I wasn't surprised to find that the most upvoted question on Stack Overflow had only 5,452 favorites.

"Big number," one might think. Think again. This number is fractional to the amount of views the question has gotten, which is 475,893.

That means that of the 475,893 unique users that visited the question, only 1.1% of them actually favorited the question.

I did some broader research and tested this with averages of nine questions of varying vote and view counts.

The average number of views of these nine questions is 89,448.89, and the average number of users who favorited the question is 644.12.

This means that only 0.7% of the population of users that browse questions actually uses the favorites feature.

In light of this (small) study, I think the favorites feature is obsolete and impractical now. Jeff Atwood recently confirmed that favoriting a question will subscribe you to notifications about new answers and edits to existing answers, but that feature has been inactive for almost two months. Is it safe to doubt the return of this feature, given Jeff's current absence?

Why don't we just get rid of it? I doubt that the relatively small amount of people that use it will be very concerned if it goes away, and since it's not being used by the majority of the population, why keep it at all?

I personally use the feature rarely. I have one question favorited on Meta and one on SO. (Pretty sure it's the same across all my accounts).

What do you guys think? What's the next step? Do we ignore it or take steps forward?

EDIT: Let me clarify. I am a supporter of the favorites feature but feel that it is just lacking in several aspects. From simple observation it's somewhat apparent that there is no real attention towards the improvement of this feature on the part of the main programmers behind the sites. I'm open to having a userscript that accomplishes this—this way, the people that want the feature get it, and the people that don't don't need to worry about it. And the beauty of it would be that anyone could change their mind at any time.

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    The question that comes to mind is why get rid of it at all? You concede yourself that some people do use it (for example, I use it), and it's not clear what you think it is hurting by leaving it in place. – Cody Gray Feb 29 '12 at 2:03
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    Favorites are useful for keeping a list of questions you're interested in but soon becomes impractical because of paging. What would be fabulous is the possibility of exporting the list in xml :) – James P. Feb 29 '12 at 2:08
  • @CodyGray: For the people that don't use it, it's literally wasting space. Is it worth the effort to improve it at all? – Mystery Feb 29 '12 at 2:21
  • @Purmou - if management were willing to invest the time—and I'm not saying they should—favorites could be really cool and useful. If, say, you could create your own categories of favorites and organize them thereby. Better notifications when activity happens on a favorite, making it simple and easy to see what changed, etc etc – Adam Rackis Feb 29 '12 at 2:25
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    What space is it wasting? That tab barely takes up any screen real estate. For the 105,223 users on Stack Overflow who do use it, however, it provides functionality. Functionality which could be improved, sure, but nothing that it makes any sense to arbitrarily remove. – Tim Stone Feb 29 '12 at 2:26
  • It's not wasting any space. That space below the voting arrows isn't being used for anything anyway. (Well, maybe adding social networking icons. But I think we have quite enough of those, and people are already starting to moan about that on Meta.) – Cody Gray Feb 29 '12 at 2:26
  • @TimStone: So bookmark the question. There's no need to create a unique feature on the site itself that people eventually forget about anyways. I'm sure someone could come up with an awesome app that extends this functionality. I just think it shouldn't be a default feature on the sites. – Mystery Feb 29 '12 at 2:28
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    But the feature is already created. It's too late for that argument. – Tim Stone Feb 29 '12 at 2:30
  • @TimStone: It's created but lacks any value besides making a list in your profile. It's just a waste of an entire feature that could be great. Why doesn't somebody else make it great, and then they can get rid of it? – Mystery Feb 29 '12 at 2:31
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    Also, I think you've chosen a particularly bad example. The top voted question on SO is not something that I, or many other people, care about. It's certainly not something we plan on referring to again or repeatedly. Thus, there's no particular reason why we'd favorite it. Moreover, if this example proves anything, it's that the voting system is screwed up because such a poor, ill-fit question managed to get a disproportionate number of votes. Not really where I think you want to go... – Cody Gray Feb 29 '12 at 2:56
  • @CodyGray: Mostly used it because of the view count. – Mystery Feb 29 '12 at 2:57
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    I upvoted because you deserve more voice after such an effort. – Adel Feb 29 '12 at 8:23
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    What you are saying is around 1% favourite that question. Is that even a surprising amount? I don't want to favourite more than 1 question in 100 I view, so I'm not really considering this amount to be low. Why do you consider this to be a low amount? – Nanne Feb 29 '12 at 9:43
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    @jadarnel27 This is also good stuff right here. – Mystery Mar 1 '12 at 7:03

I agree that the current favorite system is a bit clunky, but instead of getting rid of it, I'd love to see the team invest some time, and make it awesome. Just off the top of my head, some things the team could add:

  • The ability to create arbitrary groups of favorited questions. There have been more than a few times when I went searching through three pages of favorites just to find a question that I knew had a code sample I wanted. Grouping them myself would make this simple

  • Closely related to the above, but searching inside your favorites would be incredibly useful.

  • A better system for notifying you when a favorite has changed. Rather than just have the question highlight in yellow, I think it'd be cool if there were some kind of in-screen popup detailing what had changed, with a nice link to go right to that change.

  • It doesn't seem like they will, though. That's pretty much the reason for my concern. – Mystery Feb 29 '12 at 2:39
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    @Purmou - don't be so sure. Jeff's leaving. Besides, the devs are hard at work adding some super sweet features to the site. Instant notifications on new questions, gmail-like notifications (that change your tab to have a (1) or (2) etc. I wouldn't be surprised to see something like this this year – Adam Rackis Feb 29 '12 at 2:41
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    "Jeff's leaving, we're finally getting cool features!" (I know that's not what you meant, it's just how I'm amusing myself at reading your comment.) Yes, it's very likely that something is planned with regard to overhauling the favorites system, but it probably ties in with other planned changes that are being rolled out in sequence. – Cody Gray Feb 29 '12 at 2:50
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    @Cody - I did my best to not word it that way :) But Jeff did put his foot down on a lot of fun and useful ideas over the months. Who knows??? – Adam Rackis Feb 29 '12 at 2:52
  • +1 for feature (1). I have a bahzillion favorited questions some I want to see a couple days later, some for reference etc. But there is no way to search, sort and find what I want. – gideon Feb 29 '12 at 3:30
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    @CodyGray Based on the comments I've seen the last few weeks, Jeff was standing in the way of approximately 480 cool new features, and they'll all be happening any day now – Michael Mrozek Feb 29 '12 at 3:44
  • "search in favorites" would be keen too. – sarnold Feb 29 '12 at 9:33
  • @sarnold - for sure. A few tweaks and I think favorites could be awesome. – Adam Rackis Feb 29 '12 at 15:21

What you haven't determined is how many logged-in users viewed the question. That would certainly provide a more favorable percentage. Obviously I don't know how much so, but I've heard a few times that the vast majority of views come from the anonymous masses.

I think favorites are a good idea, but they do need to be made considerably more usable. The option for notifications is a good idea but I'm guessing they don't want to integrate it into regular notifications, at least not without a way to distinguish it from the things you are directly involved in (comments on your posts, @notifications, and answers on your questions).

Last I heard there was a plan to greatly improve the Favorites tab on the profile and do something about the favorites row in the username dropdown, so I would assume the notifications would be part of that roll-out. If it happens. Related feature request: Detail Recent Favorite changes

  • The question is whether the people behind the desks are willing to invest time into this feature when they could invest it elsewhere. I agree with everything here, and I would like a more friendly favorites system, but he current one isn't fulfilling that and it seems like it won't for a very long time. – Mystery Feb 29 '12 at 2:35
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    They've already invested the time. And at least 100k of us have demonstrated a desire to use the system. That's ~10% of users. When 10% of your users want to use a feature, you leave it in. – jcolebrand Feb 29 '12 at 2:36
  • @jcolebrand: Do you use the feature? What about you, Matthew? (By the way, thank you for applying the bounty on that question). – Mystery Feb 29 '12 at 2:38
  • I do use the system. Probably monthly to mark a new Q I am interested in. – jcolebrand Feb 29 '12 at 2:39
  • @Purmou I do favorite questions I want to follow, but mostly I find I miss what's going on anyways due to the interface. A better one (and ideally notifications) would be quite valuable to me. – Matthew Read Feb 29 '12 at 2:41
  • @MatthewRead: And that's the nature of my suggestion--removing it from the actual site and perhaps having somebody make a much better app for it. It would be so beautifully ideal. The people that use it get their desired feature and the people that don't won't have it bothering them. If anyone ever changes their mind, just go download/remove the app. – Mystery Feb 29 '12 at 2:43

Agree that the current favorites system is impractical. I don't hate the feature or think it should be removed (although the case could be made that you get some space for some other social media sharing icon, if that's your thing), but I've only actually gone over my favorites once (and I have about 50 favorites).

That said, I believe the reasoning for this is because the dynamics of finding things has changed. Most applications, instead of having massive hierarchies of organization, now have massive document stores which people provide a few keywords against and they typically get their results.

We see it in Google, we see it in Windows 7 (I don't go to program files anymore, I hit the Windows key, type a few characters, hit return), and in many applications on mobile phones and web apps today (Twitter, Facebook).

So while I think that the SE team is very talented, I don't think that they can make favorites truly awesome; this isn't a reflection of the talent of the team, but it's a sign that the paradigm has changed, and unless they devote a massive amount of resources to the cause to change the paradigm, those resources will go to waste if it's not adopted.

The easiest way I could see this happening is to provide another filter on search, something like myfavorites:1 indicating that the results should be limited to your own favorites.

There's a chance that the Lucene.NET index would have to be rebuilt (we don't know if the favorite information is on the document in the store), and if that's the case, it could be a very costly process, but it could be done.

I suggest myfavorites instead of favorites because it could be argued that once you associate favorite information in the index, you might want to limit your search to other people's favorites (not just your own); it's validation that someone else has found this interesting enough to keep tabs on.

TL;DR version

It's going to be a huge resource drain to make it great in the face of an alternate paradigm.

Also, it's generally easier to hit CTRL+E in your browser, type some words, and get the results from Google than it is to go to your favorites (especially if you have a large number, eventually, we'll be searching in our favorites).

  • It's funny, decades of windows search sucking has conditioned me to never use the windows search. Not out of principle, just habit. The 1% of the time when I need an app that's not Chrome, Visual Studio or Sql Server, I always go to start -> all programs. I guess the paradigm hasn't caught up with me – Adam Rackis Feb 29 '12 at 15:23
  • @AdamRackis Agreed that Windows Search absolutely, positively blows, but they got it so right with Windows 7 IMO (note, I'm just speaking from the start menu, not search in general, the toolbar thing was ass). To the point that if I'm not on Windows 7 I install Launchy and map it to Windows+Down Arrow just to get a similar experience. – casperOne Feb 29 '12 at 15:41
  • ...So you agree with me? :P – Mystery Feb 29 '12 at 15:41
  • @Purmou For the most part. I mean, it's not hurting anyone now, so there's no harm in keeping it there, but at the same time, I've personally never found a compelling reason to use it. Of course, everyone is different, we all work in different ways, but the trend indicates that storing favorites and bookmarks for large sets of data becomes impractical. – casperOne Feb 29 '12 at 16:19

Comparing the number of users that favourite a question to the number of views for that question does not seem like a valid measure of the utilisation of the favourites system. Not everybody will want to favourite the same questions and some will view multiple times, but that does not mean they do not use the feature. If we instead compare the number of users that have favoured a post vs the total number of users (for a given rep level) we get a very different picture

According to SEDE, 10% of all users (including those that never return) have at least one favourite. This jumps to 66% if we only count people with 200+ rep (82% for 1k+ and 93% for 10k+) ... considerably more than 0.7%

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