Are you here only for the content or also for the exchange?

Or how cultural values influence engagement in Stack Overflow.

Nigini A. Oliveira
Nov 19, 2018 · 3 min read

(Cross-posted to ACM CSCW)

This post summarizes our CSCW'2018 paper “The Exchange in StackExchange: Divergences between Stack Overflow and its Culturally Diverse Participants” by Nigini Oliveira, Michael Muller, Nazareno Andrade, and Katharina Reinecke. (DOI and PDF)

Without a doubt, software developers created highly valuable content to solve programming problems in Stack Overflow. However, the community has been discussing how elitist and not welcoming the site can be, and how peripheral participants can have very negative experiences. I have been studying participation differences on Stack Overflow from a cross-national perspective. I found that non-Western countries — more specifically, societies which focus on group-based collaboration (e.g., India and China) — have proportionally much fewer contributors than Western and industrialized countries (i.e. societies that focus more on individual achievements like the USA and UK).

Figure 1: Individualist countries (i.e. Western and Industrialized) like the USA can have double the proportion of users engaged in contributing answers than more collectivist nations (i.e. group-based societies) like India and China. Our models also show that the Individualism vs Collectivism cultural trait explains engagement differences better than English proficiency. (The dots vary from higher (darker blue) to lower (light blue) English-proficiency.)

Based on this previous quantitative analysis, we asked in this CSCW paper:

Is there a cultural value mismatch between Stack Overflow’s design proposals and its culturally diverse community of participants?

To answer that, we analyzed the values in two sets of data: (1) the ones expressed by Stack Overflow creators in blog posts and tutorials — which are meant to instruct the site participants about the community and expected behaviors; and (2) the values conveyed by Stack Overflow participants from three countries: China, India and the US. By contrasting the values from the site creators and its participants, we found that:

Stack Overflow approach to online collaboration tends to focus on an individualist perspective (e.g., based on personal reputation participants build by contributing), which clashes with group-focused views that are more prevalent in non-Western societies.

One significant disparity in our data is related to sociability. For instance, Stack Overflow guidelines instruct participants not to use comments to socialize and not even say ‘Thank you.’ At the same time, participants with a collectivist background claim that more than searching for accurate answers, they also use Q&A sites to socialize with those who have similar interests. Our analyses also show that site users who align better with the reputation and competition-based approach to collaboration are precisely the ones who feel more empowered to contribute. In summary, collaborative systems designed with individualist values in mind can systematically discourage engagement of those with collectivist values.

How can we use this knowledge to design more inclusive online environments?

Figure 2: Sketches for user-cards in Stack Overflow. The one on the left is the current way site contributors are represented (based on their reputation and contribution). We are now examining new ideas for user-cards as the one on the right which shows a user identity focused on group affiliation.

We are now re-imagining and testing new ways to design Question & Answer sites that can equally encourage participants with either individualist or collectivist cultural backgrounds to engage in site activities. Take for instance the user-card, which is the way the site represents contributors’ identities associated to each question and answer they contribute. The user-card currently used by Stack Overflow (Figure 2, left) creates an identity focused on participants’ reputation, which can be less relatable to collectivist participants. What if we re-design the user-card to signal group-based interactions like the one shown on the right side of the Figure 2?

Take away message: Collaborative systems designed with individualist values in mind can systematically discourage engagement of those with collectivist values.

I would love to hear your thoughts! Feel free to comment on this post or email me. Regards. o/

Thanks to Sara Vannini

Nigini A. Oliveira

Written by

Postdoc researcher at UW (Seattle), excited about HCI and Social Computing.

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