Using Many Minds

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

A former contributor to the programming Q&A site, Stack Overflow, explains why he no longer participates in the "community" there. He summarizes his reasoning as follows:

There are a number of reasons why I stopped contributing to StackOverflow. I am disquieted by its poor pedagogical value, I think its scoring system is fundamentally broken and rewards the wrong things, and I think its community lacks maturity even while it becomes more and more pointlessly authoritarian. So what would I recommend as an alternative?

How about learning? You know, that thing that puts information in your head that you can apply later at need. Use Google. Use Wikipedia (if you must). Use RosettaCode for code examples. (Contribute there too!) Engage with other users of the tools you use in the form of user groups, mailing lists, web forums, etc. Learn foundational principles instead of answers to immediate questions.
Michael Richter's piece both reminds me of why I have always limited my participation in online discussion groups, and summarizes some of the things I have observed in such groups over the past couple of decades of using the Internet. His "recipe that all such 'community-driven' approaches almost, but not quite, invariably follow" particularly reminds me of the latter. In fact, I think it, along with the observation that the site's points system is flawed, might go a long way in explaining why so many online communities fail.

Recall the glib Internet-age maxim that "many minds are better than one". This turns out to be false unless these minds think independently. Schemes like the Stack Overflow points system are imperfect attempts to harness such minds but, because there is no shortcut when judging the talent or integrity of others, they end up falling short. Those who yearn for prestige learn how to game the gamification system, so to speak. And then, because small minds need to control people to gain an illusion of efficacy, they start wielding power over others. When this happens, the crowd is less like a meeting of independent minds and more like a mob. The forum suffers as a result.

Some of the alternatives Richter suggests arguably would suffer some of the same pitfalls he notes at Stack Overflow, but I don't take this as being necessarily a reason not to avail myself of them (any more than I would completely avoid Stack Overflow, which has helped me on occasion). Rather, as at any other time one considers advice from others, one must be aware of the limits of his knowledge and seek out more than one answer, particularly when his question is about an area he knows little about. This is no substitute for learning more for oneself, but it can prevent one from falling for bad advice or failing to get good advice. One acquires real knowledge by means of differentiation and integration. But when one must consult others, one's best protection lies in making sure they are as independent of one another as possible, at least until one is better-equipped to judge the advice itself or, better yet, no longer needs it at all.

-- CAV


Realist Theorist said...

Stack Overflow is one of the best of breed, even though some percentage of questioners want to be spoon-fed and some percentage of responders want points.

Richter says he uses SO when Google throws it up, but he does not contribute. Not sure why he was contributing previously. For points?

Gus Van Horn said...

That's a good -- and amusing -- question I hadn't thought of.