From time to time, companies and project teams approach us about sending users stuff as a special thank you for participating in a particular tag or other activity on the site. Historically, our default response has been, "Sorry, we do not provide that type of access."

Interesting developments:

We actually had a well-known company contact us recently about an over-the-top-generous giveaway to a small number of users for participation they already had on the site; something for which the project team wanted to show their genuine appreciation, unconditionally; no strings attached. We would do all the fulfillment.

The project took a bit of a different turn, but it was an interesting conversation that got me thinking: Do you ever see the potential for Stack Overflow to become a facilitator of such connections? — a well-vetted (always optional) connection between interested users and the project teams you love and use everyday? This is an easy premise to test, actually — slowly with caution.

You're more influential than you realize

For a long time now, your impact as the Stack Overflow community has far exceeded the sheer size of the site itself. Is there a way we can (safely) forward expressions of appreciation, perks, and other opportunities where appropriate?

(this part never goes without saying)
I am not at all interested in creating a loophole where "approved partners and agents" of Stack Overflow have a way to spam users with seedy contests, gift-card drawings, and phony trial memberships difficult to cancel. This is an occasional thing, well-vetted for relevance. We would not share personal information: fulfillment would be done through Stack Overflow; email would remain private. We would remain ever-vigilant of giveaways interfering with the Q&A. And there absolutely needs to be an easy way for users to say, "I am not interested in this stuff."

Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. Frankly, I have no idea if there is really a demand for this type of activity or partnership. But it's an exciting idea to talk about… which is why I'm kicking off the conversation here.

What do you think? Is it doable? How can we make this work?

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    Should this be featured? It looks like something which could use everyone's attention. – Chair Dec 1 at 3:10
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    Does this affect the entire network? Shouldn't this be posted on SO meta? I can't see anyone offering "gifts of praise" to users from EL&U, IPS or Movies&TV for example. – Mari-Lou A Dec 1 at 6:39
  • @Mari-LouA SO attracts the majority of activity, but there is nothing inherently exclusive about this to Stack Overflow. See meta.stackexchange.com/questions/319229/… – Robert Cartaino Dec 1 at 6:50
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    You could make this explicitly inclusive rather than apparently exclusive by saying "Stack Exchange" or "the Stack Exchange" instead of referring to Stack Overflow only. I'm not worried about which way it goes - I'm annoyed that what it says is apparently not what it is - and we've had enough doublespeak in announcements this year. – Nij Dec 1 at 9:27

Depending on implementation, I might be more wary of what this change represents than the change itself. At the risk of focusing too much on one word you used, I think SE should stay out of the "influencer" business. One characteristic that defines influencers is a focus on identity and feelings rather than content and logic. SO/SE, on the other hand, has always—correctly, in my opinion—emphasized evaluating content rationally, based on correctness and completeness, to the exclusion of other factors.

Additionally, the network has a long-standing aversion to anything social-network-esque. Users who are open to being contacted can very easily make that clear from their profiles. Granted, some Stack Overflow users are giants of the field, and some are already considered influencers on and/or off of Stack Overflow, having attracted followers to their personas on the back of the content they've produced.

Heck, half the reason Stack Overflow was able to get off the ground in beta was that Jeff and Joel were influencers before people even ever started using that term.

On top of that, there is potential benefit to the proposed system, in the form of some vetting and making a select few top users happy. I'm not discounting that. What I am saying is that it doesn't seem on-brand for Stack Overflow and would probably be better left to someone else.

Philosophical issues aside, this could have the more tangible effect of reinforcing existing widespread negative opinions about the network. I assume that the people these third parties would want to reward would tend to be veteran users, with high overall rep or at least prominence within specific tags (as opposed to being selected for flagging/editing prowess or as lucky random winners). That sounds well-intentioned, but it could easily lead to grousing about "Stack Overflow is so elitist" and/or "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer" among the wider community.

Finally, for what it's worth, this post also immediately reminded me of The problem with extrinsic motivation. (Perhaps it is a bit dated now, but it is still a classic post.) That topic has been pretty thoroughly covered over the past years, so I won't harp on it.

Oh, one more thing: thank you for being explicit at the end about what this is not intended to be, and more importantly, for having that point of view in the first place.

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    Great point that we wouldn't want to create a system where "say nice things about [company] and they send you stuff". That's what I meant by not interfering with the main Q&A; we've been down that road before. I'm not suggesting something allowing such a correlation, but it's something we should be sure we can rule out emphatically nonetheless. – Robert Cartaino Dec 1 at 4:49

I don't see a need for SE to be involved in this. Consider the Microsoft MVP program. People used to get that award by being active on CompuServe. Then Usenet. Now (among other things) SO. MVPs get swag - not as much as once upon a time, but swag. Microsoft doesn't need SE to help them do that.

So if BigCorp wants to thank someone who's active in a tag, they have options:

  • if the person uses their real name and is reachable on other Internet avenues, BigCorp can reach them that way. (For example, I use my real name.)
  • if the person doesn't use their real name, but includes any kind of contact info in their profile, BigCorp uses that and is done.
  • if the person doesn't use their real name or include any contact info, a BigCorp employee can invite them to a chat room or whatever and get the details they need to send them something. (BigCorp has no users with enough rep to start chats? Then BigCorp is not really engaged with SE, are they? It's hardly a high bar.)

If a person is using a pseudonym, has no contact info in the profile, and declines opportunities to join chats, I can't see how they'd be happy to get an email from SE to their secret email address, the one that's supposed to be used for SE business only, offering to send them swag.

Some influencer programs depend on nominations, including self-nominations. It's a simple enough matter for the nomination form to include a place for your profile link. Similarly, if BigCorp wants to run some sort of special event where people answering more than X questions in a tag during a time period can win a prize or whatever, they can promote that in the usual avenues (including perhaps a paid ad on the appropriate site) with a website of their own where people can register for the contest and provide a link to their profile.

Which I guess is my way of saying no; please don't randomly email us on non-SE business as a favour to some third party. And I say that as a person who receives real world gifts from third parties, partly because of my SO and SE activities.

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    Someone inviting a bunch of users into chat rooms might trigger a moderator response, or might just be rate limited (no idea what the actual limits are, but SE tends to rate limit everything). I don't think the chat variant in your list is a realistic scenario, there is no way for the targeted users or any mods to verify if it's genuine, and it would likely look very suspicious. There is a benefit to having a vetted channel, it doesn't have to be email. But the existing ways to contact SE users are certainly not equivalent to what is proposed here. – Mad Scientist Dec 1 at 22:47
  • but if you're sending swag to 25 people, perhaps only 1 or 2 might need to be invited to chat – Kate Gregory Dec 1 at 22:48
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    I'd probably consider such a chat invitation to be spam, it simply isn't a channel where I'd expect this kind of offer. So I'd be extremely suspicious at least. Using an improvised channel like this, with no way to verify authenticity, seem extremely problematic to me. – Mad Scientist Dec 1 at 22:51
  • Not wanting to share private details with just any random stranger on the internet doesn't mean you don't want to receive free stuff. These concerns would presumably exist with chat rooms as well, which aren't private. – Dukeling Dec 2 at 12:23
  • Is there a difference between being invited to a chat room (from some third party who wants to give you something) and receiving an email (from Stack Overflow on behalf of the same random third party)? If anything, I'd prefer an email, because that's less rude to just ignore, and it usually gives enough details in the email itself to figure out whether it's something I want to ignore. And there'd presumably be some opt-in or opt-out setting if everything comes from Stack Overflow, meaning anyone who isn't interested can opt to receive only one (or zero) email(s) ever. – Dukeling Dec 2 at 12:35

I don't know the details, so this could be an overabundance of caution, but...

The companies providing the giveaways want to influence the recipients.

If they are providing giveaways to users based on past actions on Stack Overflow, then perhaps the users will be influenced in their future activity. The risk is that

The influence could extend to future Stack Overflow activity,

especially if the giveaways are over the top generous. There may be other risks as well.

  • Are suggesting a cap on the value? So it would be symbolic in nature? – Peter Mortensen Dec 2 at 9:42
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    I'm not sure we could create a cap that would 1) satisfy everyone and 2) be symbolic in nature for everyone. – S Jade Dec 2 at 18:52

The problems I see are:

  • This introduces the tag - one we can see, or an invisible/virtual one that we must guess exists for a particular subject.

  • Q&A's that promote a particular subject favorably are likely to be selected by manufacturers.

  • Once we receive our premium gift how will that affect our future actions.

For example: If I answer a question on physics or space.SE will I get a free camera, no I'll need to go to photography.SE for that.

After I receive a top of the line camera and set of lenses will I remain silent about it or will I sing the praises of the manufacturer. This idea creates the [badge:Shill].

Just ask them to send a cash equivalent prize and we'll buy whatever, are they likely to agree to that, no.

Thanks for thinking about us, and asking, (we do like free expensive stuff), but will this dictate some people's actions and call into question the veracity of the answers and our sites?

Not quite a 'sell out', more like a 'buy in'.

While I personally don't mind getting free stuff, I do see the problems and risks others had mentioned in other answers here.

Thus, I would prefer that those companies will donate directly to Stack Overflow the company, possibly the net worth of the stuff they planned to give away to users.

This will help SE keep the lights on, fix bugs, and develop new features that will make all (or most) users happy.

  • Like crowd funding of features/fixes that the community (or individual users) care about, but the company doesn't? – Peter Mortensen Dec 2 at 9:51
  • @PeterMortensen not really. That would be ideal, of course, but my suggestion here is more realistic and means letting SE decide what to do with the money. – Shadow Wizard Dec 2 at 23:37
  • Is this even realistically on the table? It's nice and easy to say "I want good things to happen to Stack Exchange, the company" but the kind of donation you're talking about doesn't seem aligned with the donors' goals at all. – SOLO Dec 4 at 16:17
  • @SOLO I'm afraid you're correct, I'm just saying what I personally prefer to see happening. :) – Shadow Wizard Dec 4 at 16:35

I see a couple of sticky points about this system:

  • Is it an issue that a lot of sites will have practically no scope for this? For example, I can't imagine many companies which would have an interest in particular aspects of Physics, Chemistry, Biology, or Math. This concern was voiced in the comments under the question as well, in the context of English Language. I can imagine that some people would be displeased if SO and a couple of other sites like SU and SF started to get swag from other companies.

  • To what extent will these giveaways be publicized? Will it go up on a meta post? Will it be silent (i.e. nobody except the recipient and perhaps moderators are informed)? Should it be displayed on the users profile (there could be a banner near the rep or badges tab which talks about which product teams have given that user swag). On one hand, not disclosing this information could make it very easy to hide fishy activity, and the community needs to know who are the benefactors and who are the beneficiaries; it's only fair. On the other hand, this will probably be subjective (the companies may not just directly choose the users with the highest number of answers/number of votes), so there's a chance that people will disagree with the choice of who receives the swag once the information is publicized. I think Quora used to do a Top Writer thing and there was always some displeasure about the choices. Yes, they run a completely different model, but I don't see why a similar situation won't happen here.

  • Fascinating, yeah. The trick is not to accept quid pro quo -style relationships and watch you don't create that type of reciprocal expectation inadvertently. In my experience, giveaways have been more along the lines of, "your users have been great in {x} and we'd like to thank them categorically." Sure, there's always a bit of brand awareness in such activities, but I've worked for companies where "friends" of {whatever we were doing} said "we'd love to offer your users [free hosting?] (for example)" ... but that is way more specific than I would even try to speculate about at this point. – Robert Cartaino Dec 1 at 5:15
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    Oh, and... ...a lot of sites will have practically no scope for this. It's hard to say either way, but I've been at the forefront of bringing Engement activities back to our Stack Exchange sites (like this)... so I wouldn't count anyone out entirely. – Robert Cartaino Dec 1 at 5:21

In theory ... We've vaguely done similar things a very long time ago - there was a Windows 8 contest and a Skyrim contest back in the old days.

I think the vetting and clarity that this is for awesome work on a site so far - and entirely tied to past activity, or as part of a contest of some manner is essential.

That's to say y'all have done similar things in the past and it worked awesome.

It's been a great way to draw in users and many stuck around or came back.

Alternatively if it's a quiet 'hey, so our friends at yoyodyne asked if you would be interested in.... ' might work though need a little more careful management.

That's to say - stuff like this has or is going on in some form, and as an old timer, I can see this as a potential net win for community engagement.

I agree with all the concerns but as an alternative maybe you could completely decouple the company offering the reward with how it is earned? I'm thinking maybe the way you offer swag at the moment from time to time for certain contributions you could mention the top n will also receive a sponsor prize.

Then maybe contact the winners in private and ask from a list which they'd prefer, and to give value to the sponsor as part of the announcement say who chose what along with a bit of a plug for their product by way of a link and a bit of a sales blurb they've written.

After writing this I'm not entirely sure I've convinced myself, but anyway might be worth thinking about.

  • That could take care of the user influence, but there's still the Stack Overflow as a company influence. – S Jade Dec 1 at 19:00

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