Stack Exchange LogoI had a very interesting conversation with a friend yesterday about “the next big thing” on the ‘net. He was telling me about Quora (which I’d never used / heard of), and I was telling him about Stack Overflow (which he’d never used / heard of). Both are Q & A sites, born of a thirst for knowledge. Their focus seems to be different though. Quora seems to be attempting to be the definitive source on the ‘net for Question X, whereas Stack Overflow is providing a place for you to ask a very specific question and get a very specific answer. In the case of Stack Overflow, these questions specifically revolve around programming, but the other Stack Exchange sites cover other areas of expertise.

Since I have no authority on Quora, I will mention it only in passing. And I say that literally. I went to their site and was immediately presented with a form to give them my email address. This seemed suspect to me so I googled them. It turns out that Google lists / indexes their questions, but Quora itself doesn’t let you see the questions until you provide them with your email address (thus allowing them access to your Facebook, Twitter and FirstBorn™ accounts). So I left and haven’t been back.

Stack Overflow (and the entire Stack Exchange network) on the other hand offer anonymous listing and searching for anyone. You don’t need an account to see the data. In fact, the data itself is licensed under the Creative Commons, and anyone that wants to can obtain a data dump. Technically this isn’t all that useful since the data is available freely and anonymously through their sites anyway, but it shows a significant difference in mindset than that of Quora. To even see the data on Quora I need to give up my privacy. In the age of Google this is utterly ridiculous, and a huge barrier to entry. Maybe this will change in the future, but I don’t understand how it’s getting the publicity / traction that it appears to be. But then, I don’t understand the appeal to Twitter either.

Stack Overflow is a community of experts. And novices. And everyone in between. But it is very niche focused. This is great, as it appeals to experts who are able to get answers from other experts. And it’s a fantastic learning tool. And, as a programmer working in a figurative bubble, Stack Overflow allows me to get answers to questions that Google can’t find and to get feedback from real people on the correct way to do things. It’s rare that I ask a question and don’t get an answer (if not the correct answer) within an hour. In fact, usually it’s much faster (the first question I posted on Stack Overflow had a valid, working answer within about 3 mins). Really, I can’t say enough good things about the site or the community.

And it doesn’t end with Stack Overflow. I’ve also used Server Fault, Super User, Mathematics, WordPress Answers and Programmers. Yes, they’re all tech-related, but they all have very specific focuses which, as mentioned above, draws a crowd of experts. I’m sure if I had an oven I’d use Cooking, or if I had a power tool I’d use Home Improvement. The point is, there are currently sites with communities of experts for a lot of niche areas. Just check out the following list:

http://stackexchange.com/sites

As is probably obvious, I can’t say enough good things about Stack Exchange. Maybe this Quora thing will be big, maybe not. But it’s irrelevant to me right now, because Stack Exchange is where it’s at.