Stack Overflow Isn’t Very Welcoming. It’s Time for That to Change.
April 29, 2018 10:36 AM   Subscribe

But how do we really know that too many developers experience Stack Overflow as an unwelcoming or hostile place? Well, the nice thing about problems that relate to how people feel is that finding the truth is easy. Feelings have no “technically correct.” They’re just what the feeler is telling you. Let’s reject the false dichotomy between quality and kindness.
posted by cgc373 (204 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh thank fuck. I was at a talk where a stack overflow employee was talking about how great stack overflow is for new people and in my head I was like ‘well, actualy’ (That’s funny because I’m a woman and didn’t say it out loud or approach the speaker about it. I’ll leave imagining the speakers gender as an exercise for the reader.)

Why didn’t I say anything? I was already dealing with a tech related bit of gender based fuckery and I was exhausted by that. Im used to people responding with ‘other women aren’t complaining about this’ and other brush offs. Even if the speaker did believe me, I didn’t feel like they were in a position to actually change the dynamic.
posted by bilabial at 10:47 AM on April 29, 2018 [40 favorites]


Wow, that was a surprisingly straightforward, self-critical essay with concrete next steps. Huh. Thanks for sharing.
posted by lazaruslong at 10:50 AM on April 29, 2018 [21 favorites]


Yeah, I stopped going (and I perceived it as a resource of last resort) because the last couple of questrions there either withered on the vine, unanswered or even commented on, or disappeared into a morass of parliamentary procedure fuckery.
posted by Samizdata at 10:51 AM on April 29, 2018 [9 favorites]


It's full of rules lawyering and smug lawgiving, but I have forgiven them a lot for making me never have to see an "Experts Exchange" page again.
posted by thelonius at 10:52 AM on April 29, 2018 [73 favorites]


The Stack Overflow community is resistant to being welcoming. (Content warning; "what do you mean us making jokes about prostitutes on a technical forum is problematic?").
posted by Nelson at 10:57 AM on April 29, 2018 [12 favorites]


We’re planning to test a new “beginner” ask page that breaks the question box into multiple fields

This is so obvious I'm stunned it hasn't already been implemented. In general, I'm surprised so many internet communities that complain about new users consistently not understanding certain fundamentals place the blame on the new users, and not on the design of the site.

If one person doesn't know, they might be lazy and clueless. If lots of people don't know, you're not doing a good job of educating them.
posted by perplexion at 11:05 AM on April 29, 2018 [30 favorites]


Stack Overflow has always been for me that place where you go to be told that the problem you're trying to solve is the wrong thing and why would you possibly want to do that thing? Go and do this other tangentially related thing instead! I mean, I'm a white dude who speaks decent English, and I was put off ever asking anything again after a couple of visits. Nowadays I only use SE to the extent that Google throws it up in response to a specific search. I don't have the time to argue the premise of a question with some self-appointed gatekeeper of the right way of doing things.
posted by pipeski at 11:14 AM on April 29, 2018 [43 favorites]


As I've commented in a few other threads around here, I'm looking for work right now. I have a very lightly used Stack Overflow account and I have my resume up ('scuse me, "Developer Story") but I've found that it's not useful for me. Why not? Because you can't look for management jobs (self-link on twitter). As I said in that brief thread, I'd have posted a meta item about it, but the level of hostility there to any kind of input that maaaaaaybe the community wasn't working very well put me off even suggesting it. I looked at the meta page then and there were three threads about politeness where people were largely defending their rights to be jerks. Even now there are multiple threads like:
  • "Does Stack Exchange really want to conflate newbies with women/people of color?" Sample:
    Hostility against newbies is borne of terrible newbie questions [emphasis in the original]. This is a problem, not of the community, but of Stack Exchange and their unwillingness to prevent low-quality questions from entering the system. And their willingness to side with askers of low-quality questions over those who provide high-quality answers. SE forces us to constantly interact with a stream of garbage; that will inevitably create hostility.
  • "Please ask if there is a problem before telling us there is a problem" Sample:
    I think it is poor form to outright tell a community that they are treating new users poorly without first posing the question "Is the community treating new users poorly?" and then letting the community voice its point of view.
(Take it away, Paul Ford)

Just … no, I don't want to be a part of that community. I'm not going to make that suggestion only to get piled on.
posted by fedward at 11:22 AM on April 29, 2018 [15 favorites]


It's funny: I use Stack Overflow all the time, but it's literally never occurred to me to get an account there, much less ask a question. Usually, someone else has asked my question, and they got to be the target of all the snark and rules-lawyering and general jerkishness. I just get to read the answer. I'm sure that some day I'll have a question that hasn't already been asked, and hopefully I'll figure it out on my own, because no way am I subjecting myself to that mess.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:31 AM on April 29, 2018 [77 favorites]


This is what I've seen on a lot of other coding Q&A sites. Learning to code is really goddamn difficult, and really goddamn frustrating -- the kind of activity that requires immense patience on the Q side and at least a modicum of patience on the A side. And yet so often what I see is snarky condescension, overbearing dickishness and mean-spirited gatekeeping behavior. It kind of confirms the old Comic Book Guy stereotype of socially clueless asshole computer nerds.

I'm glad that the statement specifically mentions "women, people of color, and others in marginalized groups" as the targets of the gatekeeping. Because I can guarantee that this is going to generate bawling and gnashing of teeth from users who aren't part of those groups.

Let’s reject the false dichotomy between quality and kindness. Quality matters because it means posts can help more people. But a larger, more diverse community produces better artifacts, not worse ones. We need to stop justifying condescension with the pursuit of quality, and we need better tools and queues to help power users trying to keep quality high.

I'd say kindness encourages quality, as it does in basically any environment where people are learning new things.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 11:41 AM on April 29, 2018 [15 favorites]


This is awesome! I also only use Stack Overflow through reading other already-asked questions, and being thankful the criticisms are aimed at the asker, not me. I still sometimes get worked up on the behalf of the askers, and have to take a break from using the site.
posted by Secretariat at 11:48 AM on April 29, 2018 [9 favorites]


That is indeed one hell of a false dichotomy and if you've got a community where the received wisdom is that kindness and quality are incompatible, that's a problem.

That said, I do find Stack Overflow useful as a casual googler of technical problems. If a relevant-looking SO thread pops up in a page of Google results for a question about a computer problem, it's usually going to be the best link on that page. I do always get the feeling though that actually posting a question would be a recipe for trouble, though.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 11:52 AM on April 29, 2018 [6 favorites]


I'm actually curious about how they define their community. I'm pretty sure that this statement is a response to a survey that they recently did, which showed that there were very few women and people of color in their community. They say that they have external evidence that only 10% of their US traffic are women, which more or less matches the 9% of US respondents who were women. But I wonder how many women are, like me, lurkers/Googlers rather than active community-members.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:54 AM on April 29, 2018 [11 favorites]


I applaud them knowing that there's an issue, and that they have some steps they'll be taking, but I have zero expectations that anything will change. I'd love to be proven wrong, but I've had an account there for over nine years and have watched the site go from something amazing to the disaster it is and that's a lot of momentum to turn around.

snarky condescension, overbearing dickishness and mean-spirited gatekeeping behavior and parliamentary procedure fuckery pretty much sum up the entire experience of trying to contribute in any capacity.
posted by karlshea at 11:58 AM on April 29, 2018 [11 favorites]


Half of the problem stems from SO basically hiding their help section for new users. The link to the help section of the site used to be a prominent feature of the main menu but, for reasons that confound me, it was removed and the only link is at the bottom of the page.

One of the reasons more seasoned contributors have a markdown snippet explaining about MCVEs and How To Ask A Good Question that they can drop into comments is because SO purposefully ruined the site for new users.

SO was always about the gamification of asking development questions, but when you raise the bar for entry to make it more difficult to participate the question they should be asking themselves isn't how can we improve, it's where did we fuck up.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 11:59 AM on April 29, 2018 [7 favorites]


I have a pretty good time on SO as an asker and an answerer, but I haven't been able to bring myself to be publicly marked in the Python chat group, although anyone looking could figure out what I am because it's linked to my professional persona. Most of the group is as kind and helpful to newbies as I think sustainable, but there's regularly somone in a vengeful tizzy, and I expect tizzers to go after marked people first. So I'm nearly invisible as a non-unmarked-person in one of my intellectual/professional groups, and that means I'm sort of free riding, which I hate.

It's so tiring.

I can't remember if I answered their population survey.
posted by clew at 12:00 PM on April 29, 2018 [2 favorites]


I have an account there. Once someone criticized me for having a higher-than-average ratio of unanswered questions.

So you lose if you ask a question that's answered right over there at that link I can't believe you couldn't find it, and you lose if none of the regulars knows the answer.
posted by morspin at 12:02 PM on April 29, 2018 [17 favorites]


Stack Overflow pro-tip: the first answer is almost always either wrong or technically-correct but not within the spirit of the question. The second answer is almost always impeccably clear and thorough and addresses what the asker was asking rather than answering an easier question adjacent to the one the asker was asking.
posted by tobascodagama at 12:20 PM on April 29, 2018 [37 favorites]


Here's founder Joel's take on it, and here's (mefi's own) founder Jeff coming at it from the side a while go.

I'm really divided in my thinking by this (joined SO in beta, last real question asked 2012). Good on them for giving it a shot, when Twitter, Reddit, etc just leapt directly to the flaming garbage pile, "not our problem unless it hits the press" approach. At the same time, they've always been prone to the He Hates These Cans approach: it must be something about the site, certainly not something about the actual community we've created.

Scaling decency in humanity may be the biggest problem they've ever tackled. I hope they succeed.
posted by cowcowgrasstree at 12:27 PM on April 29, 2018 [6 favorites]


I, too, only search SO. It is mean as hell over there. But I love that this is an acknowledged issue now and I really hope it gets fixed.

I'd still think long and hard about creating an account though.
posted by kimberussell at 12:29 PM on April 29, 2018 [7 favorites]


Hmmm. This sounds like a very good thing. But, as an occasional user and amateur coder, I'd argue the problem with Stack Overflow isn't really obnoxious users. (Well, perhaps it is, but no more so than anywhere else.) The problem is moderation by power-tripping lunatics with no sense of perspective and a rigid dedication to rules that don't make any sense.

My experience with Stack Overflow has been 70%: "Hey, here's someone asking exactly the question I want answered. And here's a mod shutting down the discussion because the actual problem is related to a required library and not the official topic of the discussion. So, I'm entirely out of luck. Maybe if I email the original poster they'll have found an answer somewhere else."

The remaining 30% are dialogues of the form: "I have a problem." "Stupid idiot, the solution has already been posted." "But that's not actually the same problem." "This discussion has been closed because the question has already been answered."

I'd love to see the place evolve into something that's genuinely useful, instead of a swamp of disappointment. If I had to guess, I'd place my bet on "burn it to the ground and hope something less awful grows in its place" rather than reform from within.
posted by eotvos at 12:36 PM on April 29, 2018 [31 favorites]


Sites like Stack Overflow are often filled with passive-aggressive assholes who'd rather lose 5 minutes with pedantry than 2 minutes answering it. I'm more on creative sites, and seen a lot of cases where the user was searching for a wrong term, but of course there would be always an "expert" saying that question had already been answered please use the search next time locked byeeeeeee, this without actually saying what was the right word they should be searching for.

Any movement to improve the environment on these sites is always welcome.
posted by lmfsilva at 12:38 PM on April 29, 2018 [9 favorites]


The last time I tried to ask a question on Stack Overflow I went about 8 rounds with an editor before I eventually told him I was no longer interested. Then he tried to say he would let my question through and I said "Thanks but no thanks". I have been a Stack Overflow member from almost the beginning.

I get what they are trying to do because there are so many shitty forums with almost no answers to technical questions that it is now incredibly difficult to resolve technical problems (I am fighting with my laptop's inability to identify bluetooth connections - a list of 30 unknown devices is pretty damn useless and have resorted to asking a question on SuperUser a stackexchange site to see if I can get some help - Superuser does not have the same level of editor hassle but it also dosen't tend to have answers eithers).

So yeah...It's a hard problem.
posted by srboisvert at 12:39 PM on April 29, 2018 [5 favorites]


You wanna fix SO? 5 dollars, same as in mefi town.
posted by Annika Cicada at 12:49 PM on April 29, 2018 [41 favorites]


And who else is annoyed with these people coming around to women and minorities after they’ve gotten as much growth and engagement from white dudes as they can possibly squeeze from their turnip?

Like where were these dudes 8 years ago giving a shit about us when they had a large untapped pool of men willing to dog on each other?
posted by Annika Cicada at 12:52 PM on April 29, 2018 [34 favorites]


My experience with Stack Overflow has been 70%: "Hey, here's someone asking exactly the question I want answered. And here's a mod shutting down the discussion because the actual problem is related to a required library and not the official topic of the discussion.

Yeah, this. You could not pay me to have a Stack Overflow account. I do read Stack Overflow when it comes up in google search results. Fully half the time, the most useful question on Stack Overflow to my situation has been closed as having been in some way asked wrong (despite the content being precisely what I, the reader, needed to solve my problem).

Shockingly, if you give (likely white, likely male) people the plausible smokescreen of community-enforced rules, they largely become petty tyrants who of course will assure you are just trying to make sure that each interaction meets the proper (vaguely defined and/or capriciously enforced) standards.
posted by tocts at 12:56 PM on April 29, 2018 [15 favorites]


sounds familiar
posted by some loser at 12:59 PM on April 29, 2018


And who else is annoyed with these people coming around to women and minorities after they’ve gotten as much growth and engagement from white dudes as they can possibly squeeze from their turnip?

Like where were these dudes 8 years ago giving a shit about us when they had a large untapped pool of men willing to dog on each other?


I dunno. I mean, clearly they haven't done a good job at this. This dude admits it a bunch of times.

At the same time, he links to past efforts that go back a ways. 6 years. Not 8, but you know, not nothing.
posted by lazaruslong at 1:05 PM on April 29, 2018 [4 favorites]


I'm struggling to compose my thoughts around this. I do use Stack Overflow often, and have contributed once or twice. And I kind of know that I'll never clear the self-censorship bar to ask a question and by the time I'm struggling, the only sensible answer is “that's impossible”. But I guess it'd be nice to be able to think about it a different way, one where I felt better able to ask.

So in some ways, I'm not as affected. And when I see other places people look for help (under Microsoft documentation, mainly, as that's where I work), and the either the questions are trivially solvable or the answerer answered the trivially solvable question that they thought was being asked, I understand why gatekeeping has to happen.
posted by ambrosen at 1:09 PM on April 29, 2018


Like most here, I too refer to SO when it comes up in a Google search but no way in hell would I create an account or ask a question myself. When I've had coding questions, I've used AskMeFi.
posted by eustacescrubb at 1:13 PM on April 29, 2018 [1 favorite]


It's funny: I use Stack Overflow all the time, but it's literally never occurred to me to get an account there, much less ask a question.

That's me too. I'm mostly just too impatient to wait around for an answer; if it's not there already, I'll just have to figure it out for myself.

That said, the site has saved my ass many times. I'm so glad that I don't have to get digging around in places like MSDN to find answers anymore.
posted by octothorpe at 1:15 PM on April 29, 2018 [5 favorites]


I'm on a subsite which might be somewhat friendlier, where being in the 1% puts me in a group of 100. Like others, though I appreciate the resulting sausage, I don't understand how live humans are supposed to use the site.

I guess I'm still feeling disproportionately salty after my last question :). Voting started 0 -> 1 -> 0 despite exhaustive initial info, and showing research. Off-putting, and there was no feedback. My privs show me two later downvotes also.

On reflection, it was at risk on "unclear or not useful". I was starting with a very clear puzzle in mind (possibly needing more information-gathering techniques) and I deliberately took time to clarify where I was coming from, but... nope. Apparently I need to appease harder.

The first half of the question had been asked elsewhere on the subsite, but the second half needed more precision than earlier. I think that makes it a useful contribution to the field of technical pedantry. I get the impression others were offended that they didn't know how to answer (precisely enough). 30% of [my] RAM is “buffers”. What is it?
posted by sourcejedi at 1:23 PM on April 29, 2018 [3 favorites]


Nope, about 9 years too late, stackoverflow.
posted by smcameron at 1:23 PM on April 29, 2018 [2 favorites]


I don't know how you set up a community to be welcoming at the same time as you reward points for stuff the way that they do. The only person I've ever known who was an active SO participant rather than someone who ended up there occasionally by chance was a terrible communicator who happened to have a lot of free time precisely because his actual dev work was sparse. A lot of his idea of what kind of dev he was came from, not his actual output, but his SO answers. It seems like the sort of place that built itself a community around rewarding people for being terrible at building community, and now they're like... oh, shit. But I don't know how they get back from there without some aggressive bans or just overtly starting to hand out perks for niceness. This feels... very insufficient.
posted by Sequence at 1:37 PM on April 29, 2018 [4 favorites]


I use SO all the time mainly when I've come to a dead end with a problem and feel fatigued. About 75% of the time I come to an answer mid way through writing the question. I no longer care if someone marks a question as a duplicate five minutes later -- if I've already searched and found nothing, then I can be sure I'm missing a key piece of knowledge or my problem is based on a false assumption or I've made a stupid error. SO eases the pain. I can post a question at 2330 and hope there's an answer in the morning.

Saying that, I had a not too nice answer a little over a year ago. I was a few months into my first (and only) programming job. I was re-learning a language in my spare time and I posted a question to SO about something I was stuck on. I received one answer. The poster shot me down, told me I obviously knew nothing about the language and suggested I take up a different language (linking to a book they'd written on it). The question wasn't related to my job but I went into the office the next day overwrought with imposter syndrome -- any self confidence I had was gone.

Fuck that person.

Stack Overflow pro-tip: the first answer is almost always either wrong or technically-correct but not within the spirit of the question.

Ha! So true.
posted by popcassady at 1:50 PM on April 29, 2018 [16 favorites]


So, this is really interesting for me to follow. I have a SO account and I reference questions and answers there as part of my daily work, all day, every day, so to speak. The number of questions I actually ASK has been very small, and I'll admit that not many of them have been answered to my satisfaction, but to be honest, it's very rare that I feel the need to ask a question because most of what I know has already answered there in some form or another. I answer questions from time to time and have managed to get a fairly high reputation from my answers and therefore have editing and moderation privileges. To those who find interacting with the site frustrating, I'd like to ask: What can people like me do to help make the site more welcoming to others? I'm pretty confident my direct communications there are respectful and welcoming, but since I have a modicum of influence over other people's communication, how could I best serve the community to improve it with the modest amount of time I have to dedicate to it?
posted by WaylandSmith at 1:52 PM on April 29, 2018 [3 favorites]


So, The Internet: It's changed. It used to be fun, and easy, and stuff, but so - I suppose - was talking to one another *).

I google Stackoverflow a lot, professionally - there's probably a few Stackoverflow URLs in most of my recent source codes.

But did I want to ask questions there? Or even answer ones? The very simple ones, come on, I could do that! (Unrelated note: I'm not even being targeted by other humans because of personal preferences, but I found that blog about joining a parade "Just Because" very interesting: Gives me food for thought and futured action!)

I've tried to contribute mostly on other sites ever since hyperlinking became a thing.

To me, it felt like people didn't actually want me to contribute. My few Wikipedia edits got reverted. Disclaimer: Maybe I didn't read all the rules first.

Stackoverflow, some people there do read the rules, and some probably know more than me so it's all good, really: The questions will get answered. Some of the rule-readers will get highscores. And if I don't find answers, I'll just google more, and prod at stuff with a raw editor until I understand what's going wrong, then write email to colleagues with funny animal pictures (it's my thing ok?) which they'll dutifully file away and (mostly) ignore.

You guys managed to make me feel welcome - probably in error tbh, I'm a bit of a weirdo - in a good way! Honest!

If Stackoverflow manages the same, and even more importantly, more sites like Wikipedia manage to hop onto that manage-train: That would be Grand.

*) Growing up just makes everything very complicated in my opinion.
posted by flamewise at 2:01 PM on April 29, 2018 [3 favorites]


What can people like me do to help make the site more welcoming to others?

Stand up for people asking questions other mods consider stupid, or already answered. Believe people when they explain how their question is different or that the answers suggested aren’t relevant.

Provide actual n00bs with examples of what is meant by reproducible examples, rather than just shutting them down for not having one.

Treat people who don’t know things like people who want to learn rather than like idiots.

Take note of the fact that site search is imperfect, as all search is, and there is probably a Good Reason the person asking couldn’t find similar questions that have already been asked.

I mean you’re probably already doing all this stuff, but yeah those are the main things that turn me, a white professional male with 20+ years programming experience, off going near the site even.
posted by Jimbob at 2:03 PM on April 29, 2018 [18 favorites]


I really wish I had bookmarked the following SO question to link here, but I was looking last week (female engineer here, would NEVER sign up for an account) at a question and I shit you not, this is what the exchange was:

-- Newbie politely asks somewhat complex question related to an unfamiliar language s/h/they are learning, without sharing any code
-- SO member comments with ONLY these words: "I know the answer."
-- Newbie replies and says, "Can you please share it?"
-- SO member: "No, you need to do more work first. Giving you the answer is not what SO is for."
-- Fin. No other comments.

WTaF. While I completely understand not wanting to do someone's work for them/answer homework questions, it was so hostile.

As expressed upthread, learning to code is F*ing hard, it takes a lot of time, work and grit, you feel like an idiot most of the time, and asking good questions is a learned skill. Some sort of stock friendly "Hey, I don't have enough info here to figure out your question. What do you have so far?" or -- just NOT ANSWERING -- would be so much better.

In writing this comment right now I'm re-realizing how special Ask Metafilter is. I don't go to AskMe for coding questions and wouldn't want to, but it's the one place on the internet where I know I will get respectful, helpful advice on all manner of subject from people who are generally well-intentioned, and the bad apples are dealt with swiftly. Thanks, mods and AskMe community.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 2:07 PM on April 29, 2018 [38 favorites]


It's hilarious when the very first search result for a question is, "use google, you fool!"
posted by sjswitzer at 2:10 PM on April 29, 2018 [8 favorites]


I'm really glad to see this, will be more so when and if it starts to bear fruit. My skepticism there isn't about their intent—between Jay's statement of intent in the link, and the takes from Jeff and Joel that cowcowgrasstree linked upthread, this feels genuinely thoughtful and proactive, not like a typical tech world case of making CYOA mouth-sounds—but about how difficult it can be to make change happen at scale on something like this. It's hard work. I'm glad they're gonna try and do it; it'll make SO a better place to be, which would be great because SO is a valuable resource that rightfully displaced some really shitty websites when it got its feet under it.

I remember feeling (and maybe or maybe not voicing, it's been a long time) a skepticism toward SO's gamification aspects back when I got the chance to talk to Joel and Jeff early on about SO's structural and cultural plans on a podcast discussion; Jeff I think had reached out because they'd looked to MetaFilter in part for some of their community guidelines stuff early on, despite having pretty different goals for the actual day-to-day, thread-to-thread mechanics for the site. And I thought then and think now that probably the worst way to encourage a healthy community-for-community's-sake environment was to attach metrics and badges to the process of user and community interaction. Because gamification is sticky (and so, basically, smart from a user growth perspective) but teaching your community that literally gaming the system was a good in and of itself doesn't leave you with a community focused on helping each other and being kind; it leaves you with a community focused on winning the game. At best the game will take the form of "be helpful and kind", but I don't think that's where SO could have landed with the domain-specific utilitarian focus it has, and it didn't.

That's not to say gamification and kindness are incompatible; as several folks in here have said by way of personal experience, there are folks interacting on SO as users because they want to help. I think with qualification that's true for almost everybody on the site. A lot of the stuff you can do on SO to earn reputation/points can also be helpful and kind. But it can also be nominally helpful while also being unkind. Or it can be structurally correct without being either actually helpful or kind. And structurally correct unkindness can be directly rewarded by other people who also value structurally correct unkindness. And so that culture of pedantry and sarcasm and dismissiveness, concentrated in long-time high-reputation users with reputation-based moderation powers, can reinforce itself and ossify and, well, there you are.

I don't think gamification is the only thing or the most important thing; I fixate on it right now mostly because I think the foreseeable-but-unforeseen problems with gamification (which aren't remotely limited to SO) are resonant with the larger issue of foreseeable-but-unforeseen problems with a lot of the internet right now, with the toxicity of corporate social media and the runaway-train ethical void of algorithmic content and ad and data management. Ideas that are attractive because they are clever or powerful or solve this or that long-standing problem in a cost/resource-efficient way can still be, on the sum, bad ideas, and I think founding a community culture around a cult of gamification is not, at the least, in the territory of ideas that are definitely and unambiguously good.

Which is a long way around to saying: part of what's promising to me even in my skepticism is that basically none of what Jay or Jeff or Joel is saying in the stuff linked above is "but we came up with some better gamification!". Saying "this is a social problem, and we need to do better" is the actual place they should be, and that they seem to be there instead of presenting a scheme for just magically inducing better behavior through a new set of behavior incentive badges is heartening. Hard social problems are hard, and trying to solve hard social problems with clever technical solutions is almost always a detour into futility.
posted by cortex at 2:21 PM on April 29, 2018 [33 favorites]


What can people like me do to help make the site more welcoming to others?

When someone posts an asshole answer, call them out on it - tell them "that's not helpful/doesn't answer the question." Let lurkers see that someone on the site doesn't think "you obviously don't know a damn thing about that language" is a reasonable answer. A big part of the perceived hostility is people searching for answers via google, and finding them buried in a thread full of insults.

Much of how MetaFilter establishes its community style is the mod comments, of, "hey, that's enough on that topic/don't be jerks to each other."

The aggressive version of that is, "obviously you, insult-thrower, don't know how to answer the question and are falling back on insulting the asker for having the temerity to request information that is outside of your limited knowledgebase, thus reminding you that you're not nearly as intelligent nor as well-educated as you like to imagine." Throw in enough multi-syllable words and indirect accusations and it may even survive a mod review, but it won't actually make the site appear any friendlier to outsiders.

Offer what information you can toward the actual question, even if that's just, "the keywords you need may be x, y, and z." That may be enough for them to find the answer for their specific purpose.

If possible, offer answers that can help other people who read it later - "here's the settings you need to adjust; note that these won't work on a Windows machine - for that, you'd need these other settings." This lets other readers believe that the site really is for helping the larger community, not just for people who've identified a specific, single problem that needs help.

Don't assume wrong vocabulary means lack of intelligence, skill, or experience. Computer-based labels are slippery things; they keep changing. Try to gently offer correct vocabulary where possible.

Take the Lucky Ten Thousand approach to answering questions.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:21 PM on April 29, 2018 [12 favorites]


So, I’m on the board at SO, but am speaking here as just my own experiences and what I know from talking with the team (as well as what SO has learned from MeFi).

Jay’s post gives voice to concerns that many on the SO team have felt from the start, but that didn’t always have enough support and buy-in. As noted in this thread, significant efforts on many of these issues have been going on for the better part of a decade. But ultimately, if people still have hostile experiences (and many do), them obviously there’s lots more work to do and that’s why it’s good to address these things. It’s especially true as there’s been another public round of criticism on these issues, and the fact that the pro-jerk contingent thinks SO is on their side rather than the side of inclusion means the team obviously hasn’t been vocal and visible enough in addressing the concerns.

All that being said, to make a site a decade ago that has reached ~50M users and allows completely anonymous users (indeed, as many have noted, completely not-logged-in users) to get enormous value from the site for free is an incredible accomplishment and has probably done more to tear down barriers around coding than almost any other effort in history. Similarly, what’s not obvious is that the team sees those 50M people as its user base, not just the 1% (or whatever the number is) of people who sign in and ask a question. The experience for those who ask must get better, yes, but the design of having millions of people be able to get help was intentional. And certainly almost no other site of this scale allows completely anonymous or pseudonymous usage, but has zero gangs of nazis roving around harassing people. It’s because of those positive parts that I think the team and the community can address the negative parts acknowledged here. Similarly, it ignores the site’s broad global reach to say that the only goal was to serve white men, though the toxic parts of the culture do form a barrier which makes that perception understandable.

The bottom line is this: like MeFi or other communities that have persisted from the old web, there are core values that are right. (Everyone on SO owns their own content, for example.) And there are unconscious biases that, while the team has intended to address, they hadn’t attached with enough urgency. And the cost of those biases has been many people left with understandable wariness or a bad taste in their mouth.

What I say as both a board member supporting the team, and as a coder who uses the site constantly, is that the long-teen healthy survival of the site depends on reckoning with the cultural debt of that legacy, and earning (or earning back) the trust of those who have been excluded. I think they’re up to the challenge, and hope others will keep pushing to see that they deliver.
posted by anildash at 2:35 PM on April 29, 2018 [48 favorites]


(And it has a professional white background, ya know.)
posted by anildash at 2:36 PM on April 29, 2018 [31 favorites]


(dammit, Anil, I've been trying to get people to stop making that joke and now this)
posted by cortex at 2:38 PM on April 29, 2018 [35 favorites]


The answer isn't to move from "don't be an asshole" to "be welcoming".

The answer is to move to assholery is banned here. The problem is that SO just asks its userbase to not be assholes to each other, but doesn't have any repercussions for doing so. The remedy is to start booting users who are assholes - no matter how much they "contribute", because the toxicity they add damages the community.
posted by NoxAeternum at 3:20 PM on April 29, 2018 [19 favorites]


I have an SO account that's old enough and has enough karma to signal I'm not a total noob. But with my last two jobs, I've set up new accounts because I didn't want to be logging in with my personal account at work. I also like the idea, in the spirit of this TAL story, of starting from scratch. My first experiences with the community as a new user always make me regret my decision.

I know how to write a good question. I do my research beforehand, pay attention to niceties like formatting and grammar, offer concise code examples, etc. As a new user, I use the same m.o. Still, my first couple questions almost always get downvoted without explanation. It's maddening because I know if I asked the same question on my more established account, I probably wouldn't suffer these cheap shots.

Here's an idea for dealing with the bullying jerk phenomenon: retire accounts once they reach a certain level of karma and let them start over with a new account so they can remember what it's like to be in the shoes of a new user and see the kind of gratuitous abuse the community seems to enjoy doling out, often anonymously, to new users. To make the idea more palatable to the karma hounds, induct them into some kind of hall-of-fame. Maybe even let their new karma continue to accrue on their retired accounts. Or give them one of those holiday hats.

I also like this mentor idea I've seen:

https://meta.stackexchange.com/questions/254205/opt-in-mentor-privilege-at-7-5k

But I've come to recognize that abuse of power, be it petty or Trumpian in nature, just seems to be part of the human condition and I fear to imagine the ways in which this privilege would come to be abused.
posted by bunbury at 3:34 PM on April 29, 2018 [7 favorites]


tabascodagama: Stack Overflow pro-tip: the first answer is almost always either wrong or technically-correct but not within the spirit of the question. The second answer is almost always impeccably clear and thorough and addresses what the asker was asking rather than answering an easier question adjacent to the one the asker was asking.

True when the question hasn't just been closed without any answers at all because people with mod powers were in a bad mood. I've lost count of the number of times my exact problem has been asked and closed as a duplicate or off topic or something, but where there is no relevant answer on the site.
posted by fedward at 3:48 PM on April 29, 2018 [9 favorites]


Stack Overflow is an incredible resource, so I really hope they can get their community together.
posted by Going To Maine at 3:59 PM on April 29, 2018 [5 favorites]


I'm relieved to see they're at least trying to ask the right questions, but I'm frankly not sure it can be solved with the team they have. I've seen their paid community manager describe unhappy users as "whiny malcontents" instead of addressing the substance of a criticism (or even just saying "we're not going to change this thing, no" or "we need to find a more constructive way to have this conversation") and refuse to back down until someone pointed out that the site's core "Be Nice" policy literally includes calling people "whiny" as an example of unacceptable behavior. Perhaps a trivial example, but bluntly, that doesn't strike me as the leadership to fix a toxic culture.

Volunteer moderators are elected on the basis of, I don't know, not really any kind of process that correlates to ability to moderate, and then they hold their offices essentially forever. The entire moderation process, which gives largely unauditable power out to random volunteers, seems to have been designed to satisfy the need to call the site "moderated" without investing any actual resources into the community or caring about the results.

And it's just been the same failures over and over again. New users show up, don't know how to use the site or to read buried documents in the help center to understand the basic contours of how the place work, miss some incomprehensible rule, get yelled at, and leave. And then someone else shows up five minutes later and the cycle repeats itself. New users write questions in the answer box, which are unceremoniously deleted because they're in the wrong place, but nobody applies any effort to figuring out why this keeps happening and how to guide users to the right place. And all of this has been going on for years without anybody saying "maybe we should stop treating people like this?" It's never useful to complain "where have you been?" when someone finally shows interest in making it right, but the scale of trying to fix this, given the years of neglect, is enormous.

For example, a small personal pet peeve. There's a travel.stackexchange.com site for travel questions, and an expatriates.stackexchange.com site for long-term living abroad questions. No new user could possibly understand the distinction, so questions get asked in the wrong place. And then they get closed and people are just told they've Done Something Wrong and have to go ask somewhere else. Worse, the site has a perfectly good mechanism to just move the question to the right place, which would get someone an answer without yelling at them, but nobody is allowed to use it for arcane bureaucratic reasons which will not yield in the face of arguments that this is actively hostile to users.

In general, the site has to figure out how to do a better job of helping people who can't frame a perfect question as judged by people making drive-by moderation decisions in an effort to clear a review queue rather than speak to fellow human beings looking for help. Joel, defending seemingly arbitrary but necessary rules, writes:
Similarly for Stack Overflow. We don’t allow, say, questions that are too broad (“How do I make a program?”). Our general rule is that if the correct length of an answer is a whole book you are asking too much. These questions feel like showing up on a medical website and saying something like “I think my kidney has been hurting. How can I remove it?” It’s crazy—and incidentally, insulting to the people who spent ten years in training learning to be surgeons.
Why? Certainly, there need to be some bounds on the acceptable scope for questions, but why not meet people where they are? Stack Overflow has a peculiar insistence on self-contained answers, but sometimes the right answer really is that somebody needs a book or a tutorial or an expert or some other resource that's broader than a Q&A site can provide, so why not direct people to them, and encourage them to come back with more detailed questions as they learn, instead of just closing their questions?

And then there's the garbage fire that results whenever someone identifying as part of a marginalized group appears. For instance, the response to a recent interpersonal relations question from a black man asking how to avoid unwanted conversations about race with white people was to complain that the question is bigoted toward white people, thus forcing said person to have yet another unwanted conversation about race with white people. They, unsurprisingly, have since deleted their account. Yet there is widespread denial that the community has any problem in this area.
posted by zachlipton at 4:21 PM on April 29, 2018 [21 favorites]


How much do they pay their moderators?
posted by clawsoon at 4:28 PM on April 29, 2018 [5 favorites]


And I thought then and think now that probably the worst way to encourage a healthy community-for-community's-sake environment was to attach metrics and badges to the process of user and community interaction

This is a super-important point. SE gives badges for performing moderation actions, encouraging users to rip through review queues deciding what questions to close or delete. And while that makes sense in terms of giving people a little dopamine hit for performing not particularly interesting free labor, it removes any reason to think about the other human beings on the end of that process. Make a decision, get gamified reward, make next decision.

You're insulated from the fact that you're deciding what to do with an actual person who wants help because you're incentivized to click buttons to move through the queue without thinking about being welcoming. There's more humanity in playing the game Papers, Please than in responding to new users asking questions.

How much do they pay their moderators?

As usual, how much you're willing to pay for things shows how much you value said things. The value here is about a free t-shirt and $100/year to charity in the name of each diamond moderator.
posted by zachlipton at 4:36 PM on April 29, 2018 [9 favorites]


I stuck with SO long enough to get my one gold badge for 100 consecutive days and kinda gave up after that. I never did, and probably never would, ask a question, but I answered a couple of dozen. I hope that I came across as helpful and friendly.

I can't understand people who are jerks about it. I had the trade passed to me by people — men and women both —who were my current age back then, and now it's my turn. Isn't that the way it's supposed to work?
posted by ob1quixote at 4:37 PM on April 29, 2018 [3 favorites]


cortex: Because gamification is sticky (and so, basically, smart from a user growth perspective) but teaching your community that literally gaming the system was a good in and of itself doesn't leave you with a community focused on helping each other and being kind; it leaves you with a community focused on winning the game.

McNamara Fallacy again?
posted by clawsoon at 4:37 PM on April 29, 2018 [2 favorites]


I believe I have an account on SO but I am fairly convinced if I've ever asked a Q it was closed.

It would seem to me if they're going to stick to the gamification thingy, maybe the biggest gain of "karma" could come from either volunteering to help the new user figure out what they're really asking, and then answering that refined question, or pointing the user at a genuinely helpful resource. I mean, there are probably ten questions per discipline which provide 80% of the "too broad" closures. Give huge karma to anyone who maintains a section of the site aiming to provide pointers, tips and examples to those folk.

Also, I've been programming for 30 years and my googled questions often lead to a SO discussion which has been closed as "too broad". Not saying I'm brilliant, far from it, but if I was asking the same question, maybe it isn't as "broad" as the experts insist?

Sometimes even just the knowledge of why the question is considered as such by genuine authorities is enough to ring the clue phone for someone (or me).
posted by maxwelton at 4:39 PM on April 29, 2018 [5 favorites]


Seems like you can’t realistically expect to examine and correct for selection bias using the same tools and processes that are creating the selection bias.

This reminds me a lot of Daily Kos with their karma system creating super users, but in that case the point was to create a decentralized system of self selection to reinforce a bias towards a certain progressive ideal so it worked. I’m not trying to make a right or wrong statement here, just noting that the intent of daily kos was to make right leaning folks feel very unwelcome and the karma system did that exactly.

So maybe obfuscating newbies and taking the power away from upvotes and downvotes as a measure of worth would be a good first step to making SO a place where newbies feel welcome at a minimum.

As far all the other rules lawyering that makes people feel like crap, maybe more nuance and fewer bright lines would help.

And my other recommendation is for the board members to not be so quick to post long comments that basically read as “50 million people can’t be wrong!”
posted by Annika Cicada at 4:40 PM on April 29, 2018 [6 favorites]


We don’t allow, say, questions that are too broad (“How do I make a program?”). Our general rule is that if the correct length of an answer is a whole book you are asking too much.

Why?


Exactly this. If someone asks, "how do I make a program," obviously SO isn't going to answer that - but it could be answered with, "That's a very complex question, and there is no short, accurate answer even if we knew exactly what kind of program you want to make. Here, have a link to 'basics of what a program is' and 'how to get started making apps;' if those don't help you, feel free to ask a question with a bit more detail of what you're looking for."

Saying "locked - this question is inappropriate" makes it very clear to newbies that they're not welcome, that "I'm not sure how to ask for what I want" will be met with "go away; come back when you do."

I have understood for years that Stack Exchange and Stack Overflow were for mid-level-to-expert people, that beginners were tolerated but not wanted, and that phrasing a question in a way that annoys the regulars is likely to result in a cluster of "you're stupid and don't belong here" answers, instead of replies that address the question. I have never even considered making an account because it was very clear that my input was not wanted.

I'd be very happy to discover I'm wrong about that, but upper management making an announcement of "oh hey we noticed we've got a bunch of mean people aaaaand we're gonna do... something... to reduce the effects of their hostility" does not fill me with hope.

If they really want to be more welcoming, they need policies of:

1) There are no stupid or wrong questions, although some may be in the wrong place or outside of the scope of help we provide.
2) Hostility is not permitted. We can discuss whether or not a particular comment or exchange was hostile, but we're not accepting "it's okay to be hostile to that person because [whatever]."
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 4:41 PM on April 29, 2018 [8 favorites]


SO is in the victim-of-its-own-success growth phase. The amount of questions coming in is totally overwhelming the site's capacity to answer them, and has been for years. Good questions end up getting lost in the shuffle, bad questions get worse answers (because the knowledgeable users have seen enough iterations of near-identical questions that they don't bother answering, and the gamified nature of the site encourages the less knowledgeable to try to grind out a bit of reputation by answering things they don't really understand.) And there's the constant steady stream of help vampires clogging the site with zero-effort do-my-work-for-me questions.

All of which makes me a bit reactionary against the idea of making the site more welcoming -- if anything it feels like the site needs a higher barrier to entry, to encourage people to search before asking, or at least think before asking. The site's current (unplanned) strategy is "be an asshole to anyone who steps out of line", which isn't ideal. Primarily because the ones most likely to need to second-guess themselves before asking a question are the least likely to do so as a result of someone being an asshole to them.

I've yet to see anyone suggest a better strategy, though. "Be nicer" definitely isn't it, at least on its own.

"Ban the assholes," however, might be. In the tags I frequent there are four usernames who basically appear to use the site as a 24/7 alternative to screaming into a pillow to vent their boundless rage at the world. Most of the rest of the vitriol, TBH, seems to come from new users who are simply OUTRAGED at the idea that you'd mark their question that's been asked and answered a hundred times as a duplicate, or that you'd ask them to please not write updates to their question as new answers, or to not rewrite their question to a completely different topic after it's been answered, or etc. (Whether those users are actually "new", or are just new accounts opened by frequent bad-question fliers, is of course unknowable, but I have my guesses.)

If there's one wave-the-magic-wand change i'd make to the site, it would be to make the "mark as duplicate" feature less adversarial. People react so badly when their question is closed as a duplicate, and I truly don't understand why: it's not "your question is bad," it's "your question is fine, and lucky you it's already been answered!" Some users are too trigger-happy with the feature, others use it in ways that are too opaque (for example there's a whole class of questions that boil down to "my code is asynchronous but I'm trying to use it as though it were synchronous and therefore it's not working" -- a significant number of mods seem to have collectively decided on one canonical question to mark all of them as duplicates of... which is technically correct, if you already understand that's what the problem is, but often must be very confusing to the people who posted their question specifically because they don't understand that's what the problem is.) But there's such a wealth of information in the existing Q&A, there must be some way to point to it without pissing people off with a Your Question Has Been Closed.
posted by ook at 4:41 PM on April 29, 2018 [9 favorites]


I use Stack Overflow all the time, but it's literally never occurred to me to get an account there, much less ask a question. Usually, someone else has asked my question, and they got to be the target of all the snark and rules-lawyering and general jerkishness. I just get to read the answer.

That's my experience with it, except it seems like 90% of Google searches land on "marked as duplicate" pages and it requires more jumping around to find some actual answers.
posted by Foosnark at 4:52 PM on April 29, 2018 [10 favorites]


Why? Certainly, there need to be some bounds on the acceptable scope for questions, but why not meet people where they are?

Meeting people where they are requires more time and care from moderators. Moderators are not paid for time and care - they’re barely paid at all. Cruelty, while an inadequate response that hurts the community overall, is the expedient option. I don’t have much symphathy for the hypothetical moderator who shuts people down and can’t understand why they don’t want to join. I do, however, have sympathy for the hypothetical moderator who simply can’t deal with the unending number of questions in their queue and must get rid of them as quickly as possible. In that sense, I’m rather more sympathetic to the fact that Stack Overflow’s users have become efficient jerks than I am to the management that let it happen.
posted by Going To Maine at 4:54 PM on April 29, 2018 [4 favorites]


Wow I've had an account since '08 and looking I have a gold badge! Actually I noticed I'd answered more questions than I remember, mostly I've used it via google when hunting some grumbly bug or language quirk, only rarely logging in or 'participating'. I must have some deficiency as I seem totally unable to grasp why folks get all riled up about various niggling details, that's what the little x in the tab quickly resolves.
posted by sammyo at 4:56 PM on April 29, 2018


Is there any overlap in the personality types which are attracted to volunteering their time for, respectively, Stack Overflow moderation and Wikipedia administration?
posted by clawsoon at 4:59 PM on April 29, 2018 [6 favorites]


seems like 90% of Google searches land on "marked as duplicate"

That used to annoy me, shouldn't there be an internet wide cadre of question editors that would carefully merge all the dups in the world? No really what else do tech writers have to do at lunch <ducking under the table.. ok back> yes yoking around but then thinking one more step -- a few extra clicks is not too much burden to have a large repository of *differently phrased* questions. Thinking back, any number of times I've clicked through the dup chain and finally realized that a certain term would be more effective in searches, but how else would I have fount that chain of thought!?!
posted by sammyo at 5:06 PM on April 29, 2018 [2 favorites]


I realize it’s probably gauche to pick apart the comments of from mefi’s own anildash, but two things stick out.

That a community doesn’t have roving bands of nazis is not a thing to brag about. That’s literally the lowest possible baseline for decency. That does not make me feel safer in public or on the Internet.

I would contend that not planning for women and people of color is in fact planning to serve white men. Not making it explicit doesn’t mean it’s less true. “We want to serve programmers and new programmers” means “the people we imagine when we imagine programmers,” and if folks are limited to imagining white dudes in these roles, that’s who the community is going to be designed for, and that’s who is going to be supported and defended in the structure of the community.

When people meet women at tech conferences it’s still assumed by lots of folks (not all folks!) that they’re in sales or event planning or someone’s wife. Mumble mumble recent event I was in the 7th row, I was among the six women in those 7 rows. There were 12-15 men in each row. Often at meetups of 50-100 people I’m the only woman. I’m self teaching and this is incredibly uncomfortable, but if I limit myself to women’s only meetups I chop off 80% of my networking and the vast majority of talks are male dominated spaces. From what I’ve seen the women’s spaces are about collaboration and panels of lightning talks. I think this is partly because there are actually many women who are ready to give talks but the feeling of getting up in front of a room full of dudes is uncomfortable for many (not all!) women places like StackOverflow have a part to play in this. I’d argue it’s circular and in many ways self fulfilling. Men assume women don’t have anythingnof value to say and women assume the men don’t want to hear us.

I can’t credibly speak to the stories of people of color in the broader tech community, some minorities have better access than others. Tech colmunities have to do better. If we don’t feel safe in internet spaces that are male and/or majority dominated then we’re almost certainly not showing up to the in person spaces.

In the words of Flavia Dzodan “My feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit.”
posted by bilabial at 5:17 PM on April 29, 2018 [27 favorites]


A few years back I really got into stack overflow for a while, I hope in a good way. I enjoyed helping people and solving puzzles, but I know the primary reason I was doing it was the gamification. Some things, like the "unsung hero" badge, did encourage me to spend time on less prominent or obviously rewarding questions. On the other hand, I don't doubt that I've short changed someone in service of achieving one of the moderation goals, despite my best intentions. On the third hand, I think I used to go through my rss feed and upvote every non-obviously spam question, because that was implied as an obligation by a help page or meta post I saw at some point, and not for any particular shiny png.

I hope they can finesse all of those influences, along with less direct things like the site design and layout, to foster a less hostile environment, because I feel like there really is a pearl there.
posted by lucidium at 5:56 PM on April 29, 2018 [1 favorite]


“We want to serve programmers and new programmers” means “the people we imagine when we imagine programmers,” and if folks are limited to imagining white dudes in these roles, that’s who the community is going to be designed for, and that’s who is going to be supported and defended in the structure of the community

In particular, the thing that strikes me--as a Hispanic woman who started as a developer in my mid-30s--is that young white men who are CS students or junior devs or whatever? They don't wonder about whether they're going to wash out. They don't feel like the deck's already stacked and like there's a good chance they're going to have to give up and spend the rest of their lives doing clerical work. There's basically one group of people who walk into this profession feeling like they belong there, and literally every other group walks in with some degree of anxiety.

If you want to serve new programmers categorically, it has to be in a way that doesn't just say "you need grit to succeed!" I have been told this, with that word, multiple times. But white dudes don't need grit. They just need to show up. The rest of us need to be encouraged, but the community norm that SO adopted was not encouragement, it was overt hostility towards people who aren't already good at asking questions. So who survives there? The people who never wondered if they belonged there in the first place.
posted by Sequence at 6:07 PM on April 29, 2018 [30 favorites]


Yes, the culture of smug condescension really puts me off from the CS community on SO, HackerNews, /r/learnprogramming, and other sites. Beginners are talked down to way below their experience level. Often answers add in explanations of basics (not needed to answer the actual question) as if explaining to someone in primary school about addition.

The gamification definitely contributes to problems I see above in the thread. The first answer is often wrong because the early answers are the ones with the most opportunity for upvotes, leading users to hit F5 for new questions to answer. And on SO there are badges and point rewards for flagging questions as off-topic or not detailed enough or repeats. You're incentivized to flag stuff or downvote stuff to earn rewards.
posted by hexaflexagon at 6:31 PM on April 29, 2018 [5 favorites]


I have an SO account and have done for ... eight ? ... years .

I've come across people being arseholes.

I've come across people not knowing what they're talking about.

I've come across people (seemingly) saying anything in the hope they will get points ("the curse of gamification").

I've also come across a crap load of people who for no reason other than they want to help going out of their way to help me . Judging by the time that they're awake these people come from all corners of the globe and all I know about them is their username.

It warms my heart to be honest. In what are, quite often, the dark watches of the night I sit at this desk and people I've never met reach out to help me. It happened this morning and it's been happening for years.

So ... it's not all bad, not by a long way.
posted by southof40 at 7:03 PM on April 29, 2018 [8 favorites]


I wasn't sure if I had an account (turns out I do). Have never asked a question or answered one on SO, but use it every single day.
posted by flippant at 7:26 PM on April 29, 2018


I’ve been spending a lot of time on tex.stackexchange.com trying to figure out how to make TiKz do stuff, and the vast majority of the answers are extremely helpful. I’ve only asked two questions, but the answers I got to those were helpful too. I wonder why Tex.stackexchange is so much more tractable.
posted by leahwrenn at 7:38 PM on April 29, 2018


Maybe because there's no money in TeX? I also have been wondering if stackexchange experience depended a whole lot on what problems you looked up.
posted by clew at 8:25 PM on April 29, 2018


It's pretty hilarious that Stackoverflow's directors are so concerned about their users' friendliness when they've baked hostility into the site itself. I just tried posting a programming question. I'm stymied by this automatic pop-up box:
The title does not meet our quality standards. Please make sure that it clearly summarizes your problem and uses proper grammar. You can put details in the body of your question.
What a snotty message! It would have been thoroughly objectionable even if my grammar were faulty; not everybody has English as their first language, and most programming questions are clear enough even if the asker struggles with English grammar. I don't believe the site actually does check grammar, though, any more than it checks to see if my problem has been "clearly summarized". The reason I know this is that it was preceded by a similar pop-up box complaining about the body of my question that only went away when I added a filler sentence; it added no actual details, but it must have passed some length requirement.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:14 PM on April 29, 2018 [10 favorites]


The title does not meet our quality standards. Please make sure that it clearly summarizes your problem and uses proper grammar. You can put details in the body of your question.

If I got an automated response like that, I'd leave the site and never come back. I'd ask my question
* At MeFi,
* On my Dreamwidth,
* On Tumblr,
* On email lists that have nothing to do with the topic in question,

before I bothered submitting it to a site that obviously cares more about exact phrasing than helping people find the info they need.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 9:50 PM on April 29, 2018 [8 favorites]


Maybe because there's no money in TeX? I also have been wondering if stackexchange experience depended a whole lot on what problems you looked up.

I trust it varies for the same reason that one's experience of different sibreddits varies: because they are all very different forums, tied together by a common interface, a common source of ad dollars, shared hosting, and a very loose sense of community.

So ... it's not all bad, not by a long way.

Whenever MetaFilter talks about any other website with a community, I always leave with the feeling that the consensus is that the site should be burned to the ground. (Ravelry and Pinboard are the possible exceptions.) I find myself imagining that your average redditor wades through a pile of MRAs every afternoon, or any random twitter user will make a tweet and be guaranteed to get five responses wishing for their death. This isn't to dismiss those problems, which are very real and need to be surfaced, but the image that is created is not that thousands (millions?) of people are having a bad time but rather that most websites are essentially unusable. When I encounter a random Redditor on the street I want to shake them and yell, "What's wrong with you? Don't you know?" This is, of course, insane. And while I realize that no forum is required to be universally approving -indeed, our default position that a website with a user base larger than size X is guaranteed to be terrible is generally bracingly reactionary- it's nice to be reminded that people do love other places.
posted by Going To Maine at 9:54 PM on April 29, 2018 [8 favorites]


(This is probably the kind of feedback they are explicitly looking for and not getting from their existing sources)
posted by Merus at 9:54 PM on April 29, 2018 [1 favorite]


You're incentivized to flag stuff or downvote stuff to earn rewards.

And this here is one of the fastest ways to develop a toxic community. Negative interations should not be codified or supported.
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:46 PM on April 29, 2018 [4 favorites]


I have been linking Shirky's article about how groups are their own worst enemy for a decade and a half. It's been pretty dated for a long time now, but he still makes a few points that I don't see many other people making. And he uses MetaFilter in his examples, which makes it fun to be linking it here, again.

The StackOverflow system actually holds up a lot of his ideals. It has handles, it has reputation, it has barriers to participation. Hell, it's been long enough that I could have first seen this article linked from JoelOnSoftware back in the early days and completely forgot where I got it from. But obviously, these successful adoptions were not enough, because SO has problems. Some problems Shirky mentions as a possibility (poor defense against scale, unnecessary accretion of reputation/karma), but also (critically) at least one which he does not:

Sometimes, your core group is incompatible with your goals as an organization. The most entrenched and invested users have been given incentives to accumulate further power by polishing and reinforcing the walls which their moderation tools made inevitable. The de facto purpose of the site is to accrue power over lesser users, and so they have systemically selected for the most power-hungry members to become the core of the community. It's not enough to change the social policies; the tech enabled this outcome, and so the tech has to change as well.
posted by jsnlxndrlv at 11:11 PM on April 29, 2018 [12 favorites]


(Which is not to say that Shirky's article is sufficient for confronting problems like those identified in the original post. Y'all have already said a lot on this subject, some of which I think I have probably just rephrased poorly. I just find this a comfortable lens to look at things through, despite its limitations—if the industry wisdom about social software from 2003 can anticipate issues with a design, then you know it has some serious problems. But the tools of 2003 are not adequate for dealing with, say, gatekeeping by entrenched people of privilege.)
posted by jsnlxndrlv at 11:17 PM on April 29, 2018 [4 favorites]


One of the things that an emphasis on "no duplicates" and similar mandates does is to lose the very interesting and useful information about how people ask those duplicate questions.

I suspect nearly everyone arrives at their first SO question after discovering the site via a google search. That search clearly didn't answer their question, and so they felt the need to ask it again, and that's a really interesting data point. It seems like a lost opportunity to either expand the original question or create some sort of "merge" resource ("Welcome, googler. You asked about this, and history has shown you'd most likely be helped by the answer linked below; but that question was asked in a slightly different way..."). Obviously that takes someone finding the time to do so...but it would make the site more like a cooperative than a corporation.

One thing I do appreciate a great deal are folks who update old questions. "It's been six years, and the most up-voted answer--use oldMethod()-- no longer works in WebShit 3.x. Instead, use moreComplicatedMethod()..."
posted by maxwelton at 11:20 PM on April 29, 2018 [7 favorites]


how else would I have fount that chain of thought!?!

It takes one second to think oh, maybe Stack Overflow could implement an actual duplication method that added the text of duped questions and any answers that don't have the word 'dupe'l to the page with the approved version, and then chucked a 302 redirect on the dupe so it doesn't just get in people's way? And then you could see all the different ways people asked about it on the same page! And people's answers could be updated to recognize what was missing in the wording of the duped ones, etc etc.

It wouldn't even have to take more user time, there's already a mechanism for saying 'this question is a dupe of that question'. Just add some background processing when that is triggered.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 11:34 PM on April 29, 2018 [4 favorites]


The SE sites need to change how downvoting and flagging happens.

Each question should have one (or two) tags that are designated as primary and represent the core expertise called for, in answering the question. Downvotes (with a mandatory comment/reason) and flags should only be initiated by users who meet a reputation threshold for those tags. They should not be completely anonymous either. Maybe the diamond mods can know who they are. Requiring some accountability and effort should reduce these drive-by moderation events.

The other but larger issue is the dissonance between the two modes inherent in the SE model. The first mode is that of a forum. People go there to get help. The questions may be incomplete, vague, misdirected and sometimes lazy. The answers may be partial, guesstimated, or plain off-course. In a normal forum, there's scope for a conversation whereby the other community members along with the asker form a clear picture of the end result desired, and achieve it, if possible. But allowing this mode clashes with the second mode, which is that of being a static-ish resource preserved for posterity. This mode requires that fluffy, trivial, ephemeral and accidental content not be allowed or preserved. The content, as presented to a future guest, should be proper and precise i.e. a clear, complete yet minimal presentation of a problem countered with a direct self-contained resolution. Most of the rules and hostile behaviour that has emerged is due to the clash between these two modes and SE's emphasis on the second mode.

But SE needs to realize that a dish is messy until done. The dish, while in the kitchen, will not and cannot look photo-ready as it may be once set on the dining table. In the kitchen, the dish needs monitoring, adjustment and improvisation. However, SE wants the Q&A to be presentation-ready throughout its lifecycle. But the dish decoration happens near the end. So they need to switch to a two-stage model. A presentation view for guests containing neat and trimmed content, and a process view for participants which allows for the imperfections, lateral detours and half-steps inevitable in an engagement between humans.
posted by Gyan at 12:27 AM on April 30, 2018 [4 favorites]


Hell, it's been long enough that I could have first seen this article linked from JoelOnSoftware back in the early days and completely forgot where I got it from.

I've got a memory for when I see this piece linked, because I think it's foundational. It hasn't ever been on Joel on Software as far as I've read, but Coding Horror (Jeff Atwood's blog, co-founder of Stack Overflow) has definitely read it and tried to incorporate it into the design of Stack Overflow.

One of the key takeaways from it, for me, was that social software keeps making the same mistakes. Stack Overflow at least manage to develop some new and interesting problems instead of running into the same stupid ideas as is typical.

I think it's also worth mentioning that Stack Overflow's audience are programmers, and as hostile as Stack Overflow can be, it's not a patch on the kinds of communities that these kind of programmers build for themselves.
posted by Merus at 12:34 AM on April 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


Plot twist: your question actually WAS a duplicate.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 12:36 AM on April 30, 2018


Followup to my Stackoverflow experience above:

Yes, it turns out that Stack Overflow's definition of "grammatical" really does mean "lengthy". Adding a few superfluous words to the title made it "grammatical"; adding a superfluous sentence to the message body made that grammatical too. Whoever put this test (and its accompanying message) into the code was a real engineer.

I was asking a question about a relatively obscure language. There are only a few dozen questions that have the language tagged; many of them remain unanswered. I wouldn't have expected a quick answer, but my question was downvoted a few minutes later. Given how few people use the language it was almost certainly downvoted by someone who's unfamiliar with it. And now the question is "on hold", so it never will be answered, anyway.

There are just multiple layers of user hostility here. They're baked into the code base, the culture, and the moderation system. If Stack Overflow's directors are surprised by this they should probably step away from anything to do with the user experience.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:26 AM on April 30, 2018 [17 favorites]


I read StackOverflow and its sister sites when they come up in a Google search, but I've never contributed beyond that (despite having an account, or at least an OpenID login) because I find their byzantine privilege system offputting and absolutely infuriating.

I would like to help when I have something to contribute, but the way the site is structured makes it practically impossible for me to do so without first becoming a site regular -- which I have no interest in doing when I am never able to contribute in an organic way.

My only entry point into StackOverflow is finding existing conversations in search results -- I know I'm not alone in this. When I find an existing conversation, sometimes I see a mistake in an answer, or I have some followup information -- nothing that belongs in a separate answer, because it's a direct followup to an existing thread of conversation or a minor change. Or I can see that someone has been downvoted into oblivion for asking a question for no apparent reason, and I want to upvote them because I think it's a good question and I have the same problem.

Can I comment? No, I need 50 reputation. Can I upvote the question? No, I need 15 reputation. Can I downvote a shitty answer? I haven't tried for test purposes, but I'm going to make an educated guess that the answer is no.

I can "suggest an edit" to an existing answer, which is a pretty counter-intuitive way to contribute a change, and doesn't apply to comments. I recently submitted an edit which fixes a broken link in an answer. Did it get accepted? Lol, no.

OK, so how do I get reputation? By asking questions and writing standalone answers. In other words, by participating in a way which I have no interest in participating in during the only times that I ever interact with the site. Chicken, egg.

Personally I think that this approach is ass-backwards -- is it not more logical to let people make small, incremental contributions before they can make large, more prominent contributions, rather than the other way around?

Compare this to something like Reddit (I know, Reddit, but bear with me). I regularly contribute to several help subreddits. In a subreddit, anyone can post, comment or vote. Yes, there are problems with asshole replies and downvotes, but anyone can come in and make a useful contribution, even if they found a post on Google and made an account five minutes ago, without having to jump through bizarre hoops.

(There is definitely a lot of room for improvement -- an extremely common issue is people posting questions in a general discussion subreddit and getting directed (with various degrees of patience) to the corresponding help subreddit. If there was a way for moderators to move posts between subreddits, it would cut down on masses of noise and unfriendliness.)
posted by confluency at 3:16 AM on April 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


is it not more logical to let people make small, incremental contributions before they can make large, more prominent contributions, rather than the other way around?

The small contributions usually fly under the radar so there's greater potential for mischievous, spammy, off-topic or just plain wrong content to slip through. That's why SE wants you to make a few prominent contributions first so that those will be vetted and grant you the reputation needed to run around making the small changes. SE sites are volunteer-moderated and from their perspective, having a lower barrier to entry generates a larger baseline noise to sift through.
posted by Gyan at 3:36 AM on April 30, 2018 [5 favorites]


SO is one of the greatest things ever created on the web, and has saved me countless hours. I'd be happy if they didn't change anything about it.
posted by JeffL at 5:20 AM on April 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


I want to clear up a couple things for people who aren't familiar with how Stack Overflow works, because it's weird and unusual and seems to be leading to some misconceptions here. If you're already familiar with SO this won't be very interesting:

How much do they pay their moderators?

The vast majority of moderation on the site is handled by regular users, who gain privileges based on their reputation -- roughly speaking, as your reputation increases you get the ability to propose edits (which will need to be confirmed by other users), then to make them unilaterally; later to propose closing or marking a question as duplicate, then (at a high level, and only within the portions of the site you've spent a lot of time in) to do that unilaterally. There are some other bits and bobs along the way but those are the most significant ones. There's also a yearly vote for "community" moderators, but other than the little diamond marker next to their name I've no idea what extra powers or responsibilities they have.

Something that's easy to lose track of in discussing the effects of "gamification" on the site is that this system works remarkably well. Questions come into the site with an extremely wide range of clarity and of english proficiency; without that editing and culling process much of the site would be unreadable.

1) There are no stupid or wrong questions

Well.... A surprising number of questions are simply unanswerable, either because the person asking didn't provide enough (or, often, any) detail, has bitten off way more than they can chew, or simply seems to lack basic human communication skills. (Sometimes this is a language barrier, which people are generally reasonably chill and understanding about. But just as often it's, well, you look at some of these and wonder how the heck that person ever got hired as a software developer...)

How these get handled at the moment is uneven, depending on how busy the site is at the time, who happens to be manning the review queue, and how responsive the person asking the question is; sometimes there's a lot of back-and-forth commentary that ends up salvaging the question, sometimes there's a flood of near-instantaneous downvotes and the question is closed immediately. Ideally every one of these would get all the coaching and handholding they need, but there just isn't the capacity for that. I don't know what the solution to this is. It's not an easy problem to solve.

There are also a lot of questions posted in bad faith; people literally copy-paste their homework assignment or latest development task onto the site, sit back, and let other people do their work for them. There still isn't a clear consensus on how to handle these (some say don't answer them, it only encourages more of the same; others say answer them anyway, a question is a question, and maybe it'll help someone in the future; others say give hints and coaching, but don't directly answer what's obviously somebody's homework.)

And on SO there are badges and point rewards for flagging questions as off-topic or not detailed enough or repeats. You're incentivized to flag stuff or downvote stuff to earn rewards.

This isn't quite true. Reputation points can only be gained by people upvoting your questions or your answers. There's no direct incentive for flagging or downvoting; in fact it costs you a reputation point to cast a downvote. Upvotes are much more powerful than downvotes (receiving an upvote is +10 points, a downvote is -2.) There are badges for participating in the various moderation activities, because they're necessary activities, but badges have no practical effect on the site (at most they add a colored dot next to your username).

I also have been wondering if stackexchange experience depended a whole lot on what problems you looked up.

Extremely. There are a ton of subject-specific stackexchange sites, each of which has very different collective personalities -- but even within the main stackoverflow site things are very different depending on which tags you're looking at. In general the more beginner-oriented the subject is, the noisier and grumpier things tend to be. Which is partly just a matter of scale (in the quieter parts of the site there's time for every question to get the attention it deserves) and partly a matter of beginners being inherently more difficult for a Q&A site to handle (because beginners don't know what they don't know and often need some handholding even to find out where to see their error messages, or to determine what's relevant to their question and what isn't.)

One of the things that an emphasis on "no duplicates" and similar mandates does is to lose the very interesting and useful information about how people ask those duplicate questions.

There's a lot of discussion about duplicate questions here which I'm finding really surprising to read.

When a question is closed as duplicate, it stays on the site; all that's done is that a link to the duplicate question is added to it, and it's closed to new answers. This is referred to in the site as "signposting" -- the theory is that each of the duplicates still serves as a search target for people who might have the same or similar questions; and the answers all collect in one place, where they'll get the benefit of the most review and improvement by other users.

So no information is lost, it's all still there on the site. Merging the questions, as several people here have proposed, would lose that information. Leaving duplicates open would mean the answers to the same question would be scattered across multiple pages, and probably of lower quality (because fewer people would see and review them).

This clearly does need improvement, if only because people seem to respond to "closed as duplicate" as a terribly hostile act. (I'm really confused by the tales here of searching for an answer, finding a closed duplicate, and saying welp I guess I'm out of luck instead of just clicking through to where the answers are?) But it's not like the current setup is obviously stupid and wrong.

So they need to switch to a two-stage model. A presentation view for guests containing neat and trimmed content, and a process view for participants which allows for the imperfections

They tried basically exactly this last year, by adding a "documentation" section of the site, which was supposed to contain the curated, organized content culled from the existing Q&A content. I think the idea has a lot of merit, but for whatever reason it failed hard; participation was very low and the quality level was highly uneven. (Turns out it's a lot more intimidating to try to write The Answer than it is to write An Answer.)
posted by ook at 5:34 AM on April 30, 2018 [8 favorites]


by adding a "documentation" section of the site, which was supposed to contain the curated, organized content culled from the existing Q&A content.

It didn't serve the same purpose. It was setup as a third-party semi-structured manual. When someone searches for a Q on Google, they are likely to find a link to a SE Q. My proposal involves a curated and trimmed view of that Q while still preserving and displaying all the warts to logged-in users, and more importantly, allowing those warts during the development of the Q&A.
posted by Gyan at 5:47 AM on April 30, 2018


Apologies for misunderstanding, Gyan; you're right of course that Documentation had a very different structure. I guess I'm not seeing how you'd usefully get from the current degree of curation and editing to what you're suggesting, though, without restructuring; I kind of think of the existing comments and editing process as doing just that, minus the crossing the line of "ok, now we're done with the messy stuff, let's clean it all up and make it official", which is a hard line to draw: too often the "correct" answer isn't the most useful one, or an important informational tidbit will be in a comment instead of the answer text, and people are going to disagree about what's necessary detail and what's a wart.

The "back catalog" of past questions does have a ton of value, it does seem like there ought to be ways to encourage more people to go back and organize and tidy and update and otherwise improve it... but the firehose of new questions always winds up getting precedence.
posted by ook at 6:05 AM on April 30, 2018


There are badges for participating in the various moderation activities, because they're necessary activities, but badges have no practical effect on the site (at most they add a colored dot next to your username).

Have you been paying attention to, I dunno, the last 20 or so years of the evolution of videogames, and the move towards cosmetics as revenue stream? Many players (and people with SO accounts are, to some extent, playing a game) will go to insane lengths (in terms of time or money spent) to get a virtual hat that has no consequence except that it publicly denotes in the community that they're an elite who was willing/able to do so.

To say that awarding public-facing badges for moderation has no practical effect on the site is myopic at best.
posted by tocts at 6:19 AM on April 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


Okay. But a badge for "completed 1000 review tasks" or "approve 100 proposed edits" is also a very long way from "you're incentivized to flag stuff or downvote stuff to earn rewards". 100% of the has-real-practical-effects gamification, and the vast majority of the cosmetic-only badges, reward unambiguously positive behavior.

Now that I look closely, there is one bronze badge -- the lowest level -- for the first use of each major feature on the site. This does including flagging and downvoting. To the extent that that's an incentive to negative behavior, it's mild to the point of flavorlessness. (Bronze badges are unnoticeable, every user has them. And those are the only two on the list I can find that aren't unambiguously positive. And, well, moderation is a huge part of what makes that site work; I'm not sure I see the harm in encouraging users to engage in it?)
posted by ook at 6:49 AM on April 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


... the dissonance between the two modes inherent in the SE model. The first mode is that of a forum... Yes, this.

The weirdness is that SO does the Wiki thing so well. But it attracts users by looking like a support forum. So the Wiki is implemented by sucking people in and filtering most of what they try to do. The filtering isn't unusual when you look at gatekeeping on other technical forums. The unique thing is how well the resulting site works as a resource.

I've posted a lot of self-answers. I like that I can e.g. post a unique new question, and know that it'll be indexed for when I or someone else next needs it. But that can't be how it attracts most of its question content. The dissonance is a central tension in the engine of the site. I'm not surprised the active community - those who are content to work with, and as, the filter - would react badly to this sort of announcement.

The current site has been optimized, in a process where the Wiki has a high value, and the attracted users... don't. Not having tried a question template for the first 8 years seems a good example. The announcements read to me as a wide acknowledgement of problems that have a human cost. It'll be interesting to see how well SO can optimize differently at this point.
posted by sourcejedi at 7:06 AM on April 30, 2018


in the quieter parts of the site there's time for every question to get the attention it deserves

Demonstrably untrue, cf. Joe in Australia's downvoted question in a language where nobody is actually providing answers.

This clearly does need improvement, if only because people seem to respond to "closed as duplicate" as a terribly hostile act. (I'm really confused by the tales here of searching for an answer, finding a closed duplicate, and saying welp I guess I'm out of luck instead of just clicking through to where the answers are?) But it's not like the current setup is obviously stupid and wrong.

People see this as a hostile act because in some programming languages that is exactly what it is. The specific case that I have seen multiple times usually involves Javascript. An asker will post a question and it will immediately get marked as a duplicate of another question that doesn't answer the current question (I know this because I have clicked through). This is often done alongside a snotty comment or a link to something about question quality. This is not only unhelpful, it is actively poisonous.

Combine this with the observation in this thread that the first, most upvoted answer is often glib, incomplete, or based on a sloppy reading of the question, and the second answer actually addresses the question as asked, and it's clear that there's brigading and trading going on to reinforce users and not answer quality.

I'm just going to quote the thing I already quoted from a meta comment that really drives home the problematic attitude that seems especially common to the occasional user:
Hostility against newbies is borne of terrible newbie questions [emphasis in the original]. This is a problem, not of the community, but of Stack Exchange and their unwillingness to prevent [emphasis added by me: needs evidence] low-quality questions [according to whom?] from entering the system. And their willingness to side with askers of low-quality questions over those who provide high-quality answers [high-quality according to whom?]. SE forces [nobody's forcing you, dude. You could leave. Maybe you should] us to constantly interact with a stream of garbage [again, nobody's forcing you. Maybe your relationship with and/or your expectations for the site are just unhealthy]; that will inevitably create hostility.
That guy got hundreds of upvotes for being insulting, abrasive, and selfish. I am not sympathetic to his plight. If he's so unhappy with the site and he thinks the company is forcing him to wallow in garbage, there are lots of other sites on the internet he could go poison with his attitude.
posted by fedward at 7:16 AM on April 30, 2018 [11 favorites]


I want to clear up a couple things for people who aren't familiar with how Stack Overflow works, because it's weird and unusual and seems to be leading to some misconceptions here.

Let me stop you here.

If you wade into criticism of something and your first response is "well, the real problem is that you all don't actually understand how everything works," you should take a step back and re-read everything again. Because my experience has been that it is very rarely the case that people actually don't understand how things work, but quite often it's that they understand quite well, which is what started the criticism in the first place.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:37 AM on April 30, 2018 [14 favorites]


It's takes some kind of something to come into a thread full of people discussing all the problems with StackOverflow, in detail and with direct personal examples, and say "the system works!"
posted by tobascodagama at 7:39 AM on April 30, 2018 [8 favorites]


I mean, it's apropos as a proxy for Stack Overflow community beliefs. Among the most upvoted comments in one of the meta-threads on SO is literally someone saying that just because PoC and women are telling you they feel made unwelcome that doesn't mean it's true.

It's pretty much white male privilege bingo, reading the responses to the blogpost.
posted by tocts at 7:46 AM on April 30, 2018 [8 favorites]


Short contribution: please *do* read ook's comments above, because IMO they are well-considered and thoughtful, non-judgemental, and give valuable background to a site which most people aren't as familiar with as ook clearly is.

Longer contribution still in draft.
posted by vincebowdren at 7:51 AM on April 30, 2018 [4 favorites]


Hm. I kind of feel like I'm also discussing the problems with Stack Overflow? I just don't happen to agree that it's all 100% garbage fire over there, and saw some comments here that seemed to be based on misconceptions about what is a complicated, not-easy-to-learn, and not-well-documented-or-explained moderation structure (which I also agree is one of the major problems with the site; the new user experience is really rough). So I thought that structure might be worth summarizing for those who haven't been soaking in it for years.

I'm sorry if that comes across as defending a toxic culture. That's not my intent.

Compared to the site's competitors, past and present... yeah, the system does work. Imperfectly, and with very much room for improvement, but there's a reason the site remains the resource for coding questions, even with all its flaws.

I feel like I'm helping things get a bit dogpile-y here so I'm going to back away from the thread now and resist the temptation to answer every one of the comments addressed to me; it's just that the site where I spend most of my waking time is discussing the other site where I spend most of my waking time and it's breaking my brain a little bit.
posted by ook at 7:53 AM on April 30, 2018 [10 favorites]


Short contribution: please *do* read ook's comments above, because IMO they are well-considered and thoughtful, non-judgemental, and give valuable background to a site which most people aren't as familiar with as ook clearly is.

No, they're condescending, and pretty much state that the system works and if you think differently, then the problem is that you do not sufficiently understand the system. When people are telling you that they do not want to participate in SO because they feel that the culture there is hostile, the answer is not "well, the reason you think that it's hostile is because you do not sufficiently understand the system in place there," because the fact that this is a common enough sentiment that the operators feel it needs to be addressed shows that no, the system is not working, and it's time that why that is gets looked at.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:00 AM on April 30, 2018 [6 favorites]


I am a beginning coder, and have asked questions at SO and gotten helpful answers -- but the last time I logged in, it said I was in danger of being banned. Why? I don't know. I tried to do what they want, and I never trolled them or anything -- just asked coding questions. I guess somebody thought they were dumb questions and downvoted them. So I ask here instead. Fuck that place.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 8:03 AM on April 30, 2018 [4 favorites]


I feel like the duplicate issue here is instructive. Multiple people have stated that their issue with the duplicate system is that it seems to catch a lot of questions that aren't actually duplicates, at least as far as anyone, especially those new to the site, can tell. The fact that your immediate response is to say, "wow, y'all are too dumb to click through to the actual answer", rather than to see that people are clicking through to those answers, and finding them insufficient, says a lot about what you think of the intelligence of those people.

I'm grateful to StackOverflow, as an early-career programmer it's been essential. But I don't see myself ever contributing in any capacity beyond lurking.
posted by perplexion at 8:15 AM on April 30, 2018 [8 favorites]


I found ook's comments dismissive. But also true. It's possible both to recognize that Stack Overflow has succeeded in building an accessible collection of programming knowledge while also failing at creating an inclusive and welcoming community.

The problem is it really matters that Stack be inclusive and welcoming. Because it's a gateway for reputation in the software engineering profession. Also a major source of recruitment (a big part of Stack's business model). If your goal is to create a repository of reputation for programmers, you have an enormous obligation to make sure it's a fair and correct one.
posted by Nelson at 8:22 AM on April 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


SO needs to be willing to temporarily alienate the core user base who intimately understands and succeeds in their current model, because trying create a more inclusive SO is not going to happen with the current tools. There’s no way to change the site without pissing off millions of people, question is how are you gonna handle the influx of upset people when you start cracking open the system to allow more people in.

Hell I still complain about the eternal September so we’re probably just gonna be stuck with a generation of people who remembered SO “as it was”.
posted by Annika Cicada at 8:27 AM on April 30, 2018 [5 favorites]


No, they're condescending, and pretty much state that the system works and if you think differently, then the problem is that you do not sufficiently understand the system.

ook's first comment, far upthread, reads as a list of complaints about the site and proposed fixes.
posted by Going To Maine at 8:27 AM on April 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


I'll say this about Stack though, I haven't found it to be any less welcoming than the programming community as a whole. That isn't a compliment.

In the end your community can only be as good as its members.
posted by perplexion at 8:27 AM on April 30, 2018 [9 favorites]


I just don't happen to agree that it's all 100% garbage fire

I don't think it's all garbage fire. Many of the answers are useful; I wind up using them from googling my problems. I just have zero incentive to participate, and this is the conclusion of a lot of the people I know. Some of them are programmers; some aren't. If SE wants to bring in people who aren't currently using the site, it needs a drastic overhaul of its culture, and that will include making it hostile to some of its current regulars. If SE is, on the whole, happy with its current culture, there's no need to change anything.

However, if the article that sparked this post is true, then a lot of people at SE do want to change it - we're discussing the nuances of what those changes would need to do. Implementing a TOS that says "no offensive language" would not work.

A split site would be interesting - one with the current forum-ish thread-of-responses setup (with fewer downvotes and insults for "bad questions"), and one that's got curated answers. Give people points for doing those; that's real work.

There are indeed unanswerable questions, duplicate questions, and "do my homework" questions, all of which could be addressed with more grace and consideration than they currently get. The issue with duplicates is, as has been said, not that they're locked with a link to the duplicate - we're all fine with following a couple of extra links - but that the "duplicate" often isn't. "Are firefox bugs cross-platform?" is not a duplicate of "Are exploits platform dependant?," and the user should not have just looked at the other question and understood how that applied to their situation. They even referenced the other question in theirs - and it got marked as a duplicate by four people anyway.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 8:30 AM on April 30, 2018 [6 favorites]


I kind of think of the existing comments and editing process as doing just that, minus the crossing the line of "ok, now we're done with the messy stuff, let's clean it all up and make it official", which is a hard line to draw: too often the "correct" answer isn't the most useful one, or an important informational tidbit will be in a comment instead of the answer text
OK, so this is a very interesting expression of one of the core problems with the system over there. Technical writing is hard and software is complex. I feel like the SO bias towards conciseness and the incentives for speed can backfire, since the result is that the correct answer isn't always the community accepted answer, or even in the text of an answer since it might be buried in the comments.

Truly, sometimes what you need as programmer is a whole discussion, and reading the back and forth you're able to see where your problem lies (even if you're not participating in the discussion). But guess what? When there's a long discussion, SO hides a lot of it by default so you have to work at figuring out what's relevant. And frequently the comments themselves have a lot of rules lawyering so the signal to noise ratio in the comments is, shall we say, low.

Other times, however, you don't want a discussion, you want one thorough answer that (A) really answers the question that was asked, or documents how/why that question reduces to a different question, and (2) addresses and incorporates the feedback from the comments without getting lost in rules lawyering. There is so little incentive for that, between the bias for speed and the goal of conciseness, that this sort of answer is much less common than it should be. And when those answers are there, the community often doesn't engage with them in a way that dislodges the quick-but-insufficient answers from the top position.

I'm not sure how you fix this within the site's given constraints and reward structure. There's a negative incentive for downvoting, but the positive incentive for upvoting applies even when the thing being upvoted is glib or incomplete or doesn't answer the question as asked? That kind of incentive is broken.
posted by fedward at 8:30 AM on April 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


I'll say this about Stack though, I haven't found it to be any less welcoming than the programming community as a whole. That isn't a compliment.


Yeah, some of the stereotypes about us are well-earned. Too many of us rely on our little area of competence to compensate for our starving egos and to see ourselves as superior to the rest of humanity.
posted by thelonius at 8:33 AM on April 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


SO's already all-in on gamification, and has a robust badge system, so... just add more of them?

How about a badge worth -50 points for being an ass, -100 for being rude or insulting. Maybe A badge worth -1000 for being sexist/racist. I could get behind a 30-day ban for using the term "help vampire" anywhere on the site. (If the original desire to be helpful has been poisoned a moderator into resentment of the site's users, then they need a break. A good manager, at a job, would see this. That moderation is unpaid hurts moderators as well as moderation.)

The SO forum responses have been hilarious because it's clear (as it was linked upthread in 2003) just how the rules, despite not seeming to incentivize negative behavior, would lead direcly to the negative behavior we see today. At least, it's clear to more emotional, less logically minded people - exactly the set of people that Stack Overflow naturally selects against, by virtue of being a programming site.

I want to capture that there's a broader context under which that blog post was made, and it has to do with societal pushes towards everybody learning how to code. In an interview, one of the last great US Presidents stated "We’ve got to have our kids in math and science, and it can’t just be a handful of kids. It’s got to be everybody. Everybody’s got to learn how to code early." That statement bore fruit; a thousand coding boot camps blossomed, and blue-collar machinists and elementary school teachers were transformed into programmers.

Unfortunately, actually breaking into the tech industry is a bit harder, but that school teacher, despite being a better programmer than some employed techbros I've met, and better would be an infinitely better coworker due to having far better social skills, is having problems getting call backs after phone screens. People are desperate to break into an industry where the food is free and $100 Macbook adapters rain from the sky. After having gone to a coding boot camp for a few months compared to a rigorous four years of college, existing programmers are well incentivized to gatekeep the shit out of anyone not like them, to prevent them from getting into the industry, if only because demand for programmers currently outstrips supply, and if everyone can program, well, those six-figure level salaries aren't going to keep going up (is the thinking).

Still, that school teacher wants to break into the industry, and collecting some badges on SO is recommended as a a way to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack (along with working for free for the exposure on github.com), hoping to get that break. I'd bet the site's toxicity came up in that context, in a conversation between CEOs, where the owner of a coding boot camp lamented to Joel Spolsky or Jeff Atwood that their students were having to wade through some toxic sludge in order to contribute to Stack Overflow, who in turn finally decided to face the emotions in the linked blog post.
posted by fragmede at 8:41 AM on April 30, 2018 [4 favorites]


I am absolutely certain that the first question ook responded to—"How much do they pay their moderators?"—was rhetorical. Maybe I'm putting words into clawsoon's mouth, but zachlipton's immediate response makes me think I'm right: this was not a request for information. This was an observation about the quality of moderation you get when your moderators are volunteers who just have to want it bad enough and are therefore willing to jump through the appropriate hoops to receive their moderation powers.
posted by jsnlxndrlv at 9:21 AM on April 30, 2018 [5 favorites]


Yeah, some of the stereotypes about us are well-earned. Too many of us rely on our little area of competence to compensate for our starving egos and to see ourselves as superior to the rest of humanity.

More that we have a cultural issue in that we happily accept assholery, bigotry, etc. as the "price" of genius in tech culture, instead of calling these things out. Part of why I think the current management at SO is incapable of fixing the problem is this comment from the CEO:
We can’t change everybody and we can’t force people to be nice.
Sorry, but you're absolutely wrong, Joel. This is your house, and you can set the rules by which your guests have to abide. You can very much set a rule banning assholery, and show those people who break it the door. That you choose not to is your choice, not some irrefutable fact.
posted by NoxAeternum at 9:29 AM on April 30, 2018 [7 favorites]


Merging the questions, as several people here have proposed, would lose that information.

The fact that you can't imagine a UX that kept all that information and presented it on one page is absolutely not the same as "it is impossible to do". What you could have done here was just not answer a question that you haven't got a solution for, instead of commenting that it is the wrong question to ask and you can't imagine how anyone who actually knew what they were talking about would even think it.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 9:52 AM on April 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


Weird. 5 or so years ago it seemed a lot different than it does now. Questions actually got answered unless they were literal duplicates for the most part and people weren't telling each other the entire premise of the question is flawed. When did it turn into Wikipedia?
posted by wierdo at 9:55 AM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


> This is your house, and you can set the rules by which your guests have to abide.

Yes. Another observation from anildash: If your website's full of assholes, it's your fault
posted by rtha at 9:57 AM on April 30, 2018 [9 favorites]


The perimeter of SO is a deep line of burning tires and other garbage fires. I’m not sorry that I haven’t been able to choke far enough through the fumes to get to the alleged utopia inside.

There’s no downwind inside a burning circle. I don’t want to see myself lit on fire in a public forum.

ook, I don’t have to spoons to do the emotional labor of pointing out how and why all the things you list as neutral or great really don’t feel neutral or great in practice to people trying to gain entry.

Trust us when we tell you that something isn’t working for us. Sure, maybe it works fine for you. That’s ok. But we’re not arguing that it doesn’t work for you. We’re saying SO hurts/annoys/frustrates/embarrasses/discourages some portion of its users.

Off the top of my head, a friendlier way to handle ‘closed for duolicate’ Might be ‘redirected to a previous anserr’ And there might be an appeal process for folks who think their duplicate isn’t answered by the redirect. That appeal would preferably be handled by a team of three. Or something. What do I known. I’m just someone who’s been unable to develop in part because entire communities are gas lighting me about how I just don’t understand and I’m too inarticulate to make a good question, before I’ve even tried myself. The way folks treat others is a pretty good indication of how they’ll treat me, I’ve learned.
posted by bilabial at 10:31 AM on April 30, 2018 [5 favorites]


SO is one of the greatest things ever created on the web, and has saved me countless hours. I'd be happy if they didn't change anything about it.

a.k.a., "Works for Me/Won't Fix"

Like, I'm glad it's great for you, and I suppose it's nice to not give a shit about pretty much anyone else.
posted by anem0ne at 10:48 AM on April 30, 2018 [8 favorites]



I'm really surprised no one has didn't include the great piece from April Wiesel who wrote on this last week with remarkable clarity and empathy.

I use stackoverflow or one of its often other sites, at least once a day. In many cases, there's information there that aren't in the actual documentation provided by the software's author(s) or the information is buried in source code and has no context. As someone who has been learning programming over the past 10 years, it has been one of the best public and free resources out there to find an answer to programming related questions.
I struggle with reading API documentation and learn programming best by reading examples which many times are included in answers.

That does not mean it is without its faults; that some find it unwelcoming, particularly women and others who have had less power in society, just to name one.; another is that answers sometimes become outdated and no longer relevant. It requires some reputation if you want to edit the answer for modern contexts (like a new version of the software or the operating system).

Most of my participation on SE sites are have been in a few SE that are relatively small and has a huge influence to shape my relatively positive experience with SE sites so far; there are a couple that are less friendly that I've found though that are just as small in its user base and activity.

I've also registered and have asked questions but realize that with its unfriendliness, I only ask there as a last resort; that I'll do substantially searching, reading documentation, or even asking in other channels (private slacks) before asking there.

There's no easy or quick improvements for SE because as April demonstrates, the problems within SE are within the culture of the company itself and a non-insignificant amount of activity on there is from users with toxic behaviors.
posted by fizzix at 10:59 AM on April 30, 2018 [7 favorites]


Timely, on the above "Why would people *possibly* see discussion about how much to pay a prostitute in JavaScript chat as unwelcoming?" link
posted by CrystalDave at 11:03 AM on April 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


Like, I'm glad it's great for you, and I suppose it's nice to not give a shit about pretty much anyone else.

Oh, I give a shit about the many more millions of people who use it frequently, but have never asked or answered a single question. As a user, I appreciate that they set the bar fairly high (compared to other Q&A sites) for asking and answering questions.
posted by JeffL at 11:04 AM on April 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


Timely, on the above "Why would people *possibly* see discussion about how much to pay a prostitute in JavaScript chat as unwelcoming?" link

I am getting more and more sick (and intolerant of) this "Oh, you say Usenet and IRC have been around for 30 years?" dipshittery. NIH Syndrome is real, and Facebook, SO, and probably 90% of social media sites are all, "WE DID IT, GANG" when they discover moderation and stuff. "Yes, but is it Big Data Machine Learning?" Facebook invented up/down voting!

All of these companies are simply trying not to hire humans. By my estimation, that underpins all of this sloth and intentional ignorance.
posted by rhizome at 11:19 AM on April 30, 2018 [4 favorites]


As a user, I appreciate that they set the bar fairly high (compared to other Q&A sites) for asking and answering questions.

What are your thoughts about the EVP of Culture and Experience for Stack Overflow admitting that the high bar you appreciate is creating a situation where "All these experiences add up to making Stack Overflow a very unwelcoming place for far too many...especially newer coders, women, people of color, and others in marginalized groups."
posted by Annika Cicada at 12:11 PM on April 30, 2018 [5 favorites]


What are your thoughts about the EVP of Culture and Experience for Stack Overflow...

That he wouldn't be the first corporate executive who lost sight of what his company's core mission actually is. Or that, given his title, and it's unsurprising that this is what he's focusing on.

Of course, it could be that I misunderstood what SO was trying to accomplish when they rid of the world of garbage like Experts Exchange. If so, maybe it was a happy accident that they (inadvertently?) created something so useful, especially compared to what came before.
posted by JeffL at 12:35 PM on April 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


So, the newer coders, women, people of color, and others in marginalized groups in this thread saying "hey this article is spot on", would you say they are unfairly biased against SO and the fact that 50 million people get value from the site is an overwhelming stack of evidence against the validation that newer coders, women, people of color, and others in marginalized groups in this thread are getting from the article?

I get you are happy that they created something better than what existed before, but imagine if you will, that this world is still garbage for newer coders, women, people of color, and others in marginalized groups, and that a better future is yet to come.

The internet is not static, and SO is far from perfect.
posted by Annika Cicada at 12:48 PM on April 30, 2018 [6 favorites]


And which also gives purchase to the ol' William Gibson chestnut, "the future is here, it's just unevenly distributed."
posted by rhizome at 12:50 PM on April 30, 2018 [5 favorites]


Of course, it could be that I misunderstood what SO was trying to accomplish when they rid of the world of garbage like Experts Exchange.

I think that SO has done a pretty good job of accomplishing what they were trying in creating a far better alternative to the erstwhile trash heap that was early 2000s tech Q&A SEO bait. It's a much better resource all in all and clearly a ton of people get use out of it. That's a good thing.

It's entirely unclear how that conflicts with the idea that they can do better at community culture. You are presenting that as some sort of dichotomy for reasons that aren't clear and which you haven't laid out at all. Which you don't have to! You can just be happy with SO as it is and prefer no changes out of a cautious preference for the status quo vs. whatever unknowns come with attempted changes.

But when you just prefer that status quo out loud in the middle of discussion started by leadership at SO about how and why they need to change, that pat "I like it fine how it is" statement doesn't read as neutral. Neither does an argument that the explanation for SO leadership wanting to make a change is that they've lost sight of things. To respond to "we want things to be better for underserved folks who have a rough time on our site" with "nah, let's not" carries a charge.

If you have specific things you are worried about happening as a result of the stuff Jay and Joel and Jeff are talking about, okay, talk about them! They might make sense to folks. They might be less troubling and more sympathetic than the vague implication of just noping at the idea of the SO community being more inclusive. But when all you're bringing is the nope, it feels weird and makes folks blink.
posted by cortex at 1:18 PM on April 30, 2018 [12 favorites]


By the way, I didn't intend that to be dismissive or sarcastic. It genuinely was not so Wikipedantic back when I was actually using it. (And chat? That wasn't part of the deal) My work shifted away from programming for the most part, so I haven't really participated since. Back then, dupes that weren't really dupes would get reopened reasonably quickly and when they weren't they were genuinely duplicate, not just somewhat related.

Is it because it grew, or because the Internet has become more of a cesspool than it used to be? It seems like back when it was a shitty place, but in a clueless sort of way rather than the actively malicious stuff that seems to have taken off more recently?

Like, at one point it seemed like the users agreed the entire point of the site was for those who had spent 500 hours figuring out how something worked to answer questions that seem a bit stupid to those who had invested the time so that the people asking wouldn't have to go through that effort, and saving the rest of the world a bunch of time that could be better spent elsewhere as a result.

Now it seems more like questions get closed just because the person asking seems like they don't already have the expert knowledge that question A is only a restatement of question B in a different form or that the answers to question A are arguably applicable for whatever reason.

And that's just what I've noticed from SO answers popping up in Google results on occasion.

Come to think of it, I do seem to recall that a few years back hiring managers started looking at candidates' GitHub and SO participation. I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that's what started the pedantry that then led into all the other bad behavior that has become pervasive..
posted by wierdo at 1:25 PM on April 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


That he wouldn't be the first corporate executive who lost sight of what his company's core mission actually is. Or that, given his title, and it's unsurprising that this is what he's focusing on.

Of course, it could be that I misunderstood what SO was trying to accomplish when they rid of the world of garbage like Experts Exchange. If so, maybe it was a happy accident that they (inadvertently?) created something so useful, especially compared to what came before.


this mindset is pretty much "fuck you, i got mine". you know that, right? if you think that being welcoming is incompatible with being a useful resource then i would posit that you are exactly the perfect example of why SO and coding are so unfriendly to marginalized folk.
posted by anem0ne at 2:37 PM on April 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


If you have specific things you are worried about happening as a result of the stuff Jay and Joel and Jeff are talking about, okay, talk about them!

Sure - I prefer that the main Stack Overflow site continue to be a resource primarily for people who do computer programming for a living, and who want a resource which allows them to quickly find solutions to specific problems - not hobbyists or students doing schoolwork. Also, I believe that relatively few beginner-level programmers are going to have *new* questions that are worth asking. They'd be much better served by learning how to search the existing questions on the site, and figuring out how to interpret the various questions and answers, even if they don't exactly match their specific problem.

Since for my own (perhaps selfish) interests I prefer that SO relentlessly focus on providing high quality content that I can use, anything else they spend time or money on is a distraction, from my perspective.

But when all you're bringing is the nope, it feels weird and makes folks blink.

OK. Well, from my perspective it seemed weird to read all the negative opinions about SO in this thread. I'm pretty sure there are many, many more people who use the site like I do, compared to the number of people who actually ask and answer questions on the site, getting badges or reputation or whatever (the "community"). If the community aspect is what SO's owners/founders/employees want to focus on, that's their call, obviously. I just wanted to give my opinion, which is that the quality of the content is more important to me than anything else.
posted by JeffL at 2:40 PM on April 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


Ohhhh, you just don't want to "lower the bar" for quality of the content, and you're worried that discouraging blatant douchebaggery will do that. Yea, that's definitely a common attitude. Totally uninformed and selfish, yes, but very common.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 3:32 PM on April 30, 2018 [5 favorites]


> I'm pretty sure there are many, many more people who use the site like I do, compared to the number of people who actually ask and answer questions on the site

I don't understand this - the people who ask and answer the questions are the people who create the "resource which allows [you] to quickly find solutions to specific problems ." And people who don't get paid as programmers but still do programming are also people who are going to need solutions to specific problems, just like paid programmers. Which they may become someday.
posted by rtha at 3:41 PM on April 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


It seems to me that it's completely legitimate to have a resource that welcomes contributions only from professional programmers and allows students and hobbyists to lurk but not contribute. But if that's the goal, why not make it explicit? People could have to apply for posting privileges and show their credentials. The current system, which keeps people away through a combination of Byzantine rules and snark, seems sort of inefficient.

(I can come up with some reasons, foremost of which is that you'd probably have a fair amount of contempt for a lot of people who make their living as programmers. You want *real* programmers, not front-end web developers or whatever. But again, why not make that explicit?)
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:46 PM on April 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


if you think that being welcoming is incompatible with being a useful resource then i would posit that you are exactly the perfect example of why SO and coding are so unfriendly to marginalized folk.

I think that being a useful resource requires some form of moderation. Moderation involves suppressing some content and not others, and it's unavoidable that will be perceived as unwelcoming by those whose content is suppressed. If people are determined to interpret down-votes, close votes and marking of duplicates as "hostile acts" then moderation will be perceived as hostile by some users. You can come up with various ways to try and soften the blow, or channel people's behaviour with help pages and so on in such a way as to minimize the amount of moderation that needs to be done, but the trade-off remains.

I used SO as a resource for years just by Googling stuff and reading answers, and then started answering questions. I stopped about 2 years ago for a variety of reasons (part of which is the site's culture). I've also asked a small number of questions, some of which were closed, some of which were answered, some of which just sat there. The experience of the site is very different as an answerer compared to an asker or someone searching existing answers for a solution to their problem.

Frankly speaking, a significant portion of the questions are just rubbish and SHOULD be closed and deleted with extreme prejudice. It's very common to see homework assignment questions posted verbatim without any attempt whatsoever by the asker to say what they've tried and where the difficulty is. They just straight up want you to do their homework for them. They'll post sample code with their lecturer's "insert code here" notes and expect you to just fill it in for them. According to the norms of the SO community (which I agree with), this is an abuse of the site and it is legitimate for the SO community to remove it. It's not helping the asker, it's a waste of time for the people answering questions and it's not fair on other students in their course. From time to time a lecturer will show up on the site and complain that someone has posted their assignment and demand it be deleted.

There is just no way to enable the community to do this necessary moderation without a portion of users over-zealously enforcing the rules and a portion of people feeling hard done by. That's just what you get when a company like SE wants to use random people on the internet as a free labour pool instead of actually paying people to moderate the site.

I appreciate that sometimes questions get closed that shouldn't, but there seems to be very little acknowledgment here that moderation is necessary, or that people doing the moderation might actually in most cases be operating in good faith for the benefit of the community (as best they can discern it). It's just assumed that they must be jumped up little nerds on a power trip, high on their own farts and fake internet points.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 3:56 PM on April 30, 2018 [6 favorites]


I don't understand this - the people who ask and answer the questions are the people who create the "resource which allows [you] to quickly find solutions to specific problems ."

I would compare it to Wikipedia. I believe that orders of magnitudes more people simply read Wikipedia than ever write or contribute edits (that's my understanding anyway.)

As with Wikipedia, I assume that the people who ask and answer questions on SO are motivated by things that don't interest me personally (the gamification aspects). I'm a consumer of the SO "product" that is the large base of high-quality questions and answers. While I don't pay money for this "product" (but I would!), I'm still a customer, so to speak, of Stack Overflow.

So my perspective is strictly as a customer who values the product in its current form. I think the site is so large at this point that the bar for asking and answering questions needs to be set very, very high, otherwise it will be overrun with noise that takes up an enormous amount moderator time. If the bar can still be high while the culture is more welcoming, that's fine with me. But it sounds like the tools that moderators have to work with (such as closing questions as not focused enough, or duplicates, or whatever) are perceived as inherently unwelcoming.
posted by JeffL at 4:07 PM on April 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


Social media, tech publishing and mentorship are three different entire business models. Using gamification to tie all three together to create some kind of lasting body of historical knowledge is actually very clever and also respectable for how complicated that model has to be. It’s quite fascinating and it yet it also reminds me a lot of a very simple mailing list I’ve been on for 23 years now called analog heaven.

See, we used to have this hardcore rule and it was “search the archives before posting” and y’all we were dickheads about that. The whole “search before posting” thing is a good thing, but you can’t normalize being a dickhead about it.

The best thing that happened to AH was that our searchable archive got smooshed and lost and dispersed to dev/null in a spectacular accident.

Then we all turned the list into more of a community that loves analog synthesizers and less of a place where we were the harbingers of all truth and our historical records in the archives were the divine knowledge of the analog synth elite and to participate you had to be serious and knowledgeable and an expert. We all got nicer after the archives were lost and partially recovered.

The next best thing that happened was our rival mailing list, digital Hell, was declared dead and since we no longer had digital Hell to talk shit about anymore, we welcomed discussions of digital synthesis on analog heaven.

Now what we have is a group of synthesizer nerds who are truly here to help out and talk about synths and be cool to each other.

So maybe SO needs to just lose the entire history of all thier effort and get over trying to be the social media mentoring historical archive of coding truth digital publishing platform and instead just be a place where developers hang out and be cool to each other.
posted by Annika Cicada at 4:09 PM on April 30, 2018 [5 favorites]


Douchebaggery is a pretty common and simple way to gatekeep access to things where demand (for space to ask questions) outstrips supply (of questions that people will want to know the answers to).

There's a fair bit of analysis in the Clay Shirky piece linked above about how this gatekeeping comes about, and the April Wiesel piece that fizzix linked above shows the huge amount of harm it causes to actual contributions.

The thing is, that when I search on StackOverflow, most of the time I do get something that matches the query or issue that I'm having, but also I don't get too much in the way of things to search through. I totally agree that often the first answer's not the best, or that there's rudeness involved, but it's still the best corpus of solutions to problems that's available, and I'd like more of this.

So, how do we make it more welcoming to first time question askers? Could we do it by a categorising the most duplicated questions and making a kind of guided dialogue that the first time asker goes through to either build up their initial question or to find the question where it's already answered? Is there a way to get to the near-duplicate question and explain the bit where what you're asking's different, and if necessary fork off that question into a version which solves both problems at once?

How do these processes get built? Is there such a thing as a communally-editable decision tree? Is it possible to sensibly merge extra information into questions and answers? Who gets trusted with these? When do you turn an answered question into, essentially, a Wiki page?

Ironically, I've asked loads of questions here about how we stop superfluous questions from getting asked. But I think that they are good questions, and it's about how to make that step from mapping uncharted territory (the common problems programmers have) to making the Google Maps version of that territory (so that everyone can get what they want from it).
posted by ambrosen at 4:15 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


On posting, though, I like Annika Cicada's point: that if the archives disappeared and everyone was asking those questions all over again, then we'd have the real interactions where the learning happens available again: the bit where people explain on a 1:1-ish basis and actually describe their problems in detail. And that's where people would learn to be good to each other again.
posted by ambrosen at 4:17 PM on April 30, 2018


There is just no way to enable the community to do this necessary moderation without a portion of users over-zealously enforcing the rules and a portion of people feeling hard done by. That's just what you get when a company like SE wants to use random people on the internet as a free labour pool instead of actually paying people to moderate the site.

No, the answer is simple - community members who abuse this grant of trust are banned. Zealots are not a fact of life, but happen because the powers that be refuse to rein them in. Again, douchebaggery is a choice.
posted by NoxAeternum at 4:20 PM on April 30, 2018 [4 favorites]


You can come up with various ways to try and soften the blow, or channel people's behaviour with help pages and so on in such a way as to minimize the amount of moderation that needs to be done, but the trade-off remains.

The reverse of this gets to the point though: the trade-off remains, but you can nonetheless come up with ways to soften blows, channel people's behavior with extra/clearer resources, refine the tone and process of moderation, etc. That it's impossible to please all of the people all of the time is news to no one here, but the goal is to do better, not to snap one's fingers and arrive instantly at some impossible ideal. The folks at SO seem to be saying: we can do better. That's a good thing; that's worth doing.

It's just assumed that they must be jumped up little nerds on a power trip, high on their own farts and fake internet points.

That's collapsing a long discussion including a lot of specific stories and complicated thoughts from folks who have used or do use SO over the years down to its smallest, least generous sliver of sentiment.

Which: there's I guess some illustrative consonance there at least to the way that negative interactions with some fraction of a site or discussion or process can lead to genuinely negative feelings and assessments about the whole. That's part of why looking past "hey, but it's working for a lot of people" to "how can we make it work better for the folks it's not working for" is worth doing.

But it sounds like the tools that moderators have to work with (such as closing questions as not focused enough, or duplicates, or whatever) are perceived as inherently unwelcoming.

There's been a variety of thoughts in here on that front but I think there's been a lot more expression of frustration with the implementation of the anti-duplication ethos and the communication style involved in closure than there has been with the idea of those as inherently bad mechanisms. Certainly you can manage to close a question gently, and redirect (and hear out appeals) with kindness and patience without undoing the use of that feature; this is a question of how to handle communication and interaction that is very much worth taking a closer look at. It's something that we have to deal with on MeFi all the time, and we take a lot of care with it because taking care with it matters.

The anti-duplicate ethos also seems so baked in to SO's culture that it seems unlikely that that would be near the top of any list of potential changes. I could be wrong about that (and I'm not firmly of the opinion that that would be a bad change, though I understand the logic behind the rule and think there's room to move on refining the SO member experience of dupe/closure stuff within the current workflow), but it seems like a cart-before-horse sort of worry when there's lots of smaller, lighter-touch cultural things that can be done and which from the sound of Jay's post are more where their focus is right now.

All in all, my general take is that while I'm supportive of SO trying to make a change on some of this stuff to create a better, more inviting and inclusive version of the already-useful site and community they have, my expectations given the difficulty of the task fall much farther toward too-little, too-slow change than toward too much and too fast. Non-assholes more or less satisfied with the status quo on SO seem unlikely to be much affected by this attempt at change; assholes may be in for more of a ride, but they deserve it.
posted by cortex at 4:52 PM on April 30, 2018 [4 favorites]


I think that being a useful resource requires some form of moderation. Moderation involves suppressing some content and not others, and it's unavoidable that will be perceived as unwelcoming by those whose content is suppressed.

Sure. Reasonable start. There's not a lot of people on MeFi who would argue that moderation is inherently bad (though there are a few -- a discussion for another subsite).

If people are determined to interpret down-votes, close votes and marking of duplicates as "hostile acts" then moderation will be perceived as hostile by some users.

Oh, but now we've gone right off the rails! Apparently it's the fault of those who find themselves ill treated for being ill treated, because they're in fact making it all up in their heads because for nebulous never-stated reasons they're "determined" to interpret the moderation (which you implicitly argue is actually neutral, without any evidence) as hostile.

Do you have any idea how incredibly condescending this is?

(And this doesn't even get into the degree to which you are taking it as an article of unproven faith that because SO needs moderation, it necessarily must be unpaid, volunteer, largely decentralized, and can't concern itself with treating people with respect)
posted by tocts at 4:54 PM on April 30, 2018 [5 favorites]


Apparently it's the fault of those who find themselves ill treated for being ill treated, because they're in fact making it all up in their heads because for nebulous never-stated reasons they're "determined" to interpret the moderation (which you implicitly argue is actually neutral, without any evidence) as hostile. Do you have any idea how incredibly condescending this is?

It's an open question whether most of these people have been ill treated at all. I don't argue that the moderation is neutral, I argue that it should be judged according to the values of the community (SO) in which it takes place, and not according to the feelings and assumptions of newcomers encountering it for the first time. The issue at stake here is whether communities on the Internet should have the right to define their own sets of values and norms, or whether outsiders can just come along and say "these values make me feel excluded" and demand a compromise. The norms of SO are that marking a question as a duplicate of another is not a hostile act but a helpful one.

Likewise for other the complaints of "smug condescension" where "answers add in explanations of basics (not needed to answer the actual question) as if explaining to someone in primary school about addition." People do this because it makes the answers more helpful to other people encountering them, who may be of any level of ability and appreciate the additional information. It's not meant to imply that the person asking the question lacks that knowledge and shouldn't be interpreted that way, according to the norms of that online community. This is something that has been discussed at length and consciously decided on within those communities, but somehow what counts is that the person who asks the question feels condescended to. Well, so what?

And this doesn't even get into the degree to which you are taking it as an article of unproven faith that because SO needs moderation, it necessarily must be unpaid, volunteer, largely decentralized, and can't concern itself with treating people with respect

I didn't assume that at all and stated that the current situation is a result of SE's decision to use unpaid moderators.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 6:27 PM on April 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


It's an open question whether most of these people have been ill treated at all.

I suppose it is very typical to discount the many, many, many repeated words that many, many, many women and minorities have said over and over and over and over and over again.

It happens everywhere else, why shouldn't it in an environment that prides itself on "merit"?

I mean, that cis white dudes tend to define what merit is shouldn't matter, right? Because we're using objective standards...
posted by anem0ne at 6:55 PM on April 30, 2018 [7 favorites]


The issue at stake here is whether communities on the Internet should have the right to define their own sets of values and norms, or whether outsiders can just come along and say "these values make me feel excluded" and demand a compromise

Wow, you just called Joel Spolsky an outsider to Stack Overflow? I mean, I've seen people argue themselves into truly stupid positions before but that is going on the leaderboard.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 7:07 PM on April 30, 2018 [9 favorites]


Yeah, idk who's being called an "outsider" here. I mean, i don't have the most karma or anything, but i've been on SO for the better part of a decade. I know the norms just fine, which is why i seldom participate because holy shit why would i willingly jump into that cesspool?

On the other hand, my small niche tech communities both have StackExchange sites, and our sites are perfectly lovely and have great communities. You know why? Because (like on any SE site), old-timers and high-rep users set the tone, and on our sites we set it in a welcoming, encouraging, non-douchey way.
posted by adrienneleigh at 7:12 PM on April 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


Let's try this again: Can people please make a tiny modicum of effort to spell April Wensel's name right, seeing as it's right there on her Medium post and her Twitter and it's pretty rude to just casually misspell people's names?
posted by adrienneleigh at 7:14 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


The issue at stake here is whether communities on the Internet should have the right to define their own sets of values and norms, or whether outsiders can just come along and say "these values make me feel excluded" and demand a compromise.

If Jay Hanlon hadn't directly come out and said, "a lot of people feel excluded, and management thinks this is a problem; we're going to look for solutions," this discussion wouldn't be happening. This is not a case of "outsiders have declared that SO's community norms suck;" this is "SO management declared that SO's community norms suck, and MeFi members are going into detail about why and how."

SO certainly has the right to set its own standards. As mentioned, they don't allow nazi propaganda nor sexist slurs; they're not openly feeding the edgelord white male supremacist game. And their system has created a useful resource for plenty of people who feel unwelcome in the community itself. There's no reason for them to change - unless they actually want more women and people of color and newbie programmers to participate in the site.

I am starting to agree with Annika Cicada, though - I've recently seen variations of this in several companies online, messages that boil down to, "we know we built this company on white dudebro culture, but now that feels like... not enough. So, um, how do we get other people to join us?" Followed by a swarm of the dudebro culture saying, "Yeah, more people, fine... only, without changing anything that makes us comfortable. And by comfortable, I mean, don't do anything that makes us have to give up our notion that we're the best at everything."

Hanlon's words are good - much better than most companies "erm now we're looking at diversity" announcements. But I don't believe for a moment that they'll be followed by the kind of sweeping changes it would take to actually encourage diversity, because that always means "piss off the edgelords who think they own the internet."
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 7:14 PM on April 30, 2018 [7 favorites]


I argue that it should be judged according to the values of the community (SO) in which it takes place, and not according to the feelings and assumptions of newcomers encountering it for the first time. The issue at stake here is whether communities on the Internet should have the right to define their own sets of values and norms, or whether outsiders can just come along and say "these values make me feel excluded" and demand a compromise. The norms of SO are that marking a question as a duplicate of another is not a hostile act but a helpful one.

Sorry, but when people are repeatedly pointing out that a community is repeatedly excluding marginalized voices, "but it's our culture" doesn't cut the mustard. It's getting tiresome that whenever people point out that the culture of an online community is exclusionary to the dispossessed, there's always an excuse as to why the problem isn't that the community has problems, but that everyone just doesn't understand. Just because your community has "norms" doesn't mean that they can't suck and be hostile.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:15 PM on April 30, 2018 [7 favorites]


or whether outsiders can just come along and say "these values make me feel excluded" and demand a compromise

Given SO's enormous role in the industry, an industry that is struggling with diversity and inclusion, it's not as simple as whether a random community on the internet is welcoming enough. There's at least some connection between SO making people feel excluded and the entire tech industry excluding people. SO isn't just a clubhouse that can be as nasty as it wants without broader consequence; what happens there matters for the industry as a whole.

Exploring that, and figuring out how to be more inclusive, doesn't mean abandoning all standards. Part of the problem is figuring out ways to reconcile the values of the community with the assumptions of newcomers encountering it for the first time. If lots of newcomers are showing up and are coming away with only the message they've Done Something Wrong, that's not good for anybody. If newcomers need to be better informed and helped to participate in the community, figuring out the right way to do that is part of the task at hand here. Nobody is taking the position that being welcoming means letting people do whatever they want to the detriment of the site; it means figuring out how to welcome them into the community and ensure they know how to interact with it.

Communication isn't about intent. If the person you're talking to thinks you're being hostile, that's the message you've sent no matter how much you thought you were being helpful. And if lots of new people routinely think a common site action is hostile, you're sending a lot of hostility out into the world. If you truly don't want to be hostile, surely it's worth taking a bit of time to think through ways to stop repeatedly conveying hostility? If making people feel they're being treated with hostility is part of your values, then your values, however well-intentioned, suck.

A lot of people in this very thread have cited ways in which they consider themselves to have been ill treated, and it's really not helpful to just respond to that feedback by saying, effectively, 'maybe you deserved it.' Can everyone be satisfied all the time? Of course not. But plenty of smart, reasonable fellow MeFites are sharing their experiences, and the fact that they come away feeling ill treated is part of the problem.
posted by zachlipton at 7:16 PM on April 30, 2018 [6 favorites]


This thread has pretty much been hashed out, but I have to drop in my two cents because I was EXCITED to see a thread where we can talk about what's wrong with Stack Overflow.

I've been a member for years, and I've tried to join the community and answer questions many times, and I've had people jump down my throat almost every time. Things I post get deleted for no reason. Questions I ask get deleted. Comments helpfully pointing out that other users aren't being helpful get deleted. CORRECT ANSWERS that I post in response to questions get downvoted and deleted sometimes.

Every now and then I get excited when I discover one of the StackExchange sites, like the one for Music Theory or the one for sound design. Some of them are OK sometimes, but still I end up running into the same "you don't belong here and neither does your question" attitude from somebody.

If Stack Overflow is wondering if they feel "welcoming" to anyone -- I'm white, and male, and over 40, and I've written books about programming, and I never felt welcome there. The site design says they don't want me to sign up and don't want me to post, and the community says "go away, this is a private party".

I do trust SO when I find information there -- it's almost a preferred source. I just don't want any part of the community there.

I'm completely willing to accept that this is purely MY problem and I should stay away from SO. In fact that's what I generally do.

I was encouraged by Hanlon's article -- frankly it's an amazingly pleasant surprise to find out that they were even aware the problem existed -- but my response is "I'll believe it when I see it."
posted by mmoncur at 9:16 PM on April 30, 2018 [7 favorites]


mmoncur, just out of curiosity when did you have that experience? I only ask because that's not how it was for me back in the mists of time, though there were certainly inklings of what would later become problematic. Basically I'm wondering whether it's because I was only participating in questions about a couple of niche subtopics and the site has always been the way it is now for the most part or if my perception that it has changed is accurate.
posted by wierdo at 10:33 PM on April 30, 2018


Also, everyone with even a basic education knows that you don't "remove kidneys" because they hurt, and that even if your kidney needs to be removed, you don't do it yourself. Similarly stupid computer questions would be on par with "how do I rewind my DVDs" or "I want organic light for my laptop screen; how can I make it run on candles?" And I don't doubt that SO gets occasional questions like that, but those aren't the ones being complained about here.

A lot of the answers on SO insult casual users for not having the same breadth of knowledge and expertise that people who've been coding for decades have.

(Also: If someone seriously went to a medical site to ask for tips on self-surgery to remove a painful kidney, the result would be very polite and vehement, "NO DO NOT DO THIS NO NO NO," not "you are stupid and this is a pointless question so we're shutting it down now." It takes a special kind of cruelty to decide to silence clueless people who are asking for help with something dangerous.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:35 PM on April 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


adrienneleigh, apologies to you and April Wensel about spelling her name wrong. I was probably trying to fit more into a single comment than my writing abilities allow for, so I copied her name from fizzix's comment (I'd read the piece earlier in the day, and a week earlier, too.)

But I also definitely missed out on writing the bit of that comment where I explicitly said that even though douchebaggery reduces comment and question volume to something tractable, it's absolutely a terrible way to do that, for all the reasons we've discussed here.

But the other thing that's clear from this comment thread is that
a) communicating is hard
and
b) everyone has a different motivation to answer a question like "what's wrong with Stack Overflow?" and when people are coming in with different approaches to a question, things get pretty tense pretty quickly.

I feel a lot like we're investing a lot of effort in saying how awful Stack Overflow is, generally vehemently agreeing with each other, except for a few people who are saying how useful it is, which is taken as saying it's not awful. It can be both.

How can it become not awful and stay useful? It's that a helpful way to frame it?
posted by ambrosen at 12:02 AM on May 1, 2018 [2 favorites]


> How can it become not awful and stay useful? It's that a helpful way to frame it?

I really like that phrasing, and came into that thread expecting a discussion based on that premise!

I also think that that Stack Overflow needs to become not-awful in order just to stay relevant. The site needs a source of both questions and answers, and their current culture is making it harder for them to get good questions.

Amidst all the ranting, I think this thread has brought up a number of places where it shouldn't be hard for the Stack Overflow team to make the path-of-least-resistance kinder and more welcoming.

For example:
* Hire somebody with empathy to rewrite all the error / rejection messages. Joe In Australia's test was appalling.
* Provide more information along with the automated rejection, explaining what triggered it and acknowledging that it could be wrong.
* As they suggested, rather than a blank box, have text fields for all the typical information. This is such a brilliantly simple change to structurally encourage newcomers to write good questions, with the information provided when they need it, rather than expecting them to have dug up one of the relevant help pages / blog posts.
* Don't allow a question to be closed as a duplicate if it has the URL of the supposed duplicate in the question body.
* When a question is flagged as a duplicate, add a dialogue that allows it to be reopened automatically: "so-and-so thinks that this already-existing question may help. Did it solve your problem? If not, explain why not, and we'll re-open your question!"
* Maybe add a 3rd type of "related question" link? In addition to "Closed for duplication" and the automatically-generated related questions on the sidebar, go ahead and capture and expose the information that a related question has been suggested by a human. This is particularly useful in the case that non-overlapping keywords are being used due to either lack of knowledge or sub-communities using different terminology.

What did I miss? Where else do newcomers violate community norms and get smacked down?
(Does SO have any UX people working for them?)
posted by Metasyntactic at 12:39 AM on May 1, 2018 [8 favorites]


As an on-again, off-again SO contributor, I'm happy to see this post. The site norms against basic "please" and "thank you" always seemed bad and worth either ignoring or trying to change at a grassroots level.

And I'm especially happy to see "Don’t answer questions like this – it encourages them" receive official discouragement. I got that one a lot from other contributors. A "bad question" often comes from someone who is extra confused. It always seemed like you could make the biggest contribution in terms of utility by taking someone who's deep in the negative and bringing them up.
posted by Jpfed at 12:51 AM on May 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


I was reading another, older, "My Love-Hate Relationship with Stack Overflow: Arthur S., Arthur T., and the Soup Nazi" reflection by John Slegers (who amassed 100k rep on the site, if credentials matter), and he quotes Stack Overflow's Director Of Community Strategy Tim Post, from 2014:
You're seeing something I've been talking about for a while, and it boils down to the motivation people find to become programmers.

Many of us were the kids that could not go to bed until something compiled, or we figured out how something worked. When we weren't programming, we were thinking about programming. Things in nature reminded us of concepts in programming, it was an all-consuming drive to learn as much as we possibly could about it. I never dreamed that I'd be working with C professionally all those years back when I was up at night modifying the source code to my BBS system.

Things are a little different today. Folks are entering this field not because they have any real drive, love or talent for the craft, but because they want the financial security and social notoriety that comes with the job. They're not ever going to be good programmers because they probably aren't ever going to think like one. This job requires a degree of natural talent and not everyone has it - just like painting, sports, writing ... you name it.

Knuth bless 'em for trying to do something fantastic with their lives, they've become quite a drain on us and other resources. This is something that the whole industry is seeing, which naturally reflects here. From my perspective, it's extremely frustrating to watch them repeatedly throw themselves at a wall while the rest of you repeatedly bang your heads on your desk.
Post goes on to discuss ways to make bans for people who ask low-quality questions harder to circumvent. And holy crap is this elitist and arrogant. It currently has a net score of 734 upvotes on Meta Stack Overflow. Look, I was very much a kid who couldn't go to bed until something compiled. I grew up learning BASIC and hacking a MUD and goofing around in open source projects, and you know what? I grew up. And since then some of my friends and colleagues have been programming since they were young and some of them have been recent graduates from bootcamp programs. And it turns out there's no magic neurological trick that means you're only talented or passionate if you started learning to program as a kid. If your marker for whether someone can ever be a good programmer is based on what opportunities and interests they had as a kid, you're going to wind up excluding enormous chunks of the population, pretty disproportionately given *gesticulates wildly at problems in society writ large*. And even if you are actually a kid staying up late tonight to modify the code to your iOS app, you're inevitably using Stack Overflow as a resource, because everybody has to learn sometime.

I'm really not entirely without sympathy for Post's frustration, though certainly not his message. Anyone who has interviewed programmers knows that people are at wildly different levels, and being on the end of a massive stream of unfiltered unresearched homework questions and people trying to outsource their jobs to Stack Overflow is inevitably going to get exhausting. There's a reason AskMe has a twice-weekly question limit and moderators will step in if someone doesn't seem to be using the community in a wise way. It's irritating when some done nothing more than copy/pastes a contextless error message and treats you like an AI to solve it. See enough of those questions, and you can feel like you're stuck in a free "Mechanical Turk for programming assignments." Just as the community needs to be welcoming to new users, askers need to understand and respect the community they're entering, and it's up to the community to figure out how to facilitate that process, such as through the UX work Metasyntactic suggests.

But this view cuts to the core of the cultural problem here. A predominate site-wide attitude (again, the post is +734) is that if you're not part of the cultural in-group, if you don't show a certain passion or love for the field in the right way, you're useless and wasting our time. And that has to change or nothing else can get fixed.

SO's rigid Q&A format ("this isn't a discussion forum" is an extremely common refrain) is extremely useful, but it's also inherently dehumanizing. I'm not sure why it would be surprising that a site that looks and feels like "Mechanical Turk for programming assignments" winds up being treated that way. Especially when people don't know enough about their problem to know how to ask, maybe the right answer is a more discussion-oriented "question development" stage that's a little more freeform, with the ultimate goal being to end up with an answerable question even if it takes a little back/forth to get there. Question templates to try to encourage askers to supply more complete information would go a long way; there's been basically zero effort to improve the "ask a question" page despite that being the source for all of this. SO's insistence that everything be self-contained to the site is straight-up damaging; many broad questions call for a book or a tutorial or a class or a third-party library or some other external resource, but asking for one or providing an answer that's mainly a pointer to one, is prohibited. And for crying out loud, stop making snap judgements as to who is worthy of help based on cultural factors. Stop blaming the customers for not knowing the soup nazi's arcane rules.
posted by zachlipton at 1:32 AM on May 1, 2018 [10 favorites]


I fear that the endgame of SO will be AI-aided bots that automate the current behaviour, with 10x efficiency.

In addition to instadownvoting and instaclosing, is already a swath of smarmy one-liner comments from the cool kids -- the comments are just one link to idownvotebecau.se with no additional text. No addressing your interlocutor, just a link to a static website explaining why you deserve this for your own good.

It's such a great way to communicate with real people and be nice. The natural step next, following Silicone Valley ideology, is of course automating their practise of "nice." Perhaps those who think idownvotebecau.se is great already automate this partially via browser plugins, who knows.

Because automated arrogance is just much better than arrogance.
posted by runcifex at 1:36 AM on May 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


Too many people treat it as a thing to put on your resume and aren't actually that interested in helping. I mean, they may be interested in helping Stack Overflow, but not that interested in helping people with questions.

I know if I'm a hiring manager, if someone puts Stack Overflow as experience or volunteer service or whatever, I'm a lot more interested in their behavior and skill as a mentor to others than whether their answers were technically correct. Don't tell me your score, link me to some examples of where you interactively helped someone figure out the answer to their problem. Heresy alert: usually that involves helping them figure out what exactly the question is, not sending them away until they have a "good" question. Most of what I've seen on SO as a casual sometimes googler is... not that.
posted by ctmf at 2:10 AM on May 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


Quick correction, sorry. The "reflection" link there should point to this article by Jason Sachs, not the other 2015-era "what's wrong with StackOverflow?" article I linked.
posted by zachlipton at 2:12 AM on May 1, 2018 [2 favorites]


zachlipton: Especially when people don't know enough about their problem to know how to ask, maybe the right answer is a more discussion-oriented "question development" stage that's a little more freeform, with the ultimate goal being to end up with an answerable question even if it takes a little back/forth to get there.

This is what I proposed upthread. But there is a trade-off involved here. A freeform back and forth requires that the respondents participate in that, which takes time. That reduces the number of questions that they can engage with, as well as their interest in participating, if they are spending more time on basic questions.
posted by Gyan at 2:31 AM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


It sounds to me like that freeform question formation thing seems a lot like teaching people who want to learn, but who has time to do that?
posted by anem0ne at 5:17 AM on May 1, 2018


Knuth bless 'em for trying to do something fantastic with their lives, they've become quite a drain on us and other resources. This is something that the whole industry is seeing, which naturally reflects here.

Christ, this is toxic.

Speaking as a person who has been in this industry about 18 years, the problem the industry has is not that there's a bunch of undeserving plebs trying to glom onto it for all the wrong reasons (e.g. "how dare someone undertake this for financial security as much or more than the heroic passion I ascribe to myself!"). The problem the industry has is that we have been on a long, never-ending push force developers to do all the hard work of career growth on their own time, because when they're on the company clock they're supposed to shut up, keep their heads down, and make us money. We are an industry that hates its next generation, and which would prefer to never have to do any kind of mentoring, training, or career building.

That this is not apparent to the guy whose job is literally the head of community development for a site that's supposed to be about learning and mentorship relative to this industry is ... I mean if nothing else I guess it's consistent.
posted by tocts at 6:28 AM on May 1, 2018 [13 favorites]


Ooof. That Tim Post thing.

I would really like to think that one thing that has changed since 2014 is that some people in the tech world have come to realize that not everyone had access to the resources required to program obsessively when they were kids. If that's the requirement, then you're going to lose a whole lot of people who grew up poor or working-class. You're going to lose a whole lot of women. That expectation isn't neutral. It builds all sorts of structural barriers into your community.

I also think it's funny that the actual requirements for belonging are so varied and nebulous. For Tim Post, you have to do it for love, not money. For JeffL, on the other hand, you have to be a professional programmer and do it for money. For JeffL, hobbyists are the barbarians at the gate, but for Tim Post, careerists are. They are, in fact, kind of contradictory requirements, but I bet that both Post and JeffL would pretty much agree on who the right people are. They're the people who started programming when they were 9, and if they just happen to have certain demographic features in common, then so be it.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:56 AM on May 1, 2018 [5 favorites]


I'm really not entirely without sympathy for Post's frustration, though certainly not his message.

I am without sympathy, because that frustration is the poison killing not only SO, but the tech industry as well. Post's message should have lead to his dismissal, as it clearly showed a lack of understanding of the fundamental responsibility of his position. Furthermore, it raises the question of why was a programmer in a position for a community manager? The two are different roles, with different skillsets.

The tech community's infatuation with the cult of the amateur needs to die. Being so consumed by programming that it's your life doesn't make you a better programmer.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:32 AM on May 1, 2018 [6 favorites]


I would really like to think that one thing that has changed since 2014 is that some people in the tech world have come to realize that not everyone had access to the resources required to program obsessively when they were kids.

Whatever this number is it's too small. One thing I grew up with was the ability to recover from nearly any mistake (either on my own, through the forgiveness that accrues to middle class white kids, or by having parents who could make forgiveness happen). Even more than the Commodore-64 I got one year, I think just growing up where mistakes could be learning experiences and not catastrophes really set the foundation for me. Knowing that you're not actually going to break the computer seems like second nature when you grew up with that exposure, but it is incumbent on those of us who grew up with that comfort level to support people who didn't.

The "professionals only" line of thought is really exclusionary and I reject its premise, but both in my career and in this discussion about Stack Overflow it's been obvious that many developers are blind to the advantages they had when they started out. Too few of us have the necessary awareness of those advantages, empathy towards people who didn't have the same access, and perspective on why it matters. Too many of us want to pull up the ladder instead of extending a hand. The community is worse off because of it.
posted by fedward at 8:15 AM on May 1, 2018 [6 favorites]


Too many of us

Reifying the ingroup sometimes passes without notice. ;)
posted by rhizome at 10:47 AM on May 1, 2018 [4 favorites]


A freeform back and forth requires that the respondents participate in that, which takes time. That reduces the number of questions that they can engage with

It does - but right now, people aren't allowed to do this. Those who like helping people find the correct phrasing but may not have the skills to address the technical aspects, aren't currently visible at SO. A change in this could be no drain at all on the technical people - could, in fact, free them up to answer the more detailed and specific questions that they enjoy, so they're less likely to spend their limited time shouting at beginners for using the wrong words.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:43 AM on May 1, 2018 [2 favorites]


@bwest
In large part because of @aprilwensel's blog posts about Stack Overflow, I've started going through my old answers and comments and editing out language that might be discouraging or needlessly aggressive.
posted by popcassady at 1:22 PM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


ErisLordFreedom : "the correct phrasing" often involves the technical aspects. It's less often about grammar or vocabulary or idiom and more about incomplete, vague or confused questions because the asker is a beginner. There's limited scope for a separate cadre to perform linguistic proofreading and leave it ready for the final swoop by the technical people.
posted by Gyan at 1:31 PM on May 1, 2018 [2 favorites]


Gyan, I'm not sure why the hell you're explaining SO to ErisLordFreedom as if they are unfamiliar with the platform.
posted by adrienneleigh at 1:45 PM on May 1, 2018 [2 favorites]


Reading about these developments really reminded me of the R community, the R-help mailing list, and the largest R package repo, CRAN. (For people who don't know what R is, it's a domain-specific language that is incredibly popular for statistics and bioinformatics data analysis, partly because of the huge ecosystem of packages.) Just like a lot of people report with Stack Overflow, I've only ever engaged with R-help by Googling error messages and ending up there.

Like a lot of people here, I only know R-help by googling questions and ending up there. I've never asked a question or attempted to answer one there, and one of the main reasons is precisely the ethos that the default response to a question should be to shame the asker for not being able to find the answer themselves. And just like with Stack Overflow, other people defend the use of shaming as necessary for the survival of the group (preventing "low-quality" questions) and for the intellectual development of the question-askers.

As it turns out one of the main developers of R is a particularly good example of this: he's a regular on R-help and is a core maintainer of CRAN, and is so notoriously pedantic and abrasive that his name has become synonymous with this type of response. It's absolutely true that this person is incredibly knowledgeable and has devoted immense hours of his life to making R and CRAN the successes they are today and for that every R user owes him a debt of gratitude. But when even other R experts need to warn package submitters that "the feedback may be curt and may feel downright insulting," advise them "to take a couple of days to cool down before responding" and direct them to "ignore any ad hominem attacks, and strive to respond only to technical issues," you have to start wondering about what the cost to the community is. How many people could participate but don't because they don't want to be yelled at for using a contraction when sending an e-mail about their package? And of course, the people who are most likely to stop participating because of experiences like this, or to never start because they see how other people are treated, are more likely to be the very people who feel they don't belong in the first place. Bioinformatics in particular has a much higher proportion of men to women than biology as a whole, and in statistics and computer science it's even more lopsided. Because of phenomena like stereotype threat and minority stress, this kind of behavior doesn't need to explicitly target women or under-represented minorities in order to disproportionately affect them.

Getting a little farther afield, it also made me think of some recent-ish arguments people have been having within academia about whether we should tolerate people being rude jerks just because they have a point. Tal Yarkoni argued a couple of years ago that you can't actually be a nice person and be a good scientist at the same time. I don't want to single Yarkoni out here -- I'd say this is a pretty common viewpoint in the sciences, depending on the field. One of his main points is that you cannot ignore someone's criticism of your work because they are being rude to you, because "the validity or truth value of a particular viewpoint is independent of the tone with which that viewpoint is being expressed," and so that would mean that you're putting your ego above the progression of science. I don't exactly disagree with this. But isn't a person who is being rude also putting their ego above science? They are prioritizing their own desire to punish, humiliate, or get retribution above delivering criticism as effectively as possible, because being rude encourages people to react defensively. I'd also posit that this worldview can lead to an environment that selects for pedantic abusers, because they are guaranteed an audience that is not allowed to stop paying attention to them! Yarkoni does mention that rude behavior should be sanctioned, but that's undermined later by his assertion that the fear of public shaming is "a largely beneficial influence on the quality of our science." Are our only options really fear of shaming and sloppy science? Is fear of shaming really such an effective method of quality control that it outweighs the costs, especially for members of the community who are inherently more vulnerable?

I think April Wensel's piece "Confessions of a Recovering Jerk Programmer" draws a more useful distinction between being "compassionate" and being "polite" or "nice." Being compassionate doesn't mean withholding critique and being a good scientist doesn't mean being mean. Wensel also writes compellingly about how the ethos of shaming intersects with problems like gender inequity in software development. I actually suspect that a norm of compassionate critique would actually make people more likely to ask tough, basic questions about other people's work, because getting a rude and aggressive response would be less likely.

To be fair to Yarkoni I understand that his post was mostly meant to be interpreted within a particular context, which was as a response to Susan Fiske's editorial about the replication crisis in psychology. There are definitely powerful, well-respected scientists who want to shut down legitimate critiques of their work by conflating it with personal attacks. There, I basically agree with him that this is not a good outcome, and that being "nice" in the sense of never asking the tough questions about someone else's research is not the standard we should aspire to. I also agree that, for example, Andrew Gelman has actually been pretty reserved in his critiques of power pose research, especially relative to a lot of other people I can think of, and Amy Cuddy would probably have been well-served by taking the criticism on board. At the same time, though, we had a whole MetaFilter thread about this in which it was brought up that while Gelman's own critiques were not particularly personal or rude, he may not have upheld the right community norm in his comments section and in making it clear to his "fanbase" that he didn't condone personal attacks (ironically, perhaps because he doesn't like interpersonal conflict -- this is something that I also struggle with, but as mentioned above and as I keep reminding myself, compassion is not incompatible with setting boundaries). I also don't think that this is an argument against bringing more compassion to science, or against the idea that maybe fear of public shaming is not the healthiest or even the most effective way to make sure that the quality of scientific research stays high.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:02 PM on May 1, 2018 [7 favorites]


I'm sure Gyan's comment will be useful for many people here who are not familiar with Stack Overflow; they might have taken ErisLordFreedom's comment to imply that the work of "help people find the correct phrasing" is a non-technical issue - whereas the technicalities are usually crucial to the correct phrasing.

(more to follow)
posted by vincebowdren at 2:09 PM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


On the subject of "helping people find the correct phrasing":

Those of us familiar with helping questioners on Stack Overflow (or other technical forums) know that this is a difficult job, requiring both technical competence and, sometimes, a lot of diplomacy and subtlety. You need to understand the kind of problems the questioner might be facing, despite their initial poorly-worded question, and how - in the limited space available for comments - to guide them towards understanding how to coherently and concisely describe their problem well.

A digression: my day job is in software testing, and both I and my colleagues know first-hand the exasperation of trying to cope with poor technical communications; it's a real hindrance in any technical project.

Back to Stack Overflow : Even when an inexperienced questioner has the best of intentions, their lack of good technical communication skills can often make this a frustrating and inconclusive dialogue for both parties. And if the questioner is not acting in good faith (for example, they are posting their homework question) - well, it can leave the would-be-helper very, very, disgruntled. They have just been taken advantage of, and had their time wasted, by somebody who has no intention of joining in the collaborative contribution which the site is built on.
posted by vincebowdren at 2:11 PM on May 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


I don't think there are actually very many people in this discussion who aren't familiar with Stack Overflow. I do think there seem to be a number of people in this discussion who are really invested in the idea that those of us who think SO is hostile and toxic think so because we're unfamiliar with it.
posted by adrienneleigh at 2:12 PM on May 1, 2018 [10 favorites]


@adrienneleigh I hope there are people reading who are not familiar with Stack Overflow, particularly those from a non-technical background.

Assuming they are, then they would be served by a clear account of how the site functions, and in particular what it is about a collaborative technical project which makes it a particular challenge to deal with newcomers' experiences of unwelcomingness. That's where I'm trying to contribute here.
posted by vincebowdren at 2:23 PM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


The main thing that makes people (and by no means just newcomers) feel unwelcome at SO is the contingent of bigoted assholes. You really don't have to have a technical background to understand that, but having a technical background sure does seem to help if you're trying to obscure that fact.
posted by adrienneleigh at 2:42 PM on May 1, 2018 [4 favorites]


I kinda think the answer is to use the knowledge contained on stack overflow to build a beginners cloud lab where people can see how specific questions fit into an overall stack and explore the problem/solution space in a virtual lab environment.
posted by Annika Cicada at 3:09 PM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


Me, i think the solution is for all the decent people to go find or found somewhere else to ask questions and submit answers and contribute to knowledge. (Some folks are working on this, actually, i gather!)

But then, i'm really tired of giving my emotional and actual labor to corporations that don't give a shit about people.
posted by adrienneleigh at 3:12 PM on May 1, 2018 [2 favorites]


If only there was a place on metafilter where people could ask questions...
posted by Annika Cicada at 3:17 PM on May 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


But then, i'm really tired of giving my emotional and actual labor to corporations that don't give a shit about people.

Me, i think the solution is for all the decent people to go find or found somewhere else to ask questions and submit answers and contribute to knowledge. (Some folks are working on this, actually, i gather!)

Why didn't you provide a link to the most well-known (as far as I know) place like that, then?
posted by JeffL at 3:34 PM on May 1, 2018


vincebowden, I'm pretty sure that mose Mefites have at least a passing understanding of what SO is. I'd imagine that in a thread specifically about SO, well over 90% of the readers and commenters have at least experienced it via a Google result for a technical problem. It's a major website, we're a pretty techy bunch, and this is a conversation that's specifically about it. Plus we are now 180 comments and three days into the thread, so if anybody here still doesn't know what the conversation is about then I really don't know how to help them.

Your explanations are coming off as more than a bit condescending, even to me, and I am pretty much just watching the whole tech industry from the sidelines, trying to decide if sticking with programming after high school and becoming a coder would have yielded a salary that would have been worth all the bullshit. So far, the answer is no. The patronizing attitude that a lot of techies have is a big part of that.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:56 PM on May 1, 2018 [4 favorites]


It's absolutely true that this person is incredibly knowledgeable and has devoted immense hours of his life to making R and CRAN the successes they are today and for that every R user owes him a debt of gratitude.

This here is the heart of the problem. This individual is destroying your community, driving off newcomers, and you feel that you owe him a "debt of gratitude"? Fuck that noise. The only thing he's "owed" is a boot up the ass as you kick him out.

DTMFA - It's Not Just For Dating.
posted by NoxAeternum at 5:06 PM on May 1, 2018 [7 favorites]


There's limited scope for a separate cadre to perform linguistic proofreading and leave it ready for the final swoop by the technical people.

Non-technical people can know what technical details are relevant - they can ask, what OS? What kind of hardware? Did you get the error message before or after you ran Part 2 of your question?

A total non-techie may not be able to help much at all, but there are plenty of people with moderate technical skills, or solid programming skills that don't directly relate to the question, who could help mid-skill programmers with sloppy or not-native-English language skills figure out what they meant to ask.

I have read plenty of SO answers and the semi-discussion threads, enough to figure out that (1) it'd be helpful to plenty of readers to have clarifications of the questions and (2) the "we are the elite" culture is strong enough that helping the questioners won't be permitted if it's based on the notion that an intelligent person can run into a technical problem they can't figure out on their own.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:45 PM on May 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


I've never asked a question or attempted to answer one there, and one of the main reasons is precisely the ethos that the default response to a question should be to shame the asker for not being able to find the answer themselves.

So just like comp.mail.sendmail, then? Seriously though, I think it's a natural evolution all help-style orgs reach unless someone is actively trying to prevent it and weed out the assholes. Even your org's IT helpdesk is like this. I'd bet even hotel concierges have superior attitudes and make fun of the plebes in the break room where nobody can hear them.

At Stack Overflow, not only has nobody ever stopped them, but it's gotten so bad they're proud of it and forgot how to even pretend to be helpful. It's like they get points and a laugh track for abrupt snark like a tv sitcom.
posted by ctmf at 11:00 PM on May 1, 2018 [2 favorites]


I'd bet even hotel concierges have superior attitudes and make fun of the plebes in the break room where nobody can hear them.

I don't care if hotel staff mocks the guests where nobody can hear them. Service jobs come with a lot of cope-with-idiots; I'm fine with people blowing off steam about that. I love clientsfromhell; I think it provides both stress relief and context info for other people in the same business - no, it's not you; that was awful. But the clients there aren't named; nobody's forcing them to read "your employees think you're an idiot" in order to get the work done.

I care if it's part of company culture to mock them publicly. I care that it's so much a part of SO's culture to be vicious to newbies, that people are defending it as a valuable form of hazing. I care that even when someone in management says "we really need to change this," that's abstract and mumbly about "policies" rather than "we need to stop the people who are being assholes on our site, who are making us fail at our mission to provide useful information."
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 9:43 AM on May 2, 2018 [5 favorites]


SNL did a whole series about the Surly Nerd issue a while back.
posted by rhizome at 10:05 AM on May 2, 2018


After it was announced that Stack Overflow for Teams is now available, /u/ReallyGene asks "But what if my team doesn't have the necessary pedantic assholes?"
posted by Jpfed at 2:05 PM on May 3, 2018 [6 favorites]


Stack Exchange has decided to move on to dropping a mandatory arbitration clause in their TOS. Don't worry; you can totally opt-out of losing your legal rights. Just do the totally convenient-in-2018 thing of printing off a letter within 30 days revealing your real identity and mailing it off to New York (some international users have questioned whether they could even get a letter sent to New York within 30 days). Management says they're looking into it, but they "quite frankly didn't anticipate" the idea that people wouldn't like forfeiting their legal rights.

What a garbage fire.
posted by zachlipton at 3:14 PM on May 3, 2018 [4 favorites]


cartoon
posted by thelonius at 3:19 PM on May 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


Who in this day and age adds an arbitration clause to their TOS without knowing the implications?
posted by rhizome at 3:29 PM on May 3, 2018 [3 favorites]


Who in this day and age adds an arbitration clause to their TOS without knowing the implications?

I swear Microsoft just did this for one of their services, too.
posted by maxwelton at 3:37 AM on May 4, 2018 [1 favorite]


Wow, you just called Joel Spolsky an outsider to Stack Overflow? I mean, I've seen people argue themselves into truly stupid positions before but that is going on the leaderboard.

Well, you're just twisting my words there because I wasn't claiming that anyone who criticizes SO is an "outsider", but as it happens I would call Spolsky an outsider to the SO community to an extent just like I would call Mark Zuckerberg an outsider to the regular Facebook user community even though he has an account. The creator and owner of a large website can't seriously be considered part of the regular userbase. But I'm wondering if maybe you actually meant Jon Skeet?

And of course, the people who are most likely to stop participating because of experiences like this, or to never start because they see how other people are treated, are more likely to be the very people who feel they don't belong in the first place. Bioinformatics in particular has a much higher proportion of men to women than biology as a whole, and in statistics and computer science it's even more lopsided. Because of phenomena like stereotype threat and minority stress, this kind of behavior doesn't need to explicitly target women or under-represented minorities in order to disproportionately affect them.

This is a good point, but is it actually true in practise? Are women in particular turned off by SO harsh requirements for new users to ask questions in certain ways and the "brutal" shooting down of people who fail to meet them?

Denae Ford and others did a study to identify the barriers that cause male and female programmers to decide not to participate in SO. 1470 interviews identified 14 main reasons. There was no statistically significant difference in the proportion of female interviewees versus male interviewees citing "Fear of negative feedback" as a reason why they did not participate. The reasons that had a statistically significant difference between males and females are:
  1. Awareness of Site Features “No one has told me that creating an account would help a lot. You get some kind of perks by joining. I have not [heard] of anything like that, but had I then, I definitely would have created an account.”
  2. Qualifications (user's own subjective assessment of them) “I don’t feel like my expertise [is enough] for me to actually post an answer that would be of any help to anyone else.”
  3. Intimidating Community Size “I enjoy being part of a community as long as they are kind of small. When it becomes kind of a sea of people [it feels] daunting or intimidating.”
  4. Stranger Discomfort "Participants perceived the style of communication on Stack Overflow as blunt and impersonal. Participants identified the lack of females and familiar people as a reason why they felt uncomfortable on Stack Overflow." “I’ve definitely seen some comments that’s not offensive exactly but it feels like I’m walking into a boy’s club. You just get that vibe, how they talk.”
  5. Perception of Slacking “I just don’t feel comfortable doing it at work. You’re deviating from your actual development tasks."
IMHO, there is no evidence here that the usually-cited negative aspects of SO that make it an unfriendly place for new users (down-voting of questions, marking of questions as duplicates etc) that people complain about (including in this thread) affect women coders any more than men. There's also no evidence from this study that women perceive it as affecting them more.

I agree that the "Stranger Discomfort" reason (especially relating to "bro humour") should be addressed, and it actually already has (the example of "programmer humour" cited in the April Wensel piece is a decade old and closed to new comments, but really should just have been deleted). But I also completely reject the characterization of SO contributors as "pedantic assholes", "fucking nerds" who need to "get over themselves", "douchebags", "condescending jerks", "surly nerds" and so on is completely unfair.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 12:23 AM on May 5, 2018 [2 favorites]


L.P. Hatecraft: There was no statistically significant difference in the proportion of female interviewees versus male interviewees citing "Fear of negative feedback" as a reason why they did not participate.

Interesting study. I might suggest that "2. Qualifications" is what fear of negative feedback sounds like if you've been socialized to internalize criticism. You don't think, "It's bad that they're such assholes." Instead, you think, "It's bad that I'm so stupid."

I have not done any research to confirm this idea.
posted by clawsoon at 5:14 AM on May 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


There's also no evidence from this study that women perceive it as affecting them more.
Stack Overflow sees itself as a community of experts. That's who's welcome there. Women consistently undervalue their own expertise, and their expertise is consistently undervalued by others. That's true in general, and it's particularly true in this extremely male-dominated domain. If a tech community sees itself as open only to experts and believes that it's appropriate to haze anyone else relentlessly, than women are going to be less likely to get involved, and anyone who is identifiable as a woman is going to be more likely to be mistreated if she does get involved. Our ideas about expertise are gendered, and tech people's ideas about expertise are more gendered than most other people's.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:43 PM on May 5, 2018 [10 favorites]


But I'm wondering if maybe you actually meant Jon Skeet?

But I'm wondering if there is a way in which you can more literally dismiss anyone who doesn't agree with you as simply too stupid to be able to use words, while doubling down on utter bullshit like I would call Spolsky an outsider to the SO community?
posted by the agents of KAOS at 4:31 PM on May 5, 2018 [6 favorites]


Stack Overflow sees itself as a community of experts. That's who's welcome there. Women consistently undervalue their own expertise, and their expertise is consistently undervalued by others. That's true in general, and it's particularly true in this extremely male-dominated domain. If a tech community sees itself as open only to experts and believes that it's appropriate to haze anyone else relentlessly, than women are going to be less likely to get involved...
Not to mention that one of the biggest qualifiers of being an "expert" is having entered the field 5-20 years ago.

Guess who had trouble being accepted into programs and communities that would help them enter the field 20 years ago? Or even 10?

(Or even now?)
posted by mmoncur at 5:52 PM on May 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


Also, like, L.P. Hatecraft, if you resent those characterizations of the SO community maybe you should read the meta comments on literally any subject that touches on diversity and inclusion, because i assure you that plenty of folks in there are in fact all of the following: "pedantic assholes", "fucking nerds" who need to "get over themselves", "douchebags", "condescending jerks", "surly nerds". As well as incredibly repulsive bigots.

Of course that's not the entirety of SO, and no one is saying it is. But it doesn't have to be. The amount of people like that is way too many.

Also: i'm a woman. I've been in the tech industry for literally decades. I'm not an outsider to Stack Overflow or to tech, so don't even fucking bother trying to discredit me by saying so.
posted by adrienneleigh at 6:40 PM on May 5, 2018 [8 favorites]


Given the state of the tech industry right now, any barrier to entry, even if it doesn't disproportionately affect women, is a barrier to more diversity in the industry. Being equally hostile and unwelcoming to everyone is still wrong, and it's something that keeps us from moving forward.
posted by zachlipton at 7:04 PM on May 5, 2018 [3 favorites]


(And it really is 100% not true that SO is equally hostile to everyone, either.)
posted by adrienneleigh at 9:56 PM on May 5, 2018 [5 favorites]


Hey, let's all read one of Stack Overflow's own community discussions of this very topic and see if we find any hostility there!
posted by mmoncur at 5:17 AM on May 6, 2018 [5 favorites]


Eurgh. I tried reading some of it. I failed. Toxicity at its finest.
posted by XtinaS at 5:41 AM on May 6, 2018 [3 favorites]


Personal conundrum: I have an SO account with ~3.5k "rep" and some fairly useful answers. Also prospective employers don't seem to mind with my participation. Should I just quit?
posted by runcifex at 6:48 AM on May 6, 2018


We linked the discussion earlier in this thread as well. Perhaps some readers would have benefited from seeing quotes :-(. The top answer, voted ~300 against the question at ~500, sentence #2:

a woman, “of color” (this is a truly ridiculous label btw.)

This is explicitly called out in comments, which provokes an immediate and more popular backlash. There is no visible moderator comment or action. (archived snapshot). This is not how you make people feel welcome.

---

Also prospective employers don't seem to mind with my participation. Should I just quit?

There's some earlier suggestions (ctrl-F "do to help"). It might be possible to take part and work to be welcoming. I think one has to bear in mind the site pushes against it, and sometimes you lose.

Like other volunteer efforts, you stopping work there doesn't necessarily mean you'd start working on something "more important". And there's still value in answers you write being available for people to find through Google.

ctmf had some suggestions about CVs, pointing out that some employers might stupidly look at the "rep", whereas a good employer would at least make a spot check for anti-social behaviour as a warning sign etc. In general you could think about how to show employers that you work well with others, not just that you have expertise.

If doing that on SO sometimes feels hopeless... remember that and how hopeless it must feel to new users, as motivation to keep looking for other opportunities to help people, whatever their background.
posted by sourcejedi at 9:19 AM on May 6, 2018 [4 favorites]


Stack Overflow: a tech related bit of gender based fuckery

Sexism in IT has worn me down, especially since it gangs up on me with age discrimination.
posted by theora55 at 12:30 PM on May 7, 2018 [2 favorites]


I meant to link that to bilabial's comment, which resonates so hard my teeth are vibrating.
posted by theora55 at 12:39 PM on May 7, 2018


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