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I love Stack Overflow, and I wish a vast profit to the people who created it.

But I worry about creating indispensible privately held repositories of knowledge.

Google appears to be going evil. Facebook appears to have been evil from the start.

What guarantees do we have that Stack Overflow won't become the same ghastly sort of thing?

Wikipedia appears to be staying good (apart from sticking those ads everywhere). I think mainly because everything it is can be easily copied and re-used by anyone else.

In the terminology of Free Software, can Stack Overflow be forked?

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  • 11
    This is marvelous. Feb 7, 2012 at 12:54
  • 21
    See this link on the footer of every page the data is not a "privately held repository of knowledge".
    – ChrisF Mod
    Feb 7, 2012 at 13:00
  • 3
    What is this I don't even Feb 7, 2012 at 13:41
  • 1
    Almost +1 for thinking about the issue, but a clear -1 for not even trying to find out the facts first. Feb 7, 2012 at 13:55
  • 2
    Ads! Pay to view! Subscriptions! Blackmail against Unicorns and other cut-throat villany! This is StackOverflow (ran by Stack Exchange), so anything like that would go against their ethics and mission statement.
    – tombull89
    Feb 7, 2012 at 13:59
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    I always thought of Stack Overflow as Chaotic Good.
    – David
    Feb 7, 2012 at 14:17
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    Two effing years you've been here, and you asked this on SO?
    – user1228
    Feb 7, 2012 at 14:57
  • 2
    Yes Stack Overflow is evil, and planning how to infect you with viruses, steal you identity, and eat your cookies. Nov 26, 2015 at 15:31
  • @David The MSO community is imho neutral evil. The main site is lawful neutral. The reviewing mechanism is somewhere between neutral evil and chaotic evil. At least, this is my subjective perception.
    – peterh
    May 11, 2019 at 11:40

3 Answers 3

5

I don't know what's evil, but I'll answer your last line.

StackExchange doesn't guarantee the right to fork: the software is proprietary. However, posts are free content, because they use a free license, the cc-by-sa (not just "a Creative Commons license"). Importantly, a data dump is available on Internet Archive and updated irregularly (at intervals of about 6 months). So, our posts mostly grow the digital commons rather than a private property.

The XML data dumps will qualify as open data if they are an open format:

which places no restrictions, monetary or otherwise, upon its use and can be fully processed with at least one free/libre/open-source software tool

There is some documentation on the database schema but I'm pretty sure StackExchange doesn't provide any free software to parse the dumps. However, according to the comparison of Q&A software, Askbot is (the only?) one free software which can import StackExchange data. Someone should verify whether it works.

For comparison (as you mentioned them) Wikimedia projects run entirely on free/libre software, MediaWiki and others, with open CVS and thousands of software contributors, and data dumps are provided every 2-4 weeks: the right to fork is guaranteed to a rather high level.

As for Wikimedia Foundation's ads, you can read their financial reports. For Stack Exchange Inc., see business model: there is some information on investors at https://crunchbase.com/organization/stack-exchange but valuation and revenue are secret.

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The site is owned by StackExchange Inc; but the data is under a creative commons license, thus is not privately-held at all! Hence preventing the whole evil repository thing.

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In my opinion, the structure of the SO is not evil. You can get answers to your questions, and you can help others. For doing the second, you can also earn moderation privileges, what you can use to make the system better.

Only an elected mod can cage suspend you, he needs to have a valid reason (although he has the option to overestimate your "offenses"), he can punish you only for at most 1 year. After that, you are a full member again, automatically, without leaving any visible trace. This is a very nice and free system. This is the main attractive power of the SE.

This is simply unimaginable on the whole internet, everywhere. Compare this, for example, to a Facebook group. There you can be expelled any time, on any reason or on no reason, forever. From that moment you won't even see them. You won't be ever a mod, except if the owner of the group decides so on any reason or on no reason. The granted privileges, and also the punishments, are given by single-person decisions, and these persons are practically un-accountable.

In general, the automatically granted privileges, what you can get by work, are conceptionally alien from the internet communities, except the SE sites. On a typical internet site, you won't have ever any direct saying in the workings of it, it doesn't matter how long and how much did you work for them. The privileges granted rarely, typically by personal sympathy on the mods/owners, what you can earn and lose by ...well... not always with productive work.

On the SO, beside the privileges you've earned by work, you can also say on the meta site, what you think it should be said. Yes, your posts can be deeply downvoted, but - except rare cases - you are only rarely silenced, and practically never punished. At least not for saying what you think.

Although the price is typically many fights and deeply downvoted meta posts (what you mostly can't or won't ever remove from your profile). Thus, active work on the repair of the system means also some type of "online suicide" in this sense: you will have no way to make your "meta activities" invisible, they will "taint" your this online identity forever.

This threat is catalized if your IRL identity is public, or at least trackable.

Furthermore, the SO is also a job seeking site, and although the SE probably doesn't give out this information from you to your possible employers, in a workplace environment it is better to hide even a "peaceful" SO account.

In my opinion, the top users of the site, and also the most active meta members, should be people who like what they are doing in the IT, they should like their specific field (on the main site), and the community should be bound by the love of the programming. They should be also very good in their field.

Roughly this is the case on some smaller SE sites, but not on the SO. My opinion is, that the MSO community isn't bound by the love of the IT. Instead, they are bound by the love of their power.

The privilege system serves also as a social selection mechanism. In my opinion, this selection mechanism went somehow wrong. I have only weak hypotheses, exactly how and why.

The generally supressive attitude of the community, particularly the community of the meta site, is undeniable in my opinion.

Thus, my opinion - based on many years of activities on both the main and the meta sites - is that the main structure is good, but the community using it, as a collective entity, yes it is evil. Actually, it is more than evil. "Evil" means harming others for your own good. They are harming others for no ones good. It is something, where... where the common sense stops.

But, you have many ways to make it better, if you are ready to pay its price. Pay it, and do what you can!


About a possible forking of the SO: there were many tries to fork the Wikipedia, to correct some of its inherent problems (mainly, LQ/misleading content and the power misuses due to the lack of accountability). All of them failed. The problem is that the main power of the SO, and also of the Wikipedia, is the content on it. You can't fork it only by providing the same content as it is already here, it won't be enough reason to win the social intertia on it.

It is also problematic technologically. First, it is a closed source, proprietary, obviously strongly guarded software of a profit-oriented company. They won't ever give it to you. Second, the technologies what it uses (.net MVC and many, many, many m$) are exactly the opposite of what we would like from the free software world. Third, well... many people say, they never thought that making this system is possible using these technologies. And also I am thinking, that the current stability and high user experience of the SO roots imho in the programming skills and many, many hard work of their developers, and not in the software/frameworks what they use.

So, to fork the SO, you would require these, together:

  • You would need to provide something, what is much better, both structurally and both organizationally
  • You would need the same or more skills and work, than the SE developers
  • After that, you would need "only" some years to make it more liked by the Google and by the internet.

However, if you are capable to do these all, then you are now probably in a good paying IT job, or you should quickly apply one if not. Thus, you won't have the time to develop such a software.

In my opinion, the only really serious weakness of the SO is the in-breed community on it, and its antagonistic, hostile attitude against the new members, and against anybody with a minority opinion. If it will ever lose its current leading role in the Q/A sites of the internet, it will happen for that.

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