Sunday, November 15, 2009

How to get a reputation on StackOverflow

A little while ago, I noticed that people were posting questions about Apache CXF on stackoverflow.com. It's easy enough to answer questions, but I wanted more. I wanted to be able to herd the sheep: clean up tags, edit confused questions, and generally improve the quality of the resulting knowledge base. This would require a significant store of reputation, in StackOverflow parlance, so I set out to accumulate it.

It doesn't take much observation of the site to learn that reputation comes from answering questions. Sure, if you ask really good questions, people will vote them up and your reputation will advance. However, most questions don't get upvoted, and who has time to sit around thinking of questions?

But it's not enough to answer questions. Adding the 3rd or 4th answer to a question is not going to get you votes, and votes are what you need. You have to get in there and be one of the first two to post a concise, helpful, answer.

Visiting the site, I found that it was not so easy to take a timely snipe at questions I could answer. The good candidates were buried in the giant mass of questions on subjects where I knew nothing, cared less, or both.

The first solution lept out at me: set up some 'interesting tags'. Then click on the tab that shows only unanswered questions in those tags. Seemed simple.

It didn't work. That tab is nearly entirely populated by questions that have three or four answers. They are still there because no one voted for, or accepted, any of them. In theory, that means that these are mediocre answers, and I could add a superior answer and get some votes.

No such luck. Usually, these are perfectly sensible answers. It seems as if there are not enough site users who bother to vote, and nowhere near enough question-posters who bother to accept answers. The result is usually an impenetrable clutter.

That led me to my second strategy. I started collecting a very large set of 'ignored tags'. To filter out what I didn't want to see, I had to add many, many, tags. Why? StackOverflow uses a flat taxonomy. To avoid seeing Visual Studio questions, you need to exclude about 10 different tags for 10 different versions or aspects of Visual Studio. Repeat this for all the other subjects of disinterest, and soon enough you, like I, will have a long list of ignored tags.

The reward for this labor is that the 'recent' tab under the unanswered questions is suddenly useful. Now, the most recent questions of possible interest appear at the top of the page, just waiting for a quick answer.

Sure enough, this allowed me to pile up over 500 points of reputation in a few days of visiting the site at spare moments.

My points are nothing like evenly distributed over my answers. I posted plenty of answers that collected no votes, and thus no reputation. Many got a vote or two. The big winners were two very simple answers to simple questions: A brief lesson on logarithms and quick reminder of an option to the linux mkdir command.

Go figure!

Anyhow, I've now got the privilege of fixing bad tags, and if this keeps up, I can look forward to permission to edit other people's questions.

One final hint: stay away from meta.stackoverflow.com, unless you are suffering from insomnia or have an urge to count the angels dancing on Zippy.

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