(One of my Montana Arts Council State of the Arts Newspaper Tech Talk Columns)
The Internet has been full of discussion forums from the very beginning, and in some ways, for better or for worse. Some of us remember the old bulletin boards you could dial into with a modem and chat; nowadays, we are probably all familiar with the discussion sections of online newspapers and media, as well as Facebook and Twitter timelines. The “for better or for worse” part is obvious; obnoxious users and people using fake identities and bad information are common, because on the Internet, it still can be the wild west.
But a paradigm shift of online forums came in 2008, and the result has been changing Internet discussion since. That was the year when two programmers started Stack Overflow, a discussion site for programmers with questions looking for answers. But the two coders had a different idea: Stack Overflow would be free (unlike commercial programming forums of the time), anyone could join and anyone could ask questions and answer anyone else’s questions. A sense of community was encouraged because users could gain reputation – kind of like a computer game keeping score – by the amount of effort they put into their quality questions that had broad appeal and the accurate answers they added to the site. The goal of Stack Overflow was to be a collection of the best programming questions and answers available, for free, for everyone.
“Stack Overflow” is sort of an inside, geeky joke; it refers to an error message that is thrown when too much data is given to a process. But Stack Overflow took off, and after a few stumbles, the company Stack Exchange grew out of the original site. Now Stack Exchange has nearly 200 sites that operate on the same principle, covering more computer programming languages, of course, but there are Stack Exchange sites on cooking, art, music, the bible, Spanish, pets, parenting, literature, vegetarianism, and on and on. See the full list at https://stackexchange.com/sites
Each Stack Exchange site lets users post questions and add and improve answers. Browse the answers, and if you don’t find what you’re looking for, sign up and ask a question. If you do find an answer, but can improve it, you can do that. As a site member, you get to vote on both answers and questions, and this leads to a sense of quality; the good stuff gets voted up, the useless voted down and sometimes deleted. The more you participate – ask questions, add answers and vote – the more points you gain, and this gives you a site “reputation” and can lead to more site privileges. This kind of community leads to the overall Stack Exchange goal of the best questions and answers and information on your topic on the Internet, the same Internet that has so much information and discussion that is sketchy.