I’ve considered writing a bit about this before, but not done so for fear of looking like a jerk. I still think I may well end up looking like a jerk, but this is all stuff I’m interested in and I’ll enjoy writing about it, so on we go. Much of this is based on experiences at and around Stack Overflow, and it’s more likely to be interesting to you if you’re a regular there or at least know the basic premises and mechanics. Even then you may well not be particularly interested – as much as anything, this post is to try to get some thoughts out of my system so I can stop thinking about how I would blog about it. If you don’t want the introspection, but want to know how to judge my egotism, skipping to the summary is probably a good plan. If you really don’t care at all, that’s probably a healthy sign. Quit now while you’re ahead.
What is a micro-celebrity?
A couple of minutes ago, I thought I might have been original with the term “micro-celebrity” but I’m clearly not. I may well not use the term the same way other people do, however, so here’s my rough definition solely for the purposes of this post:
A micro-celebrity is someone who gains a significant level of notoriety within a relatively limited community on the internet, usually with a positive feedback loop.
Yes, it’s woolly. Not to worry.
I would consider myself to have been a micro-celebrity in five distinct communities over the course of the last 14 years:
- The alt.books.stephen-king newsgroup
- The mostly web-based community around Team17’s series of “Worms” games (well, the first few, on the PC only)
- The comp.lang.java.* newsgroups
- The microsoft.public.dotnet.languages.csharp newsgroup
- Stack Overflow
The last has been far and away the most blatant case. This is roughly how it goes – or at least how it’s gone in each of the above cases:
- Spend some time in the community, post quite a lot. Shouting loudly works remarkably well on the internet – if you’re among the most prolific writers in a group, you will get noticed. Admittedly it helps to try hard to post well-written and interesting thoughts.
- After a while, a few people will refer to you in their other conversations. For instance, if someone in the Java newsgroup was talking about “objects being passed by reference”, another poster might say something like “Don’t let Jon Skeet hear you talking like that.”
- Play along with it, just a bit. Don’t blow your own trumpet, but equally don’t discourage it. A few wry comments to show that you don’t mind often go down well.
- Sooner or later, you will find yourself not just mentioned in another topic, but being the topic of conversation yourself. At this point, it’s no longer an inside joke that just the core members of the group “get” – you’re now communal property, and almost any regular will be part of the joke.
One interesting thing you might have noticed about the above is that it doesn’t really take very much skill. It takes a fair amount of time, and ideally you should have some reasonable thoughts and the ability to express yourself clearly, but you certainly don’t have to be a genius. Good job, really.
How much do you care?
This is obviously very personal, and I’m only speaking for myself (as ever).
It’s undeniably an ego boost. Just about every day there’s something on Stack Overflow to laugh about in reference to me. How could I not enjoy that? How could it not inflate my sense of self-worth just a little bit? I could dismiss it as being entirely silly and meaningless – which it is, ultimately – but it’s still fun and I get a kick out of it. And yes, I’m sorry to say I bore/annoy my colleagues and wife with the latest Stack Overflow news, because I’ve always been the selfish kind of person who wants to talk about what they’re up to instead of asking the other person about their interests. This is an unfortunate trait which has relatively little to do with the micro-celebrity business.
One very good thing for keeping my ego in check is that at Google, I converse with people who are smarter than me every day, whether at coffee, breakfast, lunch or just while coding. There’s no sense of anyone trying to make anyone else feel small, but it’s pretty obvious that I’m nothing special when it comes to Google. Now, I don’t want to put on too much false modesty – I know I have a reasonable amount of experience, and I happen to know two very popular platforms reasonably well (which really helps on Stack Overflow- being the world’s greatest guru on MUMPS isn’t going to get you much love), and perhaps most importantly I can communicate pretty well. All of these are good things, and I’m proud of my career and particularly C# in Depth…
… but let’s get real here. The Jon Skeet Facts page isn’t really about me. It’s about making geek jokes where the exact subject is largely irrelevant. It could very easily have been about someone else with little change in the humour. Admittedly the funniest answers (to my mind) are the ones which do have some bearing on me (particularly the one about having written a book on C# 5.0 already) – but that doesn’t mean there’s anything really serious in it. I hope it’s pretty obvious to everyone that I’m not a genius programmer. I’d like to think I’m pretty good, but I’m not off-the-charts awesome by any means. (In terms of computer science, I’m nothing special at all and I have a really limited range of languages/paradigms. I’m trying to do something about those, but it’s hard when there’s always another question to answer.)
It’s worth bearing in mind the “micro” part of micro-celebrity. I suspect that if we somehow got all the C# developers in the world together and asked them whether they’d heard of Jon Skeet, fewer than 0.1% would say yes. (That’s a complete guess, by the way. I have really no idea. The point is I’m pretty sure it’s a small number.) Compared with the sea of developers, the set of Stack Overflow regulars is a very small pond.
What I care far more about than praise and fandom is the idea of actually helping people and making a difference. A couple of days ago I had an email from someone saying that C# in Depth had helped them in an interview: they were able to write more elegant code because now they grok lambda expressions. How cool is that? Yes, I know it’s all slightly sickening in a “you do a lot of good work for charity” kind of way – but I suspect it’s what drives most Stack Overflow regulars. Which leads me on to reputation…
What does Stack Overflow reputation mean to you?
In virtually every discussion about the Stack Overflow reputation system and its caps, I try to drop in the question of “what’s the point of reputation? What does it mean to you?” It’s one of those questions which everyone needs to answer for themselves. Jeff Atwood’s answer is that reputation is how much the system trusts you. My own answers:
- It’s a daily goal. Making sure I always get to 200 is a fun little task, and then trying to get accepted answers is a challenge.
- It’s measurable data, and you can play with graphs and stats. Hey we’re geeks – it’s fun to play with numbers, however irrelevant they are.
- It’s an indication of helpfulness to some extent. It plays to my ego in terms of both pride of knowledge and the fulfillment of helping people.
- It’s useful as an indicator of community trust for the system to use, which is probably more important to Jeff than it is to me.
- It’s a game. This is the most important aspect. I love games. I’m fiercely competitive, and will always try to work out all the corners of a game’s system – things like it being actually somewhat useless getting accepted answers before you’ve reached the 200 limit. I don’t necessarily play to the corners of the game (I would rather post a useful but unpopular answer than a popular but harmful one, for serious questions) but I enjoy working them out. I would be interested to measure my levels of testosterone when typing furiously away at an answer, hoping to craft something useful before anyone else does. I’m never going to be “macho” physically, but I can certainly be an alpha geek. So long as it doesn’t go too far, I think it’s a positive thing.
I sometimes sense (perhaps inaccurately) that Jeff and Joel are frustrated with people getting too hung up about reputation. It’s really unimportant in the grand scheme of things – rep in itself isn’t as much of a net contribution to the world’s happiness as the way that Stack Overflow connects people with questions to people with relevant answers really, really quickly. But rep is one of the things that makes Stack Overflow so “sticky” as a website. It’s not that I wouldn’t answer questions if the reputation system went down – after all, I’ve been answering questions on newsgroups for years, for the other reasons mentioned – but the reputation system certainly helps. Yes, it’s probably taking advantage of a competitive streak which is in some ways ugly… but the result is a good one.
One downside of the whole micro-celebrity thing – and in particular of being the top rep earner – is that various suggestions (such as changing the rep limit algorithm and introducing a monthly league) make me look really selfish. It’s undeniable that both of the suggestions work in my favour. I happen to believe that both work in the community’s favour too, but I can certainly see why people might get the wrong idea about my motivation. I don’t remember thinking of any suggestions which would work against my personal interests but in the interests of the community. If I do, I’m pretty sure I’ll post them with no hesitation.
Yes, I like the attention of being a micro-celebrity. It would be ridiculous to deny it, and I don’t think it says much more about me than the fact that I’m human.
Yes, I like competing for reputation, even though it’s blatantly obvious that the figure doesn’t reflect programming prowess. It’s part of the fuel for my addiction to Stack Overflow.
With this out of the way, I hope to return to more technical blog posts. If anything interesting comes up in the comments, I’ll probably edit this post rather than writing a new one.