hackNY Summer Series: Joel Spolsky

In this post 2012 hackNY Fellow Jennifer Rubinovitz describes the hackNY Summer Series lecture by Joel Spolsky.

As a current Computer Science student who generally detests required general education courses, it caught me off guard when at a recent hackNY talk at Fog Creek, Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Stackexchange and founder of Fogcreek (www.joelonsoftware.com/), told us that a Cultural Anthropology class was one of the most important classes he ever took. “Anthropology is the academic study of humanity”, says old reliable Wikipedia. Cultural Anthropology is the study of how different people in different places represent their experiences differently. After hearing Joel talk about keeping anthropological ideas in mind to integrate features that would foster the culture he sought at Stack Exchange, I highly agree that knowledge of Cultural Anthropology is extremely helpful in building a community oriented startup.

Before founding Stack Exchange, Spolsky took a look around at the competition in the Q&A space. Looking at sites like Yahoo Answers, WikiAnswers, and Askville, he quickly realized that while these sites received large amounts of traffic, the users were 12 year old girls asking for homework help and about what to wear to prom. With StackExchange, Joel sought to create a community of experts. In retrospect, getting a bunch of experts together to generate free content for you is quite a feat. Joel used his knowledge of anthropology in their product to repel outsiders and attract experts in their chosen field by carefully curating their first impression along with features that promote their chosen voting, government, and law.

This harkens back to the beginning of email, where the tiniest product decision caused radically different discussions. Joel cited Usenet as an example. At the time, storage was expensive, so emails were only stored on the receiver’s computer. Usenet made the decision to have the email the sender is responding to quoted in their message. The culture of Usenet changed as a result: Usenet users would often respond paragraph by paragraph to their sender and have relatively sophisticated discussions.

If you’re a hacker, you probably will not come to this realization looking at StackOverflow, but look at another StackExchange outside of your area of expertise (Joel showed us the Judaism StackExchange) you will quickly learn that every StackExchange takes careful measures in their product to repel outsiders and attract experts in their chosen field by carefully curating their first impression. I sadly do not know many people, be it 12 year old girls or classmates, who have an interest in RC4 Keylength Limits (http://crypto.stackexchange.com/questions/3137/rc4-keylength-limits) or  JSONP and Doctype Errors (http://stackoverflow.com/questions/11447814/jsonp-and-doctype-errors).

StackExchange uses laws, government, and voting to keep the content quality high. I do not know of anyone who has actually read the rules of StackExchange (is there even a page of them?), but StackExchange simply rewards behaviors they appreciate with points and badges to positively reinforce behavior that contributes positively to the culture of expert discussions they desire. Spolsky explained the government structure of StackExchange: StackExchanges have “meta” websites where the site itself is discussed using the Q&A approach of StackExchange. Moderators are voted on during elections and get their own chatrooms.  At the time of its implementation on StackExchange, voting as a form of self-moderation was incredibly new, and even today it helps user sort through posts and helps keep the content at a high quality.

So many startups today are powered by user content, but many founders underestimate the amount of curation of said content they must do through the product itself. Whereas hiring an expert can cost thousands of dollars,  Joel Spolsky and his cofounder Jeff Attwood (www.codinghorror.com/) (who kept trying to Skype Spolsky during the talk much to our geeky pleasure) were able to create a community where questions are answered by experts for free within seconds of posting. When you decide the type of user you want on your site, you should really put thought into the features of the site that will keep and maintain the ideal user, and repel the unwanted user.

TLDR; Use the product to facilitate a community that your desired users want to join.