The Stack Overflow Podcast

Welcome to 2021 with special guest Joel Spolsky

Episode Summary

The Stack Overflow podcast is celebrating a milestone: Episode 300! As we ring in the new year we've brought on the man who co-created this podcast and co-founded Stack Overflow, Joel Spolsky. We chat about the origins of Stack, ideas for a new kind of "social media," and what's happening with Joel's latest venture,

Episode Notes

You can find the first episode of the SO podcast here. It was conducted over Asterix, open source telephony software that allowed for fancy operations like voice messaging and recording calls! 

What would social software look like if we designed them to remove commerce and popularity? Are services like Mightybell an interesting example of where we might be headed?

If you want to build a model of something - say traffic patterns in your town or a hypothetical zombie invasion - you should check out a new project Joel is involved in,



Episode Transcription

Joel Spolsky Paul, Sara, Ben, what year did you learn that emotion is not conveyed well through text, and therefore you have to assume the best of people on the other side of a text conversation and not escalate when you're having an online text, you know, argument of some sort?

Paul Ford Joe, I learned that on Thursday, December 17, 2020, and I'll learn it again on December 18th, and then I'll learn it again.


Ben Popper Hello, everybody. Welcome to the Stack Overflow podcast. Today is a very special day, we're celebrating Episode 300. And we brought on--[Paul makes horn noise]--Yeah! A special guest, none other than Joel Spolsky, who recorded the first ever Stack Overflow Podcast on which they discussed creating a company called Stack Overflow. Right? I think that's how I remember it.

JS Uh, yeah, the early--I don't remember the earliest episodes.

BP I went back and listened when I was starting.

JS Yeah, I don't remember when we revealed Stack Overflow. But it was sort of, it was a bit in. It's all--

BP Listening to episode one, you're sort of on there discussing, you're saying, you know, "This is a company, we're not quite ready to talk about it publicly, fully. But here's some ideas." Then you discussed how Windows would never be replaced. Desktop Windows would never be replaced by smartphones. 

JS Huh! We did?

BP It was 2008.

JS I don't believe that.

PF You know, history is still gonna prove you right. It's just got to--we just need a minute.

We just need the pendulum to swing back to Windows, you know--

PF Windows 11.Windows 11 is gonna prove us all wrong.

JS Yeah. The only thing I remember about the original podcast is we had a couple of things. One is it was the cold intro. The idea was that this was a found artifact of a recording from our telephone system that somebody had found put up on the internet.

Sara Chipps Oh wow, you didn't know you're being recorded?

JS No, I mean, like that was supposed to be the idea. It was I mean, Jeff, and I were like, here's what we'll do. We'll just we have to have our weekly meeting anyway, let's just record it. And then let's just cut out the part of the beginning of the end where we talk about anything that we don't want people to hear. And then the middle part, just whatever is left. And then I think the first episodes really sounded like a phone audio system, because they went over the phone. Like we had no--Skype hadn't yet been invented.

SC Wild. You were on smartphones, though, right? Yeah.

JS What? No, no, no, we were on the whatever the like, you know, how they used to have office phone systems? 

SC Oh, yeah. 

JS Instead of plugging into a POTS line, and and then there was an open source--Asterix?

PF Asterix!

JS Yeah. And so we ran that at Fog Creek and it you know, but then we wrote some code probably in--well--

PF When Linux isn't bad enough. [Sara laughs]

JS Yeah, we had to write some code to record the conversations, and I think what we did is like the code listen for like a certain [Joel makes beeping noise], like kind of audio beeping. And then would just start recording when you, when you press that on the phone, and then we would go find the wav files and try to make a podcast out of them.

SC We all used to have those in our office. I think when I first started to work at Stack Overflow, I had one of those phones. And sometimes it rang. And I was like, what is, what is happening? I don't know. What is the device is making noise? I don't know what to do.

BP Is this a fire drill? Get out of the building now.

PF I was born too late for this. I can't--what--no way!

JS You don't remember phones in offices? [Sara laughs]

PF No, I do. I'm making fun of Sara. No, you'd have the landline. For people who are listening. Asterix is like a deep cut from the early days of open source. Like, that was like a big deal that you could do open source telephony.

JS Right? It could run your whole office phone system.

PF Because those systems were like 10s of 1000s of dollars. It was a total, total scam. But I mean, it was it's called Asterix because you know, you'd hit that little button on your phone, that Asterix button, and then you could do things and yeah, and of course the company would be like, "Hey, let's just do everything with our touch tone phones.

" Let's start with I mean, were they even called podcasts when you started?

JS Yeah, podcasts were invented long before.

PF Well, sure. I mean, that's an RSS enclosure.

JS Yeah, I need to clear up the record. It was definitely invented by Adam Curry with Dave Winer's help. I don't know, I don't know if that's what Wikipedia says. But that is absolutely no question is that Adam Curry said to Dave Weiner, "I'm gonna record things and I'm going to drop them in a place that you can listen to." And Dave helped him get it set up. So you could drop it in a place with RSS and that just became podcasting. And any other story about the origin of podcasting is--I'm here to say is completely false. [Ben laughs]

PF No, that's true. I remember that. That was a big deal.

SC 2004, originally called audio blogging.

JS They call it podcasting for a while. And then Apple made it podcasting and tried to tell people they couldn't call them podcasts. And some people thought that they would have to call them netcast [Paul laughs] because Apple was trying to trademark podcasts, but that never went anywhere. So we're back to podcasts now.

SC So you guys recorded your meetings, published them, and then when did you change to the like, what made you change the more podcast format?

JS I don't think I did, I think probably some marketing people at Stack Overflow, [Joel laughs] were like "C'mon we gotta do this seriously!"

PF Well also, I remember going into the office, you'd built a very nice podcast studio by the end. That's like, but that's like a good nerd motivation on the other side, right? Like, it's like, "Oh, well now we have to have a beautiful studio." Talk a little bit thought, Joel, like you were building in public, right, which I think is even still an unusual thing, even though more people talk about it. How did that work? Like you're going out into the world? You're, you're two people, you and Jeff are talking. And then people are giving you feedback and you're building software, like how did that all play out?

JS I think that the original motivation was just to get people to use Stack Overflow when it launched. And we sort of knew if you just launch a thing that needs people, and nobody has ever heard of it, then you know, what are you supposed to do, you gonna tweet about it or something? And then 16 people go check it out? Like that was not, you really have to just as much as you have to have a strategy for building all the code, you have to have a strategy for developing the audience that you're going to need because that in a network, like Stack Overflow that depends on people is even more important, I think, than the code. And so once Jeff and I had figured out the basic parameters, we said, "Alright, where do we bring in the people?" And we had the, the rough idea, which is the Joel on Software, you know, viewers or readers and Jeff had another blog as well called Coding Horror, so we could bring in some of our regular blog readers onto Stack Overflow. But we didn't know if that would be enough or if that would be really--we just knew that there had to be some other thing to, to build up this audience of people. And we also knew that we had to--what do they call it, the restaurant, the empty restaurant syndrome, or whatever, which is, if you want to open a restaurant, you got to have all your friends come the first week, because if anybody walks by and sees a newly opened restaurant, and they look in the window, there's nobody in there, then they think there must be something wrong with that restaurant. So you got to have a lot of people at the very beginning. And for Stack Overflow, obviously, people have to be getting answers to their questions. 

PF You were you were also really solving a market problem. I mean, there was the state of online advice was a disaster. 

JS Yeah, no question we had a better mousetrap. But if we hadn't gotten the people in. But you can make great mousetraps, all you want is just someone has to come participate in your mousetrap. So that was the idea of the podcast. And like we got to do a podcast because we got to get some of these people lined up and, like twitching to get started on day one. And that was sort of the idea. So he said, "Why don't we just record the making of and people will follow along?"

BP And were you in there at the beginning, asking and answering like to try to solve that ghost town problem. Were you seeding stuff into the network?

JS No, I didn't, we didn't really have to. I mean, the original idea was that we wanted people to show up in the first minute and see something already there. And I had been running this little discussion group on Joel on Software, which old timers will remember as .NET Questions, where it was a place where you could ask questions about .NET and get answers. And we sort of thought, hey, let's take that, that will sort of seed the content for Stack Overflow. And in fact, that was in the database for a while while we were developing Stack Overflow, just to give us some kind of raw data that we could kind of manipulate with. But that was in discussion format, it wasn't in q&a format. And that means that some of the answers were not answers. So it was kind of the wrong structure of data to actually have on Stack Overflow. And we sort of thought it would just be the seed so that people saw something the first day they got there. And at the last minute, we decided this is garbage. I don't want anybody to see this non q&a format, where some of the answers were comments basically, or non answers, essentially. And also, there's no voting going on on .NET Questions. So at the last minute, we decided just to delete all those questions, which is why the earlier early Stack Overflow questions do not have the number one or not question number one, because of the way identities work in SQL Server. I won't go into that. [Paul chuckles]

PF One day, you'll be able to auction that off, you know that you can retrofit and somebody can get that first question. 

JS Is that even possible on SQL Server? I know it's been a few years, they might have added features, but there was a time where--

SC We're all managers, don't ask us. [Sara laughs]

PF Yeah, I mean, I, you know, I just ported all to Postgres, it would be fine.

JS Oh, okay. [Joel laughs]

BP Sara, do you remember how you sort of found out about it and joined? You were in the first 5000, you were in the 4000s, right, as a user?

SC Yeah. I think as a friend of the family, I had some friends that were working on Stack Overflow, and they're really excited about that. They're talking about what they're building. And I knew Jeff and of course heard of Joel and so they were like, "There's gonna be this new thing. And you can ask questions" and I was like, "Oh, that sounds great. That sounds really valuable." I always tell people it was like, it used to be online that it was like recipes, right? You know, like right now if I want a recipe for cherry pie, I like Google cherry pie. And then I have to read like someone's story about their mom and how their mom loved cherry pie and like, where they go to get their cherries and like what their strategy is about apple pie, or cherry pie. And then I get to read the recipe, like three pages later, that was basically the internet, but coding internet before Stack Overflow. And so it was really beneficial. I just saw it like exploded. So cool.

PF When did this thing tip like you're, you know, was it a month? Was it a year? Was it two years? Where you're like, "Oh, there it goes. Wow."

JS Yeah, no, it tipped instantly. Yeah, I mean, it tipped in minutes. I, as soon as Jeff told me that I could log on and check it out, I planned to log on and ask the most recent programming problem I had had, which was something about like, using a regular expression to find a URL when when the URL might be at the end of the sentence. And so the URL has a period after it. So that was my question that I was going to ask. Actually, I literally went, started typing the question, and by the time I typed a title, Stack Overflow, it identified somebody had already asked that question. 

SC Wow, cool!

JS Like, okay, I guess I don't have to ask the question. I looked at it. And it already had, I'm gonna guess four answers already that people had submitted. And there had been a lot of voting and the number one question had already received, the best answer has actually received the most votes. And it already come to the top. So it was probably on the first day or two, like it did take me a minute, because I was out of internet range, the minute it launched, but yeah, it tipped right away, pretty much everybody was getting answers kind of instantaneously. And it went from, we had Google Analytics set up all the way from the beginning. And I think the first day was 30,000 unique users or something. And then the next day was like, 90,000. And, and then it just sort of went up very, very quickly.

PF Did you have a sense at that moment, where you're like, "Oh, well, that's the next few years of my life." [Ben & Sara laugh]

JS I mean, I definitely, the sense that I had was that we would definitely change the way all programmers worked, which was a weird kind of grandiose sense. But I was really thinking about how, you know, a programmer has an editor, and they have a compiler, and now they're gonna have Stack Overflow. You know, like, every programmer, there are programmers that don't have, I don't know, continuous integration. But there are no programmers that don't have editors. And there are no programmers that don't have compilers. And there are no programmers that don't use libraries, no programmers that don't, you know, use a keyboard. And there's a lot of stuff out there that there are programmers that don't use. There are programmers without frameworks, there programmers without, you know, drag and drop GUI coding and stuff. But I suddenly occurred to me, there's not gonna be any programmers without Stack Overflow. I didn't know about COBOL programmers, but everybody else. [Paul laughs]

PL They're in there too!

SC One thing I think is really neat, is that Stack Overflow gets a lot more traffic than all the coders in the world. Right? Like, there's like, there's 23 million coders in the world. And we see a lot more than that on site. So, it's very cool. I always, it doesn't have to be just professional developers. It's a lot of hobbyists, and professional developers with like, four machines.

JS Yeah. So, you know, let's just count, I don't know, how we really count programmers, there is a lot of non professional programmers that do programming. And nonetheless, and that's, that's sort of what's important. Do we know whether it's makers or, honestly, just people that for their professional reasons need to do some coding, but it's not even close to what they're supposed to be doing at their job.

PF But you think about Excel, or I mean, you know, you could make the argument that everybody who creates an Air Table database is a programmer. Like it just once you--

JS No, I don't even need to do that. There's a lot of people whose job is like, you know, nuclear physicist or whatever. And they're just in Python all day long, you know? 

PF Oh, yeah. Oh, are they write the worst Fortran imaginable, right? No, I mean, they need they need a place to hack it out as well. Right like that. That was always, the tags kind of helped segment out that--were the tags there from the beginning?

JS Yeah, yeah, that was a part of it. That was to avoid the whole, like, oh, let's make a big hierarchy, like in Usenet. And then on Usenet when you made a hierarchy [Paul whistles] You got cross posting, and cross posting was bad.

PF Boy, was it? It was so bad. [Paul chuckles]

BP Yeah, 'cause you would do the same thing twice. Like, yeah, like, I'm interested in C and I'm interested in Windows, that doesn't mean I want to see somebody's Windows programming question in C twice, I don't need to, that's bad. But they will try to post in both places to get the most answers. So anyway, let's stop talking about the past. I'm going to derail this whole conversation. Let's talk about the future a little bit. 

BP Go for it. 

JS Okay. So what do you guys think is going to happen by 2025?

SC 2025, fascinating.

JS Here's what I'm interested in, just like intellectually, and it's not really what I'm working on--what I'm working on is like two things, which many of you will find very boring. One of them is getting individually addressable LED lights to light up and pretty patterns. And this is sort of, it's a solved problem. And it's not that interesting. It's fun to me. But let's go to the future. I think that the lesson of Stack Overflow, if I had to pick one lesson of Stack Overflow, because there's really only one thing that people should learn from Stack Overflow, it would be that you have to build the software in a way that kind of forces people to behave in a way that has the right social outcomes. And however you build the software, whatever features you put in there, they're going to use it for their own purposes. And what their purposes are is probably driven by economics, honestly, because you know, commerce is going to drive out everything else. So what I'm thinking about is like, what are the biggest problem areas right now in online social networking, let's call it. And there's kind of a bunch of problem areas, and I'm trying to figure out ways that you could build architectures that made it impossible to ever have those problems again.

SC I think the way the way you build that architecture, like also has to do with the humans building the architecture, because one thing, right now, I'm writing this whole DNI module for our moderators right now. And the more I read, the more it's been fascinating to me just talking about different, just learning about different cultures and their customs and things like that. And I just think about, like, if I was, if I was building something for the entire world, how would I? How would I do that? How would I think about all these things? So thinking about these cases, I think, like all the different people that are using your platform, building it, I think that's really helpful. As far as the architecture, I think that's a really tough problem. I don't think anyone solved that yet. There's a bunch of people working on it right now.

JS I'm gonna float an idea here, it's gonna take me a minute or two. And again, like, this is not an idea that is very well developed, [Sara laughs] I don't want to say "Oh, I made a product based on this, everybody should check this out." I just want to sort of float it because maybe somebody will hear it, and they'll riff on it and make a product and they'll solve the world's problems. [Ben laughs] And so here, I'm gonna list a couple of hypotheses. And then I'm going to actually, like propose an example of an architecture that I think would be kind of a way to deal with it. So my first hypothesis is that capitalism, while wonderful, and so forth, capitalism will crowd out non capitalism. So markets crowd out regular human interaction. And by crowding out, I just mean like, the minute you let it in, it will sort of push out the natural human interaction. 

SC And it's fairly anti human. Like, it's not, it's not like it's not good for humans, but it doesn't optimize for humans.

PF No, people optimize the market, not the sort of social aspects of it.

JS Yeah. I mean, one, I'll give you an I have a bunch of examples of, you know, capitalism, crowding out, but the most common one is, hey, Stack Overflow is a gift economy where you answer your question as a gift. And if you asked any of the people like Jon Skeet, if you said, "Jon, you are really smart, I need you to help me with a c++ programming problem, I will pay you $250 to help me for 10 minutes" he would just say no. And he would say no, because he doesn't have time. And I guess, with Jon Skeet, I think if you probably got it up to about $5,000 and a donation to something that he loved, I think he might help you with your problem. But he will do for free, what he will not do for hundreds of dollars. And that is true of literally, I don't know half million people on Stack Overflow every month that are in that exact position. So one thing Jeff Atwood and I always spoke about very clearly is it cannot possibly be any money involved on Stack Overflow. They can't, this can't just turn into a thing where you pay $5 and you get faster services, something because we knew that that would crowd out the volunteer and the gift aspect of Stack Overflow. So that's example number one. But let's go with example number two, this my favorite one, is blogging. There was a golden time, Paul. [Joel laughs] And we could you could write blogs and Google would be like, "Whoa, blogs, this is authentic, real content written by actual people who have actually evaluated things and they shall be prioritized." And just linking to something from a real blog, which was all the blogs were real blogs, would give it power in Google. What made that go away is basically this called the hub spots of the world, which is, all of a sudden, a bunch of teenagers were hired to write three blog posts a day in order to generate 300 blog posts a day for like Colman's Mustard. Because what happened is, as soon as there was an economic incentive, there was sort of commerce got in there, it crowded out. And today, I never see blogs in search results for even the most specific things, there's definitely been this crowding out of like the real and the genuine and the free and the volunteer, it's gotten crowded out by commerce. And I'm gonna take a third example, which is a fun one, which is about Burning Man where you're not allowed to sell things. And it's, in some ways, like a music festival, where you might be walking around, and people are selling t shirts and whatnot. But people are not permitted to sell things and sort of a magical thing happens at Burning Man, which is that when somebody approaches you to try to talk to you, they are not trying to sell you anything, or get your signature on anything or steal from you in any way. They're actually just there to talk to you, to actually have a real human conversation. And the end result is that this is weird feeling of walking around for a week in a place where everybody's friendly, you're just like at a family reunion almost, there's no, if somebody comes up to you and start speaking, you don't immediately try to shut them down and get away as you do in Time Square. And so the very fact that commerce has been prohibited creates a zone where the regular human thing of somebody comes up to talk to me, and I talk to them. And then we have a regular human conversation that isn't caused by one person trying to get something out of somebody else. This sort of magical zone is there thereby created. There's my three simple examples of the commerce. Now what makes commerce possible, and I don't think there's anything wrong with commerce or capitalism. I'm not trying to this is supposed to be a screen of like, therefore, we must go back to central planning--I don't--to me capitalism is not like an ism like "Oh, I believe in capitalism" and it's more like just a description of how the economics works. It's just kind of that's how economics happens. You know, you can, you can try to avoid it if you want But the question is like, how do you kind of recreate those zones and those zones are like the family picnic, right? Or the extended family, we all get together for a picnic, there is no buying and selling at the family picnic. You know, just because uncle whatever brought the pina coladas doesn't mean that he's now allowed to sell them to the members of his family.

BP What about reputation? I mean, reputation and social capital are some of the things that definitely motivate people on Stack Overflow, right? Like, not necessarily the commerce of it, but being known in the community and being able to say like, you know, I help this many people, that's one of those things that--

JS That's nice. I think there's definitely some of that there. And as Stack Overflow has maintained itself successfully, as has actually Wikipedia, I would say, have both somehow managed to maintain themselves as decommodified zones where there hasn't been--and I think on Stack Overflow, we lucked out, because there's almost no economic incentive, there's almost not enough things that you might want to sell on Stack Overflow. But the real thing about Stack Overflow that really makes this work is that there's no single page that gets enough page views that somebody would want to hack that page, you would kind of have to hack all conversation like it's, it's, it's too hard. So now when I think about that with social networks, I realized that the easiest thing you could hack about social networks that would make, quote unquote, commerce impossible, or spammers, or even trolls, is popularity. And so what would be the algorithm for a social network, where it was impossible to become popular, right? It's weird, but just imagine that. So imagine, for example, it's just like one one possible outcome. The outcome is like, I cannot friend somebody on my on my new social network that I just created unless we bump phones. It could be bump, or it could be like the thing that Apple does, I don't know what it's called, where there's like a little starfield. And then the one camera scans the other starfield, and they do a key exchange, essentially. So it's a key exchange, key exchange, and that the software is designed in such a way that the key exchange must be done in person physically, when you're physically with a person. And then there can be some other limitation. So you can't just, you know, if you're a superstar celebrity, you can't just have your assistant stand outside of the gates of the concert hall and just sign everybody up. But actually, you can really only use this to actually have actual friends, you actually know. And maybe--

SC So I have three, I've three contacts on the social network.

JS Well, no, this is this is a post pandemic social network, it's gotta go back to actually seeing each other. So what that means is that there's no way to get a lot of followers, it's just becomes impossible to get a lot of followers. Because there's not a lot of followers, there's no reason for brands to participate in this social network. And there's no reason for anybody to try to sell anything, honestly, because they're just not going to sell enough of it. And so all of that selling behavior is now impossible and goes away. And that includes political selling, by the way, which means by political selling, I mean, just ranting and raving about your stupid politics, you're incredibly smart politics, or your incredibly whatever, but you know, virtue signaling, whatever you want to call it. All that kind of stuff, this isn't a good place to do that, you're gonna have to go do that somewhere else. Because your your maximum size, your audience, you know, is in the 10s, or maybe 100. But they're all close friends, there's no, there's no forwarding, there's no following, there's no celebrities. So I'm throwing that out. It's just an idea for people to think about, which is, you know, there are ways with software that we could create new rules and those rules, you know, they would have a bunch of positive negative side effects. But they can be used to create the kind of social network we might want. 

PF Alright, let me throw that back at you though. Because it's like, why even conceive of that? It feels like the form of the social network has gotten wedged in everybody's brain. But it's like, I'd rather just have a group chat, right? Like I mean, all that work and all that labor, why centralize anything? To me, I'm just increasing the like, let's just give up and let the cloud providers offer, you know, like, build little easy Slack alikes, or DM alikes where you can set up a little community with your friends. The thing that I miss the most, is light piracy. I like light, like, hey, check out this thing. You know, as opposed to just endless embeds in the stream, like just like a little, a little community knowledge base, the shared Dropbox folder, something like that. It feels like an app like that we're just get huge lock ins with clusters of people. And it doesn't even need a hub, it doesn't need a central place.

BP Yeah, I mean, the lesson of the pandemic, for me has been that I get a lot more value out of those actually personal text chains that I'm on with friends and family than I do out of doom scrolling my way through the social networks. And I listened to that tech ethicist Tristan Harris talking about the social dilemma. And I think what he's saying that kind of relates back to what Joel is, we sort of need a wake up call, kind of like there was an ecological movement to say, like, it's clear, this isn't healthy for us. What are some things we could do to like, motivate people to act in a different way or gravitate towards you know, these alternatives?

PF My heads been running the scenario, like what are the next five years look like, you know, to Joel's problem, right? So, A) big social comes under increasing regulatory pressure and kind of like, who the hell knows what happens, but I think it just gets a little more boring, probably in a good way. But yeah, I just sort of feel like lots of little decentralized apps, 'cause it always just sort of swings the other way, you know, your friend will set up your your room, and then you'll go hang out there.

JS I mean, the internet has always been--the story of the internet, going back to like the first story that was written about it in USA Today in 1989, or whatever it was, was, you can have a friend in Pakistan, who is also interested in making LED chaser circuits using, you know, 555 ICS. And you're like, oh, yeah, that's really cool. Because I certainly am not going to find one of those in my community. And so the idea that you would find these people that shared interests all over the world, and then you can then communicate them. That was definitely what everybody has been working on now for 30 years. And that is a solved problem, right? And the trouble is that that problem leads to--it's got his problems in some places, a lot of times, they're very disruptive people on the groups, and it's hard to get rid of them, maybe because they have the knowledge, maybe because the group is not really set up to censor itself. But there's all kinds of ways that individuals can kind of screw up one of those groups if you just sort of let them in. And the other thing is honestly, like a lot of the--there's definitely been a lot of bad things that have happened on the internet, because we have allowed people to find each other. [Joel laughs]

SC Yeah! Like, should we should we be letting that happen? Yeah, I think about this a lot when I'm doing scrolling is like, is man supposed to have a place where they can yell into a void and millions of people can see it? Like is that supposed to exist?

PF Human discovery is such a chore to know, right? Like, it's all this used to be very joyful, that is the thing that is sort of gone out of it. It's like you'd find that person in Pakistan, and you'd be--it actually, it would change like five or six things about the way you saw the world, you'd be like, Oh, my God, and then then you'd find out after a while, that they had some fundamental difference in their belief system than you did. And that would force you to reevaluate all kinds of stuff. And so it was an actual rich kind of human interaction. And then we're back to the market, the market forces are utterly against that, they just they amplify whatever the strongest opinion is. And they kind of just like, you know, you just, you're just blown back from your phone as you read and you're like, "Oh, I thought that person was really good at metadata, but it actually, you know, it turns out that they, they're like, really into serial killers. I kind of don't want that in my life right now."

JS Yeah. When I think about what flipped there, it's all I think the people we were discovering, originally, we were finding through their blogs, and the geo cities pages, where they were presenting themselves as a human being, and later you discovered you shared an interest. When you now find somebody through a Facebook group, you know, on some narrow topic or a, you know, a discourse or Slack or something, you kind of just see their name, you don't know that much about them. And in fact, when I'm reading the comments, whatever that means, it's just anonymous, it's completely anonymous, you see no faces, you see, I mean, you might see a tiny avatar of a face, but that's usually fake anyway, and you see a bunch of names that are meaningless to you. And you know, absolutely nothing about who these people are. They're just ranting and talking and talking and talking. So that's a weird kind of wrong thing. 

SC It sounds like we're talking about bringing back forums, like it sounds like we should all have our own personal website with a forum on it. And no one's popular on a forum.

JS A little bit, I mean, there were definitely--it took a long time in forums to actually get to know the key people. And the trouble is that the anonymous people had just as much voice as the key people. So one thing that was nice about their very, very early Instagram is that it was just hooked up to your camera, and it didn't actually have the ability, somebody correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think it had the ability to take a photo you had already taken and post it. Like, just because you had it in your camera.

PF Yeah, it was it was purely like in the moment. Yeah.

SC Who pays for the servers, are we all sending our $3 a month? 

JS So my theory is it doesn't cost anything to us. This is the software is open source. And the hosting is just it's static pages on the internet that are, you know, encrypted with and there's a there's a public key architecture so that only people that you have met in person and exchange keys with can read your things. But other than that, it's a little bit of static hosting. And you either host it yourself or you just like point to, I don't know, CloudFlare is somebody who's going to static assets.

PF Yeah it can be like anything, it's the free tier for you and up to 10 friends and then if you want to build your community, like let's say you're running a conference or it's academic and that you could have that tier. 

SC This sounds a lot like Mightybell. Have you been on Mightybell? 

PF No.

JS No.

SC Gina Bianchini has a company called Mightybell. Mighty Networks it's called now, kind of hits all the points you're talking about.

JS Yes, yes, that was sort of the follow up of Ning, right? 

SC Yeah, yeah.

JS Yeah. Because the way it works with blogs, you know, RSS aside, not a lot of people had RSS because most people had bookmarks. And they had nine bookmarks that they visited every day of like, I'm gonna go to Scripting News. And I'm gonna go to Joel on Software. And I'm going to go to [inaudible] and I'm going to go to Ben and Mena Trott. It's like, I'm trying to remember who I had in my list that I just went to see. So the idea that there you can't have a system where each group needs to be a destination, or you'll only get the people that are very, very dedicated to that group.

PF Back to the Instagram point, that incentivized incredibly easy creation, right? Like, there is an element of that like I wouldn't mind a daily check in with my family or my friends where they just send me one picture and everybody puts about 30 seconds of effort into that.

JS So yeah, that's what I that's where I think the delightful thing can happen where you actually are not permitted to have sort of anonymous followers, there's no follow, that stuff sort of kind of can be crowded out. Through two things, one is like, it has to be a photograph that you take with camera, it can't be like a cut and paste or can't be somebody else's meme that you're like, everybody put this meme up now, you know. And secondly, it's just your audience is so small, it's just your friends and family. 

PF See, the foundational challenge here is that I think group chats will always keep going right? But like, the motivation is very tricky. And I think developers in particular, like there's a sense that people are creative, but so many humans, the other 5, 6 billion feel much more passive. And if how do you get them motivated to actually make and do when they're literally every other signal is just sit here and watch and give it a thumbs up, you know, that that's the big challenge, because otherwise you can't get that velocity. 

JS Yeah, like, there may be a situation where the world just consists of 10% sort of producers of content and 90% passive spectators.

PF Well, I mean, Stack is a great example. That can be really, really productive. It's incredibly productive. But I'm sure you know, the audience to contributor ratio at Stack is, is like that, like a tiny percentage write and post and the rest are there to read.

JS I sort of wonder, but if those people are, you know, grandma has essentially her immediate family and that nice lady down the street and her seven friends, will she take a picture of her pie that she just took? Sure, like it doesn't have to compete with, there isn't a sense of like, "Oh, I'm competing against all this celebrity content with my picture of a pie."

BP I mean, even on the text chains, that's the thing, like it is nice people send heartfelt stuff, we have real conversations, but the person who sends the funny meme gets the most likes on you know, the little text chain in Apple's closed off. 

PF Humans are humans. We're always going to be looking to expand our territory and influence and they're, you know, that is just how it goes. Like who's got the funny, you'll be driving in a car. And the person who says the funniest thing kind of wins the car ride, like it is--[Joel laughs] there's an element of that just in who we are. Right? So you can't, the thing is is like when it gets gamified. And when you just have this endless, like, what's happened is the worst thing always wins. And boy, is that tiring, because you just, I just don't even look at Facebook anymore. I'm still on Twitter, because it just makes me feel like garbage. But it's just it's my garbage.

SC There's an entropy to those groups to right, like I've signed up for this random Facebook, I bought like these fake lashes once that I never used but like there's instructions in the Facebook group. So I like joined and now like their constant political wars in the lash Facebook group and the big lash Facebook group of people freaking out constantly.

JS That's the thing I'm most disappointed about humans. I kind of thought by now the whole planet would understand that that person on Twitter is trolling you. Don't feed the trolls.

SC Yeah. No, it's really tough, I think one day you have that day where like, you know, you have trolls coming at you all the time. And then one day, they say something that is just like, "Oh, wow you're so wrong. Now I'm about to tell you." And then that's your next three hours. 

PF It's human nature to at least stand up for yourself for what you believe in. And

JS This is something that's really, really fun to do if you want to is and it's sometimes tricky to do but try to find websites that people made for their groups and organizations. They're older. They're usually from a while ago, like there's a couple of Squarespace and WordPress', but mostly, you know, old technology. So when you find this thing, like somebody's got a, like a baseball league or whatever, and you found their website, a lot of times it's like optimized so that it fits in 640 by 480, [Joel laughs] it's just really, really old technology, and it's barely even displaying anymore, but just like every word there is like somebody's kind of heartfelt like, "Oh, I'm getting to know them."

BP Let's each say maybe one or two things we're excited about in 2021 that could be related to technology or science or whatever it may be. What do you think? 

JS Oh my God. Vaccine. Big ol' vaccine. And my life to be back to normal. 

SC Yeah. I'm excited for hugs. I don't even really like hugs, but I miss them.

PF Yeah, I don't really think of you as a hugger.

JS And I don't even like bars, but I'm gonna go to so many bars. [Joel laughs] Like travel, I'm going everywhere. I don't like clubs, but I'm going to be in the clubs.

PF That is true. I like I just miss like in person small conversations where you were figuring things out, whether it was like a drink or whether it was--so vaccines--

BP I'm gonna go to a crowded concert and bump into strangers. Maybe I'll ride the subway during rush hour just for the hell of it.

JS Yeah. Oh, yeah. Like, sometimes when you go to a bar and you the bar is so crowded that you literally just have to frottage 23 strangers to get a drink. And it's like, you know what, like, that's what we're all here for. So.

SC There's this guy on TikTok who's like, we found and was like a 17 year old New Jersey DJ. And like, wherever he's playing, I'm going, that's what I'm excited about. Just like whatever. He's so hyped, he's throwing napkins.

BP Jersey Shore. All the way. [Joel laughs] Well yeah, I'm actually, the other thing I was gonna say was, I'm interested to see what comes out of all the science that went into the vaccine because it was kind of like this space race moment where like the whole world poured so much energy into something. And this new technique, which had actually been sort of like, derided for decades, this RNA technique came to the rescue. So I'm interested to see maybe the knock on effects for other things there, could be could be pretty interesting.

PF Hey, congratulations to mRNA based technologies, which I don't understand at all. Good job!

BP Alright, fantastic. And Joel, you said you didn't want to shout out Hash, you don't want to talk about at all? You're not interested in giving people--

JS Everybody should check out. I mean, if they're curious about what cool things going on the world, everybody should check out That's the that's the url .ai is a TLD now., which is a way to build a simulation, it's all through your browser, it's very easy. I mean, it's it takes some programming to build the simulation, but you may not really know how to do, like if you don't know how to study epidemics, but you're still trying to figure out what's happening during the COVID crisis and you certainly know how your agents behave. You can build that stuff, by building little simple models in JavaScript and Hash sort of combines them all, takes a simulation, runs it through a blender and shows you what the outcome will be.

PF Finally figure out how that zombie invasion is going to go.


BP Alright, great. Well, thanks everybody for coming on episode 300. It's been a blast. I can't believe we made it all the way here. I'm Ben Popper, Director of Content here at Stack Overflow. You can find me on Twitter @BenPopper, and shoot us an email 

SC And I'm Sara Shipps, Director of Community here at Stack Overflow. And you can find me @SaraJo on GitHub.

PF I'm Paul Ford, friend of Stack Overflow, check out my company Postlight.

BP Joel, you want to sign off and let people know who you are, where they can find you, if you want to be found?

JS Oh hi, I'm Joel. I'm the founder of this podcast. [Ben chuckles] You can find me--you can find me in real life only. You have to find the flesh human being walking around.

BP Alright, and bump phones.