Clay Shirky’s TED Talk How cognitive surplus will change the world, published on ted.com in June 2010 talks about a trillion hours of available thinking time that is now available every year, and how this cognitive surplus might change the world.

I found the distinction he draws between community minded and civic minded goals to be particularly relevant, as I think it highlights the difference between StackOverflow and that other site.

One of the guiding principles behind StackOverflow - and indeed the entire stack exchange network - is Jeff Atwood’s goal of making the internet better. This even goes so far as to optimize the StackOverflow experience for the one-time visitor looking for answers through Google.

In Clay Shirky’s terms, Stack Overflow is civic minded, with a community of users who contribute their time and knowledge so that all may benefit. This is a stark contrast with the way “that other site” operates, where one-time visitors may only benefit by joining the community.

Of course, there’s more to the success of Stack Overflow than just this one factor. I suggest, however, that the “civic focus” of the stack-exchange network will be critical to their continuing success.

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