Stackoverflow and the early mover advantage

Browsing HN this morning, I found an interesting piece discussing Stackoverflow. Apparently hackernoon wrote a piece entitled “The decline of Stackoverflow” and it got some attention on reddit.

Bozho’s perspective aligns pretty closely with mine. I’m in the top 0.1% overall on SO, but I have not contributed actively in years. Not because I perceived “a decline in the site” whatever that means, but because I got busy with other things, specifically Apigee.

I agree with Bozho that many of the easy questions have been answered. Sure, there are always new questions, and new technologies like Golang or some new iPhone feature, or a new version of Angular, will prompt a new class of questions. But, the basics around .NET GAC, or Java garbage collection, or how to do read-through caches in Java, or what is JSONP…. you know those are already answered.

And the “Early movers” on Stackoverflow – I guess I was among them – have garnered all the top scores, and continue to accrue points as new readers on stackoverflow upvote answers. So even though I haven’t posted a new, popular answer in a while, I still earn points every week. New arrivals to stackoverflow will probably never be able to attain the level of points I have. My point total grows more than theirs, even though I haven’t done any work, and they may be asking and answering new questions diligently. It’s very unequal.

Don’t get me wrong – I think Stackoverflow is super valuable. I agree with Bozho, that it serves its purpose well, which is to provide easily searchable answers to programming questions. But aside from that massive contribution of value to the programming community, if you just look at internet points, the points go to the early movers.

I’m looking forward to watching the first formal debate for the US presidential election, this evening. Coincidentally, last night I watched a Frontline episode from June, entitled Policing the Police – excellent work by Jelani Cobb btw. So in this moment the analogy that comes to my mind, for this phenomenon on stackoverflow, is economic.

Imagine the discovery and settlement of a new continent. The early movers come in and (after eradicating the natives, if any) lay claim to land. They work the land, and maybe expand. Later more people arrive, and they need to rent land from the earliest movers. It’s those early movers that continue to accrue $$ and interest over time. Later more people come in, and there is no opportunity to gain land. Their option is to work the land for someone else (upvote other questions and answers). I was born in the 1960’s, and all the land in the USA was already claimed. Large holders of assets including land at that time, have continued to benefit. (I am not complaining – I was born white, male, and healthy in one of the richest countries on the earth – I won the lottery at birth.) Or consider a real-estate marker in a geographically constrained area like Seattle or San Francisco. Early movers claim land and erect buildings, and later movers (like me) come in and rent space.

On Stackoverflow, it’s really not a big deal if a newcomer is blocked from attaining “internet points”. A newcomer can still benefit from the answers and discussions on the site. They’re digital assets! Sharing more does not decrease the value of the asset. Everyone can benefit. And internet points are worth approximately $0.00. In real life, it’s a huge deal if the top 1% of the population holds 40% of the wealth, and the trend is toward greater inequality. This wealth is tied to assets like land, housing, companies, etc., which act to extract more money from the people who are not in the 1%. Not sustainable, and more importantly, not moral.

I don’t think a massive, sudden transfer of wealth is the answer. That is the phenomenon we are watching in Iraq and Syria, where different parties are grabbing oil fields, or attempting to attain control of entire cities in order to tax the inhabitants. It is what happened when the Vikings invaded what is now France, and grabbed land (establishing Normandy) and started taxing citizens. Many people die in these sudden transfers of wealth. There is a great benefit in stability – it means people generally die of natural causes rather than war wounds.

On the other hand, substantive change is urgently necessary. Gradual, thoughtful, methodical change, ideally. Of the two candidates most likely to win the US presidential election, neither appear to be interested in changing things very much. Too bad.