Now and then I browse StackOverflow hoping to be able to pick up a few easy questions and help some new developers. My activity on StackOverflow is sporadic, I browse a few times over a few days then a few months go by before I take another look. Why does my activity have gaps of sometimes months between activity? I haven’t thought about it before but I think I get disheartened by the experience. You invest time coming up with an appropriate answer and then even on a question where your answer is the only answer, the original poster doesn’t even bother to vote up your answer let alone select it as the best answer. More often that not, a new user with a rep of 1 presumably gets the answer they were looking for then disappears.
My motivation is more to provide help rather than earn more rep, but still, the rep system is the only tangible reward you get for participation, sometimes it just doesn’t feel worthwhile when you get nothing in return.
Here’s the other thing I’ve noticed recently: the majority of new questions asked rarely meet the requirements for acceptable questions you can ask, or are asked in a way that doesn’t meet the criteria of a good question. As a result, most new questions are downvoted and closed. That’s sad. Taking a quick look at the 10 most recent new questions tagged ‘Java’ right now and their current votes:
- -1, no answers
- -1 : closed, no answers
- -4 : closed, no answers
- -4, no answers
- 0 with 1 answer
- -1 : no answers
- -3 : closed, no answers
- 0 : 1 answer
- 0 : no answers
- 0 : no answers
Out of these 10:
- 3 were already closed as not meeting the guidelines,
- 3 have downvotes and will likely be closed unless they can be edited to meet guidelines,
- 2 have no votes and 1 answer,
- 2 no votes no answers.
This is pretty typical most days that I take a quick browse. Since I have Review Queue privs on new posts, out of maybe 3 out of 5 new questions I review I add comments to refer to the ‘what can I ask‘ and ‘how to ask‘ faqs, because most new questions are most obviously not following the guidelines.
Which brings me to my other observation which is pretty surprising when you think about it:
Of over 15 million registered users, users that actually respond to questions either by posting answers, comments, voting on questions or basically any interaction with the site that keeps it running in any useful way is a tiny percent of the total number of users. Look at the current leaderboard stats for all time:
You get a rep of 1 just for creating an account. This doesn’t even include users that interact with the site, searching for answer to questions etc when not even logged on or those not registered. Registered users at the lowest level of rep on the site between 1 and 199 are about 88% of the total registered users. Users with rep of 200 and above are about 12%.
This means the users that are actually providing answers to questions, editing questions/answers and asking clarifying questions are only 12% of the community’s users. That’s surprisingly low when you think the whole purpose of the StackOverflow site is to ask a question and (hopefully) get a useful answer.
Don’t get me wrong. I love StackOverflow. It’s a frequently used tool in my daily workflow as a developer and I’ve used it for years, as have many if not all developers everywhere. It’s just curious when you look at the numbers that the success of the site relies on the volunteer community of such a few users prepared to give back, where the largest percentage of users are those coming to the site with questions.