Optimizing for Questions

A couple years ago, Jeff Atwood published a blog on Stack Exchange about their (then) philosophy for improving the quality of their community. The blog was titled “Optimizing for Pearls, Not Sand” and his conclusion was that answers are far more important than questions and therefore Stack Exchange would optimize so that answers were valued above questions. I can see where he was coming from, but the conclusion still carries it’s own irony and impossibility. There are no answers without questions.

Think about that.

Andrew Stacey in the comments I think summed my feelings best with this statement (emphasis mine):

I still think that you’re going about this the wrong way. You want to produce pearls; with that I agree. But you *don’t* optimise for pearls: they are the result of the process. You optimise for *high quality sand*.

Many commenters chimed in to say the same, that questions are the real pearls and answers are just a product of those questions. Even on a philosophical level, it’s a very Yin Yang relationship. And yet we literally cannot even approach the conversation about answers without talking about the questions that inspired them. I bring this up today as I reflect on my latest educational experiment. There’s a leaning in the tech community towards answers while undervaluing questions. In the classroom setting, this can lead to undervaluing the role of the teacher and misunderstanding the role of the student.

There are no pearls without sand. No answers without questions. To optimize for pearls is precisely to optimize the sand. It’s strange that this point was missed at the time, but today it seems like Stack leans much more towards allowing room for questions which is a good sign — perhaps it’s stewards are beginning to recognize the true value of questions. I can’t say the same for their power users, however, because they’ve been enculturated to believe that their answers are the true value of the site with out recognizing they would never have an opportunity to do so without questions. Again, strange that this point seems to be missed so often. But a good example nonetheless of the role culture plays in fostering progress.

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