Newbies, Lurkers and Experts on Stack Overflow
Written by Sue Gee   
Friday, 16 September 2022

Stack Overflow tends to be more "friendly" to newcomers than  more experienced users. Almost two-thirds of the Stack Overflow community are "Silent Observers" and the majority of answers are provided by a small minority of "Experienced" users.

These findings are from data analysis done at the Indian Institute of Technology Bhilai to be presented at the International Conference on Sustainable Future being held at the end of October in Glasgow.

The researchers set out to gauge the friendliness of the Stack Exchange towards it new users using relative rates of acceptance to answers provided by users with less than a year's membership of the community compared to those in their second year.  

In the paper the researchers refer to Stack Exchange, a network of a large number of question and answers sites on a wide range of topics, and Stack Overflow, the original developer-centric question and answer site founded in 2008 by Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky as being synonymous for their purposes. This is because at the time the research commenced Stack Exchange, which was founded in 2009 by Atwood and Spolsky was still Stack Overflow's parent company. Subsequently Stack Overflow's acquisition by Prosus was finalized, see Stack Overflow Sold for US$1.8 Billion

While part of Stack Exchange, Stack Overflow was by far its biggest component and so treating the two as being the same doesn't detract from the findings.


The data that was the basis of the research came from the Stack Exchange Data Dump, which is an anonymized dump of all user-contributed content on the Stack Exchange network, from Stack Overflow's inception in 2008 until November 2021.


This plot, taken from the paper, shows the number of questions and answers posted every month from July 2008, when there were just two questions and four answers. Activity was at its peak in July 2014 with 30,000 questions and 20,000 answers per month. After that there is an apparent decline, although this is often explained by the fact that it was such a good repository of information that users no longer needed to ask questions as they had already been asked and answered.

The chart also shows a surge in activity at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, which almost eliminated the gap between questions and answers. While the level of activity subsequently declined the gap between questions and answers stayed small and at the very end of the chart answers exceeded questions - perhaps as an artifact of uncertainty about the new ownership.

To return to the main thrust of the research which is how new users fare on Stack Overflow. To investigate this, the researchers extracted the first 12 months’ activity of each user by way of questions asked and answers provided and compared it to the time spent on the platform beyond twelve months, which could of course be over a decade, commenting:

 "In a way we are analyzing each user’s journey on the platform as he transforms from a newbie to an older member."

The population size for this study was over 16 million users and the researchers characterized them into distinct types:

so users

By far the most numerous type was the Silent Observer who never posted either a question or an answer. Such users account for two thirds of the population. A further quarter are Lurkers, users who have very low frequency of contributions to the community in terms of both questions and answers. According to the researchers this behavior suggests that they have lost interest and they contrast them to Inquisitive users who continue to post questions after the 12-month mark but do not make significant contributions in terms of answers and account for 6.77%.

It is the Experienced group that is mainly responsible for providing answers, as well as for asking questions and contributing to the community in general  and only 2.45 % of users fall into this category. Of course all users start out as Newbies and, as the chart below shows, they answer nearly as many questions as they ask:

so posts by type

As the table below indicates, Stack Overflow holds almost 22K questions and has answers to all but a thousand or so of them, but only just over a half as "accepted answers", leading to "Resolved questions" in the chart and it is the acceptance of answers that the researchers equate with "friendliness". 

so qa

The study concludes that Stack Exchange is newbie-friendly but not to a much higher degree than in general. Pointing to the fact that the overall percentage of accepted answers is around 51.39 % they reveal that out of 6,888,503 answers given by newbies, 4,990,471 answers were accepted by the community i.e. 72.44 % were accepted.

This leads the researchers to state:

a good percentage of answers given by newbies are being accepted by the community and there is not much bias against the new users. New users are definitely benefitting from being part of the community.

The fact that out of the total of 10,682,706 accepted answers, 4,990,471 (46.71%) were provided by newbies confirms that the vast majority of users are most active in their first year and so I would add that the community is definitely benefiting from its new users.


More Information

Friendliness Of Stack Overflow Towards Newbies (pdf)

Aneesh Tickoo , Shweta Chauhan , Gagan Raj Gupta Indian Institute of Technology, Bhilai

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Last Updated ( Friday, 16 September 2022 )