I recently found that an Internet community I've been a part of for the past decade (run by a fairly well-known startup) was shut down. It seems that the public offering/community they maintained was not profitable.

This made me consider what could happen if Stack Exchange finds that its business model is not working and runs out of money to run the Stack Exchange family of sites: what would happen if this occurs? I think Stack Exchange sites are as important as Wikipedia, at this point. It would be a great loss to humanity if it disappeared from the Internet. Of course, parts of it may be saved in various Internet archiving efforts, but that may not be a good approximation of what Stack Exchange sites currently contain (or will contain in the future).

Does anyone from Stack Exchange know if there's a succession or continuation plan, or a way that they would distribute a backup of the Stack Exchange sites to some organization willing to host it (or perhaps via BitTorrent)? I would certainly donate if Stack Exchange converted into a charitable organization.

Apologies if this is the wrong venue for such a question. Hopefully Stack Exchange's business is doing very well and we can enjoy decades more of its existence.

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    There is the stackexchange data dumps which are at least partially for this: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/19579/… – user1937198 Oct 30 '20 at 1:30
  • Thank you! That definitely answers a good chunk of my question. – TheIntern Oct 30 '20 at 3:42
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    The only thing that might be kind of lost would be the software running this platform. – Trilarion Oct 30 '20 at 7:38
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    And while it's nice, I'd argue it's the single thing a community of techies could replace given motivation – Journeyman Geek Oct 30 '20 at 9:05
  • But still it would be a big hit. There are opportunity costs involved in recreating software, a community and converting the data. – Trilarion Oct 30 '20 at 11:03
  • @JourneymanGeek They've been working on it for a while, should SE really go down I'd figure some of the void can be filled immediately. – Mast Nov 2 '20 at 13:44
  • Out of curiosity, what community are you referencing in the first paragraph? – TylerH Nov 2 '20 at 15:55

There have been several offshoots of SE communities that bootstrapped themselves off the data dumps (such as Codidact and a now defunct community that was a spinoff of startups) as well as a few sneaky mirrors - while there's no 'formal' plan, it's doable.

This would be a great starting point if you wanted to do that.

I'd argue though the value of Stack Exchange isn't just in the content - it's also in the community that produces the content, and chances are they'd move out and coalesce somewhere else - I don't think anyone misses the hyphen site, do they?

  • Thank you very much for the direction and explanation! I suppose you're right about the community; it would live on elsewhere. – TheIntern Oct 30 '20 at 3:50
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    Given the community history of Stack Exchange, I would imagine in the event of bankruptcy (without somebody to buy their debt), they would simply release the software. However, that might not happen, due to the venture capital they have raised. – Ramhound Oct 30 '20 at 14:22
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    A note, to run a site with the same user load per days, to take over the domain name, it cost high, so it's not like a normal user could run a server in his basement or garage. – yagmoth555 Oct 30 '20 at 18:03

I think your question is ultimately about trust, which is a soft factor that kind of enables us to work together here.

Your own recent experience highlighted to you the risk that internet services might disappear. And that's reasonable, because they do. In this case the risk is very, very low though over the next years. The core of the public Q&A is engineers (the number of programmers is really surprisingly small), community moderators and maybe further support staff and the infrastructure to run the servers. If the traffic that Stack Overflow generates (billions of visits every year) continues, the generated amount of advertisement revenue is likely more than enough to keep the lights on for a very long time (making lots of profit is a different thing though, I guess that selling the software that powers the platform is a better approach for that).

With this risk in mind, what you basically wanted in this question is a last will, maybe even some kind of contractual obligation or trusted third party as guardian of the data. And there is such a thing as part of the quarterly data dumps stored on the Internet Archive. It also helps that the data is under an open and quite compatible license (and now also with clarity about the version of the license).

When Jeff Atwood announced the data dumps in June 2009, he kind of created the trust that whatever may happen (except when the Internet Archive goes down and all other stored recent copies of the data dump too), the content will be there and will be accessible. Maybe this was a contributing factor to the success that followed.

To directly answer your question: No, there is no official succession or continuation plan published that I'm aware of and I have read many meta questions over the years and have just searched for terms like "what happens if Stack Overflow went down / shut down / goes bankrupt / goes out of business" and I only found a couple of Quora questions about it. Indeed there is no real advantage for the company to write down a legally binding last will, except maybe for generating even more trust. And they don't need to, because the data dumps and the license already generate significantly more trust than the user content stored with Facebook for example (a last will for Facebook might actually be a really good idea).

Likewise I have not heard of any substantial plans to convert the Stack Exchange sites into a charitable organization. The company still wants to make profit with these platforms and the other products/services. The investors who just recently put new money in the company surely expect an adequate return.

To summarize: As longs as the quarterly data dumps keep coming and are intact (how to check that might actually be a very interesting question), don't worry - all will be well. If they stop, think twice.

This is just as a bit of extended commentary to the answer of Journeyman Geek.

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