After I recommended Stack Overflow to a friend she briefly looked at it and concluded it was not much different than a wiki. I can think of many reasons why this is false but perhaps it would be useful to have a link to direct someone like that to, that would go through some of the reasons. For example:

  • The attribution system that is both quantitative and democratic
  • meta sites allow the site rules to be democratically defined as well
  • etc...
  • 8
    Maybe you should just tell your friend to look at it a bit more closely. :)
    – Pekka
    Feb 4, 2011 at 0:06
  • 2
    I did. I'm not convincing enough.
    – D W
    Feb 5, 2011 at 6:33
  • It's for the community, by the community. Does a wiki have a theory of moderation? No. It's not just some site where people contribute, it's a site that is made to really benefit the users. The users are there at the first step of creating a new site, they give feedback, more people are on this than a wiki. The community is really involved, and you can get answers quicker. Aug 18, 2013 at 16:54
  • 3
    The biggest thing I could think of is the Q/A format, rather than just posting
    – MTL
    Jul 20, 2015 at 16:50

6 Answers 6


I can think of a few reasons why it's better:

  • Different answers provide completely different approaches to the same problem whereas a wiki is really just one that might be modified over time. Different people react better to different styles of answers.
  • There's much more accountability here than in a wiki. If you post a crap answer then it'll generally get voted down. This means, in general either the community will ignore it (a good thing) or it'll get drastically improved and voted up again (a better thing.) If someone writes crap on a wiki, the community will generally take notice of it until / if someone changes it.
  • People get more incentive for posting good things here than on a wiki because there's a reward system in place.
  • People get very specific answers to specific questions here, generalised wikis are generally more, well, general.
  • There is less accountability here, because not every action is logged. Reputation doesn't imply accountability.
    – Nemo
    Jul 20, 2015 at 15:26
  • 6
    @Nemo: All edits are logged, barring those within grace periods; all answers, questions, comments, and reviews are also logged. If you mean that it's harder than, say, WP to track activity on a given page, that's true, but for the average WP user outside the elite editor clique, really keeping track of genuine accountability by retracing the enormously verbose logs of often-hand-edited discussions (and trying to ensure that in none of the revisions did someone pull a dirty trick like changing someone else's Talk: opinion slightly) is ridiculously non-trivial. Jul 20, 2015 at 18:18

Well, the about page provides a helpful not-quite-Venn diagram that points out that the site is really a combination of wiki, digg/reddit, blog and forum:

pseudo-Venn diagram comprising circles representing wiki, digg/reddit, blog and forum, with Stack Overflow at intersection

To answer your question, all you have to do is look at the three remaining areas. I'll answer all four, so that this answer can be used to answer "how is Stack Overflow different/better than just [some subset of the four things]?"


Digg, Reddit and similar services allow users to vote on content. It puts the wisdom of the Internet crowd to work for you in judging which posts are worth listening to and which are... well, not.


Blogs tend to contain longer, more essay-like and/or comprehensive posts than other media on the Internet. But perhaps more importantly, bloggers can develop impressive reputations over time, based on the content they post. Conversely, if you see a post by Eric Lippert, you know it's probably worth reading, even if you didn't know he had a blog (or in our case, a Stack Overflow account) before.


Forums are about getting many people together, and treating them roughly as equals. They tend to focus on one topic or a group of related topics.


Wikis are editable by many people, and contents of wikis are generally shared under some sort of non-restrictive license. User-contributed content on Stack Overflow (and all Stack Exchange sites) is licensed under CC BY-SA.

  • 1
    That description/graphic feels overly misrepresentative. SO shares minor attributes, but it really doesn't qualify as mix. Besides using it like Reddit or a Forum being discouraged, it follows more the bulletin board pattern than a forum (which should be threaded like on reddit). And I remember some antipathy for using it blog-like too.
    – mario
    Feb 4, 2011 at 12:54
  • 1
    @mario, there's a big difference between using SO like any one of the four components, and SO incorporating attributes of each of the four components.
    – Pops
    Feb 4, 2011 at 15:31
  • +1 for a detailed viewpoint @Popular Demand. However I tend to agree with @mario
    – D W
    Feb 5, 2011 at 18:05

The primary distinction I remember being mentioned (in Jeff's blog or somesuch) is that questions and answers are typically "owned" by a specific user on the SE sites, rather than everything being community content as is the case on most wikis. This promotes some hopefully beneficial competition and stake in the community from each contributer.

Found at least one mention on Jeff's blog - An excerpt from Mixing Oil and Water: Authorship in a Wiki World (Feb 2, 2009)

But that doesn't entirely work; we also need to know who the primary author is, because that information will color and influence our responses to the question. I'll grant you this is an extreme example; no disrespect to my fellow programmers, but you haven't won a turing award. Even in more typical cases, attaching authorship matters. It lets us know who we're talking to, what their background is, what their skills are, and so forth. Furthermore, how can you possibly form a community when everyone is a random, anonymous contributor?


Some other differences:

  • Tags
  • User stats and different abilities based on rep
  • Format of a single question and multiple answers
  • Ability for questions to be closed as duplicates
  • Ordering of questions based on rating
  • 2
    None of these is really missing from wikis.
    – Nemo
    Jul 20, 2015 at 15:57

It's easier to answer if you look at the definition of wiki by its inventor, Ward Cunningham: Wiki design principles. (The other answers here are mostly incorrect because they were invented out of thin air.)

TL;DR: Wikis and Stack Exchange are different things. Comparisons tend to go "what features of X that I care about are also in Y" and then people go "X is better because it has all I like"; but that's meaningless. Let's just look at the differences, without saying good or bad.

Principles shared with wikis:

  • Simple - easier to use than abuse. A wiki that reinvents HTML markup ([b]bold[/b], for example) has lost the path!

  • Mundane - A small number of (irregular) text conventions will provide access to the most useful page markup.

  • Tolerant - Interpretable (even if undesirable) behavior is preferred to error messages.

    (But Stack Exchange gives way less power to users.)

Wiki principles not shared by Stack Exchange:

  • Incremental - Pages can cite other pages, including pages that have not been written yet.

    There's no way to link a topic unless there is a question about it.

  • Unified - Page names will be drawn from a flat space so that no additional context is required to interpret them.

    Same reason, plus I can't link [[Difference between Stack Overflow and a wiki]] because there might be 0, 1 or 1000 questions on the topic, and each may have 0, 1 or 1000 answers. In other words, Stack Exchange implements ViewPoint, from which I quote: "ViewPoint is nothing like a wiki". On a wiki, there is generally just one shared text about a topic, which everyone has to edit; on Stack Exchange, everyone is encouraged to add their own separate view.

  • Precise - Pages will be titled with sufficient precision to avoid most name clashes, typically by forming noun phrases.

    Stack Exchange is chaotic; order is established algorithmically.

  • Organic - The structure and text content of the site are open to editing and evolution.

    The structure is fixed; the tag taxonomy can vary, but it's not integral part of the structure.

  • Universal - The mechanisms of editing and organizing are the same as those of writing, so that any writer is automatically an editor and organizer.

    The administration side is definitely distinct from the public-facing side; voting is the only curation task which is directly integrated into the writing and reading.

Wiki principles probably not shared by Stack Exchange:

  • Open - Should a page be found to be incomplete or poorly organized, any reader can edit it as they see fit.

    By design, Stack Exchange trusts some people more than others. Most things require some privileges.

  • Overt - The formatted (and printed) output will suggest the input required to reproduce it.

    There is no input to get a certain output on a page as a whole: a good part of the presentation is defined in an algorithmic way, hence hidden and often proprietary rather than editorial/manual. Cf. Jeff Atwood on wiki-ways to cover a topic: "Wiki posts do not fit the current Q&A model [...] which is why they're a bad fit. We do Q&A". Even moderators have little to no control on which content of the site gets showcased (case in point: hot network questions), while on a wiki the main page etc. is generally controlled by editors.

  • Observable - Activity within the site can be watched and reviewed by any other visitor to the site.

    Most things on Stack Exchange are not publicly logged and there is no way to follow the (subset of) events you are interested in. For instance, there is no master recent changes page nor a watchlist to let everyone garden the site; instead, the system encourages you to take care of your own "property" (your posts) or other posts the system thinks may need you.

Other examples: there is no visible log of newly created tags and no revision history for comments.

  • Convergent - Duplication can be discouraged or removed by finding and citing similar or related content.

    See Incremental and Unified above; there is some de-duplication mechanism, but it's like an afterthought rather than something integral to the system.

See also Ward Cunningham's original definition and origin of the term wiki.

You may also compare MediaWiki principles to see how a modern wiki implementation differs even from the limited flavour of wiki-ness that Stack Exchange offers at the level of individual posts (for instance: logs, history and other feeds; advanced organisation techniques).

  • I'm not at all sure what you mean by your commentary on "Overt" (Markdown is just about exactly the opposite of proprietary, and is arguably more universal than even WikiText, in any flavor), and I believe you've missed the nature of the site homepage — which shows all questions whenever they receive any edits, any new answers, or any edits to answers — and Favorites, which shows all questions you've marked that have had any similar modifications made. Jul 20, 2015 at 19:45
  • @NathanTuggy, sure, that's why I put the bullet point under "probably". The frontpage bumps are not all equal, there are "secret recipes" to bump a questiokn less if the edit is minor; there are other semi-secrets like "Hot network questions"; etc. I was not speaking of the markup, I'd let wikitext (MediaWiki) aside because that's a rather extreme example. || Let's focus on the obvious things: on a wiki, the presentation of a topic (if not the entire layout) is defined by editors; on SE, no individual editor or editorial policy can decide the order in which answers to a question are presented.
    – Nemo
    Jul 20, 2015 at 20:12
  • OK, grace period edits can be very roughly likened to hitting the Minor Edit checkbox; they can't be snuck in if anyone's commented, and they can't be snuck in past five minutes anyway, or by anyone other than the last editor, so e.g. vandalism is very rare. Re answer order, answers are intended to stand alone: they can be and are evaluated alongside each other, but there is no reason for any one person to define a "recommended reading order" as there would be for an article that must be read as a unity, aside from the very overt checkmark signifying acceptance by the original querent. Jul 20, 2015 at 20:19
  • @NathanTuggy, did you read Cunningham's definition of that point? «The formatted (and printed) output will suggest the input required to reproduce it». There is no input by which you can be sure to get a certain output on a question. I'm not saying that's good or bad, but it's definitely a difference.
    – Nemo
    Jul 20, 2015 at 20:22
  • 1
    Since the unit of useful wiki-dom in SE is the post (question, answer, tag, …), not the full question page, I don't consider that a useful distinction: there is nowhere to type in the question with all the same answers anyway, any more than there's a single edit box marked "Type Wikipedia here:". Jul 20, 2015 at 20:30
  • @NathanTuggy the fact that the "unit of useful wiki-dom" is a subset of the site/page only proves the point, i.e. that a StackExchange site is not a wiki. A wiki site is wholly wiki, or it's not a wiki.
    – Nemo
    Jul 20, 2015 at 20:34
  • 2
    If WP consisted of a set of fragments, each with exactly one header with any of several sizes, and the pages themselves then arranged selections of those fragments into a specific order, such that all text was in one of those fragments, would you really say "That's not a wiki"? For clarity, that is pretty much exactly how a competing project defines its software... and 'Ward Cunningham calls Wagn "one of the freshest contributions to wiki since I coined the term."' Jul 20, 2015 at 20:45
  • From a quick look, it seems all of that is editable. "Cards" are not that different from MediaWiki templates, better isolated.
    – Nemo
    Jul 20, 2015 at 21:11
  • 1
    So the only distinction is that in one case, a stellar example of wikis, the order of fragments is wholly determinable by any editor, and in the other case, the order is determinable only by the community as a whole... that's not a very large distinction. Jul 20, 2015 at 21:23
  • The community as a whole has no control in SE; only the algorithms do. Even if the community gained a huge consensus in a meta.X discussion that question Y in X should be presented in a certain manner, they would have no way to implement that.
    – Nemo
    Jul 21, 2015 at 9:55
  • Community discussions that result in massive downvoting/upvoting/delete-voting surges to remove a misplaced answer from its place have happened repeatedly, as well as successful campaigns to fold all answers into a single common one, where there's warrant. The community has all the control it needs over even answer order, the only remaining distinction. So using this minor difference to argue that SE is not at all wiki-like is disingenuous. Jul 21, 2015 at 16:11
  • I would also add that the diff view is worse than most wikis' ;) meta.stackexchange.com/posts/261059/revisions
    – Nemo
    Nov 22, 2016 at 18:19

Q&A tries to solve problems and answer questions that can change over time or have new or different (better) solutions in the future.


A Wiki is more suitable to document static knowledge (facts, user manual) and history. Articles can change to be improved adding more information (old or new).

Of course, both can be used for similar tasks, and both contain knowledge, but for me, these are the main differences.

On the other hand, both are created with collaboration in mind, and to be ruled by a community.

  • 3
    this doesn't seem to offer anything substantial over prior answers that were posted several years ago
    – gnat
    Sep 25, 2020 at 7:46
  • I think this answer is short and concise unlike others. In my opinion this information is present in others, but it take me long time to read and summarize the difference which is the main question. The concept of document knowledge Vs solve problems/debate is key in my opinion.
    – gavioto
    Sep 26, 2020 at 9:15
  • On the other hand. Other answers focus responses in differences between features, that it is not the question. For example, Q&A have "tags", but wikis have "categories" that serves the same or similar purpose, so tags are not really a difference. Wikis also have redirection which allows to avoid duplicate articles, like closing questions... I think that features is not the key topic here but the purpose it serves.
    – gavioto
    Sep 26, 2020 at 9:24

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