Getting Started with stackexchange.com

Want to plug into stackoverflow.com but not sure how? My advice:

1. Answer new questions
2. Focus on your area of expertise
3. Keep at it

Details below the fold.

stackexchange.com has become a primary destination for programmers to research, ask, and answer questions about hundreds of commonly used languages. The site includes great orientation resources, and the system works — good answers are voted up, and you can see the reputation on the site of everyone answering and discussing a question. The site also encourages members to share various housekeeping tasks, resulting in questions being edited for clarity, and irrelevant queries being removed from the site.

For the first year or two that I used the site, it was mainly as a research tool. A web search on an issue I was encountering would lead me there, and more often than not my question would have already been asked and answered. As I used the site more, however, I ran into an annoying barrier: when I found an answer that solved a problem for me, I wanted to vote it up, but I couldn’t because I didn’t have enough reputation points on the site to do so. It felt like I was in a one-way relationship with the site, and was unable to take the most basic step of thanking users who’d written good answers with an upvote.

After a little more orientation, I recognized I’d need to spend a little time on the site answering questions in order to build reputation and, eventually, take part more deeply in the life of the community. I had a few false starts before I got there, so this is my advice to anyone else who wants to plug into stackoverflow.com and isn’t sure how.

  1. Answer new questions¬† The main way to build reputation on stackoverflow is to answer questions and then have other members vote them up. For a variety of reasons, you may not get points the first time you answer, or the second, so it’s important to just keep at it. Eventually, you’ll deliver the right answer at the right moment and be recognized for it.Unless you have very specialized knowledge, it makes the most sense to start by reviewing the most recently asked questions. Often relatively easy questions come by, and are answered in minutes of being posted. Catching one first and answering it correctly can be a great opportunity to be recognized for your knowledge, whatever your level of expertise.
  2. Focus on your area of expertise¬† While stackexchange started with a focus on programming, the site today consists of a federated network of communities in a wide variety of subject areas. Once you’ve gained 200 reputation in one community, you automatically earn 100 reputation in every other community — and the right to vote up answers. So explore the different communities and identify one or two that overlap with your areas of expertise, then focus on building reputation in those communities to start. For instance, I recognized that although I’m a web developer, I spend most of my time these days writing books, and I’m fairly good at coming up with synonyms and expressions for particular ideas. I offered answers on a few conversations in the English Language & Usage community, and one of them got a lot of attention and a lot of upvotes. That let me take a more active role in the very active programming community without having to watch the new questions like a hawk.
  3. Keep at it¬† Like coding or writing, getting those last few reputation points that bring you into the stackoverflow community can can take perseverance. There’s no way to predict how soon someone will upvote an answer you give. But if you keep answering questions — and do so while following the site’s guidelines — eventually you’ll be recognized for your knowledge.