Those People Who Answer Your Question as a Gift

Published: Jan 10, 2021
Updated: May 3, 2021

The following is an excerpt from The Stack Overflow Podcast where Joel Spolsky talks about Stack Overflow as a Gift Economy (among other things).

It really is a magical place. People ask questions, the best answers are voted to the top, updates and comments are added along the way to give more context, and there’s no fluff to sort through. Then strangers like you and me get to benefit from that. I think these places have a sacred quality to them – repositories of accessible knowledge are, well, a gift.

I also feel this way about quality blogs and YouTube channels. The fact that people take time out of their day to document a problem, and then a solution to that problem, is very cool. To those people: you know who you are. Keep doing you.

… I mean, one, I’ll give you an I have a bunch of examples of, you know, capitalism, crowding out, but the most common one is, hey, Stack Overflow is a gift economy where you answer your question as a gift. And if you asked any of the people like Jon Skeet, if you said, “Jon, you are really smart, I need you to help me with a c++ programming problem, I will pay you $250 to help me for 10 minutes” he would just say no. And he would say no, because he doesn’t have time. And I guess, with Jon Skeet, I think if you probably got it up to about $5,000 and a donation to something that he loved, I think he might help you with your problem. But he will do for free, what he will not do for hundreds of dollars. And that is true of literally, I don’t know half million people on Stack Overflow every month that are in that exact position. So one thing Jeff Atwood and I always spoke about very clearly is it cannot possibly be any money involved on Stack Overflow. They can’t, this can’t just turn into a thing where you pay $5 and you get faster services, something because we knew that that would crowd out the volunteer and the gift aspect of Stack Overflow. So that’s example number one. But let’s go with example number two, this my favorite one, is blogging. There was a golden time, Paul. [Joel laughs] And we could you could write blogs and Google would be like, “Whoa, blogs, this is authentic, real content written by actual people who have actually evaluated things and they shall be prioritized.” And just linking to something from a real blog, which was all the blogs were real blogs, would give it power in Google. What made that go away is basically this called the hub spots of the world, which is, all of a sudden, a bunch of teenagers were hired to write three blog posts a day in order to generate 300 blog posts a day for like Colman’s Mustard. Because what happened is, as soon as there was an economic incentive, there was sort of commerce got in there, it crowded out. And today, I never see blogs in search results for even the most specific things, there’s definitely been this crowding out of like the real and the genuine and the free and the volunteer, it’s gotten crowded out by commerce. And I’m gonna take a third example, which is a fun one, which is about Burning Man where you’re not allowed to sell things. And it’s, in some ways, like a music festival, where you might be walking around, and people are selling t shirts and whatnot. But people are not permitted to sell things and sort of a magical thing happens at Burning Man, which is that when somebody approaches you to try to talk to you, they are not trying to sell you anything, or get your signature on anything or steal from you in any way. They’re actually just there to talk to you, to actually have a real human conversation. And the end result is that this is weird feeling of walking around for a week in a place where everybody’s friendly, you’re just like at a family reunion almost, there’s no, if somebody comes up to you and start speaking, you don’t immediately try to shut them down and get away as you do in Time Square. And so the very fact that commerce has been prohibited creates a zone where the regular human thing of somebody comes up to talk to me, and I talk to them. And then we have a regular human conversation that isn’t caused by one person trying to get something out of somebody else. This sort of magical zone is there thereby created. There’s my three simple examples of the commerce. Now what makes commerce possible, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with commerce or capitalism. I’m not trying to this is supposed to be a screen of like, therefore, we must go back to central planning–I don’t–to me capitalism is not like an ism like “Oh, I believe in capitalism” and it’s more like just a description of how the economics works. It’s just kind of that’s how economics happens. You know, you can, you can try to avoid it if you want But the question is like, how do you kind of recreate those zones and those zones are like the family picnic, right? Or the extended family, we all get together for a picnic, there is no buying and selling at the family picnic. You know, just because uncle whatever brought the pina coladas doesn’t mean that he’s now allowed to sell them to the members of his family …