known to everyone, but that'll happen fast. Jeff Atwood already mentions, frequently on their podcast, that around 80% of their traffic comes from Google.

And to me that doesn't really matter. The site has already proven its weight in gold (or time, time is more precious than gold these days), so for me it's just an investment.

And a good one I might add.

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It's basically just designed to be addictive... It's now 1 a.m., and I'm answering your post in the hope of getting another measly 10 rep points. Ha! It's funny because I'm tired and my shoulders hurt. If only they could be converted to frequent flyer miles!

Edit: I was about to go to bed, but I just got upvoted, so now I want to hang around and see what happens... Is that an enlightening observation, or should I just go to bed... Seriously people, stop upvoting me and let me sleep! My girlfriend is pregnant and the due date is tomorrow, she'll be very upset if I fall asleep when I'm meant to be catching the baby! Seriously!

Edit #2: By the way, I consider myself a very competent developer except for this strange addiction that has started hurting my productivity, so I think I do provide some useful advice, and I hope when I have really hard questions in the future I'll get some code-karmic love back.

Edit #3: Yep... still here, still watching.

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hehe... I was about to go to bed, but the 2 upvotes are gonna keep me up for another 20 mins (I wonder if other people keep going for one minute per rep point :) – Jesse Pepper Jan 5 '09 at 15:52
Here's your 10 pts. Hope you spend it well, on, whatever.... – icelava Jan 5 '09 at 15:53
I like to make people tired so here's another +1 for honesty and cause I do the same thing – JoshBerke Jan 5 '09 at 15:59
hehehe, it is extremely addictive!! – featureBlend Jan 5 '09 at 16:04
Right, that's it, I'm going to bed! – Jesse Pepper Jan 5 '09 at 16:05
...right after seeing if somebody thinks this comment is funny :) – Jesse Pepper Jan 5 '09 at 16:06
You're on a role, answer another one before you go to bed! :) – Joe90 Jan 5 '09 at 16:09
+1. Addicted to upvoting! – Ali A Jan 5 '09 at 16:09
Congrats on the new born (or soon to be new born)! – Sean Jan 5 '09 at 16:28
Dude ... get some sleep! You do NOT want to be sleep-deprived going into labor or, more importantly, the first few days of parenthood. [I'm a father of four children age 3 and under, including a set of twins...] – skiphoppy Jan 5 '09 at 18:25
Remember, Stackoverflow points do not buy you any toys for your children. – icelava Jan 6 '09 at 2:00
Upvoted for a truly honest response :) Congratulations on the new baby and sleep while you can :) – Andy Webb Jan 8 '09 at 18:51
Upvoted for honest, and congrats for your children :) – Agusti-N Jan 12 '09 at 16:49
We are all junkies... @Jesse: How's the baby? – splattne Jan 14 '09 at 14:16
Here, have 10 more... – ilya n. Jun 23 '09 at 1:12

Most developers at some point have had someone who answered those questions for them, for me personally, it is nice to be able to give some of that information back to individuals.

Also, you can learn quite a bit yourself coming on here to answer other peoples questions.

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this is so true +1 – TStamper May 14 '09 at 19:34

Non-monetary rewards, and respect. Those are powerful motivators.

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Some people like having big numbers next to their name, and if it requires helping someone to get that number larger, they will do so.

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Some of you overestimate the altruism of your fellow programmers. – TheTXI Jan 5 '09 at 16:06
I do enjoy seeing the number next to my name get bigger. It's weird. – mhenry1384 Jan 8 '09 at 19:05
Not some, all people. And there's nothing wrong with that. (Including one who's working towards "zero possession", to him less is more) – Imran Jan 12 '09 at 17:22

Web 2.0 sites in general, and Stack Overflow in particular, rely on psychology and social behavior. Everyone has a need for respect, and to feel useful. By making those things attainable and fair, Stack Overflow takes advantage of a basic human desire and turns it into a functional community.

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Maybe Jeff and Joel thought Jon Skeet needed something to do with all those extra hours he has. :P

(seriously, where does he get the time? and can I have some please?)

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that is a good one! – Tom Anderson Jan 5 '09 at 15:54
Haha. Jon Skeet! You are so majorly respected out here. Really. – Jarvis Jan 5 '09 at 15:56
I shouldn't be. I enjoy helping people out, I know a reasonable amount about C#/.NET/Java, and I'm pretty good at crafting a response. (The last part is probably where I do better than most.) Trust me, I'm not that special. (Ask my colleagues...) – Jon Skeet Jan 5 '09 at 16:02
great to see a humble person in this internet world – Tom Anderson Jan 5 '09 at 16:10

Community spirit and good will.

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I think that it is because everybody here wants to learn. Even the users with the highest reputation here ask questions and want answers. Everyone asks and answers - not just one or the other.

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Answering questions online is easier than getting your actual job done, but you can still feel like you did something useful. Also, there's... oh, nevermind. I should write some code.

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Personally, there are a few reasons

  • The joy of sharing knowledge
  • The joy of learning from others answers
  • Google juice for my blog once over 2k rep was a motivator to get from 1.5k
  • Can't hurt in an interview situation
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How do intelligent programmers the world over find time to answer everybody's questions?

Answering a question takes only a few minutes.

What incentive do people have to answer questions?

Two reasons that I know of:

  • People have helped me in the past. I was grateful and I want others to have a similar experience: see
  • I learn things from a place like this that I wouldn't learn by myself (e.g. people ask questions on topics that I didn't know existed). Therefore, I want a place like this to exist and to be used, which will only happen if people participate.
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Personally, I find the challenge of answering questions gives my brain a nice work-out, and helps me remember stuff I know but don't necessarily use regularly in my own job. I will do more when I am not busy, or am bored, and less when I am busy and engaged in something else.

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I can't tell you the number of times I've needed an answer to something and not found one. I was considering writing a community-driven "Lessons Learned" website, and, in my research, found this. It's not the way I would have done it, but it's a great site.

Since I need to find answers to questions I asked, the least I can do is look for questions I can answer and do my part.

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Getting fast and correct answers from people who know...

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I find it's a fantastic way to learn more about a programming language. Even the simple questions can make you think about some aspect of the language you had never really used. And once you're curious, there's no cure but to go learn about it. Even when you do know something, you'll often read the first couple of (brilliant) answers, and realize that you've been doing it wrong the entire time.

So it's really a selfish thing; the more active you are, the more you get out of it.

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I see several reasons for answering Stack Overflow questions:

  • Human beings are genetically programmed to help. We are social animals and need interactions with each others. Stack Overflow stimulates this basic need.

  • For me, Stack Overflow also provides a way to measure how skilled or not I am (or helpful), categorized by topic.

  • It can also be used as a selling argument, like a personal blog, when running a microISV or in an interview situation.

Reasons for asking questions or reading others' answers are mainly for learning.

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In my opinion:

  1. It's a question of time: when you're blocked in coding and you want to fun in the Internet;
  2. Being useful to people is ever a good gain;
  3. Sorry, my English deny me to understand this point ;)
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+1 for the good attempt! – Jarvis May 15 '09 at 1:05

The rep points stuff really works. It might not convert into anything 'real' but neither do most sports/games - that doesn't mean I don't want to win (and have more points) when I play them.

edit: I actually think in some ways rep points may be counter-productive - i.e. I have hesitated to answer some questions where I am not sure of my answer, for fear of being downvoted, when that answer could have been useful to the questioner. However I have not come across a better equivalent of SO's rep system on any other web site.

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(You might want to make this a Community Wiki question (or feel the wrath of those who care) ;-) Not fussed myself, but some people are.)

What incentive do people have to answer questions? Reputation score? (that can't even be converted to money, instead gives you more powers SO THAT you can answer more questions better?)

I think it's a bit like asking how people find the time to collaborate with Open Source projects - fun, interest and hopefully at the end of it a little respect/increased reputation. I personally do it for fun and as a way of keeping what I know fresh in my mind.

Is it that helpful guiding spirit within all of us that powers this community?

Maybe that's what powers every community at the end of the day :-)

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To me it's more like a "forum" you don't have a good reason to discuss about stuff but having so is really fun. To be honest I can't be arsed to write a 100 lines of answer unless it's something I'm fanatical about, but potentially all of those answers written by people who are fanatical about the subject anyway. (Jon Skeet is fanatical about C# so got plenty of questions to answer for him)

Points are useless but adds a feeling the whole thing that you are appreciated and accomplished something. This is a really old trick, and all of the games doing this since arcade days. You don't feel like wasting your time, even though sometimes you are really wasting your time.

Time is overrrated, all developers spend their time to lots of useless stuff, spending an hour on SO is so much better than watching some stupid youtube video, or trying understand WTF is a lolcat.

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  • How do intelligent programmers the world over find time to answer everybody's questions?

There are coffee-breaks, lunch-breaks, weekends and evenings. And then there are the times your manager isn't looking.... ::ahem::

  • What incentive do people have to answer questions?
  • Is it that helpful guiding spirit within all of us that powers this community?

Desire to share, learn, be acknowledged, be part of something. I think (hope) that the reputation-driven goals will fade as time goes on -- people will build up to a certain amount of rep, and then see that it doesn't make much difference anymore. 10 pts is a lot to somebody with less than 100. It's less than 1% to somebody with more than 1,000. And to somebody with 10,000??? Not much at all. Significance or In- aside, I do hope the growth of a body of knowledge will be a better driver.

Not that reputation is not part of that -- rep-points are a quick-look to see how good a given answer might be -- the answer from a 10,000 user could be better than an answer from a 0-rep user -- or it could be that Alan Kay just joined up to answer his own quote.... Over time, though, it is the up-voted answers that are (probably) correct and useful -- but that builds reputation, as well.

NB: am I driven by reputation? As of 01/05/2008 I'm more than 100, less than 1000; you bet it feels nice to see an uptick in my rep!

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Because people are generally good.

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I personally believe (oh no, I'm starting to sound like a Ms. Teen USA)... I personally believe that all people who are capable should give back to the community. This means either tutoring, mentoring, teaching and in the case of the "interweb" posting answers on Stack Overflow or any of the other wonderful community sites like this.

We've all have questions and have not had someone to turn to or a resource to poll. It's frustrating and emotionally draining. And when you're learning something new, working on a continuing increasingly difficult problem, or just need some guidance what do you do? We come here. But what did you do before? Troll around Google looking for answers on various websites. Spending hours and hours before either finding a tape and glue solution or just giving up completely.

I personally believe, that, the Americas, and the world are better because of Stack Overflow.

That last sentence was due to watching this video... Don't look! (^_^)

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I agree with Tom Anderson and regarding finding the time, I would add that nobody is productive every minute of the day. You can waste some time on digg or waste some time on stackoverflow. Which one is (relatively) guilt free?

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I would say that, as opposed to Digg, the majority of time spent here is not wasted. I learn a lot here as well as help others to learn. It's a much more productive "non-work" use of the web. – tvanfosson Jan 5 '09 at 15:51
agreed on that point, i used to frequent sites like youtube, digg, or randomly find DYI stuff i will never build, this site gave me something productive to read. – Tom Anderson Jan 5 '09 at 15:52

It's our WoW.

A quick break from the daily routine of the same old faces making the same old problems. Then there's the reputation building and badge earning to make it addictive. Plus it keeps otherwise unused skills honed.

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