"Stack Overflow Isn’t Very Welcoming. It’s Time for That to Change."

Interesting blog post from Jay Hanlon over at Stack Overflow:

Stack Overflow Isn’t Very Welcoming. It’s Time for That to Change.

It follows hot on the heels of a similarly-themed post on Joel Spolsky (Stack Overflow cofounder)'s blog:

Thought it might be of interest to people here, given the number of campers that have expressed frustration/bewilderment dealing with Stack Overflow’s rules from a newbie perspective. It’s nice to see that they’re taking such complaints seriously, because the actual content of the site is an absolute goldmine of programming knowledge. Any initiative to make it less daunting to beginners is surely a good thing.

I feel they’re a bit stuck between a rock and a hard place: it has to be a good resource, it isn’t necessarily as useful for beginners as it is for experienced developers, and there has to be some level of [what can come across as] heavy-handed policing of content. Seems quite dependent on community as well: the larger it is, the less welcoming.

Just explicitly trying to force users to follow the recommended question format is :100:. Devs being short with questioners is often interpreted as an attack when it isn’t, some way of ensuring questions are generally pertinent could mitigate that. And teaching new users how to ask good questions is massive, anything that helps with that is great

I think the crucial difference between guiding someone to do the right thing vs. jumping down someone’s throat is assuming good faith. If you assume that they want to be a good member of the community and will do their best to do so, you’re much more likely to come across as friendly, even when you’re telling them that the format of their question was incorrect, etc.

These blog posts amount to an official recognition that the culture of SO very often fails to assume good faith, which tallies with the experiences of many campers (judging by how often it gets mentioned in threads).

Now, the skeptic in me says “we should wait and see how this actually ends up being implemented”, and I agree that any approach that reduces the value of the site as a repository of knowledge would be unfortunate (as would an approach that pays lip service to being inclusive while nothing really changed). So I guess it may be a little premature to assume that this will definitely turn out well… but optimistically speaking, it at least seems like a good sign.

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It’ll be interesting to see what these new approaches bring.

I’ve personally never really had a problem with SO. Granted, I haven’t posted a ton of questions on there but the handful I have has pretty much been met with helpful folk. There was one time I got a reply that was a bit condescending on what amounted to theory code I used. Something that I knew wasn’t technically right but that I wanted to know if I was anywhere close in my approach. At first I just replied with my reasoning in a respectful way and the next thing I knew we were bonding over running speed tests on different JS methods.

Maybe he meant to be short with me and then felt bad, maybe he didn’t even realize how he was coming off. Who knows, but in the end we turned it around.

However, I have read countless questions posted by others (usually when I’m doing a search for a specific problem) and there I’ve seen the mixed bag of snarky and helpful responses. So I get the call for change.

I think the one that really bugs me are the members who jump at the chance to claim a question is a duplicate without actually reading the post. A lot of times what they miss is that while yes a particular question might have similar concepts at play, the question itself tends to be singular and specific for the asker’s situation. I’ll check out the duplicate links they post and 7 out of 10 times it’s only semi-similar.


Before I found FCC I posted a question on stack overflow that was to my knowledge at the time, very specific and focused…but being a newbie of newbies I did not know what I did not know and the posts were so vituperous and judgemental and frankly downright scary i f those replies had been said in person that I dleted my question and my stack overflow account.

Such a shame…it took me a few more years to find FCC (granted it didn’t exist back then), but it would havec been easy to reply with sources like the Odin project, or similar, and close the topic.

Yeah, this annoys the heck out of me. More than a few times, I’ve been googling for the answer to some obscure question and found that someone asked the exact same thing on SO, only to have it closed as a duplicate before it got answered. Then I check the “duplicate” and find it’s a completely different question.


Yeah, I get that. I feel like it mainly comes from an assumption that if someone hasn’t read and understood the rules, hasn’t put in the work needed to understand, that they don’t deserve help as much (RTFM). That’s why I feel the simple step of forcing a questioner to follow a template_could_ go a long way to cutting out the incentive to post dismissive comments.

Why I say rock and a hard place:

  • the down/upvotes are helpful in that they’re a simple way to mark quality. But they also seem to incentivise the dismissive comments/answers.
  • the duplicate question thing is necessary, but also seems to be wrong a fair % of the time (something closed as a duplicate, but top of Google results seems common, which seems to indicate a question is actually a useful one).

I think there’s another aspect that none of the discussion around this has even touched on, and that is that teaching people is hard. And to be welcoming to beginners, SO contributors need [to an extent] teach new developers. And there would be kickback w/r/t to that, because at the same time it needs to fulfil the needs of experience devs who want quick, terse answers. If you’ve seen a problem a million times on SO and it has an obvious solution, the temptation is to get frustrated and dismiss the answer. Whereas better is to teach the questioner the what and the why, in context (John Skeet has an amazing reputation on SO because he’s excellent at this).

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