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People on Stack Overflow are always ready to help someone solve their problem, and I think I owe many thanks to all of those nice people.

Sometimes I wonder what makes people want to help, want to share what they know to each other, and what makes them not.

What do you think makes a community different so that ready-to-help just becomes a second nature of its members?

Is there something we can learn from Stack Overflow that can help us build an excellent team with ready-to-help members?

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People on StackOverflow aren't nice, they are horrible :> The unicorns are quite nice though. –  Andy E Apr 23 '10 at 23:16
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@Satoru: aw shucks! –  Ether Apr 23 '10 at 23:27
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We're not nice, we're only in it selfishly for the Internet Game Points and the shiny, shiny badges. –  bobince Apr 23 '10 at 23:31
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@bobince: I very much disagree. Somehow SO has managed to build a community that (mostly) strives to help each other rather than become a 4chan-style hatefest. There's some interesting sociology research on communities that could be cited here. –  Ether Apr 23 '10 at 23:40
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@Ether: SOFU is unusually civil, but doubt you can capture the causes in a pat answer. More positive feedback than negative, but with negative feedback present. Most actions are attributable and the rep system encourages the uses of ongoing identities. The community is about "helping out". Leadership on this issues from the team and the mods and many of the old timers and high rep relative newcomers. Tolerance for the fact that Niel being helpful looks different from me being helpful look different from Bill the Lizard in the same mode. Tight focus. And probably others that I've missed. –  dmckee Apr 23 '10 at 23:52
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One word: POINTS!!!! –  thyrgle Apr 24 '10 at 3:18
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He obviously hasn't met @random yet... –  Ivo Flipse Apr 24 '10 at 7:37
    
Just imagine, if your name had a number next to it with a k ... wow! -- In my book there is a strong positive co-relation between gaining a lot of points answering questions and technical ability in those areas. –  DMin Aug 23 '10 at 12:40
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I think the sort of individuals from whom the community is drawn makes a big difference. We tend to be educated, above average intelligence, and relatively sober without being uptight (not in an intoxication sense, just a mood). –  Doddle Coddle Aug 23 '10 at 18:19
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SO is nice because I'm on it. You're welcome. –  David Thornley Oct 13 '10 at 20:10

14 Answers 14

up vote 52 down vote accepted

I'm not always nice, but when I am, my reasons for being so are generally:

  1. Ego. Yeah, I admit it, I like having a high rep. I don't care about every individual point or badge, but it would be a ridiculous lie if I said I didn't pay any attention. You don't get votes for being a jerk.

  2. Quid pro quo. Occasionally I have questions, too. Having a reputation for helping others (and I mean this in a qualitative sense now, not a mathematical one) tends to get people to pay more attention to your questions, and be less judgmental.

  3. Learning. Sometimes I have to do a little extra research to answer questions, but I benefit from this process too, so it's not just me being "nice." There have actually been a few times when I've gone back to one of my own answers to help me with a current problem!

  4. To help stay focused. If I'm sitting around waiting for a 20-minute process to run, or for some e-mail to arrive, answering some of the softer questions is a pretty good way to stay in the "zone." Particularly when the alternative is basically killing time, surfing the web or chatting people up near the coffee machine, that sort of thing.

    People think of posting as a form of goofing off, but I don't think that SO has really changed my number of productive hours, it's just replaced the already-unproductive hours with something slightly less unproductive. And when I'm able to get back to my task, my mind hasn't turned to putty, so I consider that a net benefit.

Altruism doesn't really factor heavily into it. That's not to say I never just want to help somebody - I do, but that's not reason enough to spend the amount of time that I've spent.

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#2, definitely. –  Almo Aug 6 '12 at 21:57

We're not actually nice. We're just pretending. 'Ya know, to lure you in. Then--when you start to feel really comfortable and "at home"--you wander into the tar pit that is meta and...

WHAM!

...we hit you with everything we've got, crush your spirit, rend your soul, and trap you forever in the maze of twisty little corridors all alike that is SOFU policy, planning and fine tuning.

But it's not really that bad. You get used to it. And besides, on Fridays in Iceland there are waffles and unicorn rides.

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Trap you forever in the maze of twisty corridors all alike... that's meta, not SOFU. :) –  Ether Apr 24 '10 at 0:14
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Waffles and unicorns and volcanoes... –  fbrereto Apr 24 '10 at 0:34
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+1: I'm not actually nice. I just like to see hopes and dreams as they are sucked into the vortex of spinning unicorns. –  Tyler Carter Apr 24 '10 at 4:51
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Iceland... isn't that the place with the vulcano named: the vulcano with the weird name? –  Stormenet Apr 24 '10 at 5:38
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Eyjafjallajökull? –  Ólafur Waage Apr 24 '10 at 8:25
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@Ólafur Waage admit it, you copy-pasted it! If anyone manages to remember that name, the universe implodes. –  alex Apr 24 '10 at 11:14
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@alex it's simple. Eyja (Island) fjalla (mountain) jökull (glacier). The glacier on the mountains that can be seen from the nearby islands. Most things in Iceland are named in this way. –  Ólafur Waage Apr 24 '10 at 13:06
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Huh. A culture with a naming convention! Who'd'a'Thunk it?! –  gWaldo Oct 13 '10 at 18:10
    
Yea I will agree. –  Aiden Bell Oct 13 '10 at 23:09
    
@alex was almost going to say that was a stupid comment but you got managed to get a clever response so it can't be. –  dove Oct 14 '10 at 8:07
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Eyjafjallajökull eh? How about Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch? Saint Mary's Church in the hollow of the white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of St. Tysilio of the red cave? –  user135582 Sep 11 '11 at 17:07

As someone who spends most of their time answering questions, there's three primary reasons I hang around Stack Overflow.

First is the challenge. SO provides a unique environment where I can come and browse through what are essentially challenges of my skills and abilities as a programmer. I can choose whether I want a small challenge or a large one, and in most cases, it's a real-life problem. The experience of figuring these questions out is invaluable. Often there's a rush to be the first with the correct answer, and this adds another element of challenge to it.

Second, and hand-in-hand with the first, is the validation of my skills. How I answer a question is met with feedback from my peers in the industry, and it's very rewarding to see that your solutions are correct and that you know your stuff.

Third is the learning. Just by reading questions, I can get a sense of various technologies and how they're used. If I see a question asked about my favourite language on how to accomplish a problem I've never even considered tackling before, odds are I'll learn a new way to use that language. I can honestly say that I have become a better programmer simply by answering questions here. It is a primary learning tool for me in an industry where things can change rapidly and training difficult to come by once you're in an established career.

The reputation and badges are the tangible rewards for time put in here, but it's the community and the learning that keeps me coming back.

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+1 for the "learning" paragraph; I have learned so much from just reading SO questions and answers, as well as improving myself as a programmer. –  Bojangles Jul 24 '12 at 18:30

When you design a system where positive actions are rewarded. Then you'll see a lot of that. Simple as that :)

We're just greedy rep [badword] but to get rep we need to be nice. So thank you so much for the kind words. You are so awesome.

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BTW I don't get rep for this answer, so I don't know why I'm being so nice. –  Ólafur Waage Apr 23 '10 at 23:33
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@Ólafur: Are you using SO again (see: cznp.com/blog/24)? If so glad to have you back! –  Dexter Apr 24 '10 at 1:38
    
volcanus interruptus? –  Jeff Atwood Apr 24 '10 at 6:27
    
@Dexter I'm back for a few days, on monday we start our first year project and I'll be out again. Just popped in to say hi to my fav peeps. @Jeff it hasn't yet, as far as I know, nothing is happening since I can't see it from the capital. –  Ólafur Waage Apr 24 '10 at 8:22

Because we whack to dead the ones that aren't.

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I read this wrong. It was disturbing. Thankfully, there wasn't really another 'the' in between 'whack' and 'to'. –  Doddle Coddle Aug 23 '10 at 18:16
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@Code Duck, did you mean between "to" and "dead"? Cos I can't make "Because we whack the to dead ones" make any sense. –  MrABC Aug 23 '10 at 18:32
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@MrX, @Code: this is what I get for missing my morning coffee... –  perbert Aug 23 '10 at 21:51

Because being nice is nice. SOFU attracts people knowledgeable, or those eager to learn. Both of those imply someone a little more mature than the average 12 year old - and being nice is great. Let's all be nice.

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I was going to say that this begs the question ("why does it attract them?), but after thinking it over I find this answer is actually directly to the point. The site is carefully engineered to attract "people knowledgeable [and eager to share], or those eager to learn", and that is exactly what produces the "nice" behaviour. In aggregate they're nice, because they are on SOFU to be nice in the first place. –  Zac Thompson Apr 25 '10 at 6:41

Interestingly, the culture of relative politeness rubs off pretty quickly. My first day on SO, I saw many questions that I was tempted to answer with a hearty "RT (sometimes F) M" and "you haven't even done any basic debugging and dare waste other people's time with this?" - it's not that I'm not a nice guy generally, but people should do their own homework and too many of those kinds of questions can kill a smaller forum pretty quickly.

Anyway, a few days in, I noticed that nobody else does it. The questions I viewed "RTFM" worthy got answered nevertheless, or got a comment pointing to the manual, or simply ignored. The approach may sometimes get people solutions who really don't deserve them because they were too lazy to even ask a proper question, but it works, and I'm pretty sure has built a reputation for SO that every question is fine no matter what your level of knowledge is without having to fear getting flamed (although, thank God, you get made profoundly aware if you're doing something stupid in your programming language).

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I think for many reasons:

  • OpenID integration makes it easy to sign up
  • The interface is clean and tidy
  • You don't have to fill in thousands of CAPTCHA fields
  • A great tag system, easy to search
  • The reputation system. It's like playing any ranked online game, it's little addictive :)
  • Because of the reputation system people avoid to answer with very annoying answers like: RTFM, "Google is your friend" because they will loose points very quickly.

I love this project, it's possible to buy market shares of stackoverflow.com ? :)

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Well, something about Karma.

When you help others, you feel proud yourself being able to solve certain challenging problems. When you need help, you definitely know that other developers here are able to help you. It's the kind like what goes around comes around.

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I'm nice because I'm a good person. And I enjoy being part of a community of people with the same expertise as mine.

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I believe the SOFU people are about average for being nice and helpful. I believe you will find helpful people everywhere. The distinction is that the system seems to do an above-average job about self-policing. I think you just see a lot of average people who are ready to be helpful at that particular moment for a particular question/topic.

Stack Overflow that can help us build an excellent team with ready-to-help members?

Are you talking about some kind of business support team? I don't think lessons from SOFU easily apply in a small team or group or in a support position.

On SOFU I can choose to answer questions when I wish, and on my time-frame. If I am not in the mood to answer questions in a helpful way I don't have too. I am not always interested in answering questions. On SOFU I can cherry-pick the questions I am interested in. In a support situation I am expected to answer pretty much any question that I am asked. Even if the asker is a brain-dead-idiot. On SOFU when someone is being an idiot you can quickly flag them as being abusive or down-vote them. In the real world it is a lot more difficult to deal with someone who is less than helpful.

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Stack Overflow is like the ultimate crossword puzzle.

I think people do it as much for themselves as for the anonymous individuals to whom they offer assistance.

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Online identity is becoming less and less anonymous. Without the mask of anonymity, people prefer to stay on the safe side and be nice. Blame Facebook et al.

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How I would say it is:

If SOF people were really nice, then no one would have been down-voted.

As soon as I joined SOF, as many others I am sure, I got a few of my questions down-voted, my "Hey guys!" removed, and a bunch of other weird-to-me-at-that-time stuff happened.. That made me really back-off from SOF. I wasn't back till I read around 50 QAs and the FAQ, like 10 times.

Then, I wondered.. Why would people down-vote? Why not just answer the kinda-dumb question? Why remove my "Hi, guys"!!

I have just recently became active on SOF, and finally found the answer:

  • One day, I answered a question that was kinda dumb, and there was a guy who kept complaining that I shouldn't answer. He didn't make it clear why the question was dumb, nor answered for that matter. I completely ignored him, and got an accepted answer! I thought, "Hey, if that guy was so smart, he'd answer this dumbly-easy question instead of all that complaining" ... Next thing I know, the question gets deleted, and the rep I earned gets taken away :/

  • The other point, removing the "Hello!", turns out you get rep for editing questions...

My Conclusion:

(Some - Many - Little - Most [You decide]) of SOF users are not nice, and won't bother help if they don't see personal benefit. Aarobot's answer is great, and agrees with that. I am sure you see why by now.

As for me, the guy who accepted my answer, before his question got deleted, told me something like:

@Mazyod, thanks for realizing my point.

I know we are not raising charity here, but it won't hurt to lift the spirit of some random guy instead of just complaining. That guy was kinda evil, let alone not nice :p. (Maybe he was having a bad day, idk...)

Now, I just hope this isn't flagged as a duplicate answer or something .. There is no such thing here, right? I just expressed my POV which supported Aarobot's answer..

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No such thing as a "duplicate answer" really, unless you've clearly just copied (basically word for word) another user's answer. And that mostly applies to the main site (where people actually do it) not on Meta. Two answers making similar points are fine –  Ben Brocka Aug 7 '12 at 4:47
    
Down-vote as much as you want, (not you Ben), but at least tell me, "We down-voted because you are making a bad point by relating not-nice to not-professional". Am sure that's your point... but you are evil, too :p –  Mazyod Aug 7 '12 at 5:10
    
Look at this guy: stackoverflow.com/q/11839578/456434. Josh has a clear point. but why down-votes?! Just close the question, down-votes are disease, I tell ya.. –  Mazyod Aug 7 '12 at 5:16

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