There’s a fine tradition among writers known as the puff piece. For the staffer, it fulfills the requirement that one produce something the medium can publish on a regular basis without requiring a lot of difficult investigation or critical thinking; for the freelancer, it is one more article one can add to the portfolio; and for the medium, it’s content that isn’t generally available elsewhere, which is especially good if the medium in question is a website dependent on page views to sell advertising.
Such is Klint Finley’s piece the other day at Wired.com on Jeff Atwood, who resigned earlier this year from his position as the CTO of Stack Overflow. When we read it, we thought there were enough inaccuracies that it warranted a response, so we dutifully logged in (using our real name and noting our relationship to Experts Exchange) and posted the response below. Jason cordially offered a bet that Wired wouldn’t allow it to become visible (he won), which in and of itself says something about a magazine/website that wants to be as respected as some of the others in the Condé Nast stable; perhaps the comment below wasn’t as insightful or profound as those Wired did approve. We know we didn’t violate their comments policy, at least as it appeared the day after we posted.
So we’ve decided to help Wired out; we’re even going to use the tags they did, along with a couple of others, just to make sure they know we’re thinking of them.
You’ll notice two things:
1. That the sites that took VC money (including Experts Exchange) and then expected eyeballs to translate into sufficient advertising revenue to pay the bills all failed. Paying those who answer questions failed. The only business model that has been successful until now is the subscription model.
2. That despite the best efforts of Messrs Atwood and Spolsky, Experts Exchange remains profitable, let alone merely viable; as a volunteer, I appreciate Mr Atwood’s drawing attention to us, and affording me and my colleagues the opportunity to correct some of his and Mr Spolsky’s misconceptions and errors in their vitriol about EE, since neither has ever taken the opportunity to actually participate at EE to any degree.
To offer some corrections to and comments on this article:
1. Experts Exchange is not behind a paywall for the casual visitor coming from an external link like a search engine. EE does require that people asking questions pay, but they’re the ones who need the answers, so that doesn’t seem unreasonable; after all, Wired wants people to pay to read its columns too. EE also allows people to answer a couple of questions a month and receive their full subscription at no charge; I’ve been a member since the last century, and have never paid a cent to use EE.
2. Free will always trump paid, and there will certainly be people who are truly appreciative of the solutions they get without having to pay for them. We’ve found that people are a lot more interested in actually solving their problems when they have a vested interest; a small subscription fee seems to do that. At EE, if the asker doesn’t get responses, we have systems to help him; at StackOverflow, the question winds up in the dustbin (currently sitting about 260,000+ questions with no answers). So it begs the question: is Mr Atwood’s site about helping people? Or is it just about being free for anyone to use?
3. New and shiny always trumps established and working. The most frequently asked question following Steve Jobs’ death was “how will Apple keep coming up with new stuff without their visionary leader?” To be honest, we’d have been disappointed had a site developed by people with the stature of Mr Spolsky and Mr Atwood didn’t “zoom past” Experts Exchange. It certainly wouldn’t have done a lot for their credibility if it hadn’t.
4. One of Mr Atwood’s selling points, when starting his site, was to feed off the “people create content and don’t get paid for it” smoke screen. According to Mr Rackis, he had to actually pay to get the t-shirt from StackOverflow; Experts Exchange sends them out for participating.
6. There’s a difference in philosophy, but making a game of answering questions was new in 1996, when EE’s founders built it; it wasn’t new in 2006. Mr Atwood’s game is different; his site is Arena Football compared to the Premier League. His site is about The Perfect Solution; ours is about helping people get to the best solution for them. He hates duplicate questions and conversation; we embrace both, because there are rarely simple answers to problems someone doesn’t understand. His sun rises and sets on programmers (or sys admins or whatever), who are unfailingly correct; ours is on the processes of discovery and education. His site is about programmers feeding each other’s egos by pumping up each other’s answers; ours is about pumping up Experts’ egos by having people say “thank you”. Diff’rent strokes.
Finally, we truly do appreciate Mr Atwood’s efforts. Building up SE from nothing to where it is now is a great achievement, and we wish him well in his new ventures.