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On Q&A And Broken Windows

Posted on | July 13, 2010 | No Comments

Have you ever driven through a bad neighborhood with lots of rubbish blowing about and felt less guilty than you would otherwise by throwing a banana peel out of your car window? Perhaps an empty soda can? If you have, you’ve demonstrated what we call the broken window theory. Not surprisingly, the theory also applies to digital real estate, if you can accept that term long enough to finish this brief essay.

When most people get in their cars, they have every intention of arriving at a specific place in a certain amount of time. Some people just get bored and go for a drive. The Internet works this way as well, you might boot up your computer and go straight to e-mail, or wander around a bit. In either metaphor, both people have equal chances of driving through the same ‘digital’ neighborhoods.

I’m digressing into metaphors, so lets get to the point. One of the broadest reasons people use the Internet is to gain some kind of knowledge, though some may not realize that hidden intention when they start. If you want knowledge, its most conveniently obtained by asking a question. Q&A sites help ensure that your natural “how do I ...” question works in search engines, by providing results that they can index.

If I go to Stack Overflow, I find lots of very interesting and specific programming questions. If I go to Super User, I find lots of questions related to using computers in general. If I go to Yahoo Answers, I find questions about how to gas baby kittens1, amongst mostly interesting and less dramatic questions. In the spirit of Q&A, Why, oh why can a site called ‘yahooanswerfail’ exist? Because of broken windows. If people see one shocking or perhaps funny question, or guidelines that say ‘ask anything!’, people will do just that. This means, anyone driving on Yahoo Answer Ave, might be inclined to chuck a banana peel and actually feel good about doing so. Watch out for drunk drivers!

I’ll spare the speeches about making the Internet a better place. Even though I’ve taken many liberties with metaphors, the Internet is not a place, is a vast network of computers. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but all of those ‘visitors’ that you see in your stats are in fact just people who also have computers that connected to your web server. We’re still firmly rooted in the real world, and the dynamics of human behavior very much apply. I’ll also spare the ‘turning usenet on its head’ speech, I don’t recollect usenet ever having a head to begin with.

What remains is that Q&A does seem to be the preferred way of asking people to share their knowledge, who would have though that would ever be the case? If you run a site that facilitates Q&A, you better make sure to fix any windows that break in order to avoid moderation hell, or worse, deterring real experts from joining in.

Incidentally, a new Q&A site is emerging that most of you would probably enjoy using. It is not yet out of private beta, but soon will be. Keep tabs on it here, also check out (most importantly) what is and is not on topic there.

1 No kittens were harmed in the creation of this blog post. I’m not sure what the kitten-gassing lady ended up doing, I’m just quite sure that I don’t want to know :) If kittengassing.com ever emerges, you can be quite sure that Stack Exchange had nothing to do with it. That’s exactly why I participate. I selected this excerpt over sister screwing, brother screwing, mother screwing .. FATHER SCREWING (Arlo Guthrie anyone?) There are plenty of sites to have some fun, but very few to get the opinions of experts. I don’t think I want to meet a father-raping expert (Yahoo has some if that’s your thing), if its all the same to you?

In case you did not notice, that’s the end of 1, go on now, read something else.

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