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Is there a limit to network-effect benefits?

In recent months I’ve been finding Stack Overflow and the related Stack Exchange network sites to be a tremendously valuable resource for resolving technology problems. It’s not that they can always answer my question, it’s that frequently someone else has had the same question before, and I can piggy-back on the answers they got. Searching Stack Overflow, in other words, is often more useful than asking Stack Overflow.

The value of Stack Overflow as a Q&A site is the huge number of people using it. For any given Ruby on Rails question, for example, there’s a pretty good bet someone among the thousands of users scanning those questions will have an answer. Things get a little thinner when you get to very new technologies like SproutCore (for a while I was among the top 20 answerers for SproutCore, which says more about the traffic in that tag than it does about me).

However, as Stack Overflow grows, the number of questions seems to be overwhelming the number of answers. I’ve posted two questions in the last two days, and as of this writing neither has been “viewed” by as many as ten Stack Overflow users. This isn’t because the questions are unanswerable, I think; it’s that there are so many other questions to answer, mine have been buried almost immediately.

We always say the value of a network grows with the size of the network. But Stack Overflow is suggesting to me that there might be a limit to that rule. If the network becomes big enough that messages get lost, the value of the network may begin to fall as it gets larger.

The Area 51 site where new Stack Exchange sites are suggested, debated, and spawned seems to aim at building a critical mass of users to make each new site valuable and useful. There isn’t an internal control for sites which get too big and therefore lose value; I wonder how that could be created? Is this a big enough problem to bother?

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