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Jon Ericson
Jon Ericson

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The joy of self answering

When Stack Overflow started, there wasn't a lot of content for me. Most people seemed interested in asking about obscure Microsoft products such as C# and .NET. I worked at a UNIX shop and we used reliable technology like C and Perl. But I was intrigued by the idea of a site dedicated to questions and answers, so I thought I'd try my hand at asking questions.

By the way, Stack Overflow interested me because I had read Practical Internet Groupware by Jon Udell sometime in the early 2000s. (Or perhaps read about the book enough to be excited about the concept.) The premise of the book was that the internet would radically change the way people interact with each other since it allows groups to collaborate at scale. It's impossible to explain how exciting this idea was since we now accept it as obviously true. But before Twitter, Facebook, podcasts, blogs or even forums, few people guessed that the internet would democratize access to public discourse.

Stack Overflow tackles one, very specific, problem: uneven access to arcane programming knowledge. It's hard for me to recall, but there was a time when every programmer had to discover on their own oddities such as:


I have a bunch of tar files in a directory and I want to extract all the files from them at once. But this doesn't seem to do anything:

$ tar xf *.tar

What's going on here? How do I untar a bunch of files at once?

Then you'd need to walk around the office to see if anyone was proficient enough in shell commands to find a working solution. Or, just struggle through untarring hundreds of files by hand. (Ask me how I know this.) But with Stack Overflow, someone can come along, see the question and provide an answer:

What's going on here?

Originally, the tar command was intended for use with magnetic tape devices. Since it only made sense to execute tar on one device at a time, the syntax was designed to assume one and only one device. The first file or directory passed was assumed to…

And then roughly 68 thousand people could find that very same answer and learn something about how the UNIX shell works.

The twist: it doesn't have to be different people who ask and answer. I figured out my own solution and instead of moving on with my life, I posted the answer to my own question. Maybe not the most monumental thing in the world, but rather my small way to help people out in the future.

Now it can be hard to ask a question as if you didn't know the answer and there are people on the site who are suspicious of self-answered questions. But if you wish there was a bit of programming knowledge available on the internet, you don't need to wait for someone else to ask the question.

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