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The phrase "useful artifact" or similar appears semi-frequently on the Stack Exchange network, usually when someone is explaining or commenting on site policies on Meta. I've even started using it myself in scoping discussions on Engineering when trying to communicate that je ne sais quoi that characterizes really good SE content.

It seems to be mainly used by staff (though not exclusively) and even pops up in academic literature related to Stack Overflow.

Without an explicit reference to point to, I worry that I'm just being lazy by hoping the reader's intuition will allow them to understand the metaphor. (And how do I know I'm even using it correctly?) So:

What is a "useful artifact" in the context of Stack Exchange?

Here are a few usage examples (emphasis mine):

  • in this answer by Shog9:

    ...for those that are willing to learn and participate in our weird little system, the payoff is huge: instead of the traditional "dozens of messages each containing a small piece of the answer", there's a clear path from specific question to specific answer, a useful artifact on The Internet for the education of future readers.

  • in this answer by Nick Larsen:

    The reputation is just a gaming mechanism to get you to share your knowledge as a public artifact on the internet. You should use those public artifacts as a way to help you land the interview and not overly focus on the reputation on your resume.

  • in this SE podcast:

    Are we on the same page that there exists a class of question that’s awesome enough that it can’t be deleted? What do we do about people who just noticed that their amazing internet artifact was deleted, and they’re mad?

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The first clue for readers outside of the software field lies in What does artifact mean? on Programmers SE. Quoting the accepted answer (emphasis mine):

In software development life cycle (SDLC), artifact usually refers to "things" that are produced by people involved in the process. Examples would be design documents, data models, workflow diagrams, test matrices and plans, setup scripts, ... like an archaeological site, any thing that is created could be an artifact.

Artifacts in this sense are not only "created things" but also informative things; consider them both the explicit and implicit documentation of a process. The key thing to realize is that these artifacts help their audience to understand something about the process that generated them—or more concretely, they explain some use of a tool, intent of a design, application of a concept, etc.

Like archaeological artifacts, our questions and answers can be searched for and found. Like archaeological artifacts, they may have been buried somewhere, albeit in the mind of an expert or the pages of an esoteric text rather than under a mountain of ash. In this metaphor, Stack Exchange is sort of like the Smithsonian Institution, with each community representing a museum or research center. The artifacts are the Q&A, divided among those communities and cataloged within them via tags.

While this usage may not have originated on Stack Exchange, it's one that Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood often turn to when talking about the network they founded. Here's Jeff's take on meta.discourse.org:

Stack Exchange is primarily designed to service search engines and produce useful artifacts. For example, when searching for a programming problem, Stack Overflow is one of the first hits (often the first!); users click the link, read what people have to say, then go back to work. Write once, read thousands or millions of times.

Like the artifact in a museum, the artifact on Stack Overflow was produced by a small number of individuals and consumed by a much greater number of individuals looking for some knowledge. In either situation, if the viewer is a professional in the applicable field, the knowledge they're seeking is useful and practical. Unlike the artifact in the museum, users here can interact with most (but not all) of the artifacts Stack Exchange collects, because instead of being clay pots or data models they are Q&A. Here's Joel's take in an answer to another MSE question:

This is a community-generated site. It works by getting lots of people to make different sized contributions which, we hope, in the aggregate, collectively produce an artifact that makes the Internet better.

Collectively generating useful artifacts is tricky. Wikipedia was one of the first and most amazing examples of the phenomenon....

The artifact we're trying to generate here at Stack Overflow is intended to be valuable to learners at all stages of their learning process. As such you need honest questions about basic things and you need amazing answers to those questions.

So the artifact is not just a question and not just an answer. If it were just a question, people wouldn't be able to use it; if it were just an answer, people wouldn't be able to find it.

A better, more thorough treatment of the "artifact" metaphor comes in Joel's presentation titled the Cultural Anthropology of Stack Exchange. This presentation exists on the internet in several forms; I'm going to quote from the transcript of this 2012 recording at Google. The most relevant bit starts with "We hate fun" at 27:55:

...there's a lot of things you could do in discussion groups online that don't really leave a useful artifact behind on the internet. So a very, very important observation, which I have to keep repeating again and again and again, because nobody gets it. But this is the most important thing. If somebody asks you about the design principles of Stack Overflow, of Stack Exchange, the most important thing you have to remember is that the question is asked by one person. It's answered by, let's say, one to four, five people usually. But it's viewed by hundreds of people. And hundreds of people will get benefit from that question, out of just that one person who asked for it. So if you ask us who we're optimizing for, it's not the person asking the question. It's not the people answering the question, although we want them both to be somewhat happy. We're doing this all for the hundreds of people. A very fundamental part of the initial design direction of stack overflow is that Google is the user interface to Stack Overflow. You're on our site because you typed a question on Google. I used to say search engines. [LAUGHTER] Google is our user interface. You typed a question on Google, and you found a page. And if we have inventory there, it has to be really good. And that means everything is optimized for creating this great artifact, this historical record.

The full presentation is about 35 minutes followed by 20 minutes of discussion and I highly recommend viewing it in full, if you have the time. Joel comes back to the artifact metaphor a few minutes later while discussing a close reason that no longer exists at 32:54:

Once again, opinion, debate, argument, polling, extended discussion. They're great things. But they do not create an artifact. They do not create a useful resource that anybody can learn from.

This is the nutshell definition of the term on Stack Exchange—an "artifact" is simply a resource that people can learn from.

The implications of "useful" are many and varied, and it's the job of each community to define them on their Meta sites.

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