OpenStack Community Anthropology

OSS Watch’s legal officer Rowan Wilson was fortunate enough to see Joel Spolsky of StackExchange speak at Open World Forum about the Cultural Anthropology of StackOverflow.  I wasn’t able to attend, but there’s an longer version of the talk available on YouTube.

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Joel presents some interesting points about how the design of a piece of software affects the way its users behave – this is crucial in this context as the software we’re talking about is a communication tool, so its design affects how a community communicates.

He describes the importance of first impressions

The first impression on StackOverflow is that, if you’re a programmer, you get that these are all programmer questions… If you’re not a programmer you don’t understand a single thing and you leave.

This seems like a hostile and exclusive approach to community management – usually when we talk about building open development communities we talk about being welcoming to ensure we’re not putting off potentially valuable contributions.   However, the goal of StackOverflow and similar StackExchange websites is to get expert answers to difficult questions – people who don’t understand the subject will only create noise, so putting them off from engaging early increases the site’s usefulness.

The talk is an hour long so I’ll leave you to watch the whole thing rather than picking it apart here, but it’s a really good overview of a very successful online support community, and discusses some ideas which might go against the conventional wisdom of community management.