Stack Overflow reputation and being a micro-celebrity

I’ve considered writing a bit about this before, but not done so for fear of looking like a jerk. I still think I may well end up looking like a jerk, but this is all stuff I’m interested in and I’ll enjoy writing about it, so on we go. Much of this is based on experiences at and around Stack Overflow, and it’s more likely to be interesting to you if you’re a regular there or at least know the basic premises and mechanics. Even then you may well not be particularly interested – as much as anything, this post is to try to get some thoughts out of my system so I can stop thinking about how I would blog about it. If you don’t want the introspection, but want to know how to judge my egotism, skipping to the summary is probably a good plan. If you really don’t care at all, that’s probably a healthy sign. Quit now while you’re ahead.

What is a micro-celebrity?

A couple of minutes ago, I thought I might have been original with the term “micro-celebrity” but I’m clearly not. I may well not use the term the same way other people do, however, so here’s my rough definition solely for the purposes of this post:

A micro-celebrity is someone who gains a significant level of notoriety within a relatively limited community on the internet, usually with a positive feedback loop.

Yes, it’s woolly. Not to worry.

I would consider myself to have been a micro-celebrity in five distinct communities over the course of the last 14 years:

  • The alt.books.stephen-king newsgroup
  • The mostly web-based community around Team17’s series of “Worms” games (well, the first few, on the PC only)
  • The comp.lang.java.* newsgroups
  • The microsoft.public.dotnet.languages.csharp newsgroup
  • Stack Overflow

The last has been far and away the most blatant case. This is roughly how it goes – or at least how it’s gone in each of the above cases:

  • Spend some time in the community, post quite a lot. Shouting loudly works remarkably well on the internet – if you’re among the most prolific writers in a group, you will get noticed. Admittedly it helps to try hard to post well-written and interesting thoughts.
  • After a while, a few people will refer to you in their other conversations. For instance, if someone in the Java newsgroup was talking about “objects being passed by reference”, another poster might say something like “Don’t let Jon Skeet hear you talking like that.”
  • Play along with it, just a bit. Don’t blow your own trumpet, but equally don’t discourage it. A few wry comments to show that you don’t mind often go down well.
  • Sooner or later, you will find yourself not just mentioned in another topic, but being the topic of conversation yourself. At this point, it’s no longer an inside joke that just the core members of the group “get” – you’re now communal property, and almost any regular will be part of the joke.

One interesting thing you might have noticed about the above is that it doesn’t really take very much skill. It takes a fair amount of time, and ideally you should have some reasonable thoughts and the ability to express yourself clearly, but you certainly don’t have to be a genius. Good job, really.

How much do you care?

This is obviously very personal, and I’m only speaking for myself (as ever).

It’s undeniably an ego boost. Just about every day there’s something on Stack Overflow to laugh about in reference to me. How could I not enjoy that? How could it not inflate my sense of self-worth just a little bit? I could dismiss it as being entirely silly and meaningless – which it is, ultimately – but it’s still fun and I get a kick out of it. And yes, I’m sorry to say I bore/annoy my colleagues and wife with the latest Stack Overflow news, because I’ve always been the selfish kind of person who wants to talk about what they’re up to instead of asking the other person about their interests. This is an unfortunate trait which has relatively little to do with the micro-celebrity business.

One very good thing for keeping my ego in check is that at Google, I converse with people who are smarter than me every day, whether at coffee, breakfast, lunch or just while coding. There’s no sense of anyone trying to make anyone else feel small, but it’s pretty obvious that I’m nothing special when it comes to Google. Now, I don’t want to put on too much false modesty – I know I have a reasonable amount of experience, and I happen to know two very popular platforms reasonably well (which really helps on Stack Overflow- being the world’s greatest guru on MUMPS isn’t going to get you much love), and perhaps most importantly I can communicate pretty well. All of these are good things, and I’m proud of my career and particularly C# in Depth…

… but let’s get real here. The Jon Skeet Facts page isn’t really about me. It’s about making geek jokes where the exact subject is largely irrelevant. It could very easily have been about someone else with little change in the humour. Admittedly the funniest answers (to my mind) are the ones which do have some bearing on me (particularly the one about having written a book on C# 5.0 already) – but that doesn’t mean there’s anything really serious in it. I hope it’s pretty obvious to everyone that I’m not a genius programmer. I’d like to think I’m pretty good, but I’m not off-the-charts awesome by any means. (In terms of computer science, I’m nothing special at all and I have a really limited range of languages/paradigms. I’m trying to do something about those, but it’s hard when there’s always another question to answer.)

It’s worth bearing in mind the “micro” part of micro-celebrity. I suspect that if we somehow got all the C# developers in the world together and asked them whether they’d heard of Jon Skeet, fewer than 0.1% would say yes. (That’s a complete guess, by the way. I have really no idea. The point is I’m pretty sure it’s a small number.) Compared with the sea of developers, the set of Stack Overflow regulars is a very small pond.

What I care far more about than praise and fandom is the idea of actually helping people and making a difference. A couple of days ago I had an email from someone saying that C# in Depth had helped them in an interview: they were able to write more elegant code because now they grok lambda expressions. How cool is that? Yes, I know it’s all slightly sickening in a “you do a lot of good work for charity” kind of way – but I suspect it’s what drives most Stack Overflow regulars. Which leads me on to reputation…

What does Stack Overflow reputation mean to you?

In virtually every discussion about the Stack Overflow reputation system and its caps, I try to drop in the question of “what’s the point of reputation? What does it mean to you?” It’s one of those questions which everyone needs to answer for themselves. Jeff Atwood’s answer is that reputation is how much the system trusts you. My own answers:

  • It’s a daily goal. Making sure I always get to 200 is a fun little task, and then trying to get accepted answers is a challenge.
  • It’s measurable data, and you can play with graphs and stats. Hey we’re geeks – it’s fun to play with numbers, however irrelevant they are.
  • It’s an indication of helpfulness to some extent. It plays to my ego in terms of both pride of knowledge and the fulfillment of helping people.
  • It’s useful as an indicator of community trust for the system to use, which is probably more important to Jeff than it is to me.
  • It’s a game. This is the most important aspect. I love games. I’m fiercely competitive, and will always try to work out all the corners of a game’s system – things like it being actually somewhat useless getting accepted answers before you’ve reached the 200 limit. I don’t necessarily play to the corners of the game (I would rather post a useful but unpopular answer than a popular but harmful one, for serious questions) but I enjoy working them out. I would be interested to measure my levels of testosterone when typing furiously away at an answer, hoping to craft something useful before anyone else does. I’m never going to be “macho” physically, but I can certainly be an alpha geek. So long as it doesn’t go too far, I think it’s a positive thing.

I sometimes sense (perhaps inaccurately) that Jeff and Joel are frustrated with people getting too hung up about reputation. It’s really unimportant in the grand scheme of things – rep in itself isn’t as much of a net contribution to the world’s happiness as the way that Stack Overflow connects people with questions to people with relevant answers really, really quickly. But rep is one of the things that makes Stack Overflow so “sticky” as a website. It’s not that I wouldn’t answer questions if the reputation system went down – after all, I’ve been answering questions on newsgroups for years, for the other reasons mentioned – but the reputation system certainly helps. Yes, it’s probably taking advantage of a competitive streak which is in some ways ugly… but the result is a good one.

One downside of the whole micro-celebrity thing – and in particular of being the top rep earner – is that various suggestions (such as changing the rep limit algorithm and introducing a monthly league) make me look really selfish. It’s undeniable that both of the suggestions work in my favour. I happen to believe that both work in the community’s favour too, but I can certainly see why people might get the wrong idea about my motivation. I don’t remember thinking of any suggestions which would work against my personal interests but in the interests of the community. If I do, I’m pretty sure I’ll post them with no hesitation.

Summary

Yes, I like the attention of being a micro-celebrity. It would be ridiculous to deny it, and I don’t think it says much more about me than the fact that I’m human.

Yes, I like competing for reputation, even though it’s blatantly obvious that the figure doesn’t reflect programming prowess. It’s part of the fuel for my addiction to Stack Overflow.

With this out of the way, I hope to return to more technical blog posts. If anything interesting comes up in the comments, I’ll probably edit this post rather than writing a new one.

42 thoughts on “Stack Overflow reputation and being a micro-celebrity”

  1. Wow.. The machine is actually becoming totally self-aware and writing about its own micro-celeb status!

    I have to be honest, it’s a reputation well deserved. Having seen how quickly you rose up the ranks @ StackOverflow, and more importantly, the quality of your answers people SHOULD be talking about you!

    You are a credit to the community. Unlike me who just talks crap :)

    Enjoy the status ;)

  2. Somebody (I can’t find the reference) referred to SO as being a MMORPG; it is certainly (highly, if not massively) multiplayer, online, and in many ways a “game” – with the rep, “levelling” at limits, rules to exploit for fun and profit (as per your post), etc. The role-playing I’ll let people decide for themselves.

  3. I find that while your answers aren’t always the “most correct” answers given, yours are certainly usually more clever. There was one yesterday about checking if a string is all caps and you suggested a LINQ solution. While this wouldn’t be my accepted answer (I wanted the standard loop through the string and see if each letter is capitalized solution), I definitely thought yours was clever.

  4. @Ruben: Fixed, thanks.

    @Marc: Yes, the MMORPG comparison is an interesting one. The difference is that I don’t feel the sense of futility that most MMORPGs usually give me.

  5. @Smack0007: Of course, the “loop through the string and see if each letter is capitalized” *is* the LINQ solution – just expressed in a more concise way.

    I find that there are an awful lot of loops which can be expressed more simply using LINQ – particularly if the end result is just another value instead of side-effects.

  6. :) The tricky thing about this kind of use of LINQ (as opposed to a query expression which SQL fans are relatively comfortable with) is that *before* you grok LINQ, it looks really weird and complicated. *After* you’ve grokked LINQ, it looks natural and elegant.

    Have fun with the book, and do send me feedback…

  7. “I find that while your answers aren’t always the “most correct” answers given, yours are certainly usually more clever.” – Smack0007

    I am not always sure what “most correct” means, but find many of Jon’s answers to be very thorough and complete and therefore can’t help upvoting them as ‘helpful’ as they are helpful to me.

  8. Jon,

    Some of the jokes on the fact page sound like folks are a little jealous. Frankly, its simply AWESOME that you spend so much time trying to help folks and lend us your expertise so freely! All of us could do more to help others IMHO.

    Anyway … I’ma fan and I’m loving you book!

    kf

  9. Great post John. You deserve your not-so-micro celebrity status. You’ve answered a number of my questions on Stack Overflow and I thank you for that.

    If, like me, you truly wanted to show your indifference to modesty you would register a site like http://www.johnskeetrocks.com which as I write this is still available.

  10. The only qualification is someone bothering to write the page, I think :) (Self-authored wiki pages are frowned upon, I believe, and no doubt if there was little reason for the page to exist it might get taken down.)

  11. Hey guys,

    got a few comments to make – but first, i think it’s commendable that you spend as much time and resource actively participating in StackOverflow. Any type of community engagement should be well and truly applauded. Many communities has “ghosts” hanging around who never participates, but uses the community as a type of “knowledge resource” – which essentially it becomes as more and more people respond.

    So your “Rep score” is just a mark/badge that shows how deeply engaged you are and i commend you on your dedication.

    Re: Wikipedia….well, i got an “old” grudge against the whole system as I’ve seen firsthand how terribly biased it can become when dealing with personal pages. A little while ago, a group set out to create a page for an Australian “celebrity” – yes, he was most likely only known in certain circles within the US, but in Australia he was the one that really started (and brought technical blogging to the front) blogging about other than “what i did today” or “who/what do i agree/disagree with”.

    The page got removed because a majority of US members hadn’t heard about this person.

    Personally i think that’s a very narrowminded view of something as globally reflective as wikipedia.

    Still today, i bear a “grudge” so to speak. The dissapointment of having the page taken down because of people elsewhere not knowing him put a serious mark on wikipedia’s credibility in my eyes.

    So, cutting a long story short, the person was Frank Arrigo (http://blogs.msdn.com/frankarr) and till this day i still think he deserves a mention there..

    Basically, don’t bother getting hung up with wikipedia’s content and whether or not you (or anybody else) gets a mention there…doesn’t mean anything at all. I think your work at StackOverflow, and the recognition you’re getting from it, is far more telling about you as a person than anything else.

    Keep up the good work Jon!!

  12. Your reputation is certainly well deserved.

    I bought a copy of your book due to the quality [and especially depth] of your answers on SO and I’ve found it to be very interesting and enlightening. I’d recommend it to any serious C# developer.

  13. Jon,

    it really doesn’t matter to me what drives you to answer so many questions, the bottom line is that it helps me and others!

    Of course, in a few years, I hope to be competitive with you for SO rep. ;-)

    Thanks!
    Dennis

  14. he hehehe…Jon is gone from Wikipedia again:

    Jon skeet
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    This page has been deleted. The deletion log for the page is provided below for reference.

    15:24, 23 January 2009 Pedro (Talk | contribs) deleted “Jon skeet” ‎ (G11: Blatant advertising)

    Blatant advertising!!!! OMG!!

  15. Hey Jon,

    I saw an ad on stackoverflow by FinalBuilder :)
    Today I was trying to answer a question & the ad was shown on the right side with this text


    Trying to beat Jon Skeet’s rep?

    We like to attempt the impossible too — easy builds!

    FinalBuilder.

    :)

  16. Have you considered that since you are the leading rep getter, and a “micro-celebrity” it makes it easier for you to reach the 200 rep limit daily. That is to say, due to your celebrity within the community and prominence on the users page, answers posted by you tend to be voted on more(and likely higher) than posts by the “average” user? Obviously, if it is the case, there’s nothing you can do about it, I just found it to be an interesting observation.

  17. @shsteimer: Yes, I’m pretty sure that people do upvote my answers where they might not upvote someone else’s. That may mean I get to the rep limit earlier in the day than I would otherwise – but I was reaching the rep limit from my first or second day on SO. (I think there’s a handful of days I didn’t reach it – one weekend early in October was bad, for example.)

    I think my “long tail” is more important than the celebrity aspect though. I currently have 2420 answers on the system. It only takes 1% of them to get 1 vote each for me to reach the rep limit… that’s not a lot. Most days I reach the limit with a balance of old and new answers, but it wouldn’t be particularly unexpected if I stopped posting for a couple of days and could still hit the limit.

  18. Is a micro-celebrity the same as a big fish in a small pond? Just not sure we need a new phrase.

    Keep up the good work on Stack Overflow!

  19. It’s interesting — you say you’re a microceleb on stackoverflow. Well, fair enough, it’s obviously true. But it also, to me, is a comment on the SO sense of community as a whole. In my case, I probably had about 1500 rep before I even heard of you, and, although I read every day, I’m not smart enough to get 200 points per day. So that 1500 represents several months on the site.

    I heard of you through an add on the sidebar. Something about SO and cloning Jon Skeet. I’ve still never encountered one of your posts, save through the occasional post in reply to a question about you.

    That’s because I don’t know anything about C#, and I haven’t touched Java since uni. My biggest tag is python, and so S.Lott was the first guy whose name I started recognising.

    It seems like the strong “programming questions ONLY” ethic, combined with the fact that “programming” is a very wide field, means that there is not really just one SO community. People like you (and not just you) are racking up tens of thousands of points, and becoming widely-known to many users, while other frequent users may encounter them never, or at best only rarely.

    (in the same vein, I’ve never seen Jeff or Joel, except in sofaq questions, and it’s their site!)

    I’m not sure I have a point with this. It’s just an observation that I thought interesting.

  20. Though you openly discuss your own vanity I still find it utterly amazing that anyone could care so much about their reputation on a website.

    I don’t want to this to sound mean, so please don’t take it that way, but why don’t you spend some of your copius free time on building a corpus of work that yields more tangible results than just some posts on a forum?

  21. @Daniel: Copious free time? I wish.

    As for yielding results: solving other people’s problems *is* a tangible result in my view. If I help someone with something they’ve been stuck on for hours, that’s a very positive result IMO.

  22. Jon,

    What I was suggesting, and again please don’t take this the wrong way, is that anyone with enough time to “play” StackOverflow as though it were a game (i.e. to get the highest reputation score) probably has not enough to do with their day.

    That aside, I think that helping a community is a noble thing to devote yourself to; but answer me this: What are you planning on doing with your large number of posts? Do you intend to write a collected compendium of knowledge perhaps (like parashift’s famous C++ FAQ)? If the answer is no, what have you really achieved by answering variations on the same theme again and again?

  23. @Daniel: Stack Overflow *is* the collected compendium of knowledge. It’s not like the answers go away.

    As for not having enough to do with my day: between my “day job”, preaching, writing, editing, open source projects, Stack Overflow and spending time with my wife and three kids, I think I’ve got *plenty* to do with my time, thanks. It so happens that I think answering questions is a useful thing to do with my time. Could you honestly say that every moment of your day is spent doing something more useful than helping other people?

    I’m sorry, but you really know *very* little about me, and your assumptions are really pretty rude. Maybe I am taking it “the wrong way” but I really don’t know the *right* way of taking an assertion by a stranger that I haven’t got enough to do with my day simply because I choose to help people online.

    Could you tell me what *would* count as having enough to do with my day?

    Jon

  24. Hi,

    I’m sorry you feel slighted. To clarify, I just don’t see much value in hanging out on a forum each day until some number goes up by 200. If there are genuinely interesting questions, sure knock yourself out. Otherwise, it’s a low-value activity no different imho than grinding for levels in an online RPG. And for what? A cheap ego boost?

    It seems like, in such cases, your time might perhaps be better spent on one of the many other things you could be doing instead.

    As to my other point, I know SO is a “compendium” of sorts, but it’s not organised. The best we can do is keyword driven searches which don’t really produce optimal results. What I was suggesting is that if you feel so strongly about contributing to the community you might consider taking your corpus of posts and trying to build something more useful from it — like the C++ FAQ I mentioned earlier.

  25. Daniel, I think you’ve radically misunderstood what I do. I don’t “hang out [...] until some number goes up by 200.”

    I answer questions where I can usefully contribute. You ask “for what” – I thought I was pretty clear about this in the blog post:

    “What I care far more about than praise and fandom is the idea of actually helping people and making a difference.”

    As for taking a corpus of posts – when I find I’ve answered the same kind of post several times, I write it up in an article, either at http://csharpindepth.com or http://pobox.com/~skeet/csharp – that makes it a lot quicker to answer questions later. Similarly I’ve tried to collect a lot of my thoughts into C# in Depth, which I hope to update with a second edition. If you think it would be useful to collect SO posts in some form, go ahead – I think *my* time is better spent writing the answers than collating them.

    I still find it bizarre for you to criticise someone for “wasting” their time helping people. Could *you* not find some better use of *your* time than making that criticism?

    I have no problems with how usefully I spend my time. I’m sorry that you do, but as I pointed out before you’re really not in a position of knowledge on this front.

    Jon

  26. Hi Jon,

    I don’t have any problem with your motivation to help people; I told you before, I think it’s a noble activity and I admire you for it. My posts were only intended to point out that, imho, you have an over-fixation with SO reputation points.

    Keep in mind that when I make this comment my intention is not to insult you but to highlight what I’ve observed based on what you chose to share of yourself with complete strangers on the Internet.

    You’re right though, I do have better things to do with my time than to critique the work of others. As I said, I’m sorry I slighted you; I’m thinking I should have resisted the urge to post to begin with.

    Good luck with everything.

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