Spolsky: We have with us Michael Pryor, co-founder of Fog Creek.
Spolsky: And the CFO of StackOverflow.com, .lsc, .com.
Atwood: That's right.
Spolsky: And we're here in Jeff's home, in El Cerrito, California.
Atwood: We are. That's right StackOverflow world headquarters
Spolsky: It's got a gigantic digital clock over there that keeps flipping over and making me jerk my head around suddenly and saying "What was that ?".
Atwood: Well it's not digital, it's analogue, technically.
Spolsky: Those look like giant digits to me, that's a 3.
Spolsky: And that's a 1 and a 2 and it's 3:12.
Atwood: It's digital in that it has digits on it
Atwood: That's true...
Spolsky: And it's not analogue in the sense that there's no..when it goes from 3:12 to 3:13 as it will in a moment, there's no ambiguity as to when it happens, it's not gently shifting it just (popping noise) changes.
Atwood: Well I have a clock..sort of, clock fetish, I have a couple.
Atwood: I have a nixie clock, I have a pong..
Spolsky: What's a nixie clock?
Atwood: Nixie is like those old timey, like they would have on Soviet warships? Digital readout that's basically it's, it's hard to explain, it's basically...
Spolsky: Very analogue.
Atwood: Very analogue but it's as digital as you could get at the time.
Atwood: And that's known as a Nixie tube, basically a tube that has all the numbers in it, it's really cool!
Spolsky: Oh and they turn?
Atwood: No they don't turn! They just light up individually it's like neon...
Spolsky: OH! Oh yeah! It's like, in other words, every position has like a 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 neon thing?
Atwood: Yeah! Yes.
Spolsky: Oh that is awesome!
Atwood: It's really cool!
Pryor: What's it called then when they have the 8 and then it only lights up parts of the 8?
Atwood + Spolsky: Oh that's just LED
Atwood: LED's are good though
Spolsky: We went to, Michael and I just came from the Computer History Museum in Mountain View
Atwood: Yes! That's great, I'm glad you were able to go to that.
Pryor: An interesting part about that trip was the Joel had worked on every single computer in the museum.
Atwood: That's because he's very old.
Pryor: He could tell me how everything worked.
Spolsky: That's not true.
Spolsky: But the ones I had worked on …
Pryor: There was an Enigma machine and he's like
<lots of laughing>
Pryor: (in a silly voice) “When I was just a lad”
<lots more laughing>
Spolsky: They have a giant Babbage computer that they just built.
Pryor: Yes! He worked on one of those too!
Spolsky: Honestly, it looked like a spaghetti maker, it looks like you feed in the pasta dough on one side and it goes “raurourghrourghrough” and spaghetti comes spurting out the other side.
Pryor: It was kind of weird to see all that old equipment and just kinda get excited about it? I feel like such a nerd like “Oh my god! It's an amplitude GS” I remember my Amplitude GS.
Atwood: Yeah, they have like every computer ever, which is really cool.
Pryor: He was getting excited about the HP calculators, which is super nerdy.
Spolsky: Yes! I've used an HP35, HP65, and an HP 41C. Although not the 65 so much. But the 41C oh my god it had alphanumerics, it was LCD not LED – it had letters! On the display! It could say “Hello”, and NOT just by typing 07734
<all 3 laugh>
Spolsky: and holding it upside down!
Pryor: What other words can you write...you can write “Boobless” on a calculator
Spolsky: And “Shell oil”.
Spolsky: So what's new in the way of StackOverflow this week?
Atwood: Well you know it;s odd sitting here with you guys and actually looking at you whilst we do the podcast, which is weird, for number one. Usually I'm just staring into the computer!
Spolsky: Yeah, yeah.
Atwood: And I'm not actually sitting in front of the computer which means I can't actually research
Pryor: You can use my computer if you want
Atwood: No, no, I don't need to, uh
Pryor: You've got StackOverflow memorised, at this point?
Atwood: So, those phrases, if you wanted to find them there was literally no way to.
Spolsky: But who wants to search the comments? They're just comments.
Atwood: Well that;s what I thought too but I kept finding these comments that were really funny and really topical, to the point that I would like
Spolsky: You want to link to them.
Atwood: I didn't want to link to them per-Se, but I would actually enter them in twitter, because I thought they were so interesting and amusing
Atwood: And people seem to like them, they responded to them and I just found that the quality of comments was surprisingly high.
Atwood: And it deserved to be sort of
Spolsky: Elevated a little bit?
Atwood: Yeah, elevated a little bit!
Pryor: But technically you can go back to the old way if you want, you said. Are you going to allow that in the settings?
Atwood: Yeah, we're not big on preferences, I'm kinda down on preferences as a design technique?
Spolsky: You mean the user chooses their preferences?
Atwood: Yeah! I think that your default should be good enough for like, more than 95% of the people? Otherwise you're kind of screwing up.
Spolsky: Well anyway yeah..
Atwood: But in this case I actually believe that this is a preference that we will add to the system because you could make the argument that you really don't want to see comments unless they're really really good or maybe not even at all. So you can actually set the threshold at which they get escalated to the question page? Right now the threshold is 0 essentially, the last 5 comments will appear if there are 5 comments, and then..
Spolsky: You mean they don't, you no longer have to click to see them?
Atwood: Yes! You no longer have to click to see them, because what I found was that if I was interested enough to look at a question, I was interested enough to read pretty much every comment in the question, so the normal pattern for me at least was: Click on a question, and then click click click click click – expand all the comments.
Spolsky: That makes sense!
Atwood: As I'm reading and then I'm like, why do I keep doing that? That's just useless clicking!
Spolsky: It's fun! Clicking is fun!
Spolsky: <laughing> Makes you feel like you're in charge!
Atwood: <laughing> Clicking is actually fun! That's the weird thing about clicking! And anybody who has ever played Diablo, they'll tell you, that's pretty much an orgy of clicking, that's pretty much all you do just click click click click click and it is fun!
Atwood: But I felt with comments that it made more sense to escalate them to the page, you have to do it in a way that you're not overwhelming the page with comments, so it's top 5, by date or by voting – if we have enough votes then we'll show you the top 5 by votes.
Pryor: So the threshold is set to 5 by default?
Atwood: The total number threshold is set to 5, we're thinking about adding a threshold variable in that, the comments that are escalated to the main page have to have n votes to even appear at all – in a user preference. Like you could set it to 5 and then the only comments that got voted to 5 or higher would actually be escalated to the main page for you .
Spolsky: What would be the name of that user preference? <laughs> Like what would the little radio button say?
Atwood: I don't know! I don't know that one...
Spolsky: It seems a little too complicated I mean, unless you experience that, you may not know how to set that preference.
Atwood: Yeah, well it's an advanced user setting, but some users really objected to comments being on the page at all?
Spolsky: They just, you know what? You mean you got feedback, somebody sent you an email saying they don't like comments …
Atwood: Yeah! There's not a lot, there's a minority but..
Spolsky: Yeah. Forget it. You could do anything. You could change it so that there's a button you click and it sent you money in the mail, $20 bills
Spolsky: When you click that button $20 bills arrive in the mail? And you would get somebody saying <grumpy old man voice> “Why did you change stack overflow? It was PERFECT”
Atwood: Yes. What's with all this stupid money you keep sending me!?
Spolsky: Yeah, it's like people will, they like the status quo, and no matter what you change there will be people complaining. Which actually makes it very hard to build a site where you listen to your users.
Pryor: Well that's the big thing because, Joel's been having a conversation about all these features every single time so..
Pryor: And consulting with the people through the blog.
Spolsky: Which is good, yeah, which is fine.
Pryor: But now that they've become accustomed to that it's very difficult because ..
Spolsky: They're gonna start, I mean, every time I changed a font, I could change a font on “Joel on Software” and get, you know, 30 angry emails, and then change it back and get another 30 angry emails, 25 of them from the same people that were upset the first time I changed them “<grumpy old man voice> I just finally got used to that font that you changed”. <laughs> And have to change it all over again.
Atwood: I think you can, sort of tune that stuff out though, but I do think there's a level of feedback where you can tell if something is generally positive or generally negative.
Spolsky: I don't know I'm thinking of, what if you were Facebook right? They just did that redesign where they changed facebook into like … what'd they change it into? Twitter?
Spolsky: Tumblr? <laughs> And there were like millions of people complaining, out of hundreds of millions, but still millions, and they just said “yeah, sorry, we're not listening”.
Pryor: Now you have to vote it's like, democratic, they're doing some democratic system.
Spolsky: So how the heck do you decide – they are?
Pryor: For that, for that particular thing because, you know not for design issues or how the site works or the direction of the site but, you know.
Atwood: Well one thing I want to talk about, and it pains me a little bit to talk about this, is: I have a very ow threshold for “Meta” discussion, in other words, a Podcast about Podcasting, a Blog about Blogging.
Spolsky: Hey lets talk about this gear that we have set up here! The coffee table chair.
<Atwood & Pryor laugh>
Atwood: I think a certain amount of it is okay, a certain low amount, I don't have a problem with...
Spolsky: Sure! Somebody should do a Podcast about Podcasting, just not us!
Atwood: Right! And it shouldn't be all the time, so it;s really a question of ratios, how much time do you spend talking about yourself basically.
Atwood: And the things that you're doing. And one of the questions you asked me in email was, “Where do people go to discuss StackOverflow if not StackOverflow?”
Atwood: And, on one level I can kinda see that because, everybody in the right place, you know, they're all interested they have this one shared interest: StackOverflow. But you have to really consider the audience like, how many programmers actually come to stack overflow thinking “I want to learn more about StackOverflow”? Like, why would you even come to StackOverflow in the first place?
Spolsky: Huh? Oh yeah!
Atwood: You don;t come because you care about StackOverflow, you care about getting an answer to your question.
Spolsky: Well lets divide it into our two communities, we have, that's the 86% that came from google, but the 14% that come because they want to play with it, they want to have fun, they want to try to answer questions, they want to show their knowledge, they just love answering questions for people, it's just kinda fun, they like earning points, they like the badges, the achievements, the $20 bill button that sends them $20 bills to their house..
Atwood: Who wouldn't love that?
Spolsky: I know!
Atwood: I'd hate it but they would like it!
Spolsky: Yeah..it doesn't show up in IE6, you're not seeing it? You've got to upgrade your web browser!
Spolsky: And those..so that second community might actually! But the trouble is by the time they're like, asking... There's this other issue here which is the phenomenon that all social networks will have, is that some people love the social network so much that eventually its core functionality ceases to entertain them, but they love it so much that they kinda wanna hang around and find other games to play with the system.
Spolsky: So they're on StackOverflow and they're like, “Wow this is so cool I'm gonna answer a whole bunch of questions, I know everything about FORTRAN lets see how many FORTRAN questions there are” and they answer all 6 FORTRAN questions.
Spolsky: And there are no, and they're clicking refresh, refresh, refresh on the FORTRAN tag but nothing is coming in. And then maybe they make up a question that they ask themselves <laughs> about FORTRAN and sign up for another account <laughing>
Atwood: Why isn't FORTRAN more popular?
Spolsky: Or they'll just be like, you know, “Does anybody still use (something) strings?” and then they'll go answer that under a different fake ID, and then they'll notice there's not that many other people on the FORTRAN section and they'll start to get a little bit bored, and they'll .. but they love the site so they'll just start kicking other people you know? This is what we refer to as the “Lets stop playing chess and lets start playing throw the chess pieces around the room” <laughs> game.
Atwood: Well I don't think it has to become negative though.
Spolsky: Doesn't have to, but it DOES become meta.
Atwood: It becomes meta, and I personally, I often rant in my blog about, blogging about blogging, and occasionally I will do it just to be clear, I mean it seems hypocritical
Atwood: Let me use a concrete example. So we do actually have--even now--security holes on SO, increasing small ones, narrow ones.
Spolsky: Only children can fit through them.