Stack Exchange: crowdsourcing at its best
Have you ever asked a question on the Internet? Probably, yes. What platform did you use for this purpose? There are many options: Google, social networking sites or special Q&A sites like Yahoo! Answers. But can we always trust the answers that come up there? Probably not. However, if you ask a question at Stack Exchange, answers are usually much more trustworthy. Why? That’s what we tried to explore in this review.
Stack Exchange is a network of question and answer websites run by mostly experts and professionals in specific fields of knowledge. Around each site a community is formed which aims to come up with high-quality questions and answers on the relevant topic. It started initially in 2008 as a programmers’ site called Stack Overflow and became quite popular among coders all over the world, but now common users can also take advantage of getting engaged into the Stack Exchange network since there are currently 89 sites ranging from English language to cooking. The sites are completely free to use and asking or answering a question requires nothing more than your email address.
How does it work?
On each site you can see a list of questions and most of them get multiple answers. Users can up or down vote the questions and the answers if they think they are appropriate or not. These votes influence the so-called reputation score that each user has. The more votes you get, the higher your reputation score becomes, and the higher your reputation score, the more you seem as trustworthy and professional on the specific topic. At each site you get a separate score, which seems logical because an expert in programming isn’t likely to be an expert on bicycles for example. Another advantage of getting a higher reputation score is extending the range of privileges for moderating the site. In order to become a full-fledged moderator, you have to be elected by the community of the site. Overall, it is a highly effective crowdsourcing platform which currently has 2.3 million users.
Stack Exchange sites are growing in number, because people can propose new topics, which, if successful, can become their own sites with their own communities. These proposals are made on a separate site called Area 51. In order to get its own site, your proposal needs to go through three phases. The first is the Definition phase, in which users have to come up with at least 40 good questions that embody the scope of the topic. When each of these questions gets at least 10 up votes the proposal enters the Commitment phase, where users digitally sign the proposal if they are interested and want to invest time in it. Finally, after it gets enough commitment, the proposal enters the beta phase in which the site is created to see if it gets used by enough people.
So why would people care to keep investing their time and knowledge to these sites? Firstly, there is an individual motivator since people earn badges and are in to get higher reputation scores. But that would not make sense if there was no one to appreciate their contribution. So Stack Exchange sites are not just sites, they are communities. Since there are communities of people interested in high-quality information in specific fields, each site also has a blog on the topic. Then there are the meta sites for each site, on which the users can discuss whether some questions are on topic or not, what tags should be used etc.
Although they form communities, the Stack Exchange sites are not forums for discussions or platforms for meeting friends. The system is designed to avoid debates. It accepts only concrete questions which suppose concrete answers. That’s why the sites look impersonal and focus only on the quality of the content. The main Stack Exchange blog describes it as: “we’re not here to pat each other on the back and hand out gold stars, much less waggle our fingers at the jackasses – we’re here to share the knowledge of our craft.” However, if you really need to discuss something, you can use the chat function which is accessible only for experienced users.
The central idea which is common for all 89 Stack Exchange sites is the high quality of the content. This is what its co-founder Jeff Atwood tells: “We have a reputation about being jerks about quality, but we want each page we put up to make the internet better, not worse.”
Moreover, it is interesting that this community takes care not only about professionalism but also about friendliness of the answers. In 2012 Stack Exchange declared «The Summer of Love», within which they talked about how to be civil and conducted a research of friendliness. The research showed that 75% of all comments were “nice”.  However, it seems like they were not fully satisfied with these results and still strive for total civility.
Stack Exchange in use
- Most questions get fast and professional answers
- User friendly
- No registration needed
- Not all questions can be asked since the platform is selective about what counts as an acceptable question
- Not all areas of knowledge are present yet
The Stack Exchange sites useful for new media students
 Rogers S. “Week 2 of the Summer of Love: Researching Comments” // Stack Exchange blog, 23.07.2012
Joey de Jong