When Stack Overflow was created in 2008 as a forum for questions about computer programming, there was no need to worry about understanding the community. Co-founders Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood had long and storied histories working in the software industry. But as the Stack Overflow blossomed into Stack Exchange, a group of more than 70 sites covering topics from photography to parenting to cooking, they found that groups of humans do not respond well to being managed by an algorithm.
Everyone knows the drill. A community springs up online, leaders naturally emerge, and their commitment earns them the right to become moderators. But over time whatever small biases these folks bring with them are amplified in the minds of new users, until the inevitable charges of fascism begin to fly and a full-on flame war breaks out.
Is it possible to find a formula for combating this decline? In a row of two desks at the far end of the Stack Exchange office, just off the ping pong table, sits the CHAOS team (Cheerful Helpful Advocates of Stack), a group of community managers who spend their days experimenting in the laboratory of human interaction. “We’re trying to derive some universal principles about how to grow a community on the internet that can govern itself and regenerate after a conflict,” said CHAOS member Abby Miller. “So far we’ve learned that there are no universal principles.”
An Anthropology major, a former staffer for Wizard magazine and comic convention veteran, these are the kind of talents Stack Exchange was looking for when it formed CHAOS. Their job is to ensure that the torrid growth at Stack Exchange leads to lasting sites that don’t rise and fall as Myspace, Digg and so many other social services have in recent years.
When the parenting exchange launched, there were brutal fights going on about topics like spanking and co-sleeping. Questions were being closed for being even slightly off topic or just too inflammatory. “We had to find ways to channel that controversy into something productive,” said CHAOS member Aarthi Devanathan.
Slowly, through the meta section, where users go to discuss the purpose and scope of each Stack Exchange, two canonical opinions emerged on the parenting site. As Anil Dash pointed out, this came from MetaTalk approach on Metafilter, a site Joel Spolsky knew and loved. “We taught the users that it was alright to disagree, and gave them a set of arguments they could reference without every thread degenerating into a fight,” Ms. Devanathan concluded.
As social interaction comes to underpin most every site on the web, these skills are becoming widely sought after. “What we are learning is that no two sites are the same,” said Joel Spolsky, preparing espresso for his staffers during the team lunch. “We don’t want Stack Exchange to become Yahoo, where the fitness channel is exactly the same template as the automobile channel, just a different subject.”
A lot of venture capitalists are mulling over this same problem. “Online communities require both software and people. Sometimes the software part is the easier part,” writes Fred Wilson. “Modern community building isn’t easy but if there is one thing the Internet has taught me over the past 15 years, large engaged communities are incredible powerful things, both commercially and socially. Building them is important and ultimately very valuable work.”
Fred Wilson refers to himself as the bartender on his blog, AVC. Mr. Spolsky uses a similar metaphor to describe CHAOS. “This job will be sort of like being a community organizer at a non-profit. It combines elements of marketing, PR, and sales, but it’s really something different. I don’t expect that there are a lot of people out there who already kn0w how to do this well, so I’m going to train them, personally.” The team has grown from two people to eight agents in the last few months. “Everyone who joins the program (and survives for a year) will come out with an almost supernatural ability to take a dead, lifeless site on the internet and make it into the hottest bar in town. That’s a skill worth learning for the 21st century,” Mr. Spolsky concluded.