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Computing is all around us. From helping us find songs we like on Pandora to describing how DNA encodes information in living things, computing is a huge field:

"The old definition of computer science -the study of phenomena surrounding computers- is now obsolete. Computing is the study of natural and artificial information processes." - Peter Denning

It's a fascinating field with incredible potential, but it typically sells itself short by being thought of as "just programming."

I bring this up because I'm wondering if Stack Overflow, a site that describes itself as "a programming Q&A site," can help people explore the magic and beautiful parts of computing?

I'm looking for a place that spawns computing curiosity just like a well done photo on Flickr sparks a torrent of "How'd you do that?" questions that the photographer is happy to answer.

It would be a place where all of computing could be explored and where new ideas would be welcomed and celebrated for their creativity. I'm thinking of a place that understands that computing is still a young field; a place that understands that we're just at the start of a huge revolution and the best days are yet to come and most of the land is still unexplored.

I'm looking for a place that has good ideas but isn't overwhelmed by academic spam. As Luis von Ahn laments:

"Given the number of people working in computer science and the fact that publishing papers is considered the goal of our work, there is an insane number of papers written every year, the vast majority of which contribute very little (or not at all) to our collective knowledge. This is basically spam. In fact, for many papers (including some of my own), the actual idea of the paper could be stated in one paragraph, but somehow people manage to write 10 pages of it."

Ideally, this place would include opportunities to have TED and Presentation Zen style presentations from folks in the trenches with the chance for Pecha-Kucha style presentations from amateurs. It would foster local face to face group meetings in your own city but also allow online groups to form for discussing a single book or good paper. It'd capture the collective wisdom of the crowd by offering recommendations of what else to explore in computing just like Amazon with books, Netflix with movies, and Pandora with music.

I don't want this to be an elitist or arrogant place. I want the culture to realize that skill distribution often follows a power law curve this implies that almost everyone is below "average." A single individual working in the computing field can never master the whole field, but I want a place where exploration is encouraged.

If done well, it'd be a place that could benefit people in middle school with a interest in computers (and to a lesser extent, their guidance counselors) as well as developers in industry. In addition, it'd be a place where smart researchers would love to participate.

I have searched the web for years without finding such a place although I've found some places that have elements of what I'm talking about:

  • Stack Overflow - this site is a great way to ask programming questions, but it doesn't have the exploration aspects that I'm looking for. The closest it seems to have is browsing by tags and searching.
  • Videos: Google Tech Talks, Facebook Tech Talks, Channel9's Going Deep Series, and some on specific technologies like Anders' PDC talk on the Future of C# and Douglas Crockford's JavaScript Introduction. In addition, I'd like the site to have a respect for history sort of like the Computer History Museum Channel.
  • Online exhibits, sort of like the Computer History Museum's online chess exhibit.
  • Online courses like the Computer Science ones on Academic Earth.
  • Print publications like the updated Communications of the ACM that feature a wide swath of our industry, including accessible research highlights.
  • Wikipedia: Its Computer Science Portal and many articles on topics on various topics are pretty good, but the sense of community isn't there like it is on Stack Overflow. Additionally, there are some authority problems (but on the whole, it's usually better than an "authoritative" source)
  • Google Knol: It makes it easier to identify a single source which makes it sort of more comfortable to cite, but the content isn't as broad as Wikipedia.
  • Tagging sites: de.licio.us makes it easy for people to tag certain articles, but there doesn't seem to be good recommendation systems built on top of it based on content that'd be helpful for recommendations.
  • News sites: Hacker News and the Programming Reddit highlight new things in blogs and sometimes gets good comments, but it doesn't seem to have the exploration quality that I'm looking for.
  • Book sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing are good for sharing books and reviews, but don't seem to have the exploratory feel that I'm looking for and tend to focus just on books and not other media (e.g. papers, blogs, videos, and courses)
  • Academic libraries like ACM's Digital Library and Google Scholar - great source for research, but they don't have the community aspects I'm looking for. In addition, there tends to be some "academic spam" as mentioned above.
  • Local user groups including .NET user groups, Ruby Meetup groups, etc - these are good for asking specific questions or learning a specific technology stack, but don't offer the exploratory breadth that I'm looking for. Some local ACM chapters get closer to what I'm looking for.
  • The Great Principles of Computing project (and its video overview) - it's a great framework for showing the deep connections across computing by highlighting 7 "great principles" in computing: computation, coordination, communication, recollection, automation, evaluation, and design. These principles would be a great connector of ideas on the site.

The ideal site would have the best elements of all of the above sites.

Can Stack Overflow become this type of site? Is what I'm describing too far beyond Stack Overflow's charter? If so, what's the next best choice?

If it was Stack Overflow, I envision something like a person starting out looking at a regex programming question and then going into sort of a browse/explore mode that might show them other graph related programming issues that might highlight how Pandora, Facebook, and Google Maps works. Maybe a deeper exploration would use the Great Principles to see connections to other fields like biology.

Creating a site like what I'm describing will take a lot of work. I'd like to leverage existing tools if at all possible. Building on Stack Overflow would be great.

I'd really like to make this place a reality. It is the goal of my team for our Rebooting Computing project that I described on my blog. We'll have support from academia, industry, as well as organizations like the ACM. This will help get us started, but ultimately we'll need your help to make it a success.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and suggestions. Would you participate in the place I'm describing? What can we do to make it a success?

Update: I realize this probably sounds too grandiose and needs to be broken into smaller parts. I'll vote up and possibly accept an answer that best describes what part should be attacked first. Thanks!

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migrated from stackoverflow.com Sep 11 '10 at 17:10

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

marked as duplicate by Peter Mortensen, gnat, Martijn Pieters, hims056, Azik May 6 at 11:32

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Honestly, no. This is all non-profit and we don't plan to make money off of it. Its goal is to help people explore computer science and computing in general. –  Jeff Moser Feb 16 '09 at 13:23
    
I don't understand why this got closed. It doesn't look like spam to me! –  mquander Feb 16 '09 at 13:29
    
Advertising??????? –  José Leal Feb 16 '09 at 13:30
    
Poor guy, think in how much time he spent writing this.. =D –  José Leal Feb 16 '09 at 13:31
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I herd this gigantic sucking sound, and was led to this question. What's going on in here? –  Won't Feb 16 '09 at 13:38
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Jees, get a blog or something. –  shoosh Feb 16 '09 at 13:50
    
It is long, but not spam. –  Tom Alderman Feb 16 '09 at 14:04
    
Although it does seem to toe the spam line. I think it should at least be a wiki, since it sounds more like a blog rant fishing for comments than a question looking for specific answers. –  gnostradamus Feb 16 '09 at 15:10
    
Thanks for the Goodreads and Librarything links. +1 –  Simucal Feb 16 '09 at 15:22
    
@Jeff Moser, people will be less likely to get all up in arms if you make it a community wiki. –  Simucal Feb 16 '09 at 15:23
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"the magic and beauty"? Anyone else got a mental picture of the south park book-mobile? –  bananakata Feb 16 '09 at 15:25
    
@Simucal looks like it auto-turned into a wiki already. Anything else I can do? –  Jeff Moser Feb 16 '09 at 15:27
    
@annakata I know it sounds a little crazy at first, but our intentions are good: rebootingcomputing.org –  Jeff Moser Feb 16 '09 at 15:28
    
@Jeff Moser, I just don't feel like CS needs a rebooting. From the graphs in your link, the bachelor level degrees isn't falling to new low levels. They are ~returning~ to their natural state. At one point there was was an artificially high num. during the middle of a tech boom. –  Simucal Feb 16 '09 at 15:47
    
@Jeff Moser, now that the boom is over, the people who were in it simply for quick cash are gone. Posers eliminated. –  Simucal Feb 16 '09 at 15:48

5 Answers 5

Can Stack Overflow become this type of site? Is what I'm describing too far beyond Stack Overflow's charter?

Definitely. I applaud the effort, of course, but trying to do too much can be dangerous.

If so, what's the next best choice?

Why does it have to be one site? Why can't there be multiple sites that support different facets of this exploration? SO is one, sure, but we're more of a meat grinder, honestly -- getting things done on a day to day basis. This isn't really a place for broad introspection. It's problem specific. You come here because you have a detailed problem or narrow question you want to answer.

Wikipedia is a single point of wisdom. There's only one Wikipedia page, ever, on "Asphalt". But there could be hundreds or thousands of different questions about Asphalt.

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Any advice for how to link up all the sites to make it seem like a united effort to help people explore computing? Sort of like an alliance for people that like CS/computing and want to see it grow. –  Jeff Moser Feb 16 '09 at 14:46

I think you want just to have fun reading http://lambda-the-ultimate.com. And I think you'll have more fun doing that. The problem is, no matter how smart your answers there are (and they'd have to be pretty smart just to survive), you don't get points.

Oh, and you are familiar with Ward Cunningham's wiki, right?

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Agree. SO has a heavy bias toward day-to-day practice. There are superior communities for the more theoretical and philosophical aspects of computing. This in no way detracts from SO's appeal. –  Derrick Turk Feb 12 '10 at 13:48

I hate to say it, but I think the rep system either needs to go, or be seriously rethought. It makes this site kind of toxic on a lot of occasions.

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I worry about that as well, but Jeff can't moderate the whole thing himself -- it has to be self organizing. Do you have any better suggestions than rep? –  Aaron Mar 28 '09 at 6:52

Interesting that you used the term "Doesn't have the exploratory feel I'm looking for" three times. I agree that exploration in Stack Overflow is difficult, so I think the site you're reaching for has more of a wiki feel to it, where words that seem interesting or relevant are hyperlinked to other articles. "Algorithmpedia", perhaps, although when you use the phrase "presentations from folks in the trenches with the chance for Pecha-Kucha style presentations from amateurs". I see a certain amount of elitism implied.

Then you also bring up user groups, videos, and books - these are important of course, but perhaps would arise naturally from a wiki style of presentation if you had a lot of folks participating. The addition I would like to see is free access to academic papers - that way I could stop bugging my grad student friends to photocopy stuff for me :)

Overall, it sounds like a cool idea, but maybe more evolutionary than revolutionary. Perhaps a bit similar to editable documentation sites like http://jquery.com/, but with a lot less concrete topic.

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It'd be more than just algorithms, but you're on the right track. By "in the trenches", I just meant people that are actually using techniques instead of talking about it (e.g. "Pandora" vs. someone just speculating about graph problems) –  Jeff Moser Feb 16 '09 at 14:59

If so, what's the next best choice?

I feel like Computer Science Stack Exchange is a big step forward, of course within the SE paradigm.

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