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After I recommended Stack Overflow to a friend she briefly looked at it and concluded it was not much different than a wiki. I can think of many reasons why this is false but perhaps it would be useful to have a link to direct someone like that to, that would go through some of the reasons. For example:

  • The attribution system that is both quantitative and democratic
  • meta sites allow the site rules to be democratically defined as well
  • etc...
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Maybe you should just tell your friend to look at it a bit more closely. :) –  Pëkka Feb 4 '11 at 0:06
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I did. I'm not convincing enough. –  D W Feb 5 '11 at 6:33
    
It's for the community, by the community. Does a wiki have a theory of moderation? No. It's not just some site where people contribute, it's a site that is made to really benefit the users. The users are there at the first step of creating a new site, they give feedback, more people are on this than a wiki. The community is really involved, and you can get answers quicker. –  Annonomus Penguin Aug 18 '13 at 16:54
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The biggest thing I could think of is the Q/A format, rather than just posting –  Shokhet Jul 20 at 16:50

5 Answers 5

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I can think of a few reasons why it's better:

  • Different answers provide completely different approaches to the same problem whereas a wiki is really just one that might be modified over time. Different people react better to different styles of answers.
  • There's much more accountability here than in a wiki. If you post a crap answer then it'll generally get voted down. This means, in general either the community will ignore it (a good thing) or it'll get drastically improved and voted up again (a better thing.) If someone writes crap on a wiki, the community will generally take notice of it until / if someone changes it.
  • People get more incentive for posting good things here than on a wiki because there's a reward system in place.
  • People get very specific answers to specific questions here, generalised wikis are generally more, well, general.
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+1 for third point! –  Trufa Feb 3 '11 at 23:50
    
There is less accountability here, because not every action is logged. Reputation doesn't imply accountability. –  Nemo Jul 20 at 15:26
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@Nemo: All edits are logged, barring those within grace periods; all answers, questions, comments, and reviews are also logged. If you mean that it's harder than, say, WP to track activity on a given page, that's true, but for the average WP user outside the elite editor clique, really keeping track of genuine accountability by retracing the enormously verbose logs of often-hand-edited discussions (and trying to ensure that in none of the revisions did someone pull a dirty trick like changing someone else's Talk: opinion slightly) is ridiculously non-trivial. –  Nathan Tuggy Jul 20 at 18:18

It's easier to answer if you look at the definition of wiki by its inventor, Ward Cunningham: Wiki design principles. (The other answers here are mostly incorrect because they were invented out of thin air.)

TL;DR: Wikis and StackExchange are different things. Comparisons tend to go "what features of X that I care about are also in Y" and then people go "X is better because it has all I like"; but that's meaningless. Let's just look at the differences, without saying good or bad.

Principles shared with wikis:

  • Simple - easier to use than abuse.
  • Mundane - a small number of (irregular) text conventions will provide access to the most useful page markup.
  • Tolerant - Interpretable (even if undesirable) behavior is preferred to error messages. (But StackExchange gives way less power to users.)

Wiki principles not shared by StackExchange:

  • Incremental - no way to link a topic unless there is a question about it.
  • Unified - same reason, plus I can't link [[Difference between StackOverflow and a wiki]] because there might be 0, 1 or 1000 questions on the topic, and each may have 0, 1 or 1000 answers. In other words, StackExchange implements ViewPoint, from which I quote: «ViewPoint is nothing like a wiki». On a wiki, there is generally just one shared text about a topic, which everyone has to edit; on StackExhange, everyone is encouraged to add their own separate view.
  • Precise - StackExchange is chaotic; order is established algorithmically.
  • Organic - the structure is fixed; the tag taxonomy can vary, but it's not integral part of the structure.
  • Universal - the administration side is definitely distinct from the public-facing side; voting is the only curation task which is directly integrated into the writing and reading.

Wiki principles probably not shared by StackExchange:

  • Open - by design, StackExchange trusts some people more than others. Most things require some privileges.
  • Overt - there is no input to get a certain output on a page as a whole: good part of the presentation is defined in a algorithmical way, hence hidden and often proprietary rather than editorial/manual. Cf. Jeff Atwood on wiki-ways to cover a topic: «Wiki posts do not fit the current Q&A model [...] which is why they're a bad fit. We do Q&A».
  • Convergent - see Incremental and Unified above; there is some de-duplication mechanism, but it's like an afterthought rather than something integral to the system.
  • Observable - most things on StackExchange are not publicly logged and there is no way to follow the (subset of) events you are interested in. For instance, there is no master recent changes page nor a watchlist to let everyone garden the site; instead, the system encourages you to take care of your own "property" (your posts) or other posts the system thinks may need you.

See also Ward Cunningham's original definition and origin of the term wiki.

You may also compare MediaWiki principles to see how a modern wiki implementation differs even from the limited flavour of wiki-ness that StackExchange offers at the level of individual posts (for instance: logs, history and other feeds; advanced organisation techniques).

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I'm not at all sure what you mean by your commentary on "Overt" (Markdown is just about exactly the opposite of proprietary, and is arguably more universal than even WikiText, in any flavor), and I believe you've missed the nature of the site homepage — which shows all questions whenever they receive any edits, any new answers, or any edits to answers — and Favorites, which shows all questions you've marked that have had any similar modifications made. –  Nathan Tuggy Jul 20 at 19:45
    
@NathanTuggy, sure, that's why I put the bullet point under "probably". The frontpage bumps are not all equal, there are "secret recipes" to bump a questiokn less if the edit is minor; there are other semi-secrets like "Hot network questions"; etc. I was not speaking of the markup, I'd let wikitext (MediaWiki) aside because that's a rather extreme example. || Let's focus on the obvious things: on a wiki, the presentation of a topic (if not the entire layout) is defined by editors; on SE, no individual editor or editorial policy can decide the order in which answers to a question are presented. –  Nemo Jul 20 at 20:12
    
OK, grace period edits can be very roughly likened to hitting the Minor Edit checkbox; they can't be snuck in if anyone's commented, and they can't be snuck in past five minutes anyway, or by anyone other than the last editor, so e.g. vandalism is very rare. Re answer order, answers are intended to stand alone: they can be and are evaluated alongside each other, but there is no reason for any one person to define a "recommended reading order" as there would be for an article that must be read as a unity, aside from the very overt checkmark signifying acceptance by the original querent. –  Nathan Tuggy Jul 20 at 20:19
    
@NathanTuggy, did you read Cunningham's definition of that point? «The formatted (and printed) output will suggest the input required to reproduce it». There is no input by which you can be sure to get a certain output on a question. I'm not saying that's good or bad, but it's definitely a difference. –  Nemo Jul 20 at 20:22
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Since the unit of useful wiki-dom in SE is the post (question, answer, tag, …), not the full question page, I don't consider that a useful distinction: there is nowhere to type in the question with all the same answers anyway, any more than there's a single edit box marked "Type Wikipedia here:". –  Nathan Tuggy Jul 20 at 20:30
    
@NathanTuggy the fact that the "unit of useful wiki-dom" is a subset of the site/page only proves the point, i.e. that a StackExchange site is not a wiki. A wiki site is wholly wiki, or it's not a wiki. –  Nemo Jul 20 at 20:34
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If WP consisted of a set of fragments, each with exactly one header with any of several sizes, and the pages themselves then arranged selections of those fragments into a specific order, such that all text was in one of those fragments, would you really say "That's not a wiki"? For clarity, that is pretty much exactly how a competing project defines its software... and 'Ward Cunningham calls Wagn "one of the freshest contributions to wiki since I coined the term."' –  Nathan Tuggy Jul 20 at 20:45
    
From a quick look, it seems all of that is editable. "Cards" are not that different from MediaWiki templates, better isolated. –  Nemo Jul 20 at 21:11
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So the only distinction is that in one case, a stellar example of wikis, the order of fragments is wholly determinable by any editor, and in the other case, the order is determinable only by the community as a whole... that's not a very large distinction. –  Nathan Tuggy Jul 20 at 21:23
    
The community as a whole has no control in SE; only the algorithms do. Even if the community gained a huge consensus in a meta.X discussion that question Y in X should be presented in a certain manner, they would have no way to implement that. –  Nemo Jul 21 at 9:55
    
Community discussions that result in massive downvoting/upvoting/delete-voting surges to remove a misplaced answer from its place have happened repeatedly, as well as successful campaigns to fold all answers into a single common one, where there's warrant. The community has all the control it needs over even answer order, the only remaining distinction. So using this minor difference to argue that SE is not at all wiki-like is disingenuous. –  Nathan Tuggy Jul 21 at 16:11

Well, the about page provides a helpful not-quite-Venn diagram that points out that the site is really a combination of wiki, digg/reddit, blog and forum:

pseudo-Venn diagram comprising circles representing wiki, digg/reddit, blog and forum, with Stack Overflow at intersection

To answer your question, all you have to do is look at the three remaining areas. I'll answer all four, so that this answer can be used to answer "how is Stack Overflow different/better than just [some subset of the four things]?"

Digg/Reddit

Digg, Reddit and similar services allow users to vote on content. It puts the wisdom of the Internet crowd to work for you in judging which posts are worth listening to and which are... well, not.

Blog

Blogs tend to contain longer, more essay-like and/or comprehensive posts than other media on the Internet. But perhaps more importantly, bloggers can develop impressive reputations over time, based on the content they post. Conversely, if you see a post by Eric Lippert, you know it's probably worth reading, even if you didn't know he had a blog (or in our case, a Stack Overflow account) before.

Forum

Forums are about getting many people together, and treating them roughly as equals. They tend to focus on one topic or a group of related topics.

Wiki

Wikis are editable by many people, and contents of wikis are generally shared under some sort of non-restrictive license. User-contributed content on Stack Overflow (and all Stack Exchange sites) is licensed under CC BY-SA.

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That description/graphic feels overly misrepresentative. SO shares minor attributes, but it really doesn't qualify as mix. Besides using it like Reddit or a Forum being discouraged, it follows more the bulletin board pattern than a forum (which should be threaded like on reddit). And I remember some antipathy for using it blog-like too. –  mario Feb 4 '11 at 12:54
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@mario, there's a big difference between using SO like any one of the four components, and SO incorporating attributes of each of the four components. –  Pops Feb 4 '11 at 15:31
    
+1 for a detailed viewpoint @Popular Demand. However I tend to agree with @mario –  D W Feb 5 '11 at 18:05

The primary distinction I remember being mentioned (in Jeff's blog or somesuch) is that questions and answers are typically "owned" by a specific user on the SE sites, rather than everything being community content as is the case on most wikis. This promotes some hopefully beneficial competition and stake in the community from each contributer.

Found at least one mention on Jeff's blog - An excerpt from Mixing Oil and Water: Authorship in a Wiki World (Feb 2, 2009)

But that doesn't entirely work; we also need to know who the primary author is, because that information will color and influence our responses to the question. I'll grant you this is an extreme example; no disrespect to my fellow programmers, but you haven't won a turing award. Even in more typical cases, attaching authorship matters. It lets us know who we're talking to, what their background is, what their skills are, and so forth. Furthermore, how can you possibly form a community when everyone is a random, anonymous contributor?

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What is the link to Jeff's blog please. –  D W Feb 5 '11 at 6:34
    
@D W - I found one link, and added an excerpt above. –  jball Feb 5 '11 at 6:48
    
+1 thanks this is helpful. –  D W Feb 7 '11 at 19:17

Some other differences:

  • Tags
  • User stats and different abilities based on rep
  • Format of a single question and multiple answers
  • Ability for questions to be closed as duplicates
  • Ordering of questions based on rating
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+1 great answers thanks –  D W Feb 5 '11 at 18:37
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None of these is really missing from wikis. –  Nemo Jul 20 at 15:57

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