Thursday, 21 July 2011

Favicon follow-up

I previously wrote about creating a favicon for your Blogger/Blogspot blog and inserting some HTML into the header to display it. I tinkered with my design a few days ago and noticed that the "Design" tab now has a favicon box at the top left of the blog layout. You can upload your favicon there and let Google worry about the rest. I've made this change and commented out the HTML I inserted. It all seems to be working, so, if you can be bothered to relinquish more control to our Google overlords, you can do the same.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

The Overflowing Stack of Exchanges

The Internet is not renowned for bringing out the best in people. Instead of large online communities raising us to the highest common factor, they tend to degenerate into the lowest common factor. Penny Arcade put it crudely: normal person + anonymity + audience = total f---wad. So no surprises that some famous attempts at useful Q&A sites haven't been resounding successes, although other examples of community-driven resources have.

However, against the tide of widespread inanity, it appears that two software developers managed to create a useful system. StackOverflow, a Q&A site for programmers, was launched in August 2008. It quickly spawned similar sites in related sectors. The first was ServerFault, for sysadmins, followed by SuperUser, for general "power users". The software platform on which these sites was based was consolidated into StackExchange. Notably, even Ubuntu launched it's own Q&A site that uses the system, AskUbuntu, alongside Ubuntu 10.10. The StackExchange domain now hosts a variety of "exchanges", with many, many more in various stages of proposal or development.

What's special about this system? From the StackExchange's own description:
After someone asks a question, members of the community propose answers. Others vote on those answers. Very quickly, the answers with the most votes rise to the top. You don’t have to read through a lot of discussion to find the best answer. 

Like topics on Wikipedia, questions and answers on Stack Exchange can be edited. If someone writes the beginning of a great answer, someone else can embellish it and make it even better.
The site is free and open to everyone. You don’t have to register, but if you do, you collect reputation points when people vote up your answers, which will appear next to your name.
So, why does it seem to work so well? By their own reckoning, StackExchanges  combine elements of forums, wikis, blogs and social bookmarking. I think the real key is that positive contribution is rewarded by increased privileges. This screens out a lot of noise and keeps the good contributors coming back. Users who consistently don't provide anything useful will find their answer ranked lower (or even voted down), making it difficult for them to voice themselves elsewhere without moderation. Users who provide solutions that the community endorses find themselves reigning increasingly freely.

Of course, if the community degenerates sufficiently, then they could just grant privilege to negative contributors, but I suspect the level of cohesion in the group must be very large for that to happen. Outsiders would still broadly quell this. Moreover, StackExchanges are used for particular niches of knowledge. It isn't a stage for ordinary interaction: answering questions usefully is the initial attraction. An exchange would never host a subjective discussion on "Which is better, red or blue?" although it would probably succeed  in answering "Why do some people prefer red over blue, and vice versa?" Trolls are better fed in the first case.

My dream, at first, was that this kind of behaviour could be introduced into something like Wikipedia. But on second thought, I'm not really sure how it would work (voting up individual edits seems crazy) and the simpler parts of the system are already there (basic restrictions on articles mean only established contributors can edit). Still, the idea is great: I found what I regard as the best explanations of the Fortran vs C debate on StackOverflow, and I've begun contributing to the new AstronomyExchange myself.

Have you had any experience on a StackExchange? How do you think these ideas could be spread around to clean up the Internet? Or will they go the way of Yahoo! Q&A?