Motivation Overflow

Let’s talk about motivation.

I recently joined Stack Overflow (here’s my profile) and one of the things I noticed right away is how easy it is to spend time there. I think I’ve checked in every day since I joined, and in ten days I’ve already answered fifteen questions. Now, before we discuss whether or not I’m developing an unhealthy addiction to social networks, I’m sure some of you are wondering what Stack Overflow is — let’s sort that out first:

Stack Overflow is a place where people can ask highly technical questions about computer programming and related topics, and get answers from a community of well-qualified geeks such as myself. When I log on, for example, I scan over a few dozen questions and answer any that I feel qualified to weigh in on. It’s free, self-organized, and completely voluntary.

Now, back to the issue at hand: why would I choose to volunteer my valuable free time answering other people’s questions? Or more specifically:

How does Stack Overflow motivate its community of users?

We’ll get to the answer in a moment, but before we do I’d like to take a moment to mention that I recently read Dan Pink’s Drive, a fantastic book about modern theories of motivation. I highly recommend this book. It’s an easy read that’s full of all kinds of useful information, and I’ll borrow a lot of its concepts and jargon in the remainder of this post.

Stack Overflow implements a wide variety of motivational techniques. For starters, all users have a “reputation” score which is basically a fuzzy measure of how well the Stack Overflow community trusts you. You earn reputation by asking and answering questions, so users that participate more actively in the community will get more reputation. Already that’s a form of motivation right there; the more you do for the community, the more reputation you build up.

Specifically, you gain reputation when you do positive work for the community. Users can vote on each others’ posts, so a good answer that gets a lot of votes will grant more reputation than a mediocre or weak answer (and likewise for questions). It’s very encouraging to see your answers get a lot of votes, and this sort of now-that reward (now that you’ve provided a good answer, we’ll boost your reputation) has been proven to be a repeatable tactic to motivate good behavior.

Similarly, good behavior is occasionally rewarded with badges. For example, if you answer a question and your answer is up-voted by ten different users, you earn the “Nice Answer” badge. This is known as an if-then reward (if your answer is accepted by many of your peers, then you get this badge added to your profile) and is historically a very effective technique for short-term motivation. Stack Overflow does a couple of things to keep badges relevant in the long term:

These conditions mean longtime users still have something tangible to strive for, so the motivational boost generated by badges doesn’t dwindle over time.

But rewards aren’t the only things that motivate us.

So far we’ve looked at the measurable ways that Stack Overflow motivates its users, but there are a number of non-measurable motivators as well. For example, the higher purpose of helping others and contributing to a database of valuable knowledge is a strong intrinsic motivator, and studies have shown this type of motivation to be the most powerful. On a basic, human level, we like to help each other out and do good work. Stack Overflow is an outlet for these tendencies.

Likewise, we enjoy pushing ourselves to master various skills. Like the carpenter who perfects his craft over years of experience, it’s rewarding for geeks like myself to hone the technical and communicative skills required to answer challenging technical questions. Not only do I learn something new every time I log on to Stack Overflow, I teach something new as well — this knowledge-transfer cycle is something I simply crave.

Let’s discuss this a little more.

If you’ve spent any time on Stack Overflow, I’d love to hear your take on this. Do you find yourself motivated by the factors above? Did I miss an important motivator that really drives you to contribute to the community?

Better yet, did you stop visiting Stack Overflow because you found it boring or uninteresting? What motivated you to leave?

Leave a comment