Stack Overflow Founder’s Next Big Thing: Reinventing Online Communities

Jeff Atwood (@codinghorror) is one of the industry’s quiet legends of coding, most famous for co-founding what became Stack Overflow, the popular developer Q&A site that boasts more than 150 million page views per month.

What I find most interesting about Atwood, however, is his focus on trying to understand human behavior. He uses open source to create places on the Web where people are self-motivated to participate and share high quality information and advice with others for free.

His next endeavor aims to reinvent how we think about online discussion forums, those vital and yet often overlooked communities of like-minded individuals who stir up interesting conversations and help each other out with problems (technical or otherwise). Atwood not only wants to reenvision these fora, he wants to help them scale to manage even greater growth.

I recently caught up with Atwood to talk about his new project, Discourse, a competitor to Jive and Lithium, among others. Discourse is the forum software powering Ubuntu’s online community and the popular news and culture site BoingBoing, which alone attracts four million monthly unique visitors. If you’re in the Bay Area on June 19, you can catch Atwood speaking on a panel at ForumCon (organized by VigLink) in San Francisco about the future of discussion on the Web.

Making Self-Governance Work

ReadWrite: Stack Overflow is the most popular Q&A site in the world for developers. What is the secret sauce and what types of lessons learned are you bringing over from Stack Overflow to forums?

Jeff Atwood: The central theme of Stack Overflow (and Stack Exchange) is self-governance. The only kind of moderation that scales with the community is the community. At Discourse, we believe deeply in empowering the people who show up every day and demonstrate that they care about their community, the people in it, and the way that community presents itself to the world. Who takes care of public parks? We all do. And everyone benefits.

This natural trust level progression at Discourse is handled in a much more subtle way than the overt reputation system at Stack Exchange. Discussion platforms are generally about social discussion and sharing opinions, not publicly verifiable data, facts and science. The two most important factors we look at are reading (aka listening) and consistent participation over time.

There’s also a system of community flagging that is factored in, that lets the community collectively edit its own behavior even in the absence of any formal moderators. Through the trust system, Discourse communities develop a natural immune system that repels the trolls, spam, and hate that eventually tear apart communities on other forum software.

RW: How important is open source to what you do? Or does it matter at all?

JA: At Stack Overflow we released all Q&A under a Creative Commons license so that people could use the content elsewhere if Stack Overflow ever shut down or started charging for subscriptions. This was our guarantee to the community: If you spend time here and contribute your time to assist other developers, we can’t take that away from you, or anyone else. Ever.

Similarly, Discourse is 100% open source, licensed under the GPL. The type of people that can build a community tend to be famous, and already have their own empires. With an open-source license, we can give them a great community platform with no risk, because nobody, including we, can ever take the underlying code away from them.

Change in a community is difficult enough without being locked in to proprietary, expensive platforms.

Most traditional forums ship with a default “we own all your content” license for user submissions, which we think is bad for users and bad for the web. The default Discourse license for user submissions is Creative Commons. People who contribute to a community deserve shared rights to their contributions, along with the greater web. After all, they built it.

Open source also means the project can evolve faster via a worldwide network of community contributions. Discourse is already one of the top 40 most Starred projects on GitHub, and it only launched in 2013. The community has translated Discourse into 17 languages. They’ve also developed a range of plug-ins to extend the features of Discourse.

Scale That Mountain

RW: With Stack Exchange getting 150 million page views each month, you obviously know about scalable systems. Can you give some advice to our readers?

JA: There are two types of scale. I’ve already explained some of the human factors related to scaling a community of people, and that’s a far deeper challenge. We’ve built Discourse with mature, scalable open-source web technologies: Ruby, Javascript, Redis, and PostgreSQL. We’re also using Docker for deployment. As you would expect from the founder of Stack Overflow, we use proven software engineering techniques. Discourse is a project designed to last for a decade and scale to millions of users.

RW: How can people monetize forums?

JA: There’s the obvious method of advertising with VigLink, Google Ads, or similar ad networks. You can also charge community members an optional fee to participate. Forums can also be a great marketplace to buy and sell unique goods, such as vintage clothing, sneakers, or watches. In exchange for easy buying and selling facilities, the forum takes a small percentage.

We hope to create the same thriving business ecosystem around Discourse that currently exists for WordPress. For example:

  • Design. Businesses will want their Discourse communities to have their own branded look and feel. Web designers can use standard CSS/HTML to offer custom Discourse design services.
  • Themes. In the future, we expect there to be a market for standard Discourse themes.
  • Plug-ins. We currently have support for plug-ins and the infrastructure for building (and finding) plugins is something we’re working hard on.
  • Hosting. There are already a number of hosting providers and open source packaging services offering Discourse.
  • Consulting. For experts in Discourse who can assist businesses in rolling out deployments, customizing them, and maintenance.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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