Sometimes a few people all answer a question with subtly different but all useful answers. Wouldn't it improve Stack Overflow if we could merge the best answers and allow people to contribute to an already good answer and gain credit for doing so?

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Sometimes the people involved will already do that, e.g. in stackoverflow.com/questions/2838889/… the final accepted answer is a combination of the best features from at least three different people's original answers. –  David Z Jul 10 '10 at 22:08
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2 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

A) "Wouldn't it improve Stack Overflow if we could merge the best answers? "

This is a difficult one to quantify exactly, but I would say that the answer is almost certainly No.

Stack Overflow is about Questions & Answers, not about people. By that naive measure it is obvious that your suggestion is absolutely beneficial to the site. However, that would be ignoring the immortal words of Jeff Atwood.

Stack Overflow Is You!

Or, altenately, to paraphrase Charlton Heston

Stack Overflow is made of PEOPLE!!!

This means that the Questions & Answers are generated by the users, and we must understand their motivation. Each of them are volunteering their own time for their own reasons, and in many, many of those cases the reason is reputation. Whether for personal bragging rights or big numbers on their CV, they are trying to accumulate reputation. So, if merging the answers loses them their reputation, you'll see a fall off in participation.

Also, we already have Community Wiki for that purpose, and it isn't used often enough for exactly this reason.

B) [...] "allow people to contribute to an already good answer and gain credit for doing so?"

This at least respects the problems illustrated in the A) section. However, it opens up two separate and very large problems.

Logistics
It would be very difficult to manage the logistics of this. There is no way to algorithmically determine the difference between someone who provides a much needed update to an answer vs. someone who corrects some grammatical issues. There is no way to see that one person wrote an entire tirade and someone else just added relevant links vs two people collaborating on a perfect answer.

As a result, apportioning the reward would be wildly unfair in nearly every case, and this feature would just cause frustration to both of the parties involved. Except for the people who game this system, they would love it.

Ownership
Stack Overflow answers are all cc-wiki licensed, which means they can be reused and they are not "owner" in the sense that they are controlled by one person. However, each person does put their own time and effort into their answers, and oftentimes they have very specific reasons for writing what they write.
I for one, would not appreciate anyone tacking on an extra paragraph onto this response, or changing the sense of it to make it "more correct".

On Stack Overflow, it is a little different, I would love it if people correct my answers, but in most of the questions I choose to answer, it is because there is still some way for me to make the answer mine. I want to be able to tell a prospective employer "Go to Stack Overflow and look at any of my answers, I stand by every one".

I accept (and embrace) that my answers can be edited, but if a user wants to change (or collaborate) my answer, then I would recommend that they create their own answer that incorporates mine, rather than they change mine. That way, if either of us so desires, we can go in a radically different direction with our edits, if we change our minds.

Bottom line: No.

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Nice, thorough, answer. –  John Weldon Jul 19 '10 at 5:55
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There's so much perspective and context to different answers, that even though they may both be right, it wouldn't be easy to always integrate them. Just upvote them both, and they'll both float to the top and be seen.

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That's a good point. –  John Weldon Jul 10 '10 at 19:57
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