Stack Exchange 2017 in Review
“It’s a life’s work to see yourself for what you really are and even then you might be wrong.”—Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men
You know the old saw about how 90% of an iceberg is hidden under water? At Stack Overflow, we strive to be a reverse iceberg by sharing as much as possible about what’s going on. 2017 presents a bit of a problem since the big news is that we’ve seen a lot of interest in companies paying for private Q&A. The other two legs of our revenue tripod (ads and job placement) are stable. But it turns out Stack Overflow is best known for providing a platform for people to share knowledge with each other. So our most exciting developments didn’t get much visibility last year.
We offer both self-hosted and remote-hosted Enterprise instances. Both varieties are full-fledged sites that take a fair amount of investment from the customer to be successful. Smaller organizations have asked for private Q&A as well, which brings us to Channels. By hosting private Q&A for smaller teams right on Stack Overflow, we hope to simplify signup and security for them. From our experience using our own Enterprise instance, I’m excited to move to Channels in order to skip the VPN and to have notifications go right to my Stack Exchange global inbox. Many of the design changes needed for Channels will benefit the public sites as well.
The observant among you might notice these statistics are slightly down from 2016. One of the great things about an open Q&A network is that answers to the askers’ specific questions can be discovered by other people with the same question. So a big reason we don’t have more new questions is because we have so many existing answered questions for people to find before they ask. Most of the millions of questions asked each year are only ever seen by the handful of people who have the very rare problem asked about. (In other words, the network has a very long tail.) That said, some questions are seen by hundreds of thousands of people. Here are the top 5 viewed questions across the network asked in 2017:
(Full disclosure: I’ve tried to automate my job, but I haven’t achieved full covfefe.)
Questions are only useful if they prompt helpful answers and Stack Exchange users regularly provide just that. While most of the accumulated value of the network’s content (available under a Creative Commons licence) is spread out over millions of clear answers to obscure questions, there are a few answers that just about anyone can appreciate. Here are the top 5 answers from 2017 ordered by score:
The only question to appear in both lists started as a pun based on an ABBA song, which is one reason to be thankful for 2017.
One of the downsides of having a bunch of popular websites built entirely from community-created content is that we attract a lot of spam. Over the years, we’ve added systems to block and slow down unwanted submissions, but some still get through. The last line of defense is flags from individual users. A few years ago, a dedicated team of users (Charcoal) built a rather remarkable early warning system called the SmokeDetector. Initially, it was just a chatbot that dropped messages about potential spam for users to flag. Over time, the system’s accuracy increased to be even better than human flaggers. So recently, the system started automatically flagging spam. The program has substantially reduced the number of times an actual human needs to look at spam and other nonsense. For more details, please see the 2017 spam report. And just so it’s clear, this was entirely a community-led development. We love giving our users agency to fix problems.
Even when we are doing the development work, we do best when we communicate early and often with users. (This was the most important thing we learned from Documentation.) For instance, the team working on improvements to the network publishes a monthly update and takes community feedback as one important input to its priority list. I mentioned last year that we didn’t listen to potential customers who wanted to pay for an Enterprise Q&A site. A variety of organizations have successfully deployed these sites, which in retrospect shouldn’t be a surprise. It hurts to consider the opportunities we missed simply by not listening.
Annual events help turn a random collection of humans into a cohesive culture. As a sampling:
- TeX – LaTeX Stack Exchange elected representatives to the TeX Users Group.
- Graduated sites customized advertisements for the year to come. (Mathematics has some interesting submissions.)
- We redesigned the top bar. (Ok, that only seems annual.)
- Judaism hosted “Purim Torah” questions.
- The Stack Overflow Developer Survey results were revealed.
- We danced like fools for April Fool’s Day.
- Users hunted down their favorite digital skull decorations in Winter Bash 2017.
- Over $56,600 was donated in the name of our moderators. ($100 per moderator, if you are curious.)
I’m not the only one posting about the year that was. Christianity has a statistics-heavy post that follows the format of this post—it’s like a fractal! There’s an introspective question on The Workplace in 2017. If you want more adventure in your life, you might look at some of the community’s favorite Science Fiction and Fantasy questions from the past year. (I’m still waiting for the fourth quarter post!) Classicists in the house might appreciate the best Latin(!) answers of the second half of 2017. If your language preferences tend toward the programming variety, take a look at the submissions to Code Review’s 2017 community challenge: design your own programming language. The highlight for 2017 on Bricks: it became a recognized LEGO User Group. My colleague, Shog9, looked at question closing statistics in 2017. Thanks to the the efforts of la gente hispana, Stack Overflow en Español became a fully graduated site.
Meanwhile Stack Overflow employees keep busy with everything from semi-regular podcasts to reaching out to companies who are hiring programmers. Our data team spent much of 2017 digging up insights from our unique data about developers. They also introduced Stack Overflow Trends to facilitate your own research and released an improved salary calculator for programmers. After years of planning, the SRE team moved to HTTPS everywhere. In addition to the Stack Exchange app, we now have a Stack Overflow mobile app for Apple and Android phones. Finally, Jess Pardue explained how remote work really works.
I’m not going to spin it; 2017 was not a terrific year for Stack Exchange Inc. Remember the Documentation feature I was so excited about last year? We shut it down in August. It’s still a good idea and there’s a huge opportunity, but our real strength is user-curated questions and answers. Unfortunately, we also lost a number of outstanding colleagues. (It was strictly a business decision and we miss them tremendously.) So it’s more important than ever to focus on what we do best: enable our talented communities to answer the internet’s questions.
“2017 presents a bit of a problem” – The year itself did not present a problem. StackOverflow missed their mark on several key initiatives, planned poorly, appeared to have hired aggressively towards sectors of business that did not yield considerable revenue, and was apparently late to the game to recognize another market. I appreciate Stack Overflow and enjoy contributing to/reading questions, reading about “hot” technologies in the market, and the occasional Blog post about things that are actually interesting, but this blog post is just depressing, and hard to navigate since every sentence is an entirely different though. I apologize for the verbiage here, but this Blog post is lame and somewhat identifies yourselves as failures, which I don’t think is the case.
Hey now. My mom read it and thought it was amazing! 😉
These posts are really hard to write since it’s basically a bunch of information that I’m trying to conceptualize. I agree we made a number of errors that we had to face in 2017. I wanted to be brutally honest about that. Maybe I took it too far this time around.
I probably could have talked more about the things we are now working on that will make next year’s update more optimistic. It really is exciting to me that we are focusing in on Q&A, which is certainly our strength.