Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Is doctype.com a License Too Far for Stack Overflow?

Short answer:

No, because doctype.com 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 doctype.com. I now understand, thanks to an extremely informative comment from one of the doctype.com developers, that doctype.com 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 doctype.com 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 ask.sqlteam.com and ask.sqlservercentral.com are both Stack Exchange sites - but clearly doctype.com 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 meta.stackoverflow.com 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 stackoverflow.com 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 Inc.com 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 serverfault.com – for systems admin questions – and superuser.com – 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 moms4mom.com (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 doctype.com – 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 asp.net 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 asp.net-mvc 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 doctype.com 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 doctype.com, 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 stackoverflow.com – 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 stackoverflow.com, 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 stackoverflow.com, and for the developer community at large - is that doctype.com 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… stackoverflow.com 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 Library.doctype.com 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 doctype.com 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 doctype.com 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 doctype.com 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? doctype.stackoverflow.com, javaguru.stackoverflow.com, aspnetmvc.stackoverflow.com… 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 ask.sqlservercentral.com. That’s – yep, you guessed it – a Stack Exchange site for SQL questions. As if having to choose between stackoverflow.com and serverfault.com 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 doctype.com whilst they work this out for themselves...


David Smalley said...

Hi Dylan,

I'm the lead developer behind Doctype.

I just thought I should leave a comment on this post as it does seem you've got your wires crossed a bit and formed an opinion based on an incorrect premise.

Probably the first, most important point is that Doctype is its entire own separate codebase in no way related to Stackoverflow. Our association with Stackoverflow is purely a friendship agreement where we offer links between our two sites. Indeed, whilst Stackoverflow is developed by Jeff Atwood & the team using MVC.net, Doctype is developed by me, Paul (Farnell) and Matt (Brindley) in Ruby on Rails.

The idea for Doctype was sown earlier this year when we realised that our main product (Litmus) had a captive audience of designers who would frequently ask us questions via our support desk on how to fix their browser and email design problems.

We realised that the knowledge we were dispensing could be better shared with all our customers, and the internet at large.

We knew about StackExchange but it was still several months away and would not offer us the integration with Litmus that we wanted to offer (screen capture and source code capture to start with).

I don't think our existence has any negative effects on Stackoverflow at all - as for which site you want to use, that's entirely down to you. Obviously we don't allow general programming questions on Doctype, but any designer will have their own preference as to which site they want to use and that's fine. This isn't a competition :)

Dylan Beattie said...

David, my apologies for the misunderstanding - my fault entirely.

I've amended the original post to make it clear that I'd completely misunderstood the situation.

My concerns about Stack Overflow fragmenting their user base are still valid - but are clearly absolutely nothing to do with doctype.com.