StackOverflow (aka “SO”) is the best site on the net for asking and answering questions about programming. Not about the job of programming (there is another site in the same family) but specific problems in “how do I do this” in programming. One of the ways it became good and stays good is that when you ask or answer a question, other people can vote your question or answer up (or down) and you gain (or lose) “reputation” points. (In the early days of the site, I tried to get people to call them “XP” as we called experience points back when I played Dungeons and Dragons, but to no avail.) The points aren’t good for anything in the real world (except they’ve sent me a couple of free t-shirts because of my work there), but we geeks prize being ranked, and so getting more reputation is a desirable thing. Plus you get some more rights and privileges at certain XP levels.
Because I was active in the beta of SO, and it was in beta at a time when I was bored out of my mind at work, I have pretty high reputation. In the first year of the site, I was in the top 15 users, and I think I’m still in the top 150 or so. But when I look over my past contributions, I see a bit of a pattern – most of my points come from one of two types of responses: “Fastest Gun In the West” (FGITW), where I was the first person to answer a fairly trivial problem like “how do I count how many items in an array in perl” and “Crusty Old Guy Imparting His Wisdom To the Newbies” where I try to impart some of what I’ve learned in over 25 years of working in good places and bad places and places that leave you so bored you spend all your time on SO. There aren’t enough of my answers where I actually took some time and effort to research something, write some example code and test it, or generally did something that somebody else couldn’t have done just as well. And in a way, I feel like it’s almost too late to change that – there are so many people on SO answering questions that unless you have something really specific where you just solved a very difficult problem you were having on something very obscure, somebody else is going to have the same answer as you.
So these days I try to resist the urge to answer the FGITW type questions. Instead I’ll put a comment after the question, and I’ll wait for the first couple of answers and see if I have anything to add, either in comments on the answers or by directly editing them (one of the privileges of high XP I mentioned earlier). I don’t care if I get points for them any more, I don’t want points for those sorts of answers. The other thing I do a lot of on the site these days is “patrolling” – looking for spam, stupid questions, joke answers, and the like, and voting to close them, voting them down or flagging them as spam or abuse, etc. I have considered running for the position of community moderator a few times, but in the last couple of elections they’ve demanded that you have done certain things on the Meta site, and I hate that place.
But of course, now that I’m trying to resist the urge to get meaningless XP for FGITW, I feel like everybody should have had the same revelation at the same time as me, so I have to resist the urge to tell people off for doing the same thing. I was actually prompted to make this blog post because I looked at a question a few hours ago, recognized it as a FGITW type question, and when I waited for answers, discovered that the first two were people like me, with +50K in XP. Hey, idiots, we know you’re smart, how about letting somebody who needs some XP have those points and do something to improve the site! It seems so obvious now that I’ve had the epiphany.