Social sciences can sometimes be the best predictors for success of a tool / product in many ways than one. The fact that human beings are the intended audience for any new innovation we make, usually ensures that good amount of forward thinking social science could perhaps avoid mistakes or plain disasters that sometimes get introduced in the name of innovation or product design.
A case in point is the relatively new technical discussion site called StackOverFlow.Com.
Historically, there have been many avenues on the net to find answers. Newsgroups, mailing lists and chat rooms used to be the most prominent for this purpose.
The new entrant in this mix are social discussions sites, the best of which is slashdot. Digg is a similar catch up, but with subtle difference about the way how the top posts are identified, using votes or diggs that readers can attribute to an article.
Two of the best bloggers on the planet, decided to take up this idea and extend it further, to create a discussion site with a difference, stackoverflow.com those that up vote answers and give incentives for folks to answer more and more.
Expertsexchange.com does something similar but stackoverflow.com might, i think garner many more page views attributed to the blog readership and a cleaner page design. However, these sites or at least stackoverflow.com is not the place i would go to if i needed the best answers on the internet. Reasons?
Trolls, though a problem on any and all discussion sites, cannot resist such juicy targets and this presents a real problem for legitimate users and administrators included.The quality of questions posted will suffer as a result and cause the good posters to stay away. StackOverflow uses its “top posters are also administrators” policy to take down trolls fast, but this still is an issue.
Many a time this causes the wrong answer or in-sufficient answer to be marked as the correct one. This means that the site gives all the wrong impressions to anyone looking for answers.
Volunteers have the correct motivation
Newsgroups work on knowledgeable volunteers who argue out the faintest bits of a question. However that model has been replaced in stackoverflow by geeks who for personal reasons want to gather the most number of votes by answering questions. This means that no one looks at questions that have already been answered. Combine that with the problems arising with decision inversion issue above and you have a deadly combination where wrong answers remain marked as correct answers as long as these pages remain on the internet.
The real experts stay away – When you have an organization that rewards the wrong guys, soon the great guys figure out whats happening / gets frustrated and learn to stay away from it. From my brief time exploring stackoverflow i dont think i have ever encountered the great folks that you might tend to come across on newsgroups or even slashdot. This tremendously reduces the value of such a site aimed at technical answers .
For all these reasons i believe newsgroups to be still the best place on the internet to receive answers to the technical and otherwise questions you might have, simply because they are driven by volunteers competing to outdo correctness in others.
However due to all the reasons mentioned above, stackoverflow does seem to be the site to get real quick answers, that are easily verifiable like how to do x, or how to fix y. This i believe might be the niche that stackoverflow is going to settle into, muck like expertexchange, its main comptetitor.
Open source thought
Perhaps the same reasons as to why volunteers do a better job, might hold true as to why open source software trumps the best commercial softwares out there when it comes to quality. Of-course it might take time, but ultimately the quality will shine through.