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It has been my understanding that accounts are suppose to be for a specific user. This user, Devart, is a company: LinqConnect by Devart. No doubt, this account has provided some quality answers. However, if a specific user cannot be identified, I don't think that the rep gain, rewards, or badges should be given. This should somehow be tagged as a 'Corporate User'. The rep has no real value when you can't be somewhat sure that the same person is giving the answers all the time.

This is where I found an answer by Devart: LINQ to MySql, peddling a product.


Edit 2
Good points have been brought up and most I can agree with. But we are setting a precedent. Meta Fudgey brought up a good point about the account's ability to use mod tools responsibly and consistently. Maybe this feature is not available to an account that appears to be an umbrella account unless a single user is identified. I think it is important to consider this aspect.

Let me re-iterate: the user(s) has provided excellent content and I would want that to continue. However, there is more at stake here than meaningful content and helpful resources.


Edit
The view on 'shared' accounts wasn't so bright a year ago. For most of us, we have information in our profiles that identifies us as individuals. No, I don't have absolute knowledge of the activities on this account and how many people might use it. Meh, for all we know it could be a knowledgeable programmer with some good PR sense. On the other hand, it could be a PR person with no programming knowledge getting the answers from an employee. Who knows...

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Corporations are people too! –  ire_and_curses Mar 11 '11 at 2:51
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How do you know how many people the Devart account represents? –  Gabe Mar 11 '11 at 3:30
    
@Gabe: Check the edits. I didn't write that title. –  IAbstract Mar 11 '11 at 12:43
    
OK, how do you know that it's not a single person behind the Devart account? –  Gabe Mar 11 '11 at 12:47
    
@IAbstract, do you think that SO's moderation features are insufficient to identify a detrimental post? Also, if the answer comes from a PR person who "got the answer from an employee", does it make the answer less valid since it did originate from someone with programming knowledge? –  smartcaveman Mar 11 '11 at 14:57
    
@Gabe: we really don't know. But I think we can look at most accounts and be reasonably confident of whether it is a single user or a corporate user account. Devart's is obviously not intended to be a single user account. It just doesn't have the trademarks of a single user. Purely circumstantial, but relevant. –  IAbstract Mar 11 '11 at 14:58
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I still don't see how your new edit adds anything, what do you mean "there is more at stake here than meaningful content and helpful resources"? That's the entire sum of what's at stake here. Oh, and badges I guess, but .. really? –  Daniel DiPaolo Mar 11 '11 at 19:39
    
@Daniel: no, it is not all that is at stake. There is a precedent - does the community allow umbrella accounts or not? Does the community feel that the umbrella account will be reasonably consistent with the added responsibilities and tools that become available as the rep adds up? –  IAbstract Mar 11 '11 at 19:44
    
@IAbstract ah, the capabilities and tools that you get with rep are the best argument I've heard so far in this thread to cause some sort of concern. I'd put that into the question itself, as essentially pooling the reputation of many and in doing so, gaining access to elevated privileges might be a concern worth discussion, but just about everything else seems benign enough to not worry about –  Daniel DiPaolo Mar 11 '11 at 19:48
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"Meta brought up a good point about the account's ability to use mod tools responsibly and consistently." - Coincidentally, if any one user in the "group" abuses the ability, the entire group gets punished for it. We don't really have a responsibility to treat them as separate entities if they aren't letting the system truly know that they are separate entities. –  Grace Note Mar 11 '11 at 19:48
    
I don't see a problem with that (one account used by multiple people), nor one user with multiple accounts. I have multiple accounts with >3K rep and I don't think it's a big deal as long as I don't cross-vote. –  NullUserException อ_อ Mar 14 '11 at 1:47

6 Answers 6

up vote 20 down vote accepted

I don't think that the rep gain, rewards, or badges should be given.

Why not? Just because more than one user may manage this account doesn't devalue their contributions.

Do you really want to force people to verify that their account is used by the same person every time? I'm not sure if that is even possible.

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Still, I think the general philosophy is that accounts are supposed to belong to individuals, not groups. –  Pëkka Mar 10 '11 at 22:29
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@Pekka, true. I can't argue with that. But I see no reason to punish this particular use case. We haven't seen any problems yet. This is an imaginary problem. –  jjnguy Mar 10 '11 at 22:30
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Yeah, pretty much every possible form of abuse is limited if it comes from a single user account. Putting multiple individuals behind a single account actually reduces the likelihood that abuse will go undetected. If ten user accounts started posting reasonable but spammy answers, it'd be harder to identify/warn/block than one account doing the same. –  Shogging through the snow Mar 10 '11 at 22:33
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After some thinking, I'm pretty mixed on the issue. I think the devart account is working fine, and doing exactly what I would love to see more companies do on Stack Overflow - providing accountable tech support for their products. On the other hand, the expectation on SO is to see an individual behind an account. Hmm. –  Pëkka Mar 10 '11 at 23:54
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@Pekka, are we trying to meet arbitrary expectations or provide a resource for quality content? –  smartcaveman Mar 11 '11 at 14:54
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@Pekka: I'm fine with it as far as what the account has provided the SO community for the most part. Apparently, the community has changed it's view on corporate accounts. I really don't mind that the account gets rep, but the account is corporate and it has pushed it's product(s) in at least one post. –  IAbstract Mar 11 '11 at 14:55
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@IAbstract, This behavior is far better than having employees of the company create their own accounts and push the agenda of the company under the radar. (See Shogs comment on this answer.) –  jjnguy Mar 11 '11 at 14:57
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@jjnguy: I agree that Devart has been helpful to the SO community...and because it has been only one account, it has been able to fly under the radar for quite some time. It wasn't until I was looking at LINQ to MySql solutions that Devart even came up. That aside, the community needs to decide what the precedent is. Like it or not, allow Devart to continue as an umbrella account and open the floodgate for any group or community that wants to represent a collective knowledgebase. –  IAbstract Mar 11 '11 at 15:14
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Hopefully all of the users that share the account are responsible enough to use moderation privileges appropriately once they get it. –  Mottie Mar 11 '11 at 15:49
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@Meta, that is the only potential problem I see with this type of account. –  jjnguy Mar 11 '11 at 15:53
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@jjnguy: Meta brings up a good point. So there is more at stake here than whether the account user(s) provide good answers and meaningful content. Receiving rep, awards, etc. - OK - but what about when the alleged multi-user account has mod privileges? We are setting a precedent here and it needs to be something we are comfortable with. –  IAbstract Mar 11 '11 at 19:30

As long as the account is providing quality information to the community, then there is no justification for disincentivizing the account holder(s).

Reputation, badges, rewards are virtual incentives for people to contribute to the community. If the Devart user stopped receiving any reputation points, then: (1) people would be more likely to discount their posts, and (2) whoever is behind the account would take less personal interest in making the posts. If Devart's posts were being discounted, then participating on SO would become an ineffective marketing tool. If participating on SO became an ineffective marketing tool, AND the account user did not have any personal incentive, then they would have no reason to post on SO. If they have no reason to post on SO, then the "quality answers" that "No doubt, this account has provided" would cease. This isn't good for anyone.

Your other criticism was that they are "peddling a product". A lot of helpful users post links to products. We work in an industry that requires such products. Good products help us do our jobs better. Whoever is behind Devart, they clearly work with LinqConnect. We can infer that they spend a great deal of time on the product, are well informed about it and that they believe the product is useful (otherwise, why would they build and sell it?). Would you expect a developer would put that much effort into a product and not endorse it when someone has a problem for which that product is an ideal solution? Nobody wants SO posts to become saturated with targeted advertising, but there is a powerful system of community watch to prevent inappropriate posts. If the product plug is not appropriate then you can always click that little flag button and a moderator will check it out.

I think SO is one of the best resources available for developers. I think we all agree that the resource should be preserved, but giving active contributors a reason to stop using SO will make the resource weaker, not stronger. Maybe it's just me, but I think having the best possible resource for quality information takes precedence over any account's reputation score.

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In response to Pekka's answer:

  • A large number of users can gain reputation much faster than an individual SO user. Some of us have to sleep, and do things other than Stack Overflow.

In theory, yes. In practice, there is a rep cap. And also the truism that two average programmers don't equal one exceptional programmer. If the strategy is to throw enough lousy answers onto the site that the account hits the cap via sympathy votes, it's abuse - regardless of whether there's one person or twenty posting.

  • A company or software project related user is likely to gain many upvotes in their specific field simply by the power of their name.

This is... Irrelevant. Yes, an official "Microsoft" user would probably do exceptionally well in certain tags, just as John Resig did exceptionally well in ... but you might as well argue that Jon Skeet should be hobbled because he's well-known in the C# community. It's a well-known problem with attributed answers, not group accounts.

These are not problems per se, but... the rest of the SO user base is made up from individual users. Seeing group accounts in the reputation leagues, in the top users of every tag and so on feels... odd.

Also irrelevant, since there's no good way to identify a "group account" unless the account owner explicitly admits to being more than one person (see below...) Do you get uneasy whenever you see a user posting under the name of his business?

Also, I am having a hard time seeing group accounts partake in community activities like editing and re-tagging. A company is likely to be active in a number of certain limited tags, and many questions in those tags are bound to be about competing products and technologies. There is a certain potential of friction when the account of Company A cleans up the wording of a question about the merits of a product from Company B.

Ok, I have to give this credence: it is possible that a nefarious organization might put together a cadre of "rep farmers" to build up an account with the intention of abusing privileges to harm their competitors. By posting a massive number of mediocre answers, such an account could conceivably hit the 2K necessary for editing in under two weeks, and then find themselves free to trash the site...

...of course, such an organization would have no motivation to 'fess up to it. We might as well put a "I'm a spammer" checkbox next to the "I'm a group" option, for all the good it'll do. And there's also no point in implementing a separate account type as "punishment" for such users when identified: this is overtly hostile behavior - just ban them!

Conclusion

Implementing a limited account type for group users - a subset of users that may be entirely mythical - would serve only to limit abuse from accounts that have no intention of abusing the site. It might work as a safety-net for a respected organization that wishes to hand login details to the new intern without running the risk of being banned for misguided actions on his behalf... But even this serves only to provide encouragement for a type of account that you're already uncomfortable with.

This is - at best - a counter-productive idea, and at worst, a complete waste of site-developer time. We already require full disclosure from users who are honestly trying to participate without crossing the line into abuse - I see no reason to bend over backwards for users who are not honest.

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The "corporate user" is definitely a mythical being at this point - I was thinking more about the prospect of companies participating more in the future, something I very much hope for. Should they start using SO this way in large numbers, I still think it may be worth thinking about a special type account. But you're right, a honest company or team that doesn't want to be seen as (mis)using their powers has already all possibilities: They can simply refrain from using them, or make every one of their answers CW. Points taken. –  Pëkka Mar 13 '11 at 17:21
    
@Pekka: on that note, consider throwing some ideas at this... –  Shogging through the snow Mar 13 '11 at 18:18

From SE's legal point of view, subscribers should be individuals:

[...] Subscriber certifies to Stack Exchange that Subscriber is an individual (i.e., not a corporate entity) at least 13 years of age. [...]

(In 2011, at the time this question was asked, this still used an "if", suggesting corporate accounts were okay as well, in "[...] Subscriber certifies to Stack Exchange that if Subscriber is an individual (i.e., not a corporate entity), Subscriber is at least 13 years of age. [...]". That has changed some time later, as noticed in a May 2013 comment by Seth.)

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The terms now explicitly say subscriber must be an individual, not an corporate entity. Trying to figure out how a company could use the API in a commercial venture. –  Seth Packham May 23 '13 at 22:11
    
(Nice find, @Seth. I somehow missed that comment in May. Edited now.) –  Arjan Oct 29 '13 at 19:21

However, if a specific user cannot be identified, I don't think that the rep gain, rewards, or badges should be given.

Then we should just throw out rep, rewards, badges...

I post from multiple machines, through multiple IP addresses, on multiple topics. If there were multiple people working from behind this account name, it wouldn't necessarily look any different. This is really not possible to determine, and - as The jjnguy notes - it's not really a problem anyway.


Upon reading the edit, I suspect you are more concerned with the advertising / promotional aspect of this account than the possibility that its posts are authored by more than one individual. This is a valid concern, but - for the most part - a user's bio page is his to do with as he wishes. See: How much advertising is allowed on userinfo pages?

In situations where a user goes out of his way to use answers to promote a product in which he has a vested interest, the restrictions are considerably more severe. See: Limit to self-promotion in answers?

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But that's not really the point. The question is should group accounts be officially allowed or not? –  Pëkka Mar 10 '11 at 23:54
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@Pekka: should we officially disallow something that 1) can't be reliably detected, 2) can't be reliably prevented, and 3) doesn't cause any harm? I say, Yes! And let's also officially mandate that π == 3, tomatoes are vegetables, and Johnny Depp is the best actor to ever live. Also, windmills are ferocious dragons and must be killed. That is all. –  Shogging through the snow Mar 11 '11 at 4:09
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@Shog the question is, should official, overt group accounts be allowed or not. That is a valid question –  Pëkka Mar 11 '11 at 12:45
    
@Pekka: thank you, that is exactly right. I do agree that there is a problem with being able to automatically detect these accounts. However, when one does surface, I think it should be reviewed. And, hell yes, let's dub all windmills as ferocious dragons and must be killed. –  IAbstract Mar 11 '11 at 15:05
    
@Pekka: no, that isn't the question. Note that the OP isn't even sure that the account used as an example is actually used by more than one person. The question as-written appears to be recommending the hobbling of any account which cannot be linked to one, corporeal human - a strategy that is, in my opinion, a fool's errand. Do you honestly see any value in trolling through accounts reading bios and disabling rep for those that don't meet some arbitrary smell-test? –  Shogging through the snow Mar 11 '11 at 15:14
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@Shog9 I am not suggesting any of these things. I am saying that it's valid to think about what happens when a group account gains 10k+ rights, and to think about options like, say, giving businesses, projects or groups the option to voluntarily choose a "castrated" account that can't gain 10k+ rights in order to prevent the impression of partisanship. I'm not saying that is necessarily necessary, but discussion about the topic is a good thing IMO. –  Pëkka Mar 11 '11 at 17:30
    
@Pekka: so think about it then. I have. And I'm still not seeing the problem, or the need for such a draconian "solution". Right now, I'm resisting the urge to write more about this because I'd effectively be attacking strawmen - if you can't at very least outline some potential problems with hypothetical scenarios, then how can we have a discussion? I've done my best to answer the question posted here... If you have additional concerns, then perhaps you could either outline them in another answer, or open a new discussion and outline them in the question? –  Shogging through the snow Mar 11 '11 at 17:36
    
@Shog fair enough. :) I do have some potential problems in mind; I shall make a write-up later. –  Pëkka Mar 11 '11 at 17:44
    
@Shog added meta.stackexchange.com/questions/82509/… –  Pëkka Mar 11 '11 at 21:15

I wholeheartedly welcome companies and Open Source and other projects to be active on SO, as long as it's about truly providing technical support for one's products and not (just) advertising. It's a logical step in the site's evolution and a great way of staying in touch with your customers from the software development world. It's also a great way of getting canonical answers regarding Open Source projects, etc. ... the possibilities are endless.

I also find it a perfectly logical choice to use a group account for company- or project-related activity: The content generated by the company should stay the company's, even if individual employees move on (and take their individual Stack Overflow accounts with them).

There is a number of possible problems with group accounts, though:

  • A large number of users can gain reputation much faster than an individual SO user. Some of us have to sleep, and do things other than Stack Overflow.

  • A company or software project related user is likely to gain many upvotes in their specific field simply by the power of their name.

these factors can lead to that user account reaching high reputation counts, thus becoming "trusted users" in the community's eyes, very quickly.

These are not problems per se, but... the rest of the SO user base is made up from individual users. Seeing group accounts in the reputation leagues, in the top users of every tag and so on feels... odd.

Also, I am having a hard time seeing group accounts partake in community activities like editing and re-tagging. A company is likely to be active in a number of certain limited tags, and many questions in those tags are bound to be about competing products and technologies. There is a certain potential of friction when the account of Company A cleans up the wording of a question about the merits of a product from Company B.

Should problematic behaviour from group accounts become an issue, I would suggest introducing limited corporate accounts that are barred from participating in certain activities like voting and editing other questions regardless of their reputation. As a matter of policy, official group accounts signing up on SO would be made limited accounts by moderators or something. Becoming a limited account would be entirely voluntary unless there are signs of problematic behaviour, in which case it would be a punitive measure.

Until such problems come up, things can probably stay as they are; If it is desired to have projects and companies on board as group account, I would like to see this mentioned somewhere in the FAQ.

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'Seeing group accounts in the reputation leagues feels... odd.' I agree...and maybe it is the oddness that made me question whether the account should be allowed, modified (castrated as you put it), or whatever. Some, like you and @Meta Fudgey actually helped me figure out what I was trying to really ask. Thanks!!! –  IAbstract Mar 11 '11 at 21:19
    
responded –  Shogging through the snow Mar 13 '11 at 17:13

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