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The point system makes new users "addicted", in a sense, Stack Overflow becomes like a role-playing game (RPG), you stay here, try to earn points. Points are important, they're labeled "reputation", as if they indicate your level of expertise, as if it's a testimony to your skills.

Another Stack Overflow user, jgormley, discussed a downside of this system in another post, so I'm not going to repeat his argument, but I will present another downside, which I notice in myself, and in many answers:

People make half-assed not-well-informed answers to questions just so that they get points. Even if the answer is not really what the OP is looking for, it's as if they skimmed the question and didn't really get the point.

This, of course, is a side effect of trying to get points in any way, even by gaming the system.

The problem here is that a question will get many half-assed answers, none of which truly satisfies the question. Some readers will up-vote questions, 'just because', it looks like a good answer, even if it isn't. I also suspect that newcomers might 'sympathize' with their peers, thus voting for their answers as a curiosity to help them earn points, and probably expecting others to do the same for them (This is just a hunch on my side).

Anyway, even if no one up-votes any answer, you'll still end up with a question that has 10 answers, none of which really answers the question at all. The question will drown in a sea of questions and no one will notice it again, so it never gets answered.

The proper way to fight that is to down-vote stupid half-assed answers, but that's where the other problem comes in:

The system punishes you for downvoting, as if you shouldn't do it! It also doesn't punish the poster enough to prevent him from posting a stupid answer. This happened to me once, I made a half-assed answer to a question, and it got downvoted! You know what? I didn't delete my answer, because my ego tells me "shutup dude, my answer is good!", and it got downvoted again, but who cares, -4 points won't hurt, so my ego still insisted to keeping the not-well-informed answer. Now if it was -5 or -8, then I would've probably deleted my answer, or at least gave it a bit more thought.

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migrated from stackoverflow.com Sep 15 '09 at 17:04

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

    
Just a comment. Not only "new" users are addicted. The top three of SO have been struggling really hard for the 1st place this last weekend. so I think they're quite addicted by know. They're answers are terrific, by the way, but still they fit in the "addict" profile –  OscarRyz Dec 15 '08 at 0:04
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*their answers — G.N. –  Anton Tykhyy Jul 11 '09 at 15:10

9 Answers 9

Due to this being a community WIKI I almost didn't respond. I'm addicted to points and this doesn't help me.

Okay, Back to reality.

Every system has flaws. One of SO's is peoples greed and need for points. This has been debating numerous times. Most notable in the Fastest Gun in the West Thread. Bottom line though is it works. If it doesn't, then why do so many answers get "accepted"? The shorter answer may not be the best but often times it's enough.

If people truly want this problem to go away then there is a simple 2 step process

  1. Don't vote for quick answers
  2. If you see a quick crappy answer, write a better one

Stop complaining about the problem and take action.

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"Works" primarily means it works for those already up the rep scale, unfortunately. BUt they can probably have a reasonably diverting conversation with each other. –  le dorfier Dec 13 '08 at 0:45
    
I classify "works" as people get reasonable and helpful answers to their questions. Points come second place –  JaredPar Dec 13 '08 at 0:47
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If you see a quick crappy answer, vote it down! After ensuring there's a better one, that is. –  Ant P Dec 13 '08 at 0:50
    
Good answer. Just so you know, you can uncheck the "community wiki" checkbox when posting to gain rep from an answer to a Community Wiki question. –  Robert Gamble Dec 13 '08 at 0:52
    
The site penalizes you for voting an answer down. Obviously they don't want you doing it. If they wanted you to objectively review and evaluate, they would reward it. Why waste your points in addition to your time? –  le dorfier Dec 13 '08 at 2:35
    
There's nothing inherently bad about a quick answer. Not every answer needs a giant code listing associated it. Sometimes the right answer is "just do X". –  Dustin Dec 15 '08 at 0:08
    
Not penalizing down-voting could generate a really negative atmosphere. One of the things I like most of SO is that answers usually come in really fast. Even half-assed answers can give me a different look at my problem within minutes and get me out of a dead lock. –  Boris Callens Mar 9 '09 at 9:02
    
@Ant P: why should I wait for a better answer to downvote a crappy one? If it's crap, it's crap. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Sep 15 '09 at 17:13

I have seen similar things happen but things almost always work themselves out, i.e. someone notices the answer is wrong, posts a comment and downvotes the answer, other people notice the comment, read the question more carefully and remove their upvote or downvote the answer. It isn't a perfect system but it does work pretty well.

If you really wanted to "game the system" it seems to me the way to do it would be to just create a dozen accounts, get enough points to vote on each of them (pretty easy), answer a question or two every day and upvote them from every account as needed. I doubt this is happening though because there seems so little incentive to do so.

Regarding the RPG-like element, I think that most people recognize that reputation has little to do with skill level and take it for what it really represents: a gauge of useful participation on the site. Lastly, regarding the addiction element, of all the things to be addicted to, learning and teaching doesn't seem to be a bad one.

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Great idea for getting reputation! :D –  Vilx- Dec 13 '08 at 0:56
    
"Lastly, regarding the addiction element, of all the things to be addicted to, learning and teaching doesn't seem to be a bad one." I've been justifying my addiction in much the same way. Thank goodness for the rep cap... –  Thomas Apr 7 '10 at 11:54
    
Accounts can be closed. When someone's account is closed the people who they gave points to loose those points (unless they are a major contributor to SO). So your idea of gaming the system would not last in the long run, but nice try ;D –  un5t0ppab13 Nov 12 at 1:58

It's based on the well-demonstrated fact that behavior conditioning is real. If you measure it, they will come. What you measure is what people will do. So be really really careful what you measure. And then don't blame the people when they try their hardest to do it.

And then they provide negative reinforcement if your evaluation is not positive. So the two acceptable behaviors seem to be to vote something up, or ignore it.

What I wish is that they would require people to accept responsibility for anything that damages someone else's reputation (or closing their question). The way it is now, it's a drive-by shooting.

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Yes, a drive by shooting with no chance for a subsequent trial. –  Charlie Flowers Mar 28 '09 at 19:45

The reputation system ensures that questions will be answered, and there's no denying that this website is probably the best resource for getting a question answered quickly.

Of course, the points system is also Stack Overflows biggest problem, for obvious reasons. The system will be gamed and points will be awarded for stupid answers that the tech crowd wants to hear.

One solution I've mentioned in another Wiki topic is to reset the reputation points now and again (every 6/12 months) for every user. Sure, it'll be frustrating to build up all those points again, but it'll remove issues with certain users being too eager to close questions they believe to be stupid and in the future many users having the power to do what they wish. All it takes is one 5,000+ user to go off-the-rails at a quiet time of the day and everyone will suffer.

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The system actually works pretty well when you consider that the "race" for reputation (if that's what you'd call it) generally draws in people and attention because of its nature. Even if that race makes for occasionally sloppy results, it functions to draw attention and thus increase the scale of the community, which in turn increases the availability of overall knowledge.

Therefore, in a roundabout way, it does work. And, because of human nature, that may really be the only way it could work if you don't want to lose out on that effect.

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Do I get points for this answer if someone likes it? If so, I have lots to say...

Kidding aside, the points do provide an incentive for some folks to check often for things they might be able to help with. That is a good thing.

Of course, there are a variety of topics where people have earned an enormous number of points (e.g. the "Favorite Developer Cartoon" entry) that aren't really warranted if you think of "Reputation" as synonymous with "Expertise." Similarly, sometimes snarky or funny answers get voted up even though they do little to actually answer the question.

In all, though, awarding points is a pretty good strategy for prompting people to help others. Just don't confuse "Reputation" with "Expertise."

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I don't think the site would be anywhere near as successful without the points system or something similar, karma, mana, whatever.

It gives people motivation to answer questions, rather than just ask questions or look for answers.
Peer acknowledgement is a powerful thing, humans will go a long way for it.

There will be some that take on the air of a parking inspector once they attain more "powers", there will be that in any system, it is a product of human nature, and no system of government or management has ever eliminated that, but the good ones have safeguards to mitigate the risks.

It is an imperfect but functional system, just like democracy, have not seen any significantly better ones yet, and it generally gets the desired result.

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I think the reputation system is pretty good.

I guess this site has been built for accumulation of a vast question and answer database, because we are discouraged from repeating questions.

Shouldn't we then find a way of rewarding someone who takes time to answer a question that has gone a long time without an answer?

What can be done about members that ask a question, get perfectly good answers, but accept none of them? This behaviour deprives other members of deserved reputation, and clutters up the unanswered-view.

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+1 for pointing out the unanswered view problem. –  Jefffrey Jan 26 '11 at 7:53

Seems fine to me - I don't care about the points, but I've got more than 100 or 150, which means I can downvote (which I do quite often, actually), but if I answer questions I easily get back above that threshold. (The penalty for downvotes is almost nothing, seriously)

While any system can be manipulated, I think the biggest disadvantage is that controversal or surprising answers tend to get downvoted by the majority. - That is difficult to resolve, other than by putting substantially more effort into not only answering the OP's question, but also providing far more proof and references to the answer - which is partly the point of the SO system, except that downvoted answers might forever be ignored...

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