Community of Personality

Software developers have learned that when you need assistance, there are places you can turn online. If you've got a C++ question, maybe you'll visit the comp.lang.c++ newsgroup. For Java questions, the Java Lobby web site is a popular resource.

These are "communities of interest". People with deep interest in the topic (we call them experts) gather there. They can be extraordinarily powerful resources, because you have so many qualified people congregating in one place. Just be sure you follow the guidelines of the community and don't do something stupid (like ask an FAQ), and you may be able to get some quality assistance.

This week, a new web site called Stack Overflow was launched. It is intended to be a resource to help developers with their questions, but it's different from those other resources.

Stack Overflow was founded by two superstars of the software developer world—or, at least, the world of people who blog about software development. Joel Spolsky blogs at Joel on Software. Jeff Atwood blogs at Coding Horror.

It is attracting people who follow Joel and Jeff on their respective weblogs. Thus we have a gathering of developers who are not united by their interest in a particular language or library or some other facility. They are united by their interest in what Joel and Jeff have to say.

That's not a community of interest. That's a community of personality.

The problem is, I'm not sure that's a compelling reason for experts to come and hang around. In the traditional community of interest, the experts come to meet with their peers. It just so happens that they are gracious and willing to help, so, as a side effect, newbies get their questions answered. I don't know how Stack Overflow will attract and keep those people. That could be a concern, because without the experts you have questioners without answerers. Or, at least, without quality answerers.

I'm not saying this to slag on Joel and Jeff. They are high profile developers, so this is a completely viable launch strategy. Plus, the facilities needed to ask and answer a C++ question aren't fundamentally different than those needed to ask about CSS. If they can retain qualified experts, then Stack Overflow could be successful in the long term.

But I don't know how they can do that. There needs to be some way for them to pivot their strategy from harnessing the interest generated by initial curiosity, to providing a genuine reason for developers to stick around. If the only thing offered is the opportunity to answer newbie questions, it's hard to imagine the experts won't get bored and move on.