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What REALLY sets Stack Overflow apart? Why do we love it? Why does it have more hits and posts per day than any other programming web site out there, when it's barely more than a year old?

Well, first of all, it's arranged differently. "Traditional" Q & A sites are forum based, you ask a question in the Java forum or the C# forum, whatever it applies to. Stack Overflow uses tags, which makes it infinitely more flexible. Have a question on C# vs Java? What forum would you post that in? On Stack Overflow, it's easy, just tag it "java" and "c#".

Normally new forums have to created by the site admins to discuss new topics, and there are always the "Other languages that we didn't make forums for" forum. On Stack Overflow, it's extremely easy to create new tags, you "move" questions by retagging them, and it's much easier to figure out "where" to ask a question. Oh, and instead of having to click on all those different forums, navigation is easier because all the questions are asked in the same place. See this for more on tags vs forums.

Second of all, Stack Overflow is run by the community. The more you contribute, the more you can do. Most other sites have a dozen or so admin appointed moderators, while Stack Overflow has over 180 "moderators" (users with 10000+ reputation). This really gives me the feeling I can make a different and help out in the community.

Stack Overflow also just plain moves faster. Our users answer question quicker than any other site out there, and we're seeing new features added all the time.

Stack Overflow is truly amazing, it has blown away the competition already, and has nowhere to go but up.

More description of other sites vs Stack Overflow

Please add you own favorite features to this list, and thank to Stack Overflow's creators for giving us the best programming site on the web. ;D

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    Haven't you answered your "question" yourself? – Robin Rodricks Sep 5 '09 at 15:29

13 Answers 13

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It's all in the polish:

  • Generally clean design - not framed with 100 images/adverts
  • Markdown is much easier than things like phpBB IMO
  • Code formatting
  • The AJAX notifications
  • It's fast!

Beyond that:

  • There are interesting questions
  • There are interesting people
  • Being cross-platform means I get to "taste" other technologies too

EDIT: I can't believe I forgot to include:

  • Community judgement of post worthiness
  • Addictive nature of rep (making it game-like)
  • Badges adding an extra bit of fun
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    <Jon Skeet> I can't believe I forgot about reputation! – Greg Hewgill Sep 5 '09 at 22:11
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    Because of Jon Skeet? – Ivo Flipse Mar 26 '10 at 12:09
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    +1 for "it's fast". Reputations, badges, etc. may keep people coming back, but the speed is what made it usable enough to care about in the first place. – Aarobot Mar 26 '10 at 14:46
  • Don't know whether you mean fast as in well coded, or quick to get answers but either way, +1 – George Duckett Nov 22 '11 at 8:10
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  • The ability to edit questions and answers.

That's what first piqued my interest, and that's what keeps me around. There's other good stuff, but editing is kinda unique.

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The genius of stackoverflow is its self-contained moderation process IMHO. Stupid questions, clueless requestors and lazy programmers get short shrift, leaving it for people who can ask and answer intelligently. Most help sites start out OK, then get invaded by the clueless/lazy who wreck it, leaving the clever people to go set up another site. Stackoverflow has built-in processes to stop that happening, which is why I love it. With stackoverflow, the clueless eventually go away (or rephrase their questions better), reducing the spam-quality content considerably. I also like the 'mood' of the site where you can ask qualitative questions on things like coding style/standards and get a real sense of best-practice - particularly helpful if you're not using a particular language or technology day in/day out.

The quality of the questions is evidenced by the fact many people (like me), just browse the site hoping to learn new things about our chosen languages. I'm never disappointed with a visit, and can spend hours just looking around.

The site is also really well designed, with the tagging concept brilliant. I've never come across a faster way to find what you want quickly. The badge idea is great too: sort of automated self-growth!

The mods are good too: I got busted for outletting some frustration over clueless questions in an inappropriate way, but the response was considered and reasonable too.

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    Wish that this were still true. – Lawrence Dol May 14 '13 at 21:45
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The proprietors seem to be making a sincere effort to provide a helpful service to programmers rather than just extract as much money from them as they can (see experts-exchange.com).

That, or they're master bullshitters :)

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    They are master bullshitters. (Buy them a beer at a conference and see.) But not exclusively so. They also care. But, most of all, they are engineers that needed Stack Overflow just as much as the rest of us. They built it to meet their own need. They made it awesome, because they used it themselves. Machinists have the best tools because if you can work a lathe and a mill, you're not going to tolerate anything that sucks. – Bruno Bronosky Dec 2 '18 at 19:33
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I can actually feel myself making a difference.

Aside from my work on Stack Overflow, I also curate the OpenGL Wiki. And I occasionally participate on the OpenGL forums.

I frequently see people asking questions (either on SO or on the OpenGL forums) that are reasonably well answered on the OpenGL Wiki. And while there are times when questions get re-asked on SO, I can tell that there are fewer such cases when the answer is on SO than when the answer is only on the Wiki.

This is partially because the Wiki is very broad and diffuse while SO is focused on problem/solution pairing. That makes our knowledge-base searchable by problem.

For example, this is the article on Vertex Specification. Somewhere on this page is the fact that separate attribute formats allow you to have arrays with a stride of zero. Even if you can find that paragraph, it's a lot easier to find this question on the Computer Graphics site.

Also, every now and then, I get a random upvote for some long-ago answer that I had forgotten about. Each time that happens, I know that someone, somewhere had a problem that I just solved for them. Nobody will have to spend time to help that person with that problem.

My contribution mattered.

By contrast, my work on the OpenGL Wiki just feels kinda there. I've spent hours working on articles. And I have no idea if any of my work is paying off. I hope that people have read and understood much of what I've written. I hope that it's solving peoples' problems. But I don't know that it is.

That feedback cycle is absolutely crucial. It makes participating on SO far more engaging than writing a new Wiki article.

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I agree with the answer in your question.

It is so much faster to get a good answer on SO, it's a level of magnitude beyond the other sites.

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  • Exactly, it's impressive how fast you can get a complete answer, on the trilogy sites. – Gnoupi Mar 26 '10 at 10:52
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I joined this community much later, in 2016. I have been very active over the past two years. Here is what I think has made the site successful:

  • Google search
  • site design
  • content
  • community & moderation
  • gamification
  • easy to discover and learn
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I was curious about SO because I followed both Joel and Jeff, but I did not really take it seriously at first. Then, last may, there was a thread about it on comp.lang.perl.misc and I decided to give it another shot.

Then, AT&T got rid of its $5/month UseNet access offering.

I have never participated on any programming "forum" on the web. To me, the greatest advantage SO has over UseNet is that it is possible to eliminate not just from my own view, but from everyone else's as well, the bad and the ugly.

That it is possible does not mean it is automatic (see, this horrifying post), but it goes a long way.

This way, one can put thought and effort into an answer and be reasonably certain that it will not be lost in the noise. Gives us something to feel good about. Increases the sum of good programming knowledge in the world.

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For me it sets it appart for 2 major reasons:

  • Google often sends me here when I search for a dev related solutions.
  • It has answer to questions I never thought to ask... By that I mean you start browsing tags and end-up learning things about topics you thought you knew well...

The rest of the meat is in Jon Skeet's answer: Why do we prefer Stack Overflow to other programming sites?

Shog9 also point out a great feature I like a lot. People come to edit your questions when there is ambiguity or other defects and you end-up with answers.

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Clean and simple.

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Because it is Polished. And centered around making users participate while behaving nicely.

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Because a ninny won't answer my question and get away with it (usually).

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Rubbing shoulders with celebrities, of course.

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