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Do you think StackOverflow is toxic?

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

There is no simple answer, but here are some thoughts:

  • Stack Overflow was definitely founded on some highly elitist notions about the nature of software development. I think some things we'd consider to be the most toxic parts of Stack Overflow were really the views of the early project. I went back and listened to some of their really early podcasts, and I've read blog posts of those involved early that give me this feeling. Not that they are not smart people with lots of wisdom, but their view of software development at the time was the foundation for what we have today.
  • The delicate balance of Stack Overflow as a resource makes it challenging to change. I think the company is still highly concerned about alienating their power users, so attempts to make things better have to be really really subtle. This is my perception anyway.
  • It promotes a "stifling" format in general, IMO. Certain rules are much harsher then they practically need to be. I think this dates to a notion of software development which was way more rooted on notions of absolute correctness than I think are still useful. I don't think this is great for the library that is SO, but also just not great for people's feelings. Getting shut down for a random rule you didn't realize you broke is pretty demoralizing.

I don't fault people who feel that it isn't toxic in their experience, unless they are being completely pigheaded in their assertion. But yes, Stack Overflow is particularly toxic in certain ways.

melli79 profile image
M. Gr.

StackOverflow is still my main source of information (though I use google for browsing it) when it comes to quick questions for daily programming. They have answers for many common problems/things a beginner/intermediate would stumble upon.
I do not hate their rules, because I think at least 1/3 of them are necessary (otherwise the place would be a real war on opinion).
But I do not see StackOverflow competing with e.g., because they have different intentions, one providing a solution snippet database, the other gathering valuable opinions of developers.

dumboprogrammer profile image

there's a stackoverflow rival named 'Grepper' btw.
I use it more than S.o.

ben profile image
Ben Halpern

I agree with all of that

alohci profile image
Nicholas Stimpson

Some wise words there. But a lot of people would say that StackOverflow has not been concerned enough about alienating their power users, and has gone chasing eyeball quantity at their expense and that of quality in the questions and answers. It probably indicates what a difficult balance they have to strike.

andrewbaisden profile image
Andrew Baisden

Nope not really. StackOverflow is a lifesaver for so many developers 😁

hasanthesyrian profile image

Well... it's not always sunshine and roses. 😅

andypiper profile image
Andy Piper

I think it depends on how you use it. If you’re just there to demand answers and show no effort to research or share your work, then you may find the community less welcoming. I also notice a lot of folks now delete their questions when they have been answered, which is against the spirit of the site.

jayjeckel profile image
Jay Jeckel

Yes, SO is toxic to lazy people that write bad and/or off-topic questions while feeling entitled to have those questions answered by random volunteering strangers.

No, SO is not toxic to people that write good questions that have specific answers and generally try to use the place for the purpose it was created.

More often than not, if you feel SO is toxic, then it's you, not SO, that is the problem.

msakic26895 profile image
Mirko Sakic

Congrats! You're one of the people who makes SO a toxic place. Actually, the way you express yourself clearly shows you're a bully online and IRL. I pity the poor souls that surround you. Hopefully you're very very alone and not causing harm to others. Sociopath.

webbureaucrat profile image

I think some platforms have objectively toxic, abusive users, but I don't think StackOverflow is one of them.

Even when I've seen real toxicity, it's the only platform that actually removes flagged content immediately because it isn't constrained by "free expression" or narrow definitions of "hate." It's enough if something is just off-topic or "chit-chat."

However StackOverflow has a very particular set of cultural mores. What might be considered acceptable on another platform is considered rude on StackOverflow, and StackOverflow users will be pretty curt in kind. That's not toxicity; that's just cultural relativism.

I disagree with those who say SO is only "toxic" to the lazy. That's not fair to people who have actually put the work into their issues but still don't yet understand the StackOverflow cultural mores (including proving the effort).

Fortunately, it's gotten better about teaching those norms to new users.

mistval profile image

I would say that it is toxic to bad questions, and I'm not sure that's a bad thing. Most questions on Stackoverflow show very little effort and initiative, and deserve downvotes. I rarely see toxicity when good questions are asked. Just read the question-asking guide, show code, show what you have tried, clearly explain what it did and why that's not what you want. If you can ask a clear question, and demonstrate that you have made sincere attempts to answer it yourself, I think you will have a good experience close to 100% of the time.

biobibi profile image

"I would say that it is toxic to bad questions..."
The problem is WHO defines a question is bad or good? 90% of the time we may agree, but when it comes the rest 10% of the cases, usually opinions from members with high ammount of in-game score (reputation) prevails.

Also: "bad question" does not always mean "bad idea to post it". Knowledge can flourish out useless dust.

mistval profile image

StackOverflow help center has a lot of good guidance on bad vs good questions.

Of course it's a matter of opinion to some extent and there are question closures that are considered mistaken and get reversed, but if someone is consistently having their questions closed, it's a them problem and they can work on improving the quality of their questions.

I have 20 questions on StackOverflow. One got (rightfully) closed as a duplicate by a mod. 8 got automatically deleted due to inactivity. The rest got good answers and no toxicity.

So in my experience, trying to write a decent question isn't just throwing darts at a board, there are principles you can follow and have success with. When I look at other peoples' questions, I see many that I think are good, and then I see them get upvoted and answered. I also see many (unfortunately more) that I think are bad, and then I see them get downvoted and closed.

So it's not unknowable magic. Read the help center, internalize its advice, put some effort into your questions, and I think you'll do fine.

theking2 profile image

That assertions can actually be proved with all the good answers to good questions that in fact were closed. Rules should be applied but if by apparent consensus (people actually are answering to 'bad' questions) a question probably needn't closed down it should be opened again and hand the credit to the op.

k0mmsussert0d profile image
Maksymilian Babarowski

Back in the day it used to be way more toxic that it is right now. I think community has taken many steps to make it more welcoming place for newcomers. The initial hostility towards "newbie" questions could have been rooted in the underlying goal of SO to build a largest knowledge base. Even today, questions revolving around general language/framework/technology-oriented topics, like How do I achieve X in Y or X is giving me some very specific error message. What can I do? are more welcomed than questions specific to a single user issue, like My code doesn't compile or Why do I get exception in this code?.

fanmixco profile image
Federico Navarrete • Edited

It is an extremely toxic place. For example, recently, I had some doubts because two of my questions were attacked with negative votes. In both cases, I provided proper examples, testable code, a real case, and I got a bunch of negative votes, one of them I was even forced to delete it and has an NPM package. The other you can check it here:

Next, when I asked for support, I got -23 negative votes when I wanted to understad my mistakes and get some feedback to prevent future errors from my side:

The only answer was really poor (that even prevents me to delete it, I think it was intentional) since one was a partial answer and the other was technically, I don't know.

The funny part is that a couple of weeks later, someone asked a similar question:

And that question got 24+ votes. I felt quite offended.

Furthermore, recently, I was forced to bring another question to a Samsung Forum:

I did it because I was sure I would be attacked with several -1s without any answer and several negative comments to bring testable code or something like that when there is no documentation about this topic.

From my side, I come to StackOverflow only when I need something that I couldn't find anything. However, I know that is an extremely toxic place where you must be very carefull. Sadly, you have a few places where to go, and you must be aware that you're going to be attacked sooner or later without getting an answer, and if you ask for support, you will most likely be the devil in the story and suffer what happened to me or maybe you will be the lucky one like the other case where he got nice replies and +1 votes.

alohci profile image
Nicholas Stimpson

StackOverflow has rules. Take the time to learn those rules, and then follow them and you won't find the experience toxic. Ignore them, and just post what you feel, and yes, your posts will be treated with disdain. And if you feel that's toxic, then that's how it is.

eljayadobe profile image

I do not think StackOverflow itself is toxic.

I think there are a few toxic individuals/contributors on StackOverflow.

Their focus on Q&A format is helpful. Their policy against conversation is stifling, since some topics warrant discussion. I think they could be a better forum if they allowed a better mechanism for open discussion. There current "offline/out-of-band chat" (and hide it away and make it effectively inaccessible) is where conversations go to die.

jwp profile image
John Peters

I am a 9 year S.O. veteran in the top 6% pointwise. The site is toxic because of the negative vote ability.

In the early days any question properly asked was met with a ton of help. I felt more than compelled to give back, spending countless hours finding answers for other people because I benefited from learning new stuff.

But then, an elitist group of moderators began personally attacking people in their replies as well as down votes.

So much so, for me, I never contribute any longer. I just look up answers now and forget it as a training platform.

This works well for me, as I now use other means for learning and use S.O. only for clarification or looking up legacy work.

S.O. died about 10 years ago and became a corporate entity since then.

That's why I'm here at Dev.To.

dumboprogrammer profile image

I often see random people attacking newbies.
It's not the case of stack overflow only, I see this in other forums as well.
A group of people think that they are the GOAT and attack newbies just because their skills are entry level

mb07 profile image

Probably the comment that killed SO for me was a comment by a moderator attacking someone over their views on the GPL, and essentially trying to boycott them.

the f*ck?

kylessg profile image
Kyle Johnson

Totally depends on how it's used, I think there's a baseline level of question that's expected (which is probably key to its success) and is a bit sensitive to those who ask duplicate questions or come across as lazy.

Personally I've not found it particlarly useful for a few years now, I've found github issues more applicable normally.

jonbaldie profile image
Jonathan Baldie

I have noticed a highly judgemental attitude on the StackExchange network in general, especially in the last few years. It seems to be going the way of Reddit, which was once a fun place, but is now ran by what feels like a priesthood who control what opinions people are allowed to have. Sadly, the StackExchange network is going in that direction, having watched it develop for nearly ten years.

alexstaroselsky profile image
Alexander Staroselsky • Edited

It’s important to ask what is the actual purpose of the platform. Is it to help resolve tricky issues? Is it a code writing service? Is it code review and suggestions? People aren’t usually hostile if the person asking the question made a legitimate effort to resolve it with code examples and detailed explanations. Yes people can be hostile when someone is asking to help do their computer science homework or obviously didn’t make any effort. Also how can a person asking for help on how to best structure their full stack application actually receive assistance in a mostly short form question/answer interface. You can’t explain end to end cloud native infrastructure best practices in a concise answer nor should you. I believe also deep down some of this driven by resentment and/or envy. If they see someone who in their bio is a lead/principal/staff engineer and can barely add two numbers together but somehow has that position, some may feel off because many have worked with those people. That being said depending on the language/stack, definitely can be much more hostility even with well formed questions.

abbasc52 profile image
Abbas Cyclewala • Edited

My personal opinion about Stackoverflow's way of handling although harsh but is definitely the reason it maintains quality.

These are some tough decisions that you need to take.
For e.g. Do you want to penalize people who are lazy enough to not search stackoverflow and ask a duplicate question?

Or you want to penalize people who actively search for solution by dumping 100s of duplicate/irrelevant questions just cause we don't want make some people feel bad about asking wrong questions ?

I do believe people at SO can be more polite, but I can imagine my colleagues asking me same questions again and again, even though it is completely documented. Now that would make anyone furious...