Building reputation on Stack Exchange sites

Gamification… is ADDICTIVE! I got hooked on basically “collecting meaningless points” on the Stack Exchange sites. As I was building up a “know-how” of doing this, I started drafting this post. Then I gave up actually posting it, thinking “what the hell do I know about this stuff anyway with my puny reputation”?

But then, what do you know, @DuncanLock who has similar reputation as me has posted his own take on the subject, and guess what, he got literally hundreds of good reactions, including high-profile Stack Exchange users, moderators, and even @codinghorror himself:

The Smart Guide to Stack Overflow: Zero to Hero

I commented on his blog a few extra tips of my own, but later I realized I still have some more to say. So here we go, my follow-up tips for building reputation on the Stack Exchange sites, on top of what Duncan already covered nicely.

Get the basics down first

informed1. Do read the entire About page. Carefully. It’s really important to understand the site. Plus you get the Informed badge as a reward! This page is also important to understand the counting of reputation: http://stackoverflow.com/help/whats-reputation (especially the daily max 200 limit!)

2. Be patient. It takes time to build reputation. If this was easy within a matter of days the system would be meaningless.

3. Be civil and professional. Don’t lash out on poor quality questions/answers/comments. Vote down if you don’t like something and move on. Don’t take anything personal, be cool.

4. Be a good sportsman. If somebody else posted a better answer than yours, admit defeat and move on. If somebody answered first something just as good as yours, vote it up and move on.

Finding questions to answer

1. Look for questions in your favorite areas of expertise. There’s much more than stackoverflow.com, take a look around the many other Stack Exchange sites. If you’re a programmer, check out http://programmers.stackexchange.com/. If you’re more of a sysadmin dude, head over to http://serverfault.com/ or http://askubuntu.com/. If you’re a UNIX/Linux expert, you will enjoy http://unix.stackexchange.com/. There’s probably something for everyone.

2. Be selective when you pick a question to answer. Figuring out what the heck a poorly written question is supposed to mean might not be worth your time and effort. And if you are not 100% sure you have a great answer immediately, then somebody else will probably beat you to it. It’s often better to just move on.

3. Devise question hunting strategies and combine them efficiently. I use the following basic strategies:

  • Fast-read the newest tab (click on Questions if you don’t see it), fishing for easy questions and try to be the first to answer. New questions are very visible because they are on the front page. That also means you don’t have much time to research to give a good answer.
  • Search by tags to find questions in your strongest subjects. Sometimes there are easy questions that dropped off the front page of newest questions. This can be very lucrative, as you are looking at questions in your strong area, and you have more time to research and give a good answer.
  • Only open questions with 0 or 1 answer. Often the first answer is not that great, and it’s quite possible that you can do better. When there are 2 or more answers it becomes less and less likely that you can give a better answer.
  • If you are tired of one site, or while waiting for a new set of questions to accumulate, switch to another site.
  • Setup filters on http://stackexchange.com/filters/new and email notifications of new questions in your favorite areas. This is most useful for tags with only a few questions per day or less. This is not useful at all for highly active tags with many questions per hour.

Typically I quickly scan the new questions. Usually I find a few I might be able to answer, read them properly, and if enough time passed, then if I reload the page I see a completely new set of questions. If I don’t see anything suitable, then I check on my favorite tags for a few minutes, and switch back again to the first strategy. Or instead of checking on favorite tags, I can switch to another stack exchange site.

4. Something that helps me a lot answering questions well (= actually getting rewarded for it) is to hunt questions when I’m deeply into something. For example, after about a week of Android hacking, suddenly I can answer many questions well and fast, because I’m just really right in the middle of it. Not to mention that when deep into something I usually have my own questions, and very often find answers that almost work but not quite, which is another good opportunity to post my own.

Drawing attention

Sometimes your otherwise great answer might not be getting the attention it deserves… Luckily there are quite a few things you can do to improve that.

1. If you intend to answer or already answered a question, don’t vote it up immediately. After answering, give it a few days, and if there is no reaction on it, then come back to it and vote it up. Such activity will bring the question up to the front page again, becoming more visible again, especially to the poster who will receive a notification in his Inbox. And if your answer is accepted, then be a good citizen and vote up the question. (You should not answer questions you don’t like anyway.)

2. Share your answer (or question) on your social networks. It’s very easy to use the [share] link right under the question/answer. Same with voting up the question, do this after a few days if the question is inactive.

3. Improve your answers. From time to time review your answers with zero upvotes and see how they can be better. Perhaps they were not clear enough, or maybe you answered too quickly and misunderstood the question. If the answer is not something you can proudly show to your friends, then maybe it’s better to delete it.

Collecting badges

Badges are cool goodies, but they don’t get you any reputation. They sure look good in your profile though 🙂

civic-duty1. Personally I don’t hunt badges. I think you can just let them come to you naturally. For example, you get the Civic Duty badge if you voted 300 times. That’s so cool, I didn’t even know it existed, and one day I just got this in my Inbox, yeay!

electorate2. Some badges reward you for using the site in a sort of “balanced” way. For example, you get the Electorate badge if you voted on 600 questions and 25% or more of total votes are on questions. The site also warns you if you vote mostly on answers only, saying that questions need loving too 🙂

Becoming a seasoned veteran

profile for janos on Stack Exchange, a network of free, community-driven Q&A sites

1. Once you have built up some reputation, embed “a piece of valuable flair” on your website, for example: http://stackoverflow.com/users/641955/janos/flair

2. Check out the Stack Overflow “leagues”:
http://stackexchange.com/leagues/1/alltime/stackoverflow

You can see the heaviest hitters by week/month/quarter/year/all-time on all Stack Exchange sites, as well as your own rank.

Another interesting thing on your profile page on stackexchange.com (different from stackoverflow.com) is the reputation tab shows a graph of your reputation score changes, for example:
http://stackexchange.com/users/322516/janos?tab=reputation

By the way, on your Stack Overflow profile homepage (not Stack Exchange), in the Reputation section you can see a link to the leagues, in a format like “top 3% this quarter”. The value shown can be about the quarter, week, month or year, depending on whichever is highest for you, and it takes you right to your position in the leagues.

rep-top-info

3. See what privileges you can unlock by earning higher reputation:
http://stackoverflow.com/privileges. It’s really cool how more and more interesting features of the site start opening up gradually. In a way it’s like going deeper down in the rabbit hole. For example, after about 2000 you can start moderating various types of posts (new users, low quality, etc), which reward you with new badges.

4. It seems that if you are active on a Stack Exchange site, sooner or later you get invited to http://careers.stackoverflow.com/. It’s a very cool site where you can list your competencies much better than on LinkedIn, for example. Not only you can showcase selected high-scoring questions and answers from Stack Exchange, you can also highlight your most interesting open-source projects on GitHub or other code hosting sites. (You can check out mine here for example: http://careers.stackoverflow.com/janosgyerik)

Conclusion?

At the end of the day, I’m not sure how much effort is worth investing in reputation building, so I leave that up to you 🙂 Answering questions is probably similar to teaching: you always learn something even while you teach, so if nothing else, at least you have that!

  • Glenn Jackman

    In my experience, the best way to stay on top of questions you’re interested in is to create a stack exchange filter (http://stackexchange.com/filters) and subscribe to it’s RSS feed.

    • Janos Gyerik

      Thanks for the tip, I did not know that! I will try this out, see how it goes, and improve the post later.