Is a License Too Far for Stack Overflow?

Short answer:

No, because doesn’t use technology licensed from Stack Overflow. Sorry. I got this one completely, completely wrong. D’oh.

Long answer:

This post was originally inspired by I now understand, thanks to an extremely informative comment from one of the developers, that doesn’t actually run on Stack Exchange. It looks and feels very similar, but is in fact a completely separate codebase built by the guys at using Ruby on Rails.

This post is therefore based on completely incorrect assumptions. I’ve struck-out the bits that are actually factually incorrect, although my concerns about fragmenting the user based remain valid – even more so since I discovered that and are both Stack Exchange sites - but clearly has nothing to do with it, and in fact, their platform offers a lot of design-centric tools that Stack Overflow doesn’t.

There’s also this disucussion at that addresses a lot of the same concerns.


The derelict Parachute Drop ride at Coney Island.(Note: In this post, where I say Stack Overflow I’m referring to the website, and where I say StackOverflow LLC, I’m talking about the company  behind it.)

I’ve been using since it was in beta, and I love it. I ask questions. I answer questions. I hang out and read and comment and vote and generally find the whole thing a hugely rewarding experience. I think it works for two reasons.

First, the technology platform (now available as Stack Exchange – more on this in a moment) is innovative, usable and packed with great ideas.

Second, by actively engaging with people who followed Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky’s blogs, they gathered exactly the right audience to breathe life into their product. Stack Overflow launched with a committed, dedicated community of experts already in place. They created a forum where people like Jon Skeet will donate endless hours of their time for nothing more than kudos and badges. (I bet Jon’s employers are wishing they’d thought of that…)

Here’s a few choice quotes from Joel Spolsky’s column I’m referring to (my emphasis)

“Between our two blogs, we felt we could generate the critical mass it would take to make the site work.

“I started a business with the objective of building a big audience, which we would figure out how to monetize later.”

“we promised the audience that the site would always be free and open to the public, and that we would never add flashing punch-the-monkey ads or pop-up windows.”

Now this is the web, where “monetize” usually means “slap advertising all over everything.” – but when Stack Overflow introduced advertising, they were sympathetic and responsive to users’ feedback, and quickly evolved an advertising model that’s elegant, unobtrusive and complements the ethos of the site. The Woot! badge was clever. The tiny Adobe logo on tags like flex and actionscript was really clever – possibly the best use of targeted advertising I’ve seen.

Before long, non-programmers were asking how they could get a slice of the Stack Overflow goodness, and so – for systems admin questions – and – for general IT enthusiasts – were born. That clearly worked, so they set up Stack Exchange, to license the platform to third parties, and soon there was (questions about parenthood), Epic Advice (questions about World of Warcraft), Ask Recipe Labs (cooking and food), Math Overflow (for mathematicians), and various other Stack Exchange sites covering video, photography, car maintenance – all sorts.

A few days ago, I stumbled across – a Stack Exchange site for HTML/CSS questions, web design and e-mail design – and some unsettling questions popped into my head.

1. Where am I supposed to ask my jQuery questions now?

I work on everything from T-SQL to a very occasional bit of Photoshop. There is a huge amount of crossover between HTML, CSS, Javascript, AJAX, and web server platforms and their various view/markup engines. Here’s the all-time most popular 20 tags on Stack Overflow, as of 20th October 2009:

1 c# 43,860
2 .net 24,590
3 java 22,924
4 20,678
5 php 16,797
6 javascript 16,363
7 c++ 15,462
8 python 11,639
9 jquery 11,287
10 sql 10,910
11 iphone 9,686
12 sql-server 9,165
13 html 7,932
14 mysql 7,794
15 6,532
16 windows 6,425
17 wpf 6,370
18 ruby-on-rails 6,095
19 c 6,071
20 css 5,849

The highlighted rows are all Web client technologies – and that ignores all the questions that get tagged as PHP, ASP.NET or Ruby on Rails but actually turn out to involve HTML, CSS or jQuery once the experts have had a look at them. There’s clearly a thriving community of web designers and developers already signed up to Stack Overflow. Should we now all be asking CSS questions on instead of using Stack Overflow? I have no idea! 

I realize there are HTML / CSS gurus out there who aren’t currently using Stack Overflow because they think it’s just for programmers – but wouldn’t it be better if Stack Overflow was looking at ways to attract that expertise, rather than renting them a walled garden of their own?  Getting designers and coders to communicate is hard enough at the best of times, and giving them their own “definitive” knowledge-exchange resources isn’t going to help.

2. What Does This Mean For The Stack Overflow Community?

Shortly after discovering, I tweeted something daft about “stackoverflow failed as a business”, which elicited this response from one of the guys at Fog Creek… he’s absolutely right, of course. StackOverflow LLC is clearly doing just fine – their product is being enthusiastically received, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to their DevDays event later this month.

However, I think the success of StackOverflow LLC is potentially coming at a cost to – the site and the community that surrounds it – and in that respect, I believe that the single, definitive, free site that they originally launched last year has failed to fulfil its potential as a revenue stream.

The bridge in Central Park.The decision to license Stack Exchange to sites who are directly competing for mindshare with Stack Overflow’s “critical mass” worries me, because it suggests that StackOverflow LLC is now calling the shots instead of, and making decisions that are financially astute but potentially deleterious to the existing user base.

They are entitled to do this, of course. It’s their site, and I’m extremely grateful that I get to use it for free.

What’s ironic is that the worst case scenario here - for me, for, and for the developer community at large - is that is wildly successful, becomes the de facto resource for HTML/CSS questions on the internet, generates a healthy revenue stream of its own, and StackOverflow LLC does quite nicely out of the deal. The format is copied by other technology sites, and soon there’s a site for SQL, a site for Java, a site for WinForms, a site for PHP… is no longer the definitive resource for programming questions, and we, the users, are back to using Google to trawl a dozen different forum sites looking for answers, and cross-posting our questions to half-a-dozen different sites in the hope that one of them might elicit a response. It’ll be just like 2006 all over again.

OK, So What Would I Have Done Instead?

Fortitude, the stone lion outside the New York Public is trying to compete with an established market leader, by licensing that leader’s technology, in a market where the leader has a year’s head start and controls the technology platform. That’s like trying to open a BMW dealership in a town where there’s already a BMW factory outlet, run by two guys everyone knows and loves, whose reputation for service and maintenance is second to none. It has to fail… right? [1]

But – I can appreciate what they’re trying to do. I appreciate that StackOverflow LLC is not a charity, and I appreciate why the folks behind think there’s a niche for an SO-style site focusing on designers.

The key to Stack Overflow’s success isn’t the catchy domain name, or that fetching orange branding. The key is the information and the people - I see no technical reason why something like couldn’t be licensed as a front-end product that’s integrated with the same database and the same user community as Stack Overflow. Modify the back-end code so that users who sign up at get certain filters applied. Use a different web address, a different design, maybe just include questions tagged with html, css, jquery and javascript to start with, so new users see content that’s more immediately relevant to their interests - but when they search or ask a question, they’re getting the full benefit of Stack Overflow’s huge community of loyal experts – not to mention the tens of thousands of accepted answers already in the Stack Overflow database.

How about it?,,… each a finely-tuned filtered view onto a single, authoritative information resource for programming questions, from assembler up to CSS sprites. That has to be better than the gradual ghettoization and eventual fragmentation of a thriving community, yes?

Stop Press: Someone just pointed me at That’s – yep, you guessed it – a Stack Exchange site for SQL questions. As if having to choose between and wasn’t bad enough. Does anyone else think this is getting a bit silly?

[1] Of course, it’s entirely possible that Joel & the gang know this, and are quite happy to take $129 a month off the folks at whilst they work this out for themselves...