Questions and Answers

on January 21, 2010, 1:21 am

I am a strong believer in the importance of constantly exercising and expanding my skillset as a programmer. I think it is pretty common that the range of tasks encounted during a normal work day will not nessasarily provide the breadth of problem domains to satisfy this desire. So I have often found myself embarking on grand, sometimes fataly flawed, personal projects.

Over the past few months, I found a new outlet for these random bursts of creativity:

Stack Overflow

Stack Overflow is a programming Q & A site that's free. Free to ask questions, free to answer questions, free to read, free to index, built with plain old HTML, no fake rot13 text on the home page, no scammy google-cloaking tactics, no salespeople, no JavaScript windows dropping down in front of the answer asking for $12.95 to go away. You can register if you want to collect karma and win valuable flair that will appear next to your name, but otherwise, it's just free. And fast. Very, very fast.

Yes! Yes, I want to win valuable flair. Badges are shiney and precious and I want them. These guys certainly know their demographic. There are a few things about Stack Overflow that I find ridiculously addictive:

  • Badges - It's slightly embarressing but apparently I have a weakness for U+25CF.
  • A couple of points of virtual self validation - I have a history of performing meaningless tasks to accrue self worth in arbitrary point systems. Stack Overflow taps right into that insanity and thankfully generates some positive behavior.
  • Inherent Value - Investigating and solving programming problems is very good practice. When this practice adds to a large pool of useful answers, the value here is undeniable.
  • I like to write - I don't think I am particularly good at it, but I think the only way to get better is to do it a lot. Stack Overflow provides a peer reviewed testing ground for clear expression. I can practice my writing without having to resort to inane, self indulgent Blog posts like this one.

So I enjoy answering programming questions. What I didn't realise was that this, primarily ego driven, exercise translates to other domains. The 'How is Babby Formed' phenomena warned me away from looking at Yahoo Answers, but there are some great competitors in this space:


Mahalo is a human-powered search engine dedicated to help people easily find information and resources they can trust.

Mahalo was created as the Human Powered Search Engine. Basically thousands of user contributed pages tied to traditional Google text, image and video search results. Each page is ad supported and a percentage of the revenue is paid to the page author in Mahalo's virtual currency (which can be eventually be converted to US dollars).

In the last few months Mahalo has added Q&A to this core set of functionality. Users can ask questions on any topic and Mahalo members can answer those questions to earn points and Mahalo dollars. As with any Q&A system that is open to questions on any topic, there is a certain amount of noise, but in general the questions are reasonably good. I don't find the virtual currency very compelling but, as with Stack Overflow, I am a sucker for earning points.


Aardvark was conceived as the first Social Search engine: a way to find people, not web pages, that have specific information.

Aardvark is based on the premise that your social network is a great place to start to find answers to your questions. Without a points system, or indeed any motivation outside altruism, I haven't felt the same compulsion to answer questions. I have found it very useful for finding answers. Because Aardvark actively scans your network and pings other users for answers to your questions, if an answer can be found, it generally finds it very quickly.

I don't really understand what motivates the helpful people who have promptly answered some of my Aardvark questions, but I am very grateful that the service exists. I wonder about its longevity, but hope that its success continues.

Stack Exchange

With the success of Stack Overflow it made perfect sense for Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood (the co-founders) to package up the engine and the Knowledge Exchange paradigm as a product. Stack Exchange is that product, and based on the considerable list of Stack Exchange powered sites, it looks like it has been a big success.

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