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Assuming Joel and Jeff succeed in obtaining VC funding for Stack Overflow, what negative effects would you anticipate on the way Stack Overflow currently works?

And how harmful would they be?

And how could the users mitigate these effects?

Don't get me wrong, I don't want to see this happen, but this is the first thing I would do if I were the VC and wanted to generate more revenue from Stack Overflow:

  • Introduce "sponsored answers"
  • The sponsored answer would appear at the top of the answer list for any question (above the accepted answer and highest-voted answer.)
  • It would almost invariably say "Product X will solve your problem; Use product X"
  • It would of course be paid for by the vendor of product X.
  • Users could vote on the sponsored answer (as that would be useful feedback for the vendor) but it would not change the position of that answer on the page.

Can you think of any other examples?

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See also this related question on meta.stackexchange: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/4352 –  Rich Seller Feb 15 '10 at 21:52
    
@home4film, yes very similar. And I didn't even know there was a meta.stackexchange.com. Maybe I wasn't paying enough attention when listening to the podcast :-) –  Perpetual Motion Goat Feb 16 '10 at 1:21
    
It's odd how so many people seem to think that StackExchange == Stack Overflow. –  tim Feb 16 '10 at 17:58
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It's odd how similar StackExchange is to StackOverflow. –  Lance Roberts Feb 16 '10 at 22:02
    
When I look at other Q&A sites, I find it amazing that the Stack Exchange seems to be in such good shape and you can break culture by messing with it. While I thought the same thing you did not so long ago, some other cases made me change my mind. This example by Clay Shirky (6:45) of how adding late fees to a childcare center messed with the culture is striking. –  Emilie Mar 11 at 4:28
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4 Answers

up vote 38 down vote accepted

We're not going to accept funding that would in any way interfere with what made Stack Overflow successful. Period.

Stack Overflow succeeded because it was NOT plastered with flashing ads, paid membership, and corrupt "sponsored" answers. Nobody is going to mess with that.

In fact, we already make half our revenue from something that is completely invisible if you don't look for it: Stack Overflow Careers.

Most of the goal of raising VC would be to create, partner with, and/or buy StackOverflow-like communities for other fields. I don't expect very much would change in the way StackOverflow itself is run.

We deliberately put the Stack Overflow community-generated content under Creative Commons and make data dumps of it available regularly as insurance... if Stack Overflow ever slips into the hands of an evil person who does evil things, the content of the site is freely available and someone else can set up a non-evil site. We did this because IMDB and CDDB both started out with "community generated content" which was appropriated by commercial companies trying to make a buck, and we wanted to insure that this could never happen to Stack Overflow.

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@Joel, your my hero. –  Earlz Feb 15 '10 at 22:31
    
+1 In all honesty, it wouldn't bother me a bit if Stack Overflow were slightly more monetized. I think you and Jeff have a solid understanding of what not to do with advertising. –  Jonathan Sampson Feb 15 '10 at 22:34
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As an SE site owner this makes me nervous: "Most of the goal of raising VC would be to create, partner with, and/or buy StackOverflow-like communities for other fields" –  Rich Seller Feb 15 '10 at 22:49
    
@home4film Are you not already within the circle of trust being a SE site owner? –  Jonathan Sampson Feb 15 '10 at 22:55
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@joel spolsky could you add a comment to correct/clarify what I wrote here: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/39539/… –  George Stocker Feb 15 '10 at 22:57
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Everyone has a price man.... EVERYONE... Not sure if StackOverflow is worth as much as, but there's always a number where people will say f*ck it! I'll take the money. Just human nature.... –  BFree Feb 15 '10 at 23:12
    
Pleased to hear it. +1. –  Perpetual Motion Goat Feb 16 '10 at 1:17
    
It's also interesting that no-one has been offended enough by sponsored tags to create a pure mirror site (that adds nothing to the the SO interface other than removing the logos from those tags.) –  Perpetual Motion Goat Feb 16 '10 at 1:40
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@Perpetual: Why would you do that if you can just install a script for that? (meta.stackexchange.com/questions/24065/…) –  fretje Feb 16 '10 at 8:28
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@Jonathan, nobody trusts me, and rightly so. –  Rich Seller Feb 16 '10 at 9:55
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I think everyone agrees that SO is a great tool for developers. But all of this didn't appear out of thin air - Joel and Jeff have invested a lot of their time and money in building it. They have repeatedly said that the content will be owned by the community and have shown a lot of restraint in showing ads. Even SO careers is very unobtrusive. However, they also need to pay for servers, salaries, etc. A lot of us have benefited from SO, I hope Joel and Jeff do too. SO will continue to be great place to ask and answer programming questions - I think we can count on Joel/Jeff for that. –  neesh Feb 16 '10 at 16:49
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+1 for the reference to the jerks at CDDB and imdb who changed the rules. Going for profit is not evil, but changing the game certainly is... –  tim Feb 16 '10 at 17:57
    
I hope the money will enable you to build a mobile StackOverflow app. –  Lance Roberts Feb 16 '10 at 22:03
    
@BFree only if you're a bean counter –  Evan Plaice Jun 12 '10 at 0:58
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From my knowledge of working with a few VC companies in the past, I don't think that there would be much pressure in changing what is already working*, but a lot of pressure to simply maximise profit from existing money making areas.

I would think that this would be achieved by removing the reduced advertising on certain reputation and possibly more adverts.

After this, I think there would be a lot more activity turned to Stack Exchange and basically monetising the idea of Stack Overflow, or it will turn the other way and expand like crazy into other areas - make money from sponsorship/advertising and not let other people use Stack Exchange based sites.

* I am guessing that this site is turning a profit based on the previous post where they donated cash to various Open Source projects.

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Ok, so if there were Sponsored Answers, I would be creating a Greasemonkey script to do something like the following:

  • Upon page load, sponsored answers would immediately get a downvote from me. (I got the rep...)
  • The sponsored answer would then be hidden from my view.

Further more, I bet there would be bands of users that would all flag a sponsored answer as spam in order to delete it, given that they don't make it immune to that as well.

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What if the answer was exceptionally good? –  Jonathan Sampson Feb 15 '10 at 22:25
    
Then an actual person should get the reputation, not some company account that already has 200k reputation for paying some sum of money to be a sponsor –  Earlz Feb 15 '10 at 22:27
    
I still don't see what is wrong with, say, Team-jQuery having a high-rep account that posts exceptionally good answers to jQuery questions. –  Jonathan Sampson Feb 15 '10 at 22:31
    
It's different if the the answers do not get "stickied" to the top(where they have a rep advantage over every other answer). –  Earlz Feb 15 '10 at 22:34
    
@earlz: Did anybody say they would have "stickied" answers? –  Jonathan Sampson Feb 15 '10 at 22:42
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"The sponsored answer would appear at the top of the answer list for any question (above the accepted answer and highest-voted answer.)" was in the question.. –  Earlz Feb 15 '10 at 22:53
    
Ah. Well that is a bit different... –  Jonathan Sampson Feb 15 '10 at 22:56
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That idea apparently came from the OP's own brainstorming, and not from Jeff or Joel if I'm not mistaken. –  Jonathan Sampson Feb 15 '10 at 23:33
    
@Jonathan, it was supposed to be a "nightmare scenario". I hope it does not happen IRL. –  Perpetual Motion Goat Feb 16 '10 at 1:19
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As you say, it would have to be about monetisation/ROI for the VCs, off the top of my head, so some examples that could appear might be:

  1. Cash bounties for questions (instead of just rep bounties)
    • Don't really see that this one would be too harmful assuming they aren't given too much priority over normal questions
  2. Tip jar style micro payments on top of voting (where the house takes a % of course)
    • Could actually be a good thing for the community...
  3. More ads/"sponsorships" of questions/tags
    • Possibly acceptable to the community, but it starts skating a fine line
  4. More subversive ads (like those annoying linkification of keyword type ads)
    • I think this would be enough to start turning away the regulars (certainly for myself anyway).
    • ...although it would be interesting to see if they only did it for low/no rep users which from what I understand is the majority of page views (i.e. people coming from google), whether it would have an effect on the community given that it would largely go unnoticed (not that it would make it acceptable in any way, but it might be sneaky enough to slip beneath the radar)...
  5. Paid subscriptions
    • Given Joel/Jeff's opinions of that sex-change site, I think this is very unlikely.

As to what the users could do to mitigate these effects:

  1. Speak your mind here on meta (so far the SO team has shown that they definitely care about what their community thinks - hell the fact that they treat it as a community & not as group of potential customers is a good start).
  2. Go elsewhere (aka vote with your wallet/ad-viewing-eyeballs). All content is CC licenced so there's nothing stopping someone from building an OSS-SO, taking all the content as a seed and trying their luck using a different model.
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I HATE those stupid linking-keywords ads.. I have a weird habit where I follow what I'm reading with the mouse by selecting random bits that I'm reading, and I always end up clicking on unwanted ads when I go to one of those sites. Tip jar style voting would be cool, and maybe paid-subscriptions as a replacement for the "less-ads" type thing.. but I don't want to see another Expert's Exchange where you have to pay just to see the answer to something you really need. –  Earlz Feb 15 '10 at 22:23
    
"Tip jar style micro payments" - this would never worked out. –  Peter Stegnar Mar 14 '10 at 6:20
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