background July 22, 2009

Stack Overflow Flash Mobs

Coding Horror reader Alex Vincent wrote to let me know that there is a Stack Overflow Birds-of-a-Feather session at OSCON 2009, which is going on right now. The premise of the BOF session is intriguing; it’s not at all what I expected: In concert with users online across the country, this session will lead a…
Avatar for Jeff Atwood
Co-Founder (Former)

Coding Horror reader Alex Vincent wrote to let me know that there is a Stack Overflow Birds-of-a-Feather session at OSCON 2009, which is going on right now.

The premise of the BOF session is intriguing; it’s not at all what I expected:

In concert with users online across the country, this session will lead a flashmob to populate Stack Overflow with R language content.

R, the open source statistical language, has a notoriously steep learning curve. The same technical questions tend be asked repeatedly on the R-help mailing lists, to the detriment of both R experts (who tire of repeating themselves) and the learners (who often receive a technically correct, but terse response).

We have developed a list of the most common 100 technical R questions, based on an analysis of (i) queries sent to the RSeek.org web portal, and (ii) an examination of the R-help list archives, and (iii) a survey of members of R Users Groups in San Francisco, LA, and New York City.

In the first hour, participants will pair up to claim a question, formulate it on StackOverflow, and provide a comprehensive answer. In the second hour, participants will rate, review, and comment on the set of submitted questions and answers.

While Stackoverflow currently lacks content for the R language, we believe this effort will provide the spark to attract more R users, and emerge as a valuable resource to the growing R community.

This is a fascinating way to populate Stack Overflow with questions on a particular programming language. We officially condone this, because it is a “bottom up” approach, in that the questions placed on Stack Overflow are by actual working developers who have real world questions about the R programming language. Even better, they’re “best of” questions from existing mailing lists and resources!

We’ve been approached in the past about using Stack Overflow as a support forum for various products, and I’ve always turned these proposals down. I feel the content in Stack Overflow should not be driven by official support channels, or product teams, but by the programmers themselves. If there’s interest, the questions will appear organically and in their own time. And if there isn’t interest.. well, that’s what you need to fix first before worrying about adopting Stack Overflow as a support resource!

Though I can’t contribute much to this effort due to my woeful lack of R skills, I applaud the way the R language enthusiasts have tackled it — it’s clever, effective, and completely in tune with the spirit of Stack overflow.

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