How can we manipulate the incentive system to promote Wikipedia-like culture of collaboration?

From the sofaq:

Like Wikipedia, this site is collaboratively edited. If you are not comfortable with the idea of your questions and answers being edited by other trusted users, this may not be the site for you.

Unfortunately in practice it hasn't turned out this way. The culture is that people are individually accountable for their content, and this culture is enforced by the individual rep system.

Collaborative answers like this will always have higher quality, but the incentive system encourages individual answers, and you have to dance a fine line to not be seen as 'stealing rep', or just mark everything you write as CW and never get any rep from your collaboration efforts.

One way could be just to reduce visibility of who authored a post, to make posts less personal.

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    So whats the question? How do we encourage a community ownership culture?
    – Troggy
    Commented Sep 24, 2009 at 15:49
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    Would you like a fresh Paint job to better illustrate the point?
    – random
    Commented Sep 24, 2009 at 15:49
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    You want collaboration? Look here as a fine example: meta.stackoverflow.com/revisions/21668/list
    – random
    Commented Sep 24, 2009 at 16:06
  • If someone wants to collaborate, they'll do it. You can't force it upon a community.
    – alex
    Commented Sep 24, 2009 at 19:01
  • 1
    you can incent or disincent collaboration. SO disincents community ownership. Commented Sep 25, 2009 at 17:32
  • Hmm...SO provides no incentive (beyond three little badges that you can actual get by working only on your own content) for collaboration. Which is slightly different from providing a disincentive. Commented Apr 11, 2010 at 1:41
  • I think this is a pretty profound question. The incentives work for the individual, not for the good of the community. I still think the reputation idea is great - but I agree with the question - how can it be tweaked for the benefit of all? Commented Jul 3, 2010 at 11:28

5 Answers 5


I think your observations are completely accurate. However, not everyone agrees. Moreover, among those who agree, there is no agreement on what (if anything) should be done to address the issue.

To sum up my thoughts, the entire system espouses "community" collaboration and the virtue of "wiki" editing on one hand, while encouraging rampant self-gratification through rep and badges on the other, and pretends that the result is an "intended balance."

It's a conundrum. The entire reason the site works so well is because of the motivational factor of rep and badges. But the same thing that encourages thoughtful, high-quality posts also encourages gaming and selfish behavior. The only reason collaboration exists at all is due to sheer altruism, or perhaps a misguided hope for peer recognition. (And let's not forget the Strunk & White badge!)

In essence Stack Overflow is predominantly a culture of individuals in competition, not a community cooperating for the common good. And that's purely due to the implementation, the same implementation that has made it so successful. The entire "Community Wiki" concept and the idea of collaborative editing is little more than a tacked-on afterthought compared with the vast volume of individual questions and answers.

That's not going to change easily, as many different aspects of the site impinge upon this issue. Basically, we're talking about the soul of Stack Overflow. Editing, community ownership, individual ownership, voting, reputation, even badges play a role in creating the culture as it exists. It's hard to see how changing any one thing will really help, and it's even harder to justify sweeping changes to the system.

In short, I don't know how to encourage a culture of community ownership any better than what exists now, even only considering the opinions of the "vocal minority" here on meta, and even with the problems that we have. That's not to toe the line or support the status quo, but it's just too complex a problem, and as of yet nobody has proposed a truly excellent solution.

  • Good post. I do think that the existing soul/culture is a function of the UI and design choices made. Given a more wiki-like UI the soul/culture would quickly shift into a new equilibrium. I hear you with the participation incentives, and its certainly a wicked problem, but I doubt its an impossible problem. Commented Sep 24, 2009 at 16:14
  • LOL someone downvoted you! Commented Sep 24, 2009 at 16:31
  • +1. Well put. (to say the least - this last part has only to do with the number 15.) Commented Sep 24, 2009 at 18:21
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    Why should hope for peer recognition (as a motivational factor behind collaborative behaviour) necessarily be misguided? :) If someone puts a lot of effort in a CW post (or whole 'thread') it will probably be noticed and appreciated, just like it does on Wikipedia, even if rep doesn't go up. You certainly make good observations, but I don't fully agree about CW as just "tacked-on afterthought" — e.g. in many cases it seems pretty natural how popular questions later on turn from a rep-earning competition into collectively owned wiki, often a definitive source on the web on a certain topic.
    – Jonik
    Commented Sep 24, 2009 at 20:44
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    I've done more editing after I got the Strunk & White badge. Commented Sep 24, 2009 at 23:56
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    @Jonik: I can't think of anyone who is generally well-known by virtue of their CW posts. By contrast, high-rep users (who earned reputation through non-CW posts) are well-known. Even just considering editors, the only users who are known more for editing than for reputation are reviled, not honored. There are certainly a few threads which are CW and contain definitive information, but as you point out, they started out as regular rep-earning questions. The system provides no incentive for asking such questions as CW to begin with. Commented Sep 25, 2009 at 18:04

The battle inherent in the system

The SO systems of ownership and collaboration are perpetually at war with one another.

For many questions, the best answer would be a combination of multiple answers by several different authors, but is never realized as each author holds on jealously to his own words, either due to a desire for the reputation that can be gained, or simply pride. In some cases, this can get ugly, when a late answer is posted to address errors common to existing answer(s) and then attacked by insecure competitors.

This is regrettable. But, it's a trade-off: this system encourages a competition among authors that often produces multiple answers where each one is better than a single collaborative answer. As authors strive to differentiate their answers, they add value that would otherwise have been excluded.

The single most important Stack Overflow feature

That's not to say we should just throw up our hands and accept this state of affairs as "good enough". When I first read about Stack Overflow, that one aspect described in your FAQ quote immediately caught my eye: trusted users can edit other users' posts. Not just "Community Wiki" posts - any post. A top-rated answer, or a down-voted question are both fair game for any editor with the time and motivation to improve it.

Note that, unlike asking or answering questions, the motivations for editing are almost entirely intrinsic: there's no reputation to be gained, only one badge, and precious little in the way of recognition. Editors must be be satisfied with seeing a question or answer improved. IMHO, that's not a bad motivation! Once a user has been on the site long enough to gain full editing abilities, a whole new way of interacting with Q&A is opened to them: no longer must they struggle to get their "errata" answers or comments noticed, or cringe while responding to a poorly-formatted question: they can see a problem and fix it.

Not that everyone likes this idea. Believe it or not, some of the most knowledgeable and prolific authors on SO are among the most reluctant to edit other user's posts and jealously protective of their own posts. IMHO, this attitude is actively harmful to Stack Overflow - not only does it run the risk of discouraging editors who find themselves embroiled in an unexpected argument with a protective author, it sets a bad example for new users, who look to these highly-visible users for cues in how the site should be used.


I don't think we need more motivation. SO may not fulfill some utopian idea of what a wiki system should be like, but it was never intended to be a straight wiki. The system, freakish monster that it is, actually works for a good many people looking for solutions to their problems. And as many of us can attest, the joy of seeing a poor question turned into a good one... or a good answer turned into a great one... can be more than enough to keep us going. If anything needs to change, it's the attitudes of those who would callously discourage new editors.

See also: Editing versus Answering?

Dustin inline response:

I agree with your whole post. The anti community ownership culture IMO arises out of the incentive system. The culture will not shift unless the incentives shift.

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    @Shog9: Those of us who edit for the common good don't need more motivation, but I think it's an open question as to whether it's possible to come up with a system that encourages group participation more effectively, while still rewarding individuals for their contributions. As I said in my answer, I haven't seen it yet, but it's worth keeping an open mind to. Commented Sep 24, 2009 at 19:14
  • At one time, I thought a parallel reputation system might work, with users able to vote on questions and edits independently. I've since soured on that idea a bit... The shear complexity of such a system scares me, and i'm not at all convinced that enough people would vote to make it work: we already have several voting systems. I'd be interested to see some numbers on what participation looks like for the vote-to-close and vote-to-delete systems: particularly, how many questions get >1 and <5 close or open votes and then stagnate, unable to garner enough attention.
    – Shog9
    Commented Sep 24, 2009 at 20:27
  • +1 for dissing the degree to which some folks hold their content close. But we don't want a strong motivation to make a lot of edits. Just a modest nod in the direction of the people who do the blue pencil work. Commented Apr 11, 2010 at 1:48

If you remove the authorship and the reputation earned for it, you will remove a lot of the incentive that drives this site.

By having authorship tied to most answers, you gain accountability that a group-think answer doesn't necessarily have.

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    I don't necessarily agree, Wikipedia does just fine, and people in general don't need incentive to give their opinion. Commented Sep 24, 2009 at 16:08
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    @Dustin: Wikipedia doing "just fine" is an interesting opinion. Are you aware of the vast bureaucracy that has evolved to manage the thing? Do you know how common it is for admins to "burn out" due to the demands? The fact that it exists at all is nothing short of a miracle of collaborative administration, it's arguably singular and unique on the internet, and not something easily (or lightly) emulated. Commented Sep 24, 2009 at 16:11
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    I guess Dustin was hinting towards the fact that people contribute endless amounts whithout gaining any kind of rep or even being mentioned.
    – innaM
    Commented Sep 24, 2009 at 16:54
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    @Manni: Agreed, but you have to think about why that is. Clearly people don't just do that for any old website. Wikipedia is very high-profile and extremely ambitious. People feel like they are contributing to something big and important. You would have a hard time convincing a bunch of programmers the same thing about a Q&A site, hence the need for incentives. Commented Sep 24, 2009 at 18:29
  • i strongly disagree, and want to say "break out the metrics". I don't think SO based it off of metrics either, they're too hard to get. Commented Sep 25, 2009 at 17:33
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    @Dustin: No need for metrics. Find me other collaboratively-edited sites that have useful, well-written content. Their mere existence is a suitable counterargument. Commented Sep 25, 2009 at 17:49

FWIW, I think all posts should be 'community wiki' in the sense of editable by almost everyone. The rep earned should be distributed proportionally to the authors. It doesn't matter if some edits are trivial--it will encourage not reinventing the wheel (e.g. having 10 answers, and nobody is going to delete theirs because they all want the rep).

We'd need a new paradigm for marking poll/discussion/popularity contest posts. Or you could get rid of the whole CW conceptin its present implementation all together and normalize rep yielded by the number of upvotes on the question.

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    That would result in virtually every post being trivially edited by every user so they can get an equal slice of the reputation. Commented Sep 24, 2009 at 16:06
  • With a bit of thought and design I doubt that problem is unsolvable. Commented Sep 24, 2009 at 16:11
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    @Dustin: Lots of people have put a great deal of thought and design into this issue, and the problem remains. If you have something more substantive to contribute, you are welcome (nay, heartily encouraged!) to do so, but merely saying "it can be solved" is nothing more than hand-wavery. Commented Sep 24, 2009 at 16:13
  • Would you edit my OP with links to the best prior discussions? Commented Sep 24, 2009 at 16:15
  • @Dustin: Just search on the [community-wiki] tag, about half the questions here are meta-discussions about why CW doesn't work, and how it could be improved. Commented Sep 25, 2009 at 17:51
  • It is important to note here that all questions and answers are editable to that part of the community that has at least 2000 rep. And we have several users who make fairly heavy use of it to do boring janitorial work and to try to save mediocre posts by new users. Commented Apr 11, 2010 at 1:46

Collaboration is over-rated. Rep is king!

[This message is brought to you by the Jon Skeet Fan Club.]

This answer is community wiki despite my best efforts.

Ah, the irony!

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