community September 16, 2013

Five years ago, Stack Overflow launched. Then, a miracle occurred.

Stack Overflow officially launched on September 15, 2008. In five short years, you’ve answered over 5 million questions on more than 100 sites, and helped hundreds of millions of people find the answers they needed. Today, we want to celebrate how, together, we changed one small corner of the Internet for the better. We want…
Avatar for Jay Hanlon
EVP of Culture and Experience (former)

Stack Overflow officially launched on September 15, 2008. In five short years, you’ve answered over 5 million questions on more than 100 sites, and helped hundreds of millions of people find the answers they needed. Today, we want to celebrate how, together, we changed one small corner of the Internet for the better.

We want to hear your stories about how someone on Stack Exchange helped you.

“Then, a Miracle Occurs”

Before it went into beta, stackoverflow.com had a comic on the landing page that came to symbolize what we were setting out to do:

We knew what our goal was, and we had some idea how to start, but the entire thing working was predicated on that middle step: “then a miracle occurs”. The original vision statement was ambitious:

It is by programmers, for programmers, with the ultimate intent of collectively increasing the sum total of good programming knowledge in the world. No matter what programming language you use, or what operating system you call home. Better programming is our goal.

– from Introducing Stack Overflow

It was a gamble: would people really take time out of their busy lives to answer other people’s questions, for nothing more than fake internet points and bragging rights?

It turns out that people will do anything for fake internet points.

Just kidding. At best, the points, and the gamification, and the focused structure of the site did little more than encourage people to keep doing what they were already doing. People came because they wanted to help other people, because they needed to learn something new, or because they wanted to show off the clever way they’d solved a problem.

Which was lucky for us.  Because here’s the crazy secret about gamification: In the history of the world, gamification has never gotten a single person do anything they didn’t already basically like to do.

In the midst of everyone’s individual reason for coming, somewhere among the hundreds, and then thousands of people who showed up to answer each other’s questions and hammer out how the site should actually work, the miracle actually occurred.

An incredible number of people jumped at the chance to help a stranger

So far, you’ve provided helpful answers to over five million questions. Those answers are seen by forty-four million people looking for help each month.

To put those numbers in perspective:

  • That’s more people helped each month than visit the New York Times, Bank of America, or Apple.com.
  • If the people helped each month were a US state, it’d be bigger than California and almost twice as big as Texas.
  • If they were a country, it’d be in the top 15% of nations in the world, with more people than Canada, Argentina, or Poland. It’d be practically two Yemens.
  • If you put one frog in a football stadium for each of the 44MM people who get help here each month, that would be forty-four MILLION frogs. Think about that. But don’t say it out loud. People are quick to judge.

Making the Internet a Better Place

The next chapter of Stack Exchange is still being written. A few years ago, we widened our vision beyond programmers. Our new goal was simple, if a bit daunting:

Make the Internet a better place to get expert answers to your questions.

fredrogers shadow

We asked people what other sites they wanted, and carefully started launching them, one at a time. Each time, we were counting on a group of experts to come together and start asking and answering each other’s questions. There have been a few failures along the way, but overall, the successes have been amazing.

We’re now up to 106 sites, including some outstanding ones on System Administration, Computers, MathematicsUbuntu, Video Games, and Cooking, and some young upstarts like our site for English Language Learners. If there’s a site you want to see that doesn’t exist yet, you can still propose it on Area 51.

At the same time, Stack Overflow is continuing to grow, and we are doing our best to keep it healthy. The short history of the internet is littered with communities that started out great, but slowly petered out under the weight of flame wars, mass-n00bocide, funny cat pictures, or just boredom waiting for the next big thing. We still need your help to keep Stack Overflow focused on its core mission: collectively increasing the sum total of good programming knowledge in the world.

Tell Us Your Story

We want to hear your stories. Looking at numbers is one thing, but hearing from real, live people about how someone’s effort here helped them is entirely different. So, if someone’s post here ever saved your day at work, or convinced you to buy your daughter an SLR and learn photography together, take a minute to recognize the person who wrote the answer that mattered to you.

If you’re somebody who mostly answers questions, share how you got involved and what keeps you coming back.  Or tell us about someone who taught you something before we even existed. They deserve to be recognized for the way their investment in you is getting passed on to others here today. If Stack Exchange got you interested in a new topic or taught you a new trick for an old one, we want to hear about it.

Stack Exchange has always been about a community of people helping each other out. It was a long shot when it launched, but you made it work. Now, let’s take a few minutes to recognize everything that we’ve achieved together.

Podcast logo The Stack Overflow Podcast is a weekly conversation about working in software development, learning to code, and the art and culture of computer programming.

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