“Hey, have you heard?  StackExchange is the new faq/forum.  It’s the cat’s pajamas, with SEO friendly urls, lots of web 2.0 features (including a realtime wysiwyg editor) and social goodness baked in.” — Dan, trying on his hipster hat

If you’re a programmer, and you use the google to look for answers to your programming questions, you’ve probably seen stackoverflow.com pop up in the search results.  This site, started as a collaboration between Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood last year, is a better way to do question and answer sites, aka FAQs.  It opens the FAQ asking and answering process to anyone with a browser, has anti spam features, some community aspects (voting, editing answers, reputation, commenting, user accounts), and great urls.  And, incidentally, a great support staff–I emailed them a question about my account and they responded is less than 24 hours.

They’ve done a good job of generalizing the platform, and now you can create your very own.  There are a wide variety of stack sites: real estate, your pressing Yoda needs, small business, space exploration.  Here’s a list.  I love the fact they are charging for this software–$129/month for a 1M pageviews is not very much for software that lets you build your community and lets your community share knowledge.

And that’s the key.  Like most other social software, what you get out of a stack site is highly correlated to what you put into it.  If, like the folks at Redmonk, you create a stack site about a topic on which you have expertise and publicize it where you know interested people will hear about it and spend time answering questions on it, I imagine you have a good chance to build a community around it. And once you get to a certain threshold, it will take on a life of its own.  But you need to provide that activation energy–it’s an organizational commitment.
If, on the other hand, you create a stack site and don’t have a community which can get excited about it, or don’t do a good job reaching out to them, you end up with an abandoned stack site (worse than an abandoned blog, imho).  I’m hoping that Teaching Ninja won’t be in this state for long, but right now there’s only 3 questions and no answers there.

The proliferation of social software infrastructure sites (I’m looking at you, ning) has made it easier than ever to create the foundations for communities online.  But, you need to have people for community software to have any value!  Because it is so easy, getting others involved is not a case of ‘if you build it they will come’ (if it ever was).  There are too many competing sites for other’s time.  Software can make it easier and easier to build the infrastructure around community, but it’s the invisible structures (bonds between you and your users, and between them) that will actually create ongoing value.

If you’re looking for an outward facing FAQ site and willing to invest the time in it, a stack site seems to be one of the best software platforms for building that right now.  (I have some qualms about who owns the data, but it seems like they are planning export functionality.)  Just don’t believe the hype: “The Stack Exchange technology is so compelling, sites can take off right away.”  No software can make a social site ‘take off right away’.

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