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Why Stack Exchange Didn’t Work

10:33 am

First off, let me start by saying that I deeply respect the work that Joel Spolsky and his team have done. I think Stack Overflow is an incredibly high quality Q&A community, and his work has helped the hacker community in myriad ways.

This post is not meant to be an attack on his team or product, but rather an exploration of why their white-label Q&A product didn’t take off. (n.b., Stack Exchange as discussed here is strictly referring “Stack Exchange 1.0” not their new, and very different, 2.0 product).

So, why didn’t Stack Exchange work?

Problem 1: It was a standalone site

Imagine you have a store that sells wine, and you want your users to have a wine Q&A to increase engagement and traffic. Using Stack Exchange, you would have to create a different wine Q&A site, separate from your wine community (and store). That decision ultimately limited the scope of the customers who could be interested.

This is the fundamental problem with their approach. A create-your-own Q&A site could either work in conjunction with an existing site or be standalone. The standalone option is appealing because it’s simple and straightforward, and it works great for Stack Overflow (not to mention Fluther). Avoiding all the nuance of integration certainly makes sense.

However, working with an existing site is more compelling for most people who want a Q&A site. Many of them (and arguably those most likely to succeed) have already built other web properties and communities, and are looking to expand and enrich them rather than just build something from scratch.

Problem 2: Tech-centric UI

The look and feel of Stack Overflow is clean and efficient, and clearly has been a success. But it definitely feels like a programmer’s site.

The boxes, the prominence of big numbers and stats–it’s all very appealing to a hacker, but not necessarily to a someone interested in gardening or parenting. Every time I saw a Stack Exchange site, that Stack Overflow design leaped out. It just felt like a programmer site with lipstick on.

Because of that strong and unique UI, the Stack Overflow brand always felt more prominent than that community itself, which creates a serious issue of identity.

Problem 3: Hard to avoid the ghost town

Photo by coda

Starting a new Q&A site is hard. It takes a lot of time and effort to incubate a community from a few active users into something cohesive. If your first users feel like they’re asking questions to an empty room, it’s tricky to get them to stick around. It’s difficult to overcome this chicken and egg problem, and Stack Exchange didn’t address that.

These problems are all related. The Stack Exchange approach was basically to create standalone, isolated silos of questions and answers from scratch that live without support of existing communities. Impressively, though, Joel and his team quickly recognized that it wasn’t working and has pivoted into a totally different approach that I suspect will work much better for them.

When you look at Stack Exchange evolution, it’s tempting to ask, “could there be another way?”

Could you have your own Q&A site that uses your existing community and tightly integrates into your site?

We’re excited to say we’re working on just such a Q&A product, with a very different and integrated approach.

Have a community and interested in learning more? Send me an email at