I have been using StackOverflow for a while and recently became familiar with how the site works. I have a fundamental question on how the answers are displayed on the site. I already tried searching for the topic but I could not find an answer. Also, I am quite sure that I am missing something here as people have been using these sites for a while and nothing beats experience. So please take the following as an attempt to learn the model better than anything else.

Currently most of the content on the site is in the form of a single question with multiple answers. Among these multiple answers one of the anwers maybe the best choice. In some cases, there maybe more than one best answers each providing a different acceptable solution. Along with this relevant information, there is lot of not so useful information. In the ideal case, the reader would like to see only the most relevant and best information. The current format has following issues:

  1. The current format uses the chosen answer (which the person asking the original question does) or the number of votes as an indicator to bubble up the most useful information. Both of these indicators are influenced a great deal by when the answer was given. The person asking the question may accept the first suitable answer and move on. The quickest set of answers may receive more votes. So later on if someone comes up with a better answer, it may not even be read by subsequent visitors to the site as it starts with a vote count of 0.

  2. Provided the best answer has been identified, what is the benefit of having any content other than the best answer displayed at all?

On the other hand, community wiki only model where the quality of a single piece of information is improved over time, does not suffer from either (1) or (2) above. One example is Wikipedia. On Wikipedia, there is just one piece of information related to any topic the quality of which improves over time. In fact, even on stackoverflow, the community wiki pages seem to have the most accurate and well formed information with a quality better than regular answers.

I understand that the site allows editing of answers but but than why allow each person to have their own answer rather than trying to improve a single wiki (shared content).

If community wiki is the only option then the contributors will have no choice but to improve a single piece of information. In fact, community wiki can even have alternative answers to the same question.

So my question is: what is the advantage of having multiple answers over having only community wiki? What is the thing that community wiki can not achieve? I already listed the advantages of community wiki over multiple answers approach.

Of course the reputation system has to be devised/ modified for the community wiki model. What am I missing here?

  • Given your profile activity, you're missing Asking, Answering and Commenting. Researching this Meta to know why things are the way they are helps too.
    – brasofilo
    May 16, 2013 at 1:36
  • My query is based on my usage of the site as a reader. I find that the quality and accuracy of the content on Wikipedia and even the community wiki on this site is superior to the multiple answers content and neither Wikipedia nor community wiki have any superfluous information. But I am hoping someone who has been contributing to the site can provide the answer as I am clearly missing that perspective.
    – Craig Chan
    May 16, 2013 at 5:34

1 Answer 1


Accepted answer is probably the one that most helped the OP. Highest upvotes means the largest number of people found it useful and appreciated it.

  1. Simple questions often suffer from "fastest gun in the west" - six posts within a minute all containing about the same answer. The accepted one is usually the same as the highest upvoted one, and is the first to be answered in lack of any other criterion.
  2. More complex problems often have a somewhat incomplete answer that is accepted, but was enough to help the OP. Later on someone may write something more complete, then that will overtake in upvotes. This also happens in FGITW problems, in that the slightly later but slightly more precise or complete answer will win. Here's one of my enlightened badges. I think it was rightly accepted as it got the point across fast, but it really shouldn't have the most upvotes by now. Perhaps people enjoyed its bluntness, but it's not the long-term best answer.
  3. There's no point in keeping redundant answers but the community doesn't really upvote redundant ones, so they're toward the bottom. However having multiple explanations of the same thing is useful, and I'll be a monkey's uncle if you can train an AI (in the year 2013) to tell the difference between an identical explanation and a highly similar one that might do the trick for a partly confused reader.
  4. In general the upvotes tell you how much you should read the answer. If you're on a question with two highly voted answers then a bunch of zeroes, there's a good chance you can get your info from the top two. So this means we don't really need to clean up unrecognized answers - the vote count informs you well enough that it's probably not useful, but if you're curious, need further help, etc., read away.

Your question was kind of a wall of text to me. I liked the #'ed points and based my answer off those, but even at that length it's already hard to read and get info out of. By the same token, it is much, much more expedient to have distinct answers each with their vote count conveying quality than appoint some essayist to compile them into one answer while still identifying which parts are most useful. I'll put it this way - if you Google "C undefined reference to main" and get a wikipedia article called "List of C compilation errors" or "C syntax" and an SO question, which are you going to read first? If the first SO answer doesn't help you, I would still venture the second or third, if they have upvotes, are more useful to you than a wiki-style answer.

Sometimes a top answerer might compile other ideas into his/her answer to make it complete. I personally will do this if my answer did not completely describe the approach or was imprecise, but will not do this if another approach entirely is suggested. The line here is a matter of taste and judgment call.

  • I modified my original question to make it more clear. In response to your comments, the strength of single wiki is that all the useful information is available at one place minus any redundancy. The edits are not accepted unless community agrees that they improve upon original content. So it will be just the current best answer or multiple best answers all in one place. Single content approach does not need to solve the problem of identifying the best answer(s). We do allow editing the answers even not but the current structure does not encourage it.
    – Craig Chan
    May 16, 2013 at 20:58

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