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It's undeniable that their main developer Q&A site is a really great thing that saved me many hours of work. However, it was somewhat hostile to its more export users from the very beginning: the reputation system favors quickfire replies to grab the first upvotes, and they seem to put a strong emphasis on "cookbook" answers where many of the more nuanced discussions were closed as "opinion based". I think there are some missed opportunities here to make the Q&A site even more useful.

However, perhaps that wasn't their focus. My impression is the Q&A site was supposed to be mostly a gateway to their other services, and for that to work, the Q&A part simply had to be "good enough". It's an interesting strategy that perhaps didn't work out quite the way they had hoped it would.




Their Q&A site was vastly better than what existed at the time, and that's how they won the market. Now, though, it is full of people looking for quick points (as you suggest) -- people that think that the original poster was asking for someone to search Google for 'em -- and I'm convinced that the truly helpful people have moved just given up.

One thing I've noticed, that drives me crazy, is people demanding more information in response to a question, without any intention of using that information to help find an answer. Their whole goal is to score points for asking more details. I don't mean to suggest that more details aren't useful, only that it isn't helpful in any way to ask for more information if you don't intend to follow up. (Perhaps that could be improved by allowing those sorts of requests to be sent privately, and without any chance of generating points?)


I suspect there's a mismatch between what you expect Stack Overflow to be and what the other users expect it to be. From the tour ( https://stackoverflow.com/tour ):

> With your help, we're working together to build a library of detailed answers to every question about programming.

The "build a library" being the key part. Vague questions aren't that useful in building the library in particular because lacking the necessary information, they can have too many unhelpful answers. Thus the focus on the problem with example demonstrating the problem (so the next person with the problem can verify that it is their problem or not) that gets answers.

Furthermore, you appear to be under a misunderstanding of how the stack overflow reputation system works.

> Their whole goal is to score points for asking more details.

No one gets points for comments. At all. The voting on comments is purely for visibility ranking of helpful and constructive aspects to the post they are on... and nothing else. No points.

The reason that people ask those clarifying questions is to make sure that they are answering the right question and aren't wasting their time on trying to answer something that turns out to not be the problem. Say someone asks how to do XYZ in C++... and the person gives an answer for C++17... and then the OP comes back and says "sorry, I'm using turbo C++ and that doesn't work." Instead a comment asking "what version of C++ are you using" up front to make sure that the person asking the question gets the correct answer rather than something that is unhelpful.

There is no private messaging on Stack Overflow, probably for the same reason there's none on HN. It increases the moderation workload and possibility of bullying in private. I'd hate to be Jon Skeet if there was private massing. Furthermore, having it be a comment presents the information in public (including the clarification) so that if someone else has the problem they can read the comments and be aware that something may not work in their situation even if parts of the questions match. ("You didn't include a version of C++ in this and it appears to be a very old version, could you update the question with the version you are using?")


> Vague questions aren't that useful in building the library in particular because lacking the necessary information, they can have too many unhelpful answers.

If that is truly their goal (and I don't doubt that it's at least a hope) then they should go ahead and remove all the vague questions from their database, or at least flag them so they don't show up in web searches. After all, who's using Google to find unsolved, vague problems?

> No one gets points for comments. At all. The voting on comments is purely for visibility ranking of helpful and constructive aspects to the post they are on... and nothing else. No points.

I see. I didn't realize that. They do get the number but I guess it doesn't "persist" throughout the site. Good to know. Though, then I guess I don't understand what their motivation is to respond with useless comments.

> Instead a comment asking "what version of C++ are you using" up front to make sure that the person asking the question gets the correct answer rather than something that is unhelpful.

That's OK, I guess, but it seems to be counter to the idea of building a library. Rather than have a set of answers that may address the question for various versions of C++, you have a question and zero answers (because the person asking for details disappeared). That's the reality, anyway.

In any case, it wouldn't even have to be a private message. Simply having a "needs more detail" checkbox that hides the question (from Google et al) until the detail is added would be enough to improve the SO experience.


There have been efforts to remove vague questions. There is a lot of them. Stack Overflow corporate tends to leave that to the community moderation... which is a bit under powered. Until recently, the elected moderator team tended to be on the preservationist side. As to removing from search? https://meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/316881/ - remember that Stack Overflow monetization is driven by views. Deleting those vague questions that people search for (they do) that happen to have a lot of views and are locked ends up as a - on the balance sheet.

Reputation changes happen from: * Upvote on a question you asked (+5) * Upvote on an answer your provided (+10) * Accepted answer you provided (+15) * Accepted edit (+2) * Down vote on a question you asked (-2) * Down vote on an answer you provided (-2) * Down vote you gave on an answer (-1); yes down voting other peoples answers costs you points. * Receiving a bounty (+varies) * Giving a bounty (-varies)

Thats it. Nothing about comments. Nothing about closing questions.

The comments aren't necessary useless. They are often trying to help the person asking the question write a better question that can get a better answer. If the comment truly is useless, it should be flagged to be removed (and that won't give or cost anyone any points).

Guessing at the answer isn't that helpful. You've got no idea if it solved the problem or not. The next person to find it with search won't know if it solved the problem or not either. So instead of one question with an answer that did, you've got a question that has a dozen guesses... and you've got to go through and figure out which one works for you in your environment. Might as well have searched a forum and paged through all the guesses there.

Questions that don't have any answers eventually get removed by the system. https://meta.stackexchange.com/a/92006 describes the criteria.

> If the question is more than 30 days old, and ... > has −1 or lower score > has no answers > is not locked

> If the question is more than 365 days old, and ... > has a score of 0 or less, or a score of 1 or less in case of deleted owner > has no answers > is not locked > has view count <= the age of the question in days times 1.5 > has 1 or 0 comments

The "needs more detail" is often part of the close reason. The question is closed not as a "you did bad" but rather as a "don't try to guess at an answer until this is cleared up"

> Questions seeking debugging help ("why isn't this code working?") must include the desired behavior, a specific problem or error, and the shortest code necessary to reproduce it in the question itself. Questions without a clear problem statement are not useful to other readers. See: How to create a Minimal, Complete, and Verifiable example.

> Please clarify your specific problem or add additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it’s hard to tell exactly what you're asking. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

The hides from google, again, is the "this is how SO makes its advertising impression money." The reason given often is the "breaks the internet." If people linked to the closed question from outside that link becomes a 404. I'm skeptical on that being the only reason as I noted the advertising impression dollars there. I personally believe that maintaining poor quality material, no matter how many people link to it, is damaging to the brand and sets a poor example for what people asking questions expect. And thus, when they do catch the eye of someone who has an Atwoodian (quality above all else, delete the stuff that doesn't contribute) philosophy of quality on the site, it becomes a poor user experience for everyone involved. And as Jeff isn't there and Joel is CEO, the emphasis is different.

I say Atwoodian there - thats following the call of:

> It is by programmers, for programmers, with the ultimate intent of collectively increasing the sum total of good programming knowledge in the world. No matter what programming language you use, or what operating system you call home. Better programming is our goal.

The Spolskyians are following the call of:

> What kind of questions are appropriate? Well, thanks to the tagging system, we can be rather broad with that. As long as questions are appropriately tagged, I think it’s okay to be off topic as long as what you’re asking about is of interest to people who make software. But it does have to be a question. Stack Overflow isn’t a good place for imponderables, or public service announcements, or vague complaints, or storytelling.

Its shifted a bit from those original calls to people to contribute... but you can see a profound difference in the emphasis between those different calls for contributors. Then give https://stackoverflow.blog/2011/02/22/are-some-questions-too... a read and look at the editor history of https://stackoverflow.com/posts/1003841/revisions

The thing I'm trying to say there is the "why don't these questions get hidden from google" gets an "its complicated" and goes to the top of the company and its founder about what is appropriate for the site and not. Its not something easily done or decided.


> Questions without a clear problem statement are not useful to other readers.

I guess this is fundamentally where I disagree with SO's staff and/or moderation team. I occasionally find those questions and their answers very useful, when there are answers, and again more useful than the perhaps ideal, specific, and ignored questions that fill the site. When questions get too specific, the only person that might benefit from the reply is the person that posted the question in the first place. At that point it might as well not be part of a public forum.

My favorite SO pages are those that generate multiple replies with different perspectives, and often different languages or at least libraries. Those questions are admittedly usually vague but I think that given the result (many interesting answers from different people) that is a net positive. You might say that the answers given look like guesses, and that'd be completely fair, but there's still value. Certainly more value than an unanswered question abandoned by both the asker and the one person who expressed a small amount of interest.

I do see the difference you're describing (between Atwoodian and Spolskyians) and I can see the merits in both sides. I'm not satisfied with either, but that's more on me than on SO. In any case, I doubt I'm making any unique or new arguments here. I'm mostly just frustrated with SO and Google in general because I almost never find a solution to my problems.

As a sort of aside:

> The key distinction to make here, in my mind, is that all questions are ultimately in service of the people answering them. That is the audience you need to satisfy if you want to have any hope of creating and sustaining a community of peers learning from each other.

That seems to be how you make a site by and for narcissists, or people otherwise interested in hearing themselves talk. It'd be a different story if the answers were paid, I guess, because at least then the motivation would be something more tangible.

To be honest, I probably would have written SO off entirely if I'd seen this comment earlier.


Other sites have optimized for other things. Slant.co does a great job (in my opinion) of the "pros and cons" for different things. Quora has a more anecdotal spin to its thing. You can ask a question, get lots of viewpoints, but may not get any real answers for the underlying problem. Trying to make one site that does everything... I'm not sure it exists.

That last comment is more elaborately written in https://stackoverflow.blog/2011/06/13/optimizing-for-pearls-... . Read it all, but it concludes with:

> We feel that the world is awash in questions, but not answers. Answers are the real unit of work in any Q&A; system. Therefore, the only logical thing to do is to maximize the happiness and enjoyment of answerers. If this means aggressively downvoting or closing unworthy and uninteresting questions, so be it. Without a community of people willing to answer questions, it really doesn’t matter if there are questions at all, does it?

This was written in the early days of Stack Overflow. I believe the philosophy there was "its easy to get questions." I'm not sure I agree with that... or at least, it is certainly not easy to get well asked questions and separating the well asked form poorly asked questions is an immense undertaking. I don't think the system that SO has has scaled well. That you have trouble finding answers that may exist show that there is too much noise in the system and unless you know exactly what you are looking for it becomes difficult. Try removing too much of the noise and people start complaining about losing internet points.

Aside from the Atwoodians and Spolskyians... there are the Zuckerbergites.

> No, Zuckerberg didn't have anything to do with Stack Overflow. The philsophy of :+1: however, is one that can be seen on Stack Overflow. The web is a social place, and Stack Overflow is too. People you interact with, you up vote. It makes them feel good and you feel good knowing they feel good. No one likes to get a dislike or unfriend on Facebook - and no one likes to get down voted or have their questions closed on Stack Overflow.

And the LinkedIn

> The world is a hard enough place to get a good job. Especially when there are scores of other people trying to that single entry level coding position that opened up and you just got out of college. So, how do you set yourself apart from all the others? You put Stack Overflow on your resume. You provided 200 answers on Stack Overflow! Opps, that one just got deleted.

And the freELance

> Did you know there is a site out there where you can pay money for people to do some work? I haven't gotten job as a programmer yet, but I took a bid on eLance for writing a facebook clone for $200 for some beer money. I know some JavaScript and php... At worst, I don't get it done but have some great material for when I get out of college (or maybe I'll drop out and become self taught on the weekends while answering phones)

All of these are competing for how the community on the site is run. Without direction you get rules and squabbles. The results of this show up in reviews (first post - everyone gets an up vote no matter how poorly written) and close / delete "wars" where people try to remove something seen as cruft and other people try undoing that... and it ends up undeleted and locked (and contributing to the noise that makes it harder for you to get an answer with a google search).

The site that you get when you don't try to have the great answers that arise from good questions, well... https://answers.yahoo.com/dir/index?sid=396545663&link=list

As to the narcissists? Its more of a "the people answering are trying to answer the question once." Its not to hear themselves, but so that programming problems are resolved by searching rather than by asking. Similar to the driving goal of Wikipedia - all knowledge easily available.

If answers were paid... that goes down an interesting path for philosophy and motivation. A difficult path for a web site (money is hard to handle) and motivation (you're only putting $0.05 on this question, we'll, I'll give you $0.05 of my time. "This can't be processed by a regular expression." - poor answers to poorly paid questions)


>many of the more nuanced discussions were closed as "opinion based"

This is also something I don't like, but I wonder if they went on, if the website would become another place for flamewars - something that happens a LOT when you have low moderation.


The thing that separates SO from forums is the focus on quality answers. There are more than enough locked examples of the opinion bickering if one wants to see what happens.

They may be interesting to read. They may be popular. But most of the time by page 2 and even worse at page 5, it’s crap. And that crap requires an excessive amount of community moderation work to keep clean and try to avoid having more people add answers to the bottom of page 7 that are already stated 6 times on previous pages.

If the moderation tools are less powerful than the popularity keeping it there, there isn’t much reason to moderate.

And thus the culture by those who shovel crap daily to try to shut down opinion based questions early - so they don’t have to do more work later.

Every attempt I’ve seen at an opinion oriented SE alternative has failed to get sufficient expert answering. It’s not fun as a ${Lang} expert to have a newbie argue with you regularly about some feature or design choice.


I couldn't agree less. First off, they're not going out of business, just letting 20% go and one would assume refocusing. I think the site is set up to get good answers and not just the first upvotes as answers stick around and users can vote answers up or down as they see fit. The first answers on older questions tend to be very long and in-depth and give a lot of good information about the pros and cons of the approach they discuss. (If you want something really in-depth, check out https://codereview.stackexchange.com/.) The ones that get closed as opinion based are almost entirely asking for software recommendations or the like. I've rarely seen an objectively answerable question closed as being opinion-based.


For many of the supposedly "opinion-based" questions, reasonable people will at least agree on the relevant trade-offs, even if they come to different conclusions overall. Thus, when a question asks about "pros and cons of technology X", expert insight into the trade-offs involved could be really useful to help evaluate your own specific situation. But that kind of more nuanced question doesn't really fit the simple "one correct answer" model that Stack Overflow seems to be going for and is thus very likely to be closed. IMHO, there should be a distinction between "it depends on the circumstances, and here's why" and "purely opinion based", and Stack Overflow would be more useful for me personally if the former were allowed.

Edit: Just to check if moderation policies have changed since I last looked, I did a quick search for questions containing the phrase "pros and cons". As unfortunately expected, practically all of the questions are closed: https://stackoverflow.com/search?q=pros+and+cons


While "it depends on the circumstances and here's why" is the ideal answer, such questions rarely get those answers.

On one of the sister sites to SO, there's a post about pros and cons on their meta - https://softwareengineering.meta.stackexchange.com/questions... - such questions are often a moderation headache when you get the inevitable spam and the poor quality answers of "I can't believe anyone didn't mention XYZ".

Look at https://stackoverflow.com/questions/15142/what-are-the-pros-... and start reading through and consider the one that starts out with "@Keith" responding to a different answer or "A SQL stored proc doesn't increase the performance of the query" being the entirety of the answer.

Such questions, when left open can get awful answers that are difficult to clean up.

Have you considered that there are sites with as laser like of a focus on pros and cons as SO maintains on Q&A? https://www.slant.co is one such site. https://www.slant.co/topics/607/~best-java-ides https://www.slant.co/topics/440/~best-nosql-databases-for-we... and so on.


> Opinion based

I wish Stackoverflow would buy https://slant.co and just point people to that site for opinions.




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