The Stack Exchange software has grown to be extremely powerful, but it’s important to remember that, at their core, these sites run on human beings – and without respect for each other, clever tools solve nothing.—Shog9, "Respect the community – your own, and others'"

Earlier I wrote that Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange moderators are preparing to strike. Baring new developments, it will start on Monday. You can read the letter explaining their stance. As a semi-detached observer, I figured I'd give a little commentary.

Like many revolutions, this one starts with an economic crisis. As previously discussed, business isn't looking so good at Stack Overflow. I don't have inside information about this year, but we can see signs of trouble in public data such as the trend of questions and answers on Stack Overflow:

Posting on Stack Overflow over time showing a sharp decline in

The deep chasms each year come the week of Christmas when many working programmers aren't working. Activity picks up again in the new year and reaches a peak right around finals before falling into summer. There's a definite COVID spike followed by a post-COVID slide punctuated by a near cliff so far in 2023. (The last data point should be ignored since it's just the result of a partial week.) I'm using posts as proxy for page views1 and general activity on the site.2

Why is this happening? Well there is some competition from GitHub issues and smaller developer communities hosted on Slack or Discord. I have no idea how big that impact is, but it's certainly reduced my need for Stack Overflow. But there's an even bigger disruptor that Stack Overflow (both the company and the community) know all too well: ChatGPT. A few years ago I wrote about why people answer questions on Stack Overflow. I proposed a problem that every programmer has seen virtually every day: the missing close quote. I decided to ask ChatGPT to solve my problem:

What's wrong with this code:
print "Start the awesome!\n;
print "Super awesome!\n";

And here's its response:

The code you provided has a syntax error. Here's the corrected version:

print("Start the awesome!\n")
print("Super awesome!\n")

In Python, print statements require parentheses around the text to be printed. Additionally, make sure to close the parentheses properly and use correct function names (assuming they exist elsewhere in your code).

The explanation is wrong and if my code isn't Python, the missing semicolons could be a problem. Still, it just might be enough for me to sort out my problem. And if I type in a correction ("Oh. It's actually Perl."), ChatGPT gamely gives me another answer the might be closer to what I need. All of this comes at no cost (for now), in less than a minute and with little friction. In my earlier post, I created a little chart that showed the various costs for different problem solving strategies. I can now add a new line a the bottom.

Strategy Money $M Time $T Hassle $P Integrity $I
Search Google 0 1 1 0
Find own answer 0 50 5 -50
Ask a co-worker 0 5 5 5
Hire a consultant 100 10 1 0
Ask Stack Overflow 0 5 ? ?
Ask ChatGPT 0 1 1 0

Integrity is a sorta vague measure of how you feel about yourself after using each strategy. Solving it on your own usually feels great so it has a negative cost (i.e., a gain). Asking a Large Language Model (LLM) feels about the same as typing a search term into Google for me. Virtually the entire experience of using ChatGPT resembles Google even down to getting bogus results sometimes.

All of this is very bad news for Stack Overflow.3 Every problem that gets resolved talking to a chat bot is one less potential Stack Overflow question.4 What's worse is that LLM technology will likely be embedded in developer IDEs so that you won't even need to open a new browser tab. Even better, models can be trained on your code. They still will be liable to just making things up, of course, but at least it'll be using your context rather than what it can gather from munging public training data.

I can't prove the drop so far is due to ChatGPT. It's likely to be several factors pull in the same direction (away from SO). Here's what the official network policy regarding AI-generated content says on the matter:

Finally, internal evidence strongly suggests that the overapplication of suspensions for AI-generated content may be turning away a large number of legitimate contributors to the site.

This is a depressingly familiar perspective. Something like half of questions are turned away by the software and curators are still overwhelmed by the incoming questions. Instead of "why is the community so mean?" it would be nice to hear "What can we do to make answering questions less frustrating?" I certainly see that moderators and curators can go overboard stifling content, but you really ought to have a higher bar than "copied and pasted from ChatGPT".

If Stack Overflow has one advantage against AI bots, its that answers come from humans rather than automated sophists. I know the policy says the content was coming from legitimate contributors and not AI. But it doesn't back that assertion up with data. If, as I believe likely, the data is ambiguous and forced into a "mods are suspending legitimate users" interpretation, this is a self-defeating policy. It can take hours to answer a question well. It only takes a few seconds for ChatGPT to answer it poorly. Humans can't beat robotic gun slingers.

So why can't the current SO CEO dismiss AI as a distraction (at best)? Well the previous CEO has some insight:

If you look at a competitive market, the successful company is always the one setting the agenda and forcing competitors to match it. For example, JetBlue's version of fire and motion came in the form of a superior customer experience. The airline's fares weren't necessarily cheaper, and it didn't fly to every destination. But its planes were really nice. They had comfortable leather seats, and there was an individual TV set for every passenger.

In an effort to catch up, the legacy airlines devoted time, money, and effort to copying JetBlue. Delta wasted a small fortune on Song, a start-up that featured novelty cocktails and flight attendants wearing uniforms designed by Kate Spade. It died after only three years in business, during which time JetBlue continued to expand into new markets and steal customers.

Right now companies like OpenAI are setting the agenda. If you aren't using AI already, you gotta catch up. Time is running out! Looking at the graph I showed earlier and extrapolating the trend, Stack Overflow will have negative questions in 16 months or so. NO TIME TO WASTE!

Or, maybe take a different path:

If your competitors are really solving a problem in a unique way, you won't miss out by focusing on your own customers. Rest assured that your customers are already trying to tell you that this opportunity exists, if you'll only listen. A minute spent understanding the competition is a minute not spent listening to customers, potential customers, and near-miss customers, who would be happy to tell you directly what it would take to sell to them. You might even come up with a solution on your own that's better than the one your competitor came up with. That's when you start creating your own fire and motion -- when you innovate. Try something new that forces the competition to catch up with you.—Joel Spolsky, "Fire and Motion"

What would I do? I have so many ideas and not one of them involves spending time on unwanted AI features. I'd double down on the idea that Stack Overflow was founded on:

Stack Overflow is, as much as I could make it, an effort of collective programmer community.

  1. Anonymous feedback is likely a better proxy for that, however.

  2. Voting might be a better proxy for that.

  3. It's also probably bad news for Google, which makes it doubly bad for SO since the network gets so much of its traffic from organic search.

  4. Aguably this is a positive development for the Stack Overflow community which will see a higher percentage of interesting problems.