Stack Overflow crowdsources common developer how-tos

The new user-curated reference system for examples to developer questions might help undo Stack Overflow's reputation for being unfriendly to newcomers

Stack Overflow crowdsources common developer how-tos

Stack Overflow today unveiled Stack Overflow Documentation, a new subsection of the site devoted to collectively creating and refining reference information about programming languages and software technologies.

Stack Overflow's original Q&A format has helped compile a body of knowledge about programming that's become a go-to resource for developers everywhere. But code examples on the site tend to revolve around extremely specific use cases, making it less useful as a general reference.

Stack Overflow Documentation has two main goals: Provide good, clear documentation for things everyone wants to look up; and provide a mechanism, based on Stack Overflow's own existing methodologies, for organizing and collaboratively participating on those docs.

Subjects on Stack Overflow Documentation are organized using tags, such as C Language, HTML, Dropbox API, and Docker, to cover common topic areas. Said tags have further subtopics -- e.g., for languages, there's typically a "Hello World" topic that demonstrates how to write the simplest possible program in the language.

Once written, documentation can be reviewed by others, and every documentation item has a revision history. Reviewers and authors can earn badges, as on Stack Overflow itself, to show they've provided valuable contributions.

At least one other major user-curated project for programming examples already exists: Rosetta Code. That site, though, isn't meant to serve as a source of general documentation about any given language. Instead, it presents side-by-side examples of how the same programming task could be accomplished in different languages -- a simple "Hello world," a radix sort, or an implementation of Conway's Game of Life.

Stack Overflow Documentation stands a good chance of becoming an antidote to one of the site's central problems: Useful information on Stack Overflow often feels like a byproduct of the Q&A format rather than a consequence of it. Documentation's format is answer- and use-focused, not question-focused.

It's also possible, although far from guaranteed, that Documentation could offset Stack Overflow's insularity. The site has garnered a reputation for being markedly unfriendly to newcomers and even seasoned contributors alike, as developer John Slegers documented in a widely circulated Medium post. A new format and a new set of participation methods may help break that up -- assuming the new doesn't just recapitulate the sins of the old.