Using Existing Online Forums vs Developing Your Own To Support API Operations

by Kin Lane, API Evangelist Twitter LinkedIn Github Email

As I tune into the fallout around the Reddit community, I think it is a good time to pull a story out of my notebook, that I began writing a month or two ago. These thoughts are born out of my post Ask The Stack When You Need API Support, where my friend Jeremiah Lee (@JeremiahLee) commented, disagreeing with my recommendation that API providers use Stack Exchange as part of operations. 

Jeremiah shares his story about how hostile Stack Overflow can be (I'll let you read his comment on your own), something that has been re-enforced many times along the way. While I still endorse Stack Overflow as a valuable building block for some APIs, I completely agree with Jeremiah about the overall community tone. While Stack Overflow is definitely a different beast, it suffers from some of the similar systemic illnesses, that Reddit does. I find some very valuable information on Stack Overflow, which I use regularly, but if you are looking to develop an API community, I can envision the community potentially working against you, in several ways.

It really depends on your API, and the target audience you are trying to reach. Sometimes, the male dominated, "gamified community of meritocracy, where established members have many rules and politics", as Jermiah says, is exactly who you should be engaging, but you really need get to know the personae of your ideal customers, and decide on your own. For API Evangelist, both my storytelling, and the APIs I provide, I've long felt Stack Overflow is not my target audience.

Similar to Reddit, Hacker News, and DZone, I get very little value from these communities. While I do find nuggets of information at these places, I do not post my stories, and engage in conversations there, because the hostility that can come from these channels I have found outweighs any value they might bring in traffic. I seek a much wider audience, than the individuals who often dominate these tech hangouts.

I encourage you to think deeply about who you want to reach with your APIs, and while building your own community in your own wiki, forum, or other solution, might take a lot of time and work, it gives you greater control over the tone your forum takes--which might make the difference in attracting the right developer and business audience you seek.