Stack Overflow’s Motivation Engine

You’ve spent plenty of time on Stack Overflow. Google loves it. Several visits per day? But unless you’re one who answers questions there, you’re probably not aware of how they get so much participation.

I’ve recently been answering questions on Stack Overflow. Well, I had to in order to be able to do things like upvoting. Aren’t we obligated to upvote when someone has taken the time to teach us something valuable? And that was the first hook. But it turns out that SO has a very sophisticated set of motivators to keep you participating …​ frequently!

What first puzzled me was how so many other users there had such high reputation. You might think that 1,000 points came from answering 1,000 questions. But it’s an elaborate point system. You feel yourself growing points at a fairly rapid clip. It would sure be nice to have a k (thousand) next to your name!

Get Busy!

You eventually realize that you’re never going to be the first to answer a question unless you’re tuned into a near real-time picture of what’s happening with your tags of interest. The best way to earn points is to be the first to answer and get your answer accepted. So you subscribe to be updated via email.

Every site requires another set of reputation. You’ll quickly find yourself trying to answer questions on other Stack Exchange sites.

Way More than Badges

Sure, you earn badges. But you have to do more and more to earn the next type of badge. You even have your “next badge” dangled from your profile. The badges are more like abilities. And there are three categories of them: bronze, silver, and gold. It’s pretty challenging to get even a silver.

Each badge is documented. You know what you have to do to earn the archaeologist badge: edit some old posts.

You’re given a pleasant surprise when they tell you that they’ve removed ads since you’re such a great participant.

Ultimately, people are on SO to prove their worth and get hired. So the

Not Social

It’s pretty interesting that there is no notion of “following”. You can’t even “message” someone.

Gaming It

I’m not going to bother trying to game this, because I don’t (think) I care too much about my reputation points. But it can be done. I see people asking questions that they shortly thereafter answer themselves.

I suppose you could also create a dummy account that spends a lot of its time upvoting your real posts.