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What a very bad day at work taught me about building Stack Overflow’s community

Sara Ownbey Chipps on July 18, 2019

Hi, my name is Sara Chipps, first time Stack blogger, long time Stacker (I’ve always wanted to say that!). I’m the new Director of Public Q&A a... [Read Full]
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What I personally found annoying as a beginner was that everyone always pointed at my questions as being incomplete or lack of research, but themselves never put much effort to at least point me in the right direction.

In reality I did not have enough knowledge to know what research or even what terms to use in order to start this research, what I had was an idea and a whole bunch of questions.


Absolutely this - if a question can be marked as not providing enough info, then surely comments should too?

And too many comments are "why are you doing x? you should be doing y" as if they have intimate knowledge of the context the user is coming from.


// , My brother and I have run into this problem, before. StackOverflow, because of its format, is often not the place for these types of questions, what I call "Bibliographical" or "Curriculum" building questions.

These require a personal, tailored discussion, not a cut-and-dried answer suitable for future use by others.

I've seen (and written) questions that were the software equivalent of "What is the muzzle velocity of a bullet when it's fired from a bow?" or "How do I install a rudder on a Ford Ranger, so that I can steer it?"

The best way to respond, here, in place of a "right answer," will be follow-up questions and an explanation that I'm asking the question in the wrong terms, about the wrong technology, and a discussion of where to do further research, e.g. "Have you tried reading the car manual, or the appropriately named 'steering wheel'? Are you working on a boat or on a car?".

Questions like these need conversation, which is valuable, in its own way. But conversation is a better fit for general technical forums, not a Q & A site like StackOverflow or Quora.

Questions and Answers =/= Conversation


I'm curious about how this will affect the UX; I feel it should affect it in some way.

I don't really participate in the site to answer questions because it's too hard to earn rep as a new user. I feel like it's designed to only allow people that have been coding for 10+ years to be able to answer, even if you have a good answer.


This, right here, is the main problem with SO right now. The site is still a good resource for common bug fixes, but useless as a community because of the gamification and gate-keeping that prevents newer users from participating.


I don't really participate in the site to answer questions because it's too hard to earn rep as a new user.

If you really want to answer questions only to get points, yes. But ask yourself whether that's really the case.


So it's too difficult to accrue the points required to post an answer because I only want to answer the questions to earn points?

Red pill or blue pill?

I'm sorry, I obviously misread your comment. I really didn't know you need to have points in order to answer questions on SO. I'm pretty sure that wasn't the case when I started there. And it doesn't make much sense to me... how are you supposed to get the points? By writing insightful comments? :-/


Hi William, I want to make sure I understand your feedback. Are you saying you are unable to answer because you don't have enough points, or something else? Thanks for reading, the new UX is something we're thinking about a lot.


// , As part of a new UX, perhaps consider a set of good, worthwhile inquiries that in the StackOverflow site's format would die stillborn.

For instance, if I were to design an entirely new site and UX, to optimize for responses that are more useful to the asker, rather than to the general public, I wonder what that site would look like.

I haven't thought about it too much, but I guess it might cater more toward discussion, clarification, and Socratic dialogue than a Q&A site geared toward the value of future reference.


Thanks for posting this. This feels like exactly the right line of thinking.

I'll add another factor to the list -- I hate it when other people edit my answer. I've had to revert edits a couple of times because the edit changed the meaning of my answer. It feels like incentivizing edits with rep leads to over-editing. And having your own words/code changed also feels like a knock. Perhaps answer editing should be opt-in/out? "Yes, let someone edit my answer for clarity."?

I wanted to specifically mention the Software Engineering site as one that I have found especially brutal. General engineering questions are frequently not about "the right answer" (because there isn't one right answer), but instead about weighing options and their trade-offs. Because of the QA format inherited from SO, asking about options and their trade-offs is usually considered "too broad". I have seen a lot of good, answerable questions get closed. And I've gotten scolded in the past for answering anyway. It seems like it needs to be a different format from the other sites.


I have a couple of answers that I’ve had to revert multiple times because they’re about a nuanced, no longer well documented topic. Every time it gets edited it gets “fixed” by well meaning users reading documents for a different version, and they make my answers downright wrong. I don’t mind people improving my answers, but screwing them up without notifying me wears on me.


It would probably help if there weren't so many variations of the stack overflow site now. It used to be you could ask a development/DevOps question and get help, now those that have a high rep but no knowledge of the subject matter in question just close your conversation as 'should be on stack X' rather than suggesting you ask the stack X community who may have better knowledge. I don't know what all 20+ variations of stack overflow are ... They used to be stack overflow!


Thanks for sharing this. I think you painted a good picture about how it feels when being barraged by people asking for seemingly small requests or providing general criticism.

Interested to see what's to come!


How great are these news?! I always feel kinda sorry for new stack overflow users that ask a question and get down votes. Definitely a step in the right direction and makes stack overflow even nicer :!)


Like William Antonelli, I decided after few days to stop trying to earn enough point to ask my first questions.
So when I search something Dev related, I try the most of the time to avoid result from SO and if I don't find the answer, I try to change my code and ask to peer review to improve it.

SO is not the only one website to be unfriendly with beginners but it's not a reason to keep it like that.

When I read your post, I was happily surprised I was not alone and changes will came from the inside, that's make me change my mind an see what the future will be.

I hope you will keep us updated.


This comment really got me... It also motivated me to write a little post of my own. Stack Overflow can be helpful sometimes, I'm sorry you had a bad experience.

I'm not associated with SO at all, just bummed out that you had a bad experience... reading the rest of the comments here it seems like quite a few people had less-than-stellar experiences.


Another issue I have had as a new user on SO is on the matter of reputation and fairness.

Whether it was intended so or not, reputation points are a currency most users strive to earn. Partly, this is to unlock more features, but it's also a social contest.

If you look at a lot of older posts, asked when SO was still in its infancy, you'll find that many violate one rule or another. Usually they're very, very basic questions that can be answered with a quick Google search, and almost as often they're "too broad" or cannot be answered concretely. Yet, not only do they still exist ("for history's sake" or something), they are massively upvoted.

These posts give an enormous boost to one's profile. Yet it is these same people who rag on newbies for asking "incorrectly". How come it's OK for these people to have made mistakes when they were learning and get away with them — even be rewarded — but withhold the same from newer users?

If it were up to me, I'd leave these questions be — they've helped me lots of times before — but remove any rep they give to their posters.

It's not a perfect solution, because having higher rep means you're more likely to be viewed in a better light and thus upvoted in the future (also there's the bandwagon effect), so these users have coasted on their early gains to earn still more potentially undeserved rep, but I'd take some justice over none.


// , I'm impressed with your approach to introspection.

If only more of us waited until the next day to respond.

My favorite part of this post, though?

"...and improve question quality."

I will warn, though, that making a process that relies on quality over quantity will almost never be completely painless, because high quality relies on a poorly understood activity, that, recently, has become unpopular to advocate for.

It's called discriminatory judgment.


I’ve always asked myself if this feeling of fear could be more acute on questions related to some languages. It would be interesting to see the percentage of closed/duplicated depending on the tags.


As a beginner downvotes can feel unfriendly, in the end it is still necessary.


Great job finding out what this pain in the stack overflow community is causing!

Very excited to see what's comming!!


Hi, great read! I wanted to share an example of what you talked about on this article.
(* Please add to your question)

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