Kicking off the Summer of Love
It’s summer here at StackHQ. Have a flower!
You’re welcome. Now on to some serious work. Can we talk about cultural anthropology for a minute? I’d like to talk about what happens when a community (online or off) gets to be about… oh, three or four years old.
Every community starts out needing to recruit members, so they tend to be very friendly to newcomers.
After a few years, an insider group of old-timers forms. They get to know each other. They know the rules. They know the history and the legends of the community. And it’s only natural to get little bit irritated when newbies show up who don’t know the rules.
Newbies will show up, make a newbie mistake, like wearing shoes indoors or forgetting to close the toilet lid, and the old-timers will look at each other, roll their eyes, and snort, “Typical!”
At this point, if it’s a normal human community, it will start to feel a little bit unfriendly to outsiders. Insular.
And the newbies will say, “well, gosh, that’s not a very friendly place.”
Not just the newbies who got scolded. Also the 100 passers-by who saw the newbies get scolded. Who might have been great members of the community, and who did nothing wrong, but who are not really interested in joining a community that appears to be full of smug jerks.
This is very dangerous. You have to be able to recruit new members to replace the old ones that drift away. The success of the community depends on it.
Now that Stack Exchange is getting to about that age, we’re starting to see some warning signs that the community is getting insular.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s still a remarkably friendly place.
But we have some of our own weird rules, that take a while to figure out. Rules about shopping questions, subjective questions, and “localized” questions. Those are very important rules, but when newbies violate them, we can be somewhat snarky. I did a quick survey and found that about 50% of questions that are closed on Stack Overflow are also accompanied by an unfriendly comment. So it isn’t surprising that newbies are turned off.
So we decided to declare the summer of 2012 as The Summer of Love, a.k.a. “The Hunting of the Snark.” The goal is simple: to keep Stack Exchange a welcoming, friendly place without lowering our standards. No, you may not ask “plz send me the code” questions, but if you do, we will explain to you, in a friendly and professional way, what you did wrong.
You’ve probably already seen the first phases of this campaign. To kick it off, Shog9 deleted the “What Stack Overflow is Not” thread on meta.stackoverflow.com, which started out with the best of intentions (indeed it was intended to help newbies come up to speed), but it turned into an accidental factory of unfriendly comments. We’ve started talking about how to be civil and we’ll continue that. And to make everything, you know, scientific, we’ve started actually measuring friendliness in comments, automatically, using Mechanical Turk. We’ll share some astonishing results of that study with you soon.
Don’t lose track of the big picture. Stack Exchange works because it’s a remarkably good place to get information. Having the correct information always trumps having it in a pretty, perfumed way covered with flowers. If the only person that knows the answer to my question is a remarkable grump and can’t give me the answer without insulting my ancestry, I’ll probably take the answer and lick my wounds later.
But that’s not the choice. The way to get great answers is to get lots of people contributing. The way to get lots of people contributing is to recruit more people to participate on Stack Exchange. The way to recruit more people is to be nice. So being nice is not at odds with getting good answers, it supports getting good answers. And that’s why it’s important to us.
That is a nice flower. What do call it?