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After reading the interview (alt Glorfindel's post which has the complete text in his answer, for when the link doesn' t work) the new CEO Prashanth Chandrasekar had with Business Insider I got a strong impression that the new CEO has a vision to turn the Stack Exchange Network (or possibly just Stack Overflow as it is the biggest) into a purely commercial product, whose aim it is primarily to generate revenue, over being a knowledge base accessible to everyone.

From the interview (emphasis mine):

What many people don't know is that Stack Overflow also has paid, premium products, like Teams, Talents, or Ads, meant for corporate buyers. Chandrasekar says that it's his immediate ambition to spread the word on that front — taking the success of the main site, and using it to build out its revenue-generating business products.

Does this mean that the direction SE is going to follow under the new CEO's lead is a one-way street down revenue-generating lane?

Also from the interview:

"The exciting part is that I feel like it's a diamond in the rough. We're only scratching the potential of the company,"

Sounds to me as if the current SE network is not what the CEO envisions that it should be, and that it should be refined to a more commercially aimed product.

I appreciate that Stack Overflow (the company) needs to generate revenue from somewhere to keep itself floating (as we're already seeing with more, and more aggressive ads), but does this mean that there is a potential future where certain content gets locked behind a paywall? (e.g limiting the amount of questions a free user can ask, free users not being able to see answers that are above a certain vote threshold, or something along those lines, that would need a subscription to unlock.)

And even if the public Q&A stays free to use, does this mean that in the new corporate focused approach, this (free) portion of the network will get less attention from staff/developers/the company as its primary focus will be on the revenue generating parts of the network (Teams, talents), meaning less frequent updates?

In short: Are there plans to lead Stack Exchange down a corporate path, monetizing the Q&A with paywalls, or push the free Q&A to the backseat?

  • They may well just be exploring extra features, or more business specific features like teams that will generate some income to be able to pay for all of the services that we are getting for free as a community. – Kyle Fairns Oct 17 at 15:52
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    @Makoto: You can find a link to the full article on this page. – user102937 Oct 17 at 16:05
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    IANAL, but it seems to me the CC-BY-SA licence prohibits removing public access: "Licensees cannot use technological measures to restrict access to the work by others." So the overall content has to be available for free, but that doesn't stop a paid value-add filtering/searching/sorting service. – Daniel Widdis Oct 17 at 16:19
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    @DanielWiddis Of course with the recent change to the licensing that probably wouldn't stop them anyway. – TheLethalCoder Oct 17 at 16:19
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    "Will the new CEO lead Stack Exchange down a corporate path, monetizing the Q&A with paywalls, or push the free Q&A to the backseat?" Let me get my crystal ball out... it says: yes, maybe, probably. – Trilarion Oct 17 at 16:33
  • I quite like the idea of users being able to pay for answers. I can foresee many arguments about whether the answer given are worthy of the payment offered, but it would be trivially simply to have the cash placed in escrow and the community determine the "winner" based on voting. As an added benefit, SE can take a few pennies off the top. – Richard Oct 17 at 16:41
  • Employees, moderates, etc may have more information on this. I don't see the point in making sarcastic 'crystal ball' comments. – dustytrash Oct 17 at 16:45
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    @DanielWiddis, pretty sure that's about DRM, not hosting. If they decide to stop hosting things, they can; they just can't use technological measures to try to prevent anyone else from hosting it either. – Nate S - Reinstate Monica Oct 17 at 16:46
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    @dustytrash Nobody can look into the future, the question cannot be answered as is. It could ask if there are plans, but that could not mean much or the employees are likely not saying. My comment was just a short fun reminder that questions about the future are typically only getting very speculative answers. – Trilarion Oct 17 at 16:48
  • @Trilarion Thank you for the feedback on how the question was asked, I have rephrased it to ask if there are currently plans to do so, As that does make for a better question – remy_rm Oct 17 at 17:23
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    @Richard - why would you think that users being able to pay for answers would imply that anyone but the company would make any money off of it? The current climate suggests that no one but SE is a consideration for making any money off the sites. – user148287 Oct 17 at 17:42
  • @SomeoneWhoUsedToCare - I think it would be nice to have an incentive. It would certainly focus minds on offering the very best possible answer if you got some scratch for doing it. – Richard Oct 17 at 17:45
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    If we started paying people for answers, that would be the last straw. The only nice thing about SE is that it consists of volunteers. All we get are Imaginary Internet Points® and still people obsess over downvotes. You cannot be seriously suggesting bringing money into this! What next, someone can take me to court for downvoting? or not upvoting? And what kind of person would even want to participate under such a deal? Ugh. – terdon - stop harming Monica Oct 18 at 9:24
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    I'm not sure if we should be concerned or if it's just a regular occurrence that none of the CMs have come back with a reassuring: 'Nope, it'll stay free' at the very least. – Script47 Oct 18 at 18:33
  • Monetizing the Q&A with a paywall would sabotage their hiring/recruiting revenue stream, wouldn't it? They're currently trying to make money by reselling information about their posters (us) to recruiters; locking those very same posters out won't help with that. – dbc Oct 18 at 18:34
47

Since the content is all under some form of CC-BY-SA, attempting to put the core Q&A behind a paywall would be a more effective impetus for creation of an open-source Stack Exchange clone than anything else I can think of.

There are already numerous people who would be interested in switching to another site, if anyone were to create one that avoided the managerial mistakes that Stack Exchange has made recently.

Personally, I would love to see an open-source Stack Exchange clone. But so long as SE keeps the core Q&A free, they probably have enough momentum to resist any newcomers (i.e. competitors), at least for a while.

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    They could for example make people pay for the ads to go away or for other premium services. That might be a viable compromise. – Trilarion Oct 18 at 6:46
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    I would like to believe that the current license means anything, but we've already witnessed that they don't care about changing it on a whim. And yes it would open up the market for new Q&A sites, but I don't think that that would hurt their new business tailored towards providing paid services to companies (if that is their plan), as the company name holds a lot of weight already in the industry, that companies are more willing to trust with a paid service such as SO for teams – remy_rm Oct 18 at 9:35
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    I would love to see a Stack Exchange clone handle by a non profit. Something akin to the Wikimedia Foundation. – aloisdg says Reinstate Monica Oct 18 at 9:55
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    @aloisdg Me too, and make it donation based. But I think it would only be feasible for the knowledge library part, playing programming help desk is probably something that a company like SO is much better at than any non-profit endeavor. – Trilarion Oct 18 at 11:07
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    I'd like to point it out that SE added mandatory individual arbitration so anyone who has an issue with SE simply taking over the content currently under CC-BY-SA would have to go through SE's kangaroo court to complain. – xxbbcc Oct 18 at 18:13
  • @xxbbcc - some of us opted out though. – dbc Oct 18 at 18:32
  • @dbc I did, too. I'm not sure it means much, though. – xxbbcc Oct 18 at 18:35
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    @aloisdg see link in GRPR's profile. – Tim Oct 19 at 1:02
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I have a hard time believing that the core Q&A will ever be behind a paywall. That was the mistake Experts-Exchange made, Jeff Atwood talks about here and here. Joel Spolsky reiterated the inherent flaws in the Experts-Exchange business model in his blog post last year here. That is the antithesis of everything Stack Overflow originally stood for. It would kill the golden goose.

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    I agree with your analysis, but I don’t share your optimism. Changes in management have caused dumber things to happen. – ColleenV parted ways Oct 17 at 17:14
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    @ColleenV Surely their own self interest will prevail! A change as drastic as that would leave us with a company that is a shell of itself. – pfr Oct 17 at 17:38
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    That is the antithesis of everything Stack Overflow originally stood for., we left that behind about 6 years ago, which is when the charter changed and removed all the references to quality. The current state of SO is already "the antithesis of everything Stack Overflow originally stood for.". – user148287 Oct 17 at 17:43
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    @pfr Have you actually read the fable of the goose that laid golden eggs? It’s a lot different when the network has reached a certain self-sustaining critical mass and the CEO wasn’t around when all that was built. They’re already pimping us out to third-party ad networks.I am making an effort to disengage my feelings from SE before it starts it’s inevitable morph into something other than what attracted me to it in the first place. – ColleenV parted ways Oct 17 at 17:46
  • @ColleenV That's a really good point. Still, a self-sustaining critical mass can evaporate if things really get that bad. I guess we just have to wait and see. – pfr Oct 17 at 17:49
  • I’m not saying that it’s going to happen, but I can easily see it happening. I’ve seen similar stuff happen more than once when the founders of a company start moving on. – ColleenV parted ways Oct 17 at 17:52
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    Completely agree with what you write, and I hope that the company sticks to the original vision of Joel and Jeff. However there have already been (perhaps necessary) changes such as ads, and selling info. And a new ceo doesn't have to follow old visions. – remy_rm Oct 18 at 9:28
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    Google then: "do no evil" "fresh and clean" "totally the good guys"... Google today "all your privacy belongs to us, we've sold you to the highest bidders, now buy our listening wiretap so we can sell even more of your privacy" – gbjbaanb Oct 19 at 0:24
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+50

If "we now focus on revenue" was said two decades ago by a CEO with hardcore corporate background from the same age, that may mean putting paywalls and restricting free use. However, nowadays various free services (be it free-as-a-beer online service, open-source software with permissive license or anything else) are widely used as a way to promote paid services. This is a widely accepted approach, and I assume Stack Overflow's owners weren't living under a rock for the last 20 years, so no major changes to the Stack Exchange network of free QA websites are coming.

Just think about it: Microsoft, the epitome of money-grabbing corporation, allows pirating Windows to this day. This is what Bill Gates said back in 1998:

Although about 3 million computers get sold every year in China, people don't pay for the software. Someday they will, though. And as long as they're going to steal it, we want them to steal ours. They'll get sort of addicted, and then we'll somehow figure out how to collect sometime in the next decade.

Stack Overflow company's way of promoting its services is Stack Overflow website being used by pretty much all developers around the world. When an IT company decides it needs a QA website, Stack Overflow company wants every developer in that company to know, use and love Stack Overflow website and to suggest to use it within the company. And this is how "free Windows" (pirated Windows) works in Russia: people may use "free Windows" at home, but when they work somewhere, they suggest using various Microsoft services because this is what they know and love. And companies pay, pay a lot.

That's the stance of the corporation which has a reputation of being one of the most evil companies in the world (to a less degree nowadays, but still). Someone working in a company built around a website with free access understands it even better.

And of course, everyone still remembers Experts-Exchange. There's no need for experiments if you know the outcome already.


On the other hand, focus on revenue probably means that less development time will be devoted to the free QA parts. But that's nothing new, we've seen the focus shifting for quite some time.

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    I like the Bill Gates quote. What's the source for that? – Wildcard Oct 18 at 18:43
  • @Wildcard It's mentioned in multiple sources, so it's hard to tell what source it originates from. – Athari says Reinstate Monica Oct 18 at 20:16
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    @Wildcard The LA Times says it's from a speech at the University of Washington in 1998. That's the best I've found so far – divibisan Oct 18 at 22:15
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A cynical person could say that SE doesn't mind the current uproar because only a tiny fraction of users are on Meta and the vast majority of people don't actually care about them.

Instituting a paywall, would anger all the established users, but it would also disproportionally reduce access for these casual users, who would have no reason to pay to access a site they don't have any connection to. If you lose the established users and the potential new users: what do you have?

  • They could share the revenues with the established users. – Trilarion Oct 18 at 6:44
  • What do you have? A lot more bandwidth. – Matt Ellen Oct 18 at 9:26
  • What they would be left with is a core business that is focused on the corporate market, that is much more profiting as no more money is drained by the free aspect. Build upon the "trust" the company has build up through the means of free Q&A. – remy_rm Oct 18 at 9:30
  • @remy_rm They could probably do that, but that would be tantamount to shutting down public Q&A altogether. Would they do that? Maybe, but it’s such a drastic change that it would totally transform the company and its reputation, and not in a positive way – divibisan Oct 18 at 14:33
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Are there plans to lead Stack Exchange down a corporate path, monetizing the Q&A with paywalls, or push the free Q&A to the backseat?

For the first and last parts of your question: Yes.

Stack Exchange gives stock options to its employees, and they have raised four rounds of funding from investors. At some point, its employees and investors are going to want to cash in through an IPO or possibly a buyout.

New CEO Prashanth Chandrasekar hinted at that eventuality in an interview when he mentioned "making [SE's] revenue more predictable". That's something that is very important to Wall Street. Also, the new CEO announcement stated that Chandrasekar has investment banking experience, and that will help him guide the company as it seeks to obtain more funding and eventually prepare for an IPO.

If the company does eventually go public, then shareholders will want the company to prioritize initiatives that increase revenue and earnings growth, and the free parts of SE would definitely take a backseat. In fact, that is probably starting to happen now, as increasing revenue/earnings growth would make the company more palatable to investors and increase the chances of a successful IPO.

  • Other then it is the free parts that let's them sell adverts and direct the experts to the job site. – Ian Ringrose Oct 20 at 11:16
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Synopsis

The main focus of the company has already shifted from the Q&A.
It is unlikely that Q&A will remain completely free. However, that will depend on how SE's business strategy pans out.

Details

It seems fairly obvious that SO.com have narrowed their perspective to the commercialization of the network:

  • Rolling out marketable products (Talent, Teams)
  • Advertising
  • Wooing prospective investors (witnessed by the cited interview)
  • Re-licensing of content
  • Prodding the 'community' towards corporate standards in communication and behavior
    (one obvious objective: minimizing risk of legal exposure):

    • CoC (sheer existence, enforcement rules)
    • Feelgood environment ('welcoming', 'encouraging', etc.)
    • Focus on community growth (feelgood environment expressly aiming at new users)
    • Consultation processes with the community (or the lack thereof)
  • Content treatment:

    • 'Quality First' approach dropped
      (as baffling as it may appear; but this kind of priority tends to be expensive)
    • Professional appearance (Ask Question Wizard, Beta labels dropped, UI design updates)
    • Centralized content curation (3-vote closing threshold, HNQ management)
    • Pro-active alienation avoidance (Reversal/Tumbleweed retired, Lifejacket/Lifeboat introduced, no automatic downvotes on LQ autoflag)
      [Disclaimer: In the light of the current turmoil, measures to ascertain
      that particular groups of users feel safe and welcome on SE are not meant]

The degree of evidence varies between different items (notably subitems 3 and 4 of 'Content Treatment' are mostly fed by a gut feeling inspired by this breakdown of recent feature changes).  In total, however, I have no doubt about the destination of the journey.

Conclusion

As for the future of the free Q&A section, I envisage three major routes.

  1. Direct commercialisation
    Raising a paywall for the Q&A section would match the commercialisation strategy seen so far. A basic monthly fee to peruse the answers, an advanced plan to actually participate (asking questions, voting) and the full-fledged subscription for all features, rebates to reward participating in onerous activities on the network. That could become a technically sophisticated experts-exchange.com V2.

  2. Free playground for expert users
    The Q&A stays free as a playground for expert users which will be targeted through Talent.

  3. Free demo for enterprise installations
    The Q&A stays free as a showcase platform for Teams. Revenue will mainly be generated by Teams sales with branding and customization.

Models 1 and 2 would keep the Q&A section in the prime focus, possibly limited to the most profitable sites (though all sites will benefit due to spill-over effects). Model 3 in particular would probably entail curtailed opportunities of contributions for non-experts. Model 3 would shift the focus away from Q&A.

IMHO it's likely that the company will pursue all routes. The attention devoted to Q&A will then depend on the relative revenues generated from the business models. Future investors may push the management into a re-focus on a single business model in the future.

Disclaimer

This is just my personal view based on my experiences as a halfway regular on some SE sites and my own thoughts. I think the sketch represents fairly the situation, but I cannot be sure of that. In any case, nothing written is meant to challenge the right of Stack Exchange to do as they see fit.

6

The honest answer is... no one knows for sure.

One might argue that the management is rational, and hence won't do things that jeopardize the stakeholders benefit. But as the recent episodes show, we wouldn't know for sure how the management thinks-- they can appear to do things that you think are irrational.

So no, we don't know. No one knows for sure.

3

I would welcome a "community pays" version of Stack Overflow.

Add an optional subscription product. Give some minor benefits to the subscribers. Allow free users to remain free.

No paywalls, no harm to SEO / SERP. No changes to Stack Exchange at all, except that some percentage of the community are willing to pay a nominal, coffee-or-lunch-sized monthly fee to keep the sites they love running.

Having real recurring monthly revenue would get Stack Exchange off of the Venture Capital GROWTH track and allow it to focus on things that matter to the community.

I wish Jeff and Joel had structured their company as such from the start.

This same sentiment has been well-discussed recently:

Wonderful to see more entrepreneurs waking up to the reality that venture capital is a toxic steroid for the vast majority of startups. Yes, a few unicorns emerge from the pressure – often to the detriment of us all! – but the injections kill far more businesses than it helps.

We've been beating these bongo drums for years at Basecamp. The joy of running your own business, on your own terms, on your own ethics, is something entrepreneurs had discounted for far too long over the quick'n'easy thrills of chasing venture capital.

The very exponential, devouring growth that venture capital is aiming for is the root cause of so much of the harm Big Tech is currently wrecking on our minds and our society. These consequences have never been clearer. RECONSIDER.

https://twitter.com/dhh/status/1083792989770571776

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    I like the quoted tweet, but I think it's infeasible to try to get out of the venture capital growth model once you've already gotten into it, since the investors expect a return. However, I don't follow closely how VC works, so maybe it would be simple and all that would happen is future VC funding would dry up. – Wildcard Dec 3 at 0:26
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By looking at dating sites, you can kind of predict where the Stack Exchange sites are going, if the current commercial revenue is not sufficient. For example, Tinder is still free, but you are paying for several extras. For example:

  1. Do you want get your question seen by more users with expertise in your question area, please pay $x.

  2. You used up your free allowance of y questions. You can gain credits buy answering questions that get up votes, or you can buy credits for $x.

  3. You still don't have an answer to your question. You can push it back to the top of the queue for $x.

  4. You don't have enough credits to award a bounty on your question. Earn credits by answering questions or buy y credits for $x.

  • This can create perverse incentives - no pun intended. For example, the hyphen site tried 2., and they essentially got spammed with low-quality answers (talked about in the now legendary first Stack Overflow podcast series). But maybe it could work with an actual market (not with fixed $x). That is, if nobody wants a low-quality contribution the price would be very low, and, if there was a small (but very reasonable) transaction fee, the effective price would negative (effectively a penalty). – Peter Mortensen Dec 8 at 7:59
  • cont' - In other words, with a small transaction fee, every contribution would effectively start out with a (small) fractional downvote (say, 0.03), without anyone actually downvoting. Only positive actions happen ("buying") and non-action would be negative (but to a very small degree). Any particular rate could be dependent on the market and/or on past performance (effectively a downvote weight or scale factor, exponentially increasing or decreasing). – Peter Mortensen Dec 8 at 8:11
  • It doesn't have to be real money (to begin with). Stack Exchange could issue its own crypto currency and bind it to it the stock price two years after the IPO (inconvertible until that date). That way, everybody would have a stake in increasing Stack Exchange's revenue ten times before the IPO, and we would live happily ever after. – Peter Mortensen Dec 8 at 8:17

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