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StackOverflow unwinding? (williamedwardscoder.tumblr.com)
101 points by willvarfar on June 19, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 201 comments

None of the actual metrics of the site bear this out. I don't know what "myspacing" is, and "floundering" is pretty subjective, but in terms of actual measurable things, we have more questions asked, more questions answered, more people active on the site, more sites with more activity and most metrics are up about 100% in the last year. Some of the things that we track pretty closely (like number of users who ask or answer 5 times monthly) are steadily growing.

I use StackOverflow more than ever. It has been indispensable in building our new product. I've rarely run into a problem in the past 6 months that wasn't solved on StackOverflow.

Most of the easy answers are solved, so that is part of it. Maybe the OP is partially getting bored what with over 19k of karma.

As an aside, I have to say spolsky that SO has made a real, measurable impact on my life. The number of times I type my query site:stackoverflow.com into google is higher than any other site.

so why are so many people convinced otherwise? most posts here are from people apparently tired of so. if you're only measuring positives, what are you missing that explains the negatives?

it's understandable being defensive. but maybe that reflex is causing you to miss something?

[edit: also, how do you measure evaporative cooling?]

One possible explanation: People here, generally speaking, like a community that is about the people. Aside from meta.stackoverflow, Stack Overflow's model makes that difficult. That's ok, because Stack Overflow is not a social network - http://meta.stackoverflow.com/a/128552/143601

Well, they don't want Stack Overflow to be a social network. But like Soylent Green, it's made out of people. In SO's case, inconveniently alive people.

Humans are inherently social, and the amount of effort SO staff and moderators have to go to trying to stamp that out is a sign that SO really is a social network.

I always think it's a bad sign when product designers think they know much better than their users what they want. I think that's what killed Friendster. I think that's why Google Plus is kinda sad and sterile. If you're going to go to all the trouble of making a product for people, I'd rather you listened to them from time to time.

We do listen to the people! No other site gives so much power to regular users, up to and including moderator elections. The problem with listening to the people too much is that popularity becomes the most important metric, with predictable results:


It's a balancing act. What people actually want, and what they think they want, are often two different hings.

Listening to people is entirely different than electing moderators. Nobody here is complaining that you aren't serving insiders. But I do see a lot of grumbling from people who feel like they have been forced out.

In the link, you seem to be basically making a slippery slope argument. I am sure a lot of people agree that they don't want a sea of memes. But a lot of reasonable people feel you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. A modestly subjective question like "What are the relative merits of frameworks X, Y, and Z?" is not anything like a rage comic. Neither is a reasonable discussion on programming mistakes.

Your "opportunity cost" argument strikes me as entirely wrongheaded. You pretend there are only two things people can do in the world: subjective questions and the objective ones. Your worry that a topic expert is spending 10 minutes on something he enjoys rather than the thing you want him to do is paternalistic and controlling. Every real community bonds not just over the practical stuff, but the fun stuff. It's as if you're saying that Golden Gate Park should be removed because those people should be out picking up trash or working to pay taxes.

I'm saying that Golden Gate Park is not the same as your office building, or school campus. I don't begrudge the park the right to exist, but places of learning aren't places of pure entertainment, at least not in the Stack Exchange worldview.

The analogy I was making was to the city of San Francisco.

If you want to make an analogy to a place of learning, consider a college campus. People are encouraged to do things there beyond studying. Areas are set aside just for having fun. That kind of community bonding doesn't take away from education; it enhances and supports it.

Also, nobody here is arguing that SO should be a place of pure entertainment. As far as I can tell, that's a straw man. Or perhaps more accurately, the imaginary bogeyman SO is fleeing.

so what should I do with my most recent post? http://serverfault.com/questions/400268/profile-long-running...

Should I submit the same question to SO instead?

I'm one of the moderators on Stack Overflow. It's not my goal to stamp out any sign that SO is a social network, but I do want to prevent it from turning into Yahoo! Answers. Some level of moderation is necessary to maintain quality. Just because some users want to use Stack Overflow to ask off-topic questions doesn't mean we should let them.

Has anybody here complained about wanting off-topic questions? The linked article sure isn't.

Your definition of "on-topic" is not the same as ours, therefore you do want off-topic questions.

Saying that our definition of the topic is wrong, does not mean you aren't asking for off-topic questions to be allowed. It's the same thing.

I agree that the definitions are different.

However, look at what you're saying. You've divided the world into us and them. It's you, the defender of the one true definition, versus the ignorant outsider fools. It's utterly close-minded.

It's your bat and ball, naturally, so you're welcome to keep on driving off the people who have different views. But don't go around saying you listen to your users when you talk like this.

From the linked article:

> ...throw out the gazillion-sub-site silliness and broaden allowed topics for discussion.

Right. That's a sign that people disagree about what exactly is on-topic. Not a sign that people want to turn it into an anything-goes meme factory.

He is complaining about wanting to ask off-topic questions, which is exactly what you denied was in the article.

No, he has a different view of what on topic means than the people who currently hold the power.

No, I think you're being willfully ignorant. He explicitly says "broaden allowed topics for discussion." He understands what's on topic and what isn't. He wants a place to have discussions that are off topic for Stack Overflow, but doesn't want to go to one of the many sites that already exist for that purpose. I don't think asking users to take off topic discussions to one of those other places is asking too much.

You're demonstrating the problem.

There is a disagreement about which topics should be allowed. Broaden means increase the number of topics considered to be on topic. He understands your definition of "on topic"; he just thinks it makes for a poor user experience. And I agree with him.

The problem here is that you and others confuse your view of "off topic for Stack Overflow" with some sort of universal truth. You get away with that not because you're right in some academic sense but because you have the power to drive off people with differing views.

I'm not the one who's confused. Moderators don't set the policy for what's on topic at Stack Exchange sites, the communities who use those sites do. The place to argue what is and isn't on topic isn't on that guy's blog, and it isn't here.

I believe the guy can say what he wants on his blog, and it's arrogant of you to think otherwise. And your notion that Hacker News users can't discuss what they want on their own site is crazed.

My point, and I think his, is that the ever-narrowing topic definitions may be what the participating community wants, but it is driving off people with different ideas.

If you're happy with that, fine. But insisting that outsiders aren't allowed to comment on it is just another symptom of the drive for orthodoxy that I think is ruining it in the first place.

I never said the guy couldn't or shouldn't post on his blog about it, nor did I say it can't be discussed here on HN. If you want something to actually be done about what you perceive as a problem though, you need to join in the community discussion at the site set aside for that purpose. Decisions about SE policies are made by the communities on SE sites, not on HN.

I fully disagree when you say that if you want things to change you have to go to discuss this on SE. The entire point is that SE is not just "SE policies" and "SE moderators": SE is first and foremost users and these users have their right to read criticism about SE on HN / reddit / blogs / etc. And the day a topic shall pop-up on meta saying that some introspection from SE may be needed, the more users have read well-articulated blogs entries and great comments explaining what they find very wrong on SE, the more likely they are to upvote these suggestions on meta. You're not an island and you to realize your most important users have a very vocal voice outside of SE and that this voice does have an influence.

This isn't my opinion, so I don't know what you're disagreeing with. Would you expect HN to change because of comments you read on Stack Overflow? Of course not. Everyone is perfectly welcome to discuss things where and whenever they want, but ultimately the ideas need to be discussed by the community of people who actually use SE sites. So yeah, I fully agree that you can go ahead and discuss things as much as you want here on HN and on blogs. I join in that sort of thing all the time. But if you want things to actually change, those ideas need to be posted and discussed among the community of SE users.

I would absolutely expect HN to change because of discussion about HN on StackOverflow. Why? Because a lot of smart nerds talking about it could have something useful to say. Smart product managers don't wait for their users to come to them with suggestions.

Honestly, I don't need to do that. Having been driven off by what I consider bad moderating, I'll spend my time elsewhere. The same apparently applies to a number of people posting here.

If you guys are happy to lose users in that fashion, by all means keep asserting that the only way you'll listen is if people put the right cover on their TPS report and submit it to the proper forum.

Whether you like it or not, SE users and former users are going to keep on discussing SE policies where they please. You guys can learn from it and even engage with it. Or you can just keep defining it as illegitimate, putting your hands over your ears, and going "la la la".

I didn't try to define anything as illegitimate. I don't make policy at SE, the community there does. There are thousands of active users who discuss policy issues on SE. Most of them are never going to see random blog posts and comments on HN. If you put ideas in front of them where they're actively discussing SE policies you might have better luck at changing what you don't like about SE.

You seem to be very insistent on not getting what I'm saying. Here's my last try:

If the community and/or SE's owners are interested in serving the public, then they should engage with people where they are. Some of those people are on SE; most aren't. That's especially true for people who have gotten fed up with SE and left.

It's not my job to fix SE's brokenness. Nor is it that of the blogger whose article is linked at the top. Making SE better is the job of SE's owners and moderators. So if somebody should be putting forth extra effort here, it isn't the people who have never used or have given up on Stack Exchange. And even if it somehow should be those people, it won't be, no matter how much you suggest otherwise.

Personally, there's no way I'm going to go put my ideas in front of the SE community. From my experience there and the behavior of SE reps in this article, I have no reason to believe anybody will do anything but argue until I leave. I'm a little sad to think that SE's on the slow road to doom, but I've got better things to do then to try to sweep back that particular tide with my very modest broom.

If you want your complaints to reach people who can actually do something about them you'll go where those people are. If you don't really care, that's fine. Keep posting your complaints on blogs and in comments on sites other than the one you're complaining about.

I'm glad this guy's complaints got some attention by staff and volunteers at SE, but that's only because it got to the front page of HN. How many others are out there that will never be found? Post them in the right place and people will read them.

(its a bit late, but as blog author, I can confirm your interpretation of what I meant)

People have different expectations from a Q&A site.

SO is pretty rigid about what they want. That's a good thing - their servers, their rules. Firm guidelines allow users to find either post useful questions, or find some other site.

Except, that's not what happens. Someone asks a question that's a lousy fit for the SE format; and people like it, and upvote it and answer it and the answers get upvotes. Then some mod comes along and closes it, and there's a bunch of negative feeling.

SO is huge, and needs constant tending to keep it useful. Cool urls don't change, but when Mark Pilgrim (who has a gajillion urls over SE) leaves the Internet there's a gajillion urls that need to be found and changed. (No, I have no idea why a site run by programmers, for programmers, can't kludge together a script to search for and replace urls.) That's one small example. There are plenty of other examples.

Then there's the "problem" of duplicate answers. Ideally, there would be one great question, with a bunch of answers, with the best answer being upvoted most and the answer most fitting being accepted. But very few people searches before asking, and all the tags are not useful, so there are a lot of duplicates. That could be okay, except the dupes are usually worse quality than one great question. And the answers lose quality over time - there's only so many times that someone is going to write a great answer.

Then the gamification is broken on some of the sites. You start off almost unable to make any contribution, and people with low scores do not get the upvotes. (This guy with a million votes must know what he's talking about, UPVOTE.) In theory you could concentrate on an obscure segment. In practice not much on SO is obscure because there are so many users.

The fragmentation is a bigger problem, I think. I want to ask a question about linux software, on my Ubuntu install. Already there are two different SE's I could ask on. There could be more depending on the software. This is a more vicious form of the duplicates problem.

The proliferation of SEs into ever more niche segments is okay, I think. They either sink or swim. Lousy for you if you've invested time and effort into something that sinks.

There is definitely a niche for a subjective version though. All those questions that peope love to ask, and answer. ("What's your favorite monspace font?" "What are your 3 most important programming pearls of wisdom?" "What book did you find most useful when you started, and what is most useful today?" etc etc. Obviously, versions of these questions exist in reddit and /prog/ and news:comp.* and etc etc.

FWIW I love the SE sites, and I love the fierce moderation. I've disagreed with it at times, and certainly with the cold way it gets implemented. But I'm glad SE exists. I just wish I knew a where I could ask different questions and have them seen by a huge crowd of clueful users.

What about measuring number of upvotes on questions closed as not constructive /not about programming? I get the feeling that the technical questions are getting saturated, and that the community moved towards more soft issues (management, people skills etc). But soft issues get rejected. Perhaps start softie-programmer.com? At least do something other than closing them.

Well, there is:

http://programmers.stackexchange.com/ -- for conceptual, no-source-code whiteboard programming questions

http://workplace.stackexchange.com/ -- for questions about general professional workplace issues that aren't specific to programming

And of course the rest of the sites at


I'll be the first to tell you that our Q&A engine isn't necessarily effective at every topic. It's primarily effective at technical-ish topics where there can be somewhat definitive answers backed by a bit of research. That's still a pretty big chunk of the world, e.g.:


My fundamental problem with that approach is that I don't want to read 5 sites. I want to read 1 site with the content I want on it.

The ghettoization of stack-exchange was a mistake. Give me an interface more like reddit - let me pick which areas I want to see questions from, all merged on to one page.

Here you go http://stackexchange.com/questions

Click the "Filtered Questions" link at the top to customize it.

Hrrm, that's a start. Any way to get this in the SO theme? I like that lot more than the SE layout.

No, I don't think I've ever seen any official support for customizing themes. There is the Hot Dog theme for SO (http://meta.stackoverflow.com/q/34939/1288) that you might be able to use as a starting point for a custom user theme.

Sorry, should have been more clear. What I really meant was having things like the score, number of answers, etc, in nice big numbers next to the question.

Oh, not on the official site. I don't think that page is updated in real time, so the vote counts would be off by quite a bit for the hottest questions on each site. You might find an app on http://stackapps.com/ that uses the API though.

Do you visit only one site on the Internet? I just wonder how far you're willing to go here, because the beauty of the internet, to me, is that there are zillions of sites on lots of different topics.

As time goes on, the number has certainly decreased. Look at how popular rss ands sites like reddit are.

In fact, in terms of my actual daily "rotation" of sites, there are exactly 3: Reddit, HN, and Gmail.

I absolutely want to visit less sites. Stack-Exchange as a product for me would have significantly more value to me as an integrated network, rather than the current mish-mash of partitioned off sites. Let me search all questions, let all questions (in tags I don't have filtered, and of subject areas I've added) appear in my questions list.

I love SO and the SE network, but I have to admit that far too many interesting questions get closed on SO for being too broad or not having a specific answer. I understand that they want SO to be a fact-based QA site, but sometimes I find myself looking at a very interesting, closed SO question and wishing it hadn't been closed.

That, and the fact that the SO/Programmers distinction is rather confusing and unnecessary in my opinion.

programmers.stackexchange.com is for more subjective issues related to software development, but things are still expected to follow the Q&A format.

My current pet peeve is with Google routinely returning first ten positions for SO answers, of which two or three are spot on, but rest of the list could have been better served by independent blogs which appear on page 3 or 5.

Granted this is Google's algorithm's fault not SOs problem. There is no reason to give a single site the first n listings no matter how authoritative it has become (and SO is very authoritative now).

This is a legitimate issue. We'd prefer to just have one canonical resource for each question asked. We do try to help Google out by merging duplicate questions together when we can, but with 3.5 million questions to review some topics can get out of control.

But do you think he has a point about over-specializing? Is there an optimum level of just enough specialization?

As far as measuring the sort of thing people are talking about:

How has your Net Promoter Score changed? Do you do surveys with questions like, "How disappointed would you be if Stack Overflow went away tomorrow?" How does attrition of users with at least 3 upvoted answers look over time?

I wouldn't expect the metrics you mention to capture the sort of user satisfaction issues, and I could see the above numbers not showing a problem because general growth is masking specific issues. I'm sure you can name quite a number of products whose quality decline started well before popularity peaked.

perhaps, but the underlying post is remarkably light on actual metrics and details -- or even specific examples -- of what quality decline means.

Sure. It's his blog. Providing you with hard evidence to drive your product design process isn't his job. It's yours.

He provided no evidence. Do some science, don't waste everyone's time with unsubstantiated opinions.

That's actually what Stack Exchange is about, so it's not surprising I guess that there's this impedance mismatch. If you want to just have a bunch of opinions, take it to Quora.

So you get to set the rules for what appears not only on Stack Exchange, but some guy's own blog? I'd love to see your explanation for that.

If you want to see if he has evidence, try asking him. And not in a "it's your job to argue with me" way. Call him up on the phone, ask open questions, and then listen to the answers without being demanding or dismissive like you are here.

That's a pretty basic product management skill. If it's something you're not familiar with, plenty of people teach classes. I know the Luxr folks do a good job, for example.

I'm curious whether you track any metrics that try to distinguish questions and answeres posted simply for the information, vs those posted mainly to gain online reputation?

(blog author)

Howdy Joel,

its really quality not quantity and my subjective opinion of the appeal of the site(s).

Why did you shut down the old JoS forum?

You need to look into somehow adding a "question age" increment to answer point values. That seems to be the biggest legitimate recurring issue in the discussion. Otherwise, the system seems to be working as intended.

I noticed that according to Quantcast your uniques is flat for the last four months or so (about 15m per month roughly). The flatline is pretty dramatic on a three year scale. Is there an expectation that growth will pick up?

Stack Overflow always experiences a "summer lull", typically starting around March or April.

Our best guess is lots of people taking vacations offsetting growth, on the 3 year graph you'll notice growth resumes sometime around September every year.

I honestly don't care* too much about it, we're in the business of quality questions and answers; traffic is a side effect, not a goal.

(Disclaimer, SE Inc. Employee etc. etc.)

*Provided it's high enough to pay the bills naturally, which isn't that hard to do.

The problem with SO is that easy questions get answered quickly and hard questions don't get answered at all, in most cases.

I'm a semi-competent programmer with a few thousand SO reputation (or whatever it's called). Every question I have ever asked there has gone unanswered or has been answered insufficiently.

The moderators are also awful. They manage the community in a very autistic fashion - quality questions with quality answers get closed because they are slightly subjective, which completely obliterates the community feeling.

It's funny that a huge chunk of the questions that I find extremely interesting and worth reading have been 'closed for <reason x>.'

At least closed questions are visible and you can decide for yourself if you like them. Other moderators just delete your question and you will never know why. There is no trail, no warning and no one can be held accountable. Unless you have 10k reputation. With 10k you can see deleted questions and it seems you can see who deleted it.

I note most of those questions are basically some awesome trivia some guy discovered on the way while solving tough problems.

Or recommendations to books/reading/tools etc.

Also, very difficult questions get relatively few points compared to very easy ones when they are answered.

I pride myself in answering some of the trickier questions in my domain, ie http://stackoverflow.com/q/10060242/154112

Those are easily the questions I feel the best about after answering, and really they generate the best encouragement by far. Much better than points is seeing this: http://i.imgur.com/POZmt.png

But compare the score of that tricky question to this very recent one, where both the question and answer garnered a lot of upvotes because the title was "why are my balls disappearing": http://stackoverflow.com/q/11066050/154112

Even with a bounty on the tricky question, hounding flippant questions can garner you more "reputation" far faster than giving thoughtful replies to hard questions, which can be a little disheartening.

"Also, very difficult questions get relatively few points compared to very easy ones when they are answered."

Yeah, this. It hurts my eyes to see that most of my rep on SO I got from A) Recommending the K&R for a starters' C book, and B) for explaining how the @ works for error message suppression in PHP.

While the numerous questions I answered that took actual experience and hard work, hardly ever get an upvote, let alone an 'accept', presumably because whoever asked it doesn't care enough about the issue to do the work required to solve a hard problem, even if the principles are handed to him.

This is one of the main reasons I hardly use SO anymore, myself.

'The moderators are also awful.' +1 the more interesting questions about beautiful code, attitude to coding etc are closed. If it's not "set X to Y", they close it.

In my opinion, that's a feature and not a bug.

With communities in general (not explicitly referencing SO here), I've always felt that moderators are their own worst enemies.

They dictate the terms of use through enforcement. It's not fun to use something until you find that you aren't allowed to.

The best tools do not limit their usage patterns, and communities adapt and evolve to make these tools solve their problems.

These aren't always the same problems that the creators of the system or moderators intended to be solved.

So moderators kill the potential utility of a tool.

One of those potentials (now referring back to SO) is the unification of people with a shared interest in a programming language or knowledge domain.

Without community, why should a user invest in it?

So I assert (overly simplistically) that moderators kill communities.

And yet, Stack Overflow gets 7000 questions a day, and manages to maintain a very high quality compared to sites with less moderation.

The very moderation which detracts from the community feeling is what's keeping the quality of the site up and helping create a valuable permanent resource on the Internet, which is our primary goal. Like Wikipedia, strict rules are what lead to a valuable artifact. Stack Overflow's rules and values are not intended to create a warm and cuddly discussion area for long-winding, far-reaching conversations, social networking, and "community" whatever that means. They are intended to create a body of precise questions and answers which are peer-reviewed, editable, and high-quality that you can search with Google.

That you don't know what community means is kind of sad, but it certainly explains the decisions that drove me (and others here) away from Stack Overflow.

Speaking as a Wikipedia admin, you're replicating a mistake that I think has harmed Wikipedia immensely without mirroring one of the key safety valves.

Wikipedia has a problem that's well-known in the community: active participants are burning out, editor activity is stagnant, and the existing social environment is very off-putting to newbies. Petty enforcement of petty rules, an obsession with particular notions of quality, and a lot of behavior that seems to the uninitiated like high-handed dickishness.

But one of Wikipedia's saving graces is this core policy: "If a rule prevents you from improving or maintaining Wikipedia, ignore it." It reminds people that rules are the tail, not the dog.

With Wikipedia, strict rules aren't what leads to a valuable artifact. it's that a lot of people care about creating the world's best reference work together. They understand very clearly that it's the community that produces the encyclopedia. The rules are just there to record community consensus, and to help newbies think things through.

Is the quality of the site being kept up, though?

Questions certainly feel "worse" than they did 2 years ago when I first started following SO.

Way more "homework" or "newbie south-east Asian programmer asking for THE CODEZ" type questions than there ever was back in the day.

I'm not really sure how you fix that, although slightly raising the barrier to entry (perhaps require they at least pick a username?) might help reduce the "drive bys" who ask a poor question, and never accept an answer.

All true, and far more real a risk. That's why we now (as of about 6 months ago) require registration to ask questions, for example.

SO is slowly driving away the more senior participants who haven't been drawn in by the gamification of the site. Every few months it seems like the questions on the site are more and more of the "I could have googled this but it was faster to ask it on SO." variety.

In short, SO is becoming a Mechanical Turk for searching for answers to software questions, and the reason is because Google is becoming less and less useful (as it tries to be more and more helpful) for searching for answers to software questions.

I don't know how that fits into the long-term goals of SO.

I think SO will be happy if they will be able to become a database for most common programming problems.

That is where the crowd is, mediocre programmers are plenty and they won't be asking expert questions either. They need hand holding at every step. And if you could answer all they question they have, you could serve a huge crowd.

On other hand, asking expert questions may make you an awesome site. But the target audience is to little.

Because number of people needing answers to expert questions themselves are scanty.

(blog author)

+1 aha this!

This is really the root cause perhaps?

This is why Joel and the chap whose own code is a horror are here talking quantity in reply to a blog post about quality perhaps?

> Like Wikipedia, strict rules are what lead to a valuable artifact.

What? Wikipedia's strict rules (really, a hideous mish mash of conflicting obscure scattered policy and guideline and suggestion and essay and convention) detract from the purpose of getting information about a subject from a variety of trusted sources into an article about that subject.

See, for example, the amount of time that goes into deciding whether to allow someone to have a username consisting of a bunch of digits or not. (Such a user name is "confusing". But what is it confused with? It's not confusing by itself. The policy is to prevent people using names that imply power. and so on for several megabytes, several times a year.) And then, when the community has taken several months (at a short time estimate) to agree on a policy they realise that the software has hard-coded limits which are different to the policy anyway. So it all starts again.

SO's mods are doing a good, but difficult job.

Wikipedia's admins, New Page Patrollers, Anti-Vandal Patrol, Recent Change Patrol, twinkle user, rollback user, are doing an inconsistent job.

I'll agree that I'm pretty anti the current WP experience.

"[StackOverflow's rules] are intended to create a body of precise questions and answers ..."

Suitable for informing a junior code monkey working to someone else's plan. Yes, we all understand this. Yes, we agree it is useful.

But junior code monkeys grow and learn. On their way to becoming a senior software engineer, they will ask a question like "how do I solve such and such problem with a Ruby hash" and the answer is "you probably don't want to--take the stakeholder to lunch and do some requirements analysis, then come back and we'll help you solve the systems architecture problem that you will have just discovered".

This answer will be expunged by the moderators for being subjective and argumentative. Yes, of course it is. The most valuable questions about software creation have to do with purpose and architecture. Software creators are people who need mentoring, not robots looking for answers from autistic oracles.

I have no objection to putting only objective questions on the standard view. It's expedient for people who need to learn some detail right now. It will get more eyeballs, more Google juice, and more monetization. But there is no need to delete subjective questions when they can be trivially tagged and filtered off into another view.

Actually, that answer would very likely be appreciated as long as you phrased it politely. I've very often told people on Stack Overflow that they were asking the wrong question, told them how to start off on the right path, and gotten the checkmark for it.

(I actually will sometimes answer the original question if it's not too involved or impossible, and include a note along the lines of "See this? This is why it sucks for what you want to do.")

This is the "Stack Overflow sucks because it doesn't have enough lolcats" argument. You might like lolcats, and good for you if so, but not every site is about lolcats and you should not try to force every site to become a meme-fueled jokestravaganza.

There's nothing wrong with having focus. Moderators do often prevent communities from growing as much as they otherwise would, but so will any filter that keeps quality high by some metric that isn't "Do we get the most readers possible?" In Stack Overflow's case, a large part of its utility is that it's a no-messing-around question and answer site. Being "the unification of people with a shared interest in a programming language or knowledge domain" is not the site's goal any more than hosting funny pictures of cats is, so no surprise that the moderators kill that potential.

I do think they draw the line a little closer than I would and a lot of stuff they kill I would think it's OK to allow, but that's just armchair quarterbacking. The broad strokes of what they do seems like a good thing.

That really isn't the argument I was trying to make.

More, that communities evolve and the demographics change. And as the demographics change, the needs and demands grow more diverse. Sure the fundamental core need that unified people remains, but new needs emerge.

The problem with empowering the core to be moderators is that they enforce their idea of the what the community should be based on their use at the time. This means that they're excluding new uses, and more specifically that new demographics would use the tools provided in unexpected ways... thus revealing the new needs. But if moderators prevent the use of tools in unexpected ways... then you not only don't discover the new needs of the community, but you send a message to that new demographic of users that they aren't wholly welcome (on the users terms).

And to in part respond to spolsky, I've immense respect for you and SO and what it's achieved (thank you for saving me from expertsexchange). So I know you've probably already got ideas and views on how to react to the evolution of the community.

I would say one thing... I recall someone posting on HN a while ago a picture of an org structure... it might even be related to where you are. And in this org structure the pyramid was inverted, managers were merely admin to engineers.

This is what I believe moderators should be. That moderators should be led, rather than lead.

If nobody is complaining about your moderators, they aren't doing their jobs.

Moderators are there to protect the community from itself, as described in http://blog.stackoverflow.com/2012/01/the-trouble-with-popul...

It's a tough job. But if you disagree with the way the moderation works, bring it up on meta, and/or run for the position of moderator in the next election.

How many other sites offer either of those options?

The one thing that drove me away from participating in SO are the moderators. I swear, every time I get a google hit for a highly-relevant, informed discussion on a non-trivial programming topic, it's a question that has been closed by moderators for some stupid excuse.

You talk about there being other forums, like programming. or whatever else... Well, moderators should move the question instead of closing it. Why not do a mass query for these high-upvote yet moderator-closed questions on SO and move them to whatever other forum? Why gag the community for the sake of moderator ego?

Anyway. I gave up on the idea of proving I am a good programmer by participating and pumping up my SO score. Participation in SO is painful, moderators destroy good will. It seems they have an antenna that detects good discussion about programming and they step into it and destroy it.

So my response is: I don't care anymore. I certainly won't bring it up on meta, enough ignoring the userbase was done on there before when SE flip-flopped from for-profit, give us your money to "we'll dictate what q/a sites can be created" for me to go back and expect any consideration.

So no. For me SO is a great place to find answers by informed people on several topics, but it's not a place to invest yourself.

Anyway, just one less user for SO.

Discussion is not the point of SO, or any Stack Exchange site. See http://blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/09/good-subjective-bad-su...

Well, whatever. Mods close good, interesting stuff on the other sites too:


So either the site visitors are mostly stupid and cannot follow directions (see the number of votes on everything mentioned in that closed, "not constructive" thread), or Joel and you are forcing SE sites into an inferior subset of what the visitors actually want.

A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy http://shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html

That's interesting. I also found that my more difficult questions never got answered.

Perhaps a fix to create an incentive to answer hard questions would be to create a ratio to estimate difficulty (how much time has gone by without an accepted or high-voted answer? number of views that don't add a good answer?) and then give more reward points to someone who successfully answers a "hard" question.

There is the "bounty" system[0]: you (or anyone else) can offer up some of your own reputation as a bonus for answering the question. (For example: this Haskell question[1], and this C/GCC question[2] have had no/poor answers for a while, and the bounties have prompted more/better answers.)

[0]: http://stackoverflow.com/privileges/set-bounties [1]: http://stackoverflow.com/questions/11060565/tying-the-knot-w... [2]: http://stackoverflow.com/questions/11015672/gcc-removes-inli...

I've had this happen to me a lot, but I also have noticed that sometimes I see an interesting question that deserves a long answer and I want to answer it, but I have this nagging suspicion someone else is already working on an answer and by the time I write mine theirs will already have received some kind of critical mass of upvotes and my work will not get any upvotes at all.

The best strategy seems to be incremental editing. Post a short and to-the-point answer first and then edit it to expand and add finer points. This way your answer is already competing with others even as you write it (properly).

It feels slightly weird to be forced to employ such a tactic, but at SO's scale it might just be necessary.

It's not weird, it's intentional, and desired. The short and to-the-point answer is marginally more helpful if it arrives sooner, because it solves the problem quickly, so it will tend to earn a little more reputation. Coming back later and embellishing the answer with details, sample code, whatever, and you will earn a flood of well-deserved reputation. Doing both--providing a quick answer and then embellishing the details so that the Internet has a great resource--is the ideal outcome and therefore rewarded with the most reputation.

I tried to do incremental editing of a self-answered question. As I was editing and improving the post, within 30 minutes of originally posting, my question was closed for not being a real question. Which was true, the original question was a problem statement.

I continued to improve the post, including the feedback from downvoters. However, I had to flag the post to have a mod reopen the question and none of the downvoters have returned to modify their vote.

It's annoying to end up with negative feedback after attempting to be helpful and taking time to improve a post. Maybe encourage closers to come back after a post is reopened?

For reference, the post: http://stackoverflow.com/questions/10748274/faces-are-black-...

bookmark it (using the so interface - click on the star thing) and look again in a day or so. by then it will be clear if it's going to be answered or not.

main trouble with this is that some simple, dumb answer may have been marked correct by then.

The marked answer may be changed, so there's still hope. The problem is when the question is asked by someone who won't be back to see your new awesome answer because they've already moved on.

I don't follow, are you answering to gain upvotes or to, erm, answer the question ?

I hadn't given this much thought prior to your and Joel's remarks. But I think it's a fair question and it deserves reflection.

I do wonder to what extent it's possible to participate meaningfully on Stack Overflow with those goals completely separated.

There needs to be an embargo period where votes don't show up for the first 15-30mins to stop the snowballing effect of the first answer - like with real election results

This was actually discussed to death on StackOverflow's Meta site in the "old days".

The reason they stick to this system: They prefer people answering quickly. This is the perfect incentive to get people to answer ASAP.

And to the argument "but I have a much better, more thought out answer", most people will say "Yes, but I want my answer now. I don't care about the history behind git, I want to know how to stage removed files".

But in the early days there were fewer people asking and answering.

Now there are a larger number of answerers and a bigger pool of people wanting/needing to gain rep by writing the quickest (but not necessarily correct) answer. This leads to a state where people don't bother clicking on questions with an answer on the front page - because they are already 'behind' in the race

I agree completely. And what makes SO even more frustrating is finding out the mods got all their rep 4 years ago from 'Programmer Cartoon' questions that would be closed in 10 seconds today.

Instead of closing those questions, they could move them to the "Programmers" site. http://programmers.stackexchange.com/faq?mnu=1

All subjective questions are expected to be constructive. How do we define that? Constructive subjective questions:

  -inspire answers that explain “why” and “how”.
  -tend to have long, not short, answers.
  -have a constructive, fair, and impartial tone.
  -invite sharing experiences over opinions.*

The mods on programmers are even worse than the mods on SO, in my opinion.

Bunch of obnoxious punks, them Programmers moderators... Especially the Greek guy...

OK, so much for that idea.

all good points. also, the obsession with pushing "off topic" questions to other sites means that the range of questions you see on any one site goes down, which makes it less interesting as a place to go to answer.

another way of looking at this is that originally i could design my own filter (via tags) to select what i wanted to answer. but increasingly that is being done for me by mods, and what i find interesting (which tends to be "harder" questions that are cross-discipline) is sent elsewhere. meanwhile, other people are complaining that harder questions are not answered.

i guess they may go full circle and provide a way to combine from multiple sites in a single interface...

and i guess you can argue that what they have now - many fragmented sites - is a better fit to (and a response to) the problem they used to have when there were still many simple/easy questions to ask. they're late solving the problem they had and, at the same time, are making worse the problem they have which is too few eyeballs on the complex problems.

This. I have ~5000 rep, but have pretty much gone to not using at all for the past year, primarily due to shoving questions to ancillary SE sites. I dabble in administration, but not enough to constantly view ServerFault. I'm interested in algorithms, but I'm not going to spend all day only on that. The old StackOverflow seemed to be perfect for renaissance techies; there was a little bit of everything all in one place. I'd answer a question on C#, then ruby, then design patterns, then server admin. Now it's fragmented, I guess taking the "silo approach" to Q&A. It really kills it for those of us who have a variety of interests. That's not even getting into the "too few eyeballs" problem.

> ... to other sites ...

That wouldn't be so bad if SO didn't try to keep your user accounts for each site separate. I really don't want or need one account per site, or the constant barrage of "welcome back" animations and all that crap. Now I just ignore any site that I don't already have an account on.

Totally agree on the so called subjective questions. The idea should be "wide-open your minds" instead of everybody's "how can I cast it to list" questions.

Why would you want Stack Overflow to be about "wide-open your minds", when Hacker News is perfectly suitable for that?

Right! Also, why would I want a restaurant to serve coffee, when there's a perfectly good cafe not a mile away?

I agree with your point about hard questions. They ought to provide escalating reward for answering older questions.

They do some of this. For example, the silver Necromancer badge is awarded when you "Answered a question more than 60 days later with score of 5 or more"


You can put a bounty on your hard question if nobody answers it.

You can, but you are penalised for doing so.

Penalised? You spend some imaginary points and in return you get more chances for a good answer to your question... That's a fair tradeoff, if you ask me...

This was one of the things that drove me away from Quora (amongst plenty of other things). It felt extremely bureaucratic and arbitrary, and the tone of the moderator replies on Quora really brought down morale - along with the downvote feature.

I will grant SO that you always know when you are being moderated; Hacker News and Quora does this more surreptitiously, which is more infuriating by an order of magnitude.

I have the opposite impression of Quora, really, and I think their voting design is brilliant. It's designed to maximize viewer utility and poster enjoyment at the expense of transparency. I get how it's infuriating to a certain type of user, but in doing so they've removed a lot of opportunities for negative interactions.

How does poster enjoyment figure? I don't think it's very gratifying when an answer with fewer upvotes than mine is ranked higher, because downvotes are offsetting the difference in upvotes.

They might as well just hide the points. After all, people only post on the site to help others - not to discuss matters like on Hacker News - so biting the hand that feeds you in this way seems self-defeating.

Getting upvoted is a positive experience. Getting downvoted is a negative one. If you don't know that you've been downvoted, you can't get upset about it. It's true that if you go back to a question, look for your relative position, and do the math, you may also have a negative experience, but that's much rarer.

Note that voting isn't the only thing than ranks answers. They also have some subtle reputation system going on.

It sounds like you haven't experienced or seen Quora moderation. up/down voting is not moderation.

I was responding mainly to his comment on downvoting. At 200+ answers I've seen some moderation, but never been on the receiving end of it.

Having been a Wikipedia admin, I'd say Quora's doing a reasonable job. Moderation always feels arbitrary to people on the receiving end of it. And bureaucratic, too, if more than a few people do the moderating.

I accidentally hit the downvote button on your comment. Sorry about that. Someone else can feel free to counter it by upvoting the comment. I completely agree with what you are saying, by the way.

A linked issue is that an answer to an easy question will gain much more rep as more people will feel able to judge the quality of the answer. Often the only person qualified to quickly judge if the answer to a hard question is correct is the person who asked it.

'The moderators are also awful.' SO is holding elections right now. If you feel the moderators are doing a poor job, why not vote for a moderator who shares your beliefs?

that seems futile. unless you're a serious power user you're not going to keep track of who the good/bad moderators are. i guess everyone could go back to their closed questions and see who closed them? although it usually takes a few votes and i'm not sure if you can even see who the close votes came from. I couldn't agree more that moderators on SO are awful, but not going to spend time tracking them down and down voting in hopes this will somehow change their behavior. All of my slightly subjective questions got closed, and in frustration i'd see similar types of questions get up to hundreds or thousands of points. What is this subjective rule anyway? why do they have to be closed? can't users just read the question and decide if they want to move on? if a question is getting up voted, who cares how subjective it is? it's obviously liked by some people.

Do you have examples for those closed subjective questions? Or have they been deleted meanwhile?

Because I'm not involved in the community because the community doesn't really exist.

Maybe a simple answer to having a question closed/moved as subjective would be that at least two mods find flag it as such.

Closing questions - no, deleting questions - really really grinds my gears.

Nothing is more frustrating than finding a google result to SO, clicking through, and arriving at a 404. Nothing is more frustrating that searching for that great answer I read last year and not being able to find it because the question has been deleted. These are often questions that have been kicking around for 4 years, and, well, gone.

Of course, if you have enough SO points, then you probably don't care whether you've deleted a question, you can still see them.

While we're at it, SOers have always been, and are increasingly... well, jerks! If you are a new programmer, then of course your question will have incomplete information, because you don't know how to ask a good question yet. So stop downvoting into oblivion, please, and give people a little bit of time to acclimate and improve their question before closing.

I am in the top 10% of SO users as measured by points (lol.) What can I do, as a community member and hacker, to fix these things?

Due to this problem I think the site would be much more useful if the deleted posts just had a red warning at the top like wikipedia. "this question was flagged for being funny" "a little off topic" let the user decide if he wants to look or not. Buyer beware.

Wikipedia editors can also come across as jerks. A lot of new members get turned off and end up leaving the community... this happens even more often with female editors.

On the one hand, it's wonderful that both SO and Wikipedia are "well-kept gardens": http://lesswrong.com/lw/c1/wellkept_gardens_die_by_pacifism/

On the other hand, at some point both communities struggle with being inclusive and welcoming.

Maybe Joel is right though, and the two goals are mutually exclusive? I personally hope that they're not, but don't have any examples to point to that are successful on the level of Wikipedia or StackOverflow.

The thing that drove me away from the entire Stack* series of sites was the heavy-handed "doesn't fit the format" (read: mod doesn't like it) question closings for no good reason. I've honestly lost count of the number of times that valid questions with well spoken, informative answers were shut down due to this nonsense.

(The other was how much of a pain they make it to get started if you're new - one can look at the comments here and see that those kind of shenanigans are mostly unnecessary)

When you're killing off high-quality content because it "doesn't fit the format", perhaps the format needs to change.

Stackexchanges have policies set by their commununity on each corresponding meta site.

Mods don't really set policy they enforce it, and most "Is this kind of question ontopic here?" style scope-adjusment can be done on meta.

I understand the "meta is murder" argument, and it's a tough and deadly problem. But I don't think splitting the meta into a separate site is the answer. You end up with a very strange self selection problem, where the "meta" community isn't very representative of the community at all.

Heh, the good old "high-quality content" argument... Any links to the almost-always-crap content you consider high quality? Don't get me wrong, it could actually be high quality, it's just that it rarely is... Links or it didn't happen.

Your reply here comes across as kind of dickish. One of the points of the comment you're replying to is that the mods seem to have radically different standards than the audience. And worse, that they're high-handed about it. So your you-probably-don't-know-what-quality-is reply is just demonstrating the problem.

However, here's one that bugged me:


I thought it was a great question and set of answers. I only know it's gone because I linked it from my personal website as I was proud of my answer. Eventually somebody contacted me to say, "Hey, your site is broken." So not only did some jackass delete a popular set of questions and answers, they did it without warning and with no apparent way to recover the lost work.

That was my "Fuck you, I'm done," moment for Stack Overflow.

Example? Haven't noticed this..

It's kind of hard to provide examples because the question disappears once this happens. There's a link to an example in this thread.

The other extreme seems to be a situation like reddit's r/programming, which says (on every page) "If there is no code in your link, it probably doesn't belong here", yet usually half the posts violate it, i.e., you have guidelines but they're pretty universally ignored.

Which is better? I don't know. I personally haven't used either one in a while, because they don't seem to work well if you're not using a mainstream programming language. Google still wins for me here, since the right answer is very frequently on some random person's blog.

>Which is better?

False dichotomy. How about having moderation that operates off of a flexible (and public, and non subjective) set of rules?

/r/programming sucks because of the lack of moderation. Stack* sucks because of heavy handed moderation.

Agreed. Most of my SO questions get moved (not sure why, they seem on target) and then never get answered.

Amen. This is avsolutely right on the money.

StackOverflow is awesome and nothing touches it for quality as far as I'm concerned. But the one thing that annoys me most is the seemingly arbitrary way that posts get deleted by Moderators after they have been closed (but still visible) for a significant period of time. Often they are extremely popular posts with 100k+ views that just disappear in a puff of smoke.

FYI: An SO user has recently setup an unofficial archive of deleted SO questions, ranked in order of votes ... http://meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/124850/unofficial-st...

I guess any sufficiently large ‘community’ (there’s not a community on Stack Exchanges, of course; they are fairly anti-community) ends up attracting those wanting to curate the resource and purify it, until those competent to answer and help have had their fill and no longer feel welcome?

This was my experience as a contributor (one of the top 10) to Literature SE. The mods were very harsh and basically killed the site (or at least drove off most of us contributors).

Both question and answer quality declined dramatically in tandem with the rise of "rules".

Months later I was still in the top 10 contributors. Answers had declined to single sentences.

Now I logged in and noticed it has been closed down (and much of the content migrated to SciFi SE) due to lack of participation. I am not surprised.

At least some of my answers will survive.

(here's one early question where it was poorly asked, we wrote some good answers and worked with the questioner to focus the question - http://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/16106/what-are-the-... This attitude disappeared within very short time)

It's possible that the site floundered and closed because it just wasn't a good fit for the StackExchange model. Literature doesn't strike me as a field where there are obvious right answers.

There are plenty of right answers and more than plenty of wrong answers. Literature and other "soft" fields are not so different from math and science.



Right, so we study math for the twin reasons of wanting to learn mathematical language and wanting to understand our place in the universe, which turns out to be precisely why we also study literature: to learn about language and to understand our place in the universe. Which by the way, Hank, gets to the thing that make me angriest in the entire world, which is when people say that there is only one right answer in math, but that every answer is equally correct in literature.

First off, there is often more than one correct answer in math, and secondly NOT EVERY ANSWER IS EQUALLY CORRECT IN LITERATURE!

For instance, Hank, if you think that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a pro-slavery novel, you’re wrong! You’re as wrong as you are if you think that the square root of four is strawberries!


Like you, I strongly reject the idea that literature means anything and everything the reader wants it to. Nobody really believes that, even if they say they do. Just try interpreting the English professor's exam directions however you like and see what happens.

However, you must admit that there is some subjectivity involved in literature. Maybe no more than in programmers.stackexchange. But that has the benefit of spillover from StackOverflow, where the right answer proves itself by executing correctly.

That's an interesting point and I agree with what you say for a simple question and answer. But there may be just as much subjectivity in the "right" answer for a complicated problem.

What if it compiles but gives erroneous results? What if it compiles and gives correct results, except for a certain day of the year? (see http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4128208). What if it compiles and runs and always gives the correct results no matter what, but isn't as efficiently written as it could be?

Well; maybe. But SciFi SE survives - and that would seem to have a similar issue :)

But a much bigger audience with the SO crowd

The OP seems to be saying 1) SO and network is "anti-community", 2) making lots of targeted sites was misguided; they should be broader, and 3) purists are running off real experts.

Having listened to many hours of planning and philosophizing on the SO podcast as the site developed, I think the OP misunderstands their approach.

1) They are "anti-community" only in the sense that they don't want content unrelated to the site's topic. They do have moderation, votes for moderators, etc. Everything about the site is geared around getting the best answers and making those searchable, not socializing.

2) This is a tradeoff: too narrow and you won't get enough momentum to keep going; too broad and it's uninteresting. Specificity keeps real experts interested; if you know and love Unix, you'll be much more likely to hang out and answer questions on a Unix site than on a General Computer Stuff site. The whole model depends on keeping experts involved, and if a site is TOO specific to generate enough interest, they kill it. One downside is the inevitable overlap between topics. But I think it's an OK tradeoff.

3) I don't see anything like what he describes. I've been using SO since it was in beta, and I'm still getting good answers to my questions quickly. If there is a rise in militant purists, it's in response to the inevitable influx of newbies and crappy questions, which will happen to any site that gets popular. SO has had this in mind from day 1 and they actively promote community moderation, which is the only scalable approach.

I don't mean to sound like an SO apologist, but this post sounds a little too "those guys don't know what they're doing". That's the most common refrain on the internet.

The proper response, snarky as it sounds, is "you try doing it better." And it's serious. If you can make a site and cultivate a community better than StackOverflow, I'll be there.

"love it or leave it" is only a proper response in a regime that seeks to protect the status quo.

OK, perhaps I was a bit harsh. But there is already a very active place to discuss how SO should do things; it's called meta.stackoverflow.com. This discussion has been going on for years.

It's great to try to influence it, but as time goes on, the chances decrease that a newcomer has a point that hasn't been considered. That's just life. You don't see HN changing its format every week; newcomers adjust.

And if someone does have a good point, and it's not being considered, as we say, "fork it." The public Q&A data is available, or you could start from scratch.

HN frowns on the single sentence comment that does nothing but concur, so there ought to be an upvote which a parent can give that says, I agree, nice retort, I modify my concern and cheers, mate.

Your typical architecture astronaut will take a fact like "Napster is a peer-to-peer service for downloading music" and ignore everything but the architecture, thinking it's interesting because it's peer to peer, completely missing the point that it's interesting because you can type the name of a song and listen to it right away.

I feel a bit like StackOverflow has extrapolated from a huge pent-up demand for decent answers to programming questions, that the world is desperate for Q&A sites on every subject. That does not seem to have been the case.

I treasure and trust StackOverflow for my programming questions precisely because of the elitist, purifying attitude. I'm confident the answers are vetted and the best has risen to the top. I'm a self-taught programmer with only a few years under my belt, so this resource is valuable.

As for the other Q&As...especially the non-engineering ones, this culture is counter productive. In a field like history, the experts are not debating dates and places which are defensible positions, but methodology and theory. Those are discussions and require a little more breathing room than a q&a forum could provide.

>I'm confident the answers are vetted and the best has risen to the top.

That really doesn't have as much meaning as you think it does. The best answer out of three bad answers is still a bad answer. If they have driven away the people who give good answers, no amount of filtering the leftover bad answers will get you a good answer.

I don't see very many experts on stackoverflow. It may be a useful resource for beginners, but as someone more intermediate, I've had no questions answered satisfactorily in the time I've tried using it. And all those questions I ended up getting answered by asking in the appropriate IRC channel. My concern is that more and more open source projects are saying "if you have questions, ask on stackoverflow", but not actually watching for those questions and answering them. When a project has no mailing list, no IRC channel, and says "use stackoverflow" I'm pretty much out of luck for getting help.

I think it's not just Stackoverflow--in general, experts have better things to do than help Newbie #258349 walk through installing Ruby. After years of watching the same questions get asked over and over, they just decide to give up and go work on something interesting, so you end up with an echo chamber of "bump for answer, I have the same problem", "has this been solved plz send teh codez", "me too".

After I wrote that, I realized I had written about experts in History. Any well-studied historian is as much, if not more, interested in historiography as the actual historical record. And I know that programming experts are the same. It is the meta discussions that truly inspire any expert. And being a novice, I am not capable of participating in those programming meta-questions, and certainly I'm not asking them, and consequently wasn't considering them in my comment. Though I should have. The Q&A format likely does not work with any meta discussion.

Not every subject. They vet ideas for sites based on specificity and the community they can attract. See Area 51 and its guidelines: http://area51.stackexchange.com/faq

A couple of points (from a top 0.47% user, but that's not why I'm on SO):

* imagine googling for a programming questions and be stuck in 2008 - I don't want to go back

* imagine researching a wittgenstein paper - do you need philosophy.stackexchange.com - probably not; the numbers show, that SO's still the metrics vanguard - I think the demand for the niche sites is certainly there, but large communities have formed around traditional forum sites - and people are happy with that - so there is no pressing need to switch to the new format

* concerning questions - it has been a phenomenon since the beginning, that the simplest answers (C-C C-V the docs) got the most upvotes - interesting hard questions don't earn you much reputation, if that's what you're after - I still get a lot of upvotes for year-old answers, which everybody could have written, while the answers I invested hours in remain relatively untouched; but the main value for me comes from learning by answering questions: try to bring your point across in a few words, collect useful references and show working code - it's like a daily workout equivalent in the tech field

* open questions: I'm trying to make it a habit to answer one hard, unanswered, maybe older question each week - because it's true, the "reputation clock cycle" leaves a lot behind...

* moderation: most moderators have been long around - and I can somehow guess, in which tags a person is active, because I likely saw their comments, answers, flags already a couple of times - can't really blame them for closing a lot of questions - it's hard; if you can, sift through http://stackoverflow.com/tools/flagged and you might know what I mean

* tldr: SO rocks if you're a programmer, for other SE sites YMMV; unsatisfied with closed questions? reopen them or discuss it on meta - it's not possible that moderators don't make mistakes and it's not true, that you can't at least try to discuss specific issues; unsatisfied with unanswered hard questions: find one and write up something great

You put it quite eloquently:

>"...The answers I invested hours in remain relatively untouched; but the main value for me comes from learning by answering questions..."

More than anything else, that's what keeps me coming back to stackoverflow. Most of the questions I've spent the most time on get little attention, but I learned quite a lot from answering them.

Yes, the organization and search-ability is invaluable. Of course most of the content eventually becomes "geologic" as new material is steadily put down at about a steady rate, the rate of "in the last year" material must become a steadily smaller percentage.

I found at least one of the newer sites, the Ubuntu S/E, to be quite useful for troubleshooting LTS version 12 just a few days after 12 came out.

I disagree with the author on a few points. The branching out of Stack Exchange has been excellent—I’m mostly active on English (14k), SO (9k), and Programmers (6k), but I often browse the other sites to pick up useful and interesting information that I would never have come across if it weren’t for that diversification. Where else can I stumble across juicy morsels about mathematics, or TeX, or any of several languages I don’t speak—all in one place?

I find the idea that Stack Exchange is anti-community laughable. The chat system is excellent and has relieved a lot of the tension between contributing to the site and just having fun meeting people who share your interests. I know a lot more about my fellow language enthusiasts, C++ programmers, and Haskellers than before. And more people read my blog and watch my YouTube videos now. I call that a win.

So: the last time I asked a good question on SO? Last month. The last time I gave a good answer? This week. The system still works from my point of view. And I’m one of the guys who actively edits questions so they don’t get closed for stupid reasons—moderation isn’t restricted to just moderators.

My opinion on SO is apparently in the minority around here. I find the content on SO to generally be of high quality, and in most cases, I agree with what moderation I see. Most questions I see that get closed seem like requests for extended discussions. I actually believe that SO works better on questions that have verifiable answers. As for my questions, I've asked 42, and gotten good answers to most of them.

I think you mistyped here: 42 is the answer, not the question.

:)) yep, clearly a mistake

I don't generally have a problem on StackOverflow. The last few questions I have asked have been quite high level and not been asked before and they tend to get some good answers / guesses.

I find that a well structured question gets some good answers, I find a lot of people leaving their question open to interpretation and people cannot be bothered to ask the same old questions because the poster has neglected to be specific in their question.

I find a lot of people use it being lazy as well, most questions are simply part of the language / subject they are asking about but they cannot be bothered to read up on it. They would rather ask insanely simple questions to get other people to provide an answer for it.

I like StackOverflow, and contribute heavily to one of the "other" Stack Exchange sites that is busy, but not enough to get out of perpetual beta.

The problem that they have is that SO grew very quickly and developed a Usenet-style culture. That's good in that there is alot of good information out there, but bad in the sense that you get all of the assholish behavior that came with Usenet.

The other problem that they have is the network of other sites, some of which are very good. The problem there is that they're scaling a model meant for 1,000,000 SO users down to 5,000 users, and it just isn't the same. On a smaller SE site, you cannot wrangle the 5 votes to close some nonsense question written in pidgin english. On SO, a question will be closed in seconds by the vigilantes who roam the site.

I was disappointed by the answers to my last few questions so I'm back to asking on IRC. The answers come more quickly and the format makes clarification and follow up easier and faster.

It's also easier for me to look at someone's gist/paste on IRC and give a quick answer.

IRC is great, but SE-based sites are meant to also help the nth person to ask the question you're seeking, too...

I know, and I do feel I am robbing the community in general, but I also don't think I would get my questions answered well at SO.

It would be great if someone came up with a way to bring IRC answers into a SO-like site for clean-up.

Google, Wikipedia and StackOverflow/StackExchange are my favorite "creations" on the Internet.

But StackExchange has been a big disapointment for me. No big traction on the StackExchange sites, and moderators constantly closing questions without providing better alternatives. It's really a turn-off. (StackOverflow is still great though).

I think there is a general problem with Q&A/Forums in general.

I will generally only ever go to a website to ask a factual question if I cannot easily find the answer myself either from documentation or experimentation. If I ask a question on Q&A it's because the answer is not forthcoming , this may be because my entire approach to the problem is wrong or maybe I'm doing something that only a handful of people would ever want to do. In that case I am relying on the right people actually seeing my post which would have low odds, so I am better served using dedicated forums/newsgroups for the library in question.

So this really leaves opinion based questions as the best things to ask, which don't seem to be encouraged on SO and the format of correct/wrong doesn't work there so well anyway.

Another issue is that I'm usually asking questions related to work things that I am doing, and while I can easily justify using time that I am paid by someone else to ask questions it is less easy to justify spending work time answering other people's questions in order to gain rep.

Also giving a good answer to many questions involves showing sample code , or digging back into something I did a while ago so it's not really something I can do in 2 minutes. So this means I either have to answer questions somewhat covertly or wait until I get home by which time I may well have other things to do.

It would be interesting to see empirical data on William Edwards's hypotheses, e.g. "Questions are getting fewer and fewer quality answers. Moderators and 'close this' clickers are getting increasingly narrow." An analysis like this might be feasible with Stack Exchange's API: https://api.stackexchange.com/docs.

Or you could use the Stack Exchange Data Explorer, http://data.stackexchange.com/stackoverflow/queries

But the first question is obvious: how do you measure quality? Votes are primarily for popularity, not quality.

One way would be "mean time to an accepted answer."

I disagree. I recently picked up pyparsing, and in trying to understand (I'm not a comp sci major), I made an account on stackexchange. The author of pyparsing answered my question. I'm sold.

Wait until said author or the author of another tool / API enters in an argument with one of the elected moderator and gets banned: you're going to be "unsold". This is precisely what this discussion is about: it's about obviously knowledgeable SO users that are getting more and more pissed off by the behavior of these "close-trigger-happy" moderators. And this is relatively new: it wasn't anywhere near as bad two years ago on SO. The one thing that prompted me to leave is twice I spend time answering a question only to see the whole thread getting deleted: this is a waste of my time (I don't care about the b*llshit reason invoked by those overzealous mod to close the question: I care about my time spent helping people being lost). I'm not bringing anything anymore to a "community" that is so prone on wasting their user's time.

I agonize with a similar problem, but I think anyone with a blog will agree there is a real curatorial challenge there. I know Edward Tufte; he routinely deletes his own contributions to his own forum, and will not hesitate to delete material contributed to experts in their fields, often post-publication.

I routinely find the question I'm asking has already been answered when googling, and have rarely had a question go unanswered.

The hard part in my experience when going to try and answer some questions is it seems like there are more and more questions by inexperienced coders expecting people to write basic code for them, or not formulating the question in a way that will be useful to others in the future - instead they're pasting in their code and asking, "why isn't this working". Instead of, "I would expect this framework to behave as follows but it's not" it's "Here's 50 lines of code, why isn't it working?" The only way to answer such questions is to get their code up and running somewhere, perhaps on a jsfiddle, figure out what's wrong (often something as trivial as a syntax error), and then tell them. Doesn't feel very gratifying to do one off debugging on behalf of the person asking especially if the answer is unlikely to be useful to others in the future.

I really follow the ESR's asking questions the smart way guide pretty seriously(http://www.catb.org/~esr/faqs/smart-questions.html) and most of my easy to difficult questions get answered easily without ever asking a question.

What I really care for is getting answers to tough questions. The problem with SO is it doesn't aim to be a QA site on the longer run. It aims to be a database of programming answers site that slowly evolves to solving most commonly faced programming problems. I don't know if their aim is to be advertising based revenue site on the longer run.

I ask a question because I want to get help. It has so happened when I absolutely can't get anything out of the problem at hand. I go on SO and ask a question, often I've been down voted down to oblivion, then I delete the question. Because all I see in response is sarcasm, cynicism and attempts by commenters to prove how big a fool I am.

To me stack overflow looks like site that wishes to attract people who already know answers to their questions, but want it put in a community wiki kind of way.

But I do agree that a simple Google search on SO sites, gives you solutions to most commonly known programming problems. And not just that most commonly known problems on areas that stack exchange sites deal with. These address most problems people face daily. Tough problems is a different cup of tea. But most common problems often get answered and their database seems to be growing with regards to those problems. And this might also be a great business model for SO.

SO was the cool new shiny tool, few years back. We all like to play with Shiny tools. Until something new, and more shiny come along.

These days most of colleagues ping me with interesting answers on quora. I would be happy with Quora opening their questions for reading without opening an account.

It is interesting that some of these same criticisms have been applied to Wikipedia and the reasons remain the same too

So many questions are already authoritatively answered that there's a much higher bar for new users to contribute. And without new users coming in and participating, there's a feeling of stagnation. I'm not yet convinced they're at an impasse but I personally don't know how I would solve that problem.

I'm not sure it's a problem. If every PHP question you want to answer is already answered, hooray! Google solves your problems instantly. The PHP section is stagnant, but it's still helping people. The supply of answers scales down to the demand.

Meanwhile, some people start switching to Node or something else, and a new wave of Q&A starts on that. Rinse and repeat.

I've heard the same rants in any of the usenet groups I used to partecipate. :)

IMHO StackOverflow jumped the shark when it started adding karma or whatever the fuck they call it.

That's gamification... :D

Can anyone post specific examples of "stackoverflow unwinding"? I didn't see any in the article.

They move from Q&A model to a Wikipedia model.

I don't think this was a particular change in approach, to be honest. From the start they were clear (listening to the early podcasts, at least) that they wanted the site to stand as a reference, and to have each question be the best possible question asking one clear thing, with the best possible answer underneath.

Everything else on top of that was gamification to convince people to achieve that. Whether that sort of community becomes degenerate at a certain point is certainly interesting to study, but my intuitive reaction whenever I see a StackOverflow result at the top of some google results is to be joyful, so I feel they've mostly achieved their aims.

It seemed inevitable that 95% (some very high %) of StackOverflow was destined to be little more than an archive, leaving a very stagnant system as the speed of activity & build out slowed to a crawl.

Large, highly active development technology doesn't change every day. PHP has been around for 15 plus years, Python for 20 years. And those are two of most popular.

How many questions can ultimately be asked about PHP or Python, before you wipe out the radical majority of possible and important questions? Obviously languages like that evolve, but not very quickly once they hit a certain point in their life cycle.

As you saturate the big segments, you're going to naturally bleed off user excitement and interest. Stack will continue on, getting tons of traffic because their answers will remain extraordinarily valuable, but the ratio for the amount of new content in relation to existing content will continue to accelerate toward Stack being mostly an answers archive. That guarantees the stagnation of their community (perhaps leaving small pockets of excitement around new, lesser adopted tools).

Haven't communities like Wikipedia followed curves like this? Once you max out all the English topics (for example), then it's an update approach with a smaller number of new topics coming in. Net result ultimately being a lot less overall new content being added in relation to the existing base (demanding a peak in overall community activity). Wikipedia isn't nearly as exciting as it once was, several years ago, when the rate of build-out and topic addition was staggering. The wild west eventually becomes a boring suburb.

I develop in .Net, WPF, and Javascript, and StackOverflow is a gem for these technologies. Not to mention there is a new version of .Net and WPF coming out every 2-3 years, and JavaScript is constantly evolving in form of frameworks and new browser versions (each with different support and intricacies). I don't see your argument as valid in my universe, and I also doubt that PHP and Python are most active technologies on SO.

"That guarantees the stagnation of their community"

Not from my perspective. I'm a Rails developer, and between our continuously evolving platform, the proliferation of gems, and my changing projects, I've always got new questions.

Meanwhile, new technologies keep appearing to become the New Hotness.

Here's why it guarantees overall stagnation (not necessarily on a specific topic):

Let's say you have 10 super segments, eg: PHP, Python, Ruby, Java, Javascript, etc.

Once you build those out to a high degree, reasonably the amount of new content possible in relation to existing content, will plunge. Then if you add a new language that becomes popular and mass adopted, the best you can hope for is perhaps an addition of 5% to 10% to your content base. It all becomes modestly incremental, and the excitement overall is guaranteed to fall in that environment.

Ruby can be hopping as a subset, but the likelihood the whole thing will be is vastly reduced once the overall build-out slows. What's left to be excited about in the PHP section, once you've answered 97% of what is important about the language? How many ways can someone ask about error reporting?

I don't see anything in this that bodes badly for Stackoverflow, financially or as a community.

If all the PHP questions are answered, every PHP programmer is now able to Google and find what they want to SO. That means they 1) learn that SO is the place for answers and 2) see ads.

2 years from now, when they're working in another language with less established Q&A, they'll know where to go.

"Excitement overall" really doesn't mean anything here. I don't care how much or little activity there currently is in the Objective C section because I don't use Objective C. I'm able to find the info I want and get questions answered if they're not already there. That's all that matters.

What's going to stop that from happening?

I don't see anything in it that bodes badly for Stack in terms of traffic or financially either. I never said otherwise. They're dominant and given their answer base and the value of the content, they're likely to remain so.

I believe overall stagnation in the community is guaranteed however, which is what the topic rather focuses on.

Maybe we just aren't talking about the same thing. What does "stagnation in the community" mean to you?

If it means "overall, people lose interest and stop visiting to ask and answer questions," I don't see that. I'm not visiting to fill in all the gaps in SO's content, and feeling disappointed when there aren't many gaps to fill. I'm running into questions, Googling, and hoping to find my question already answered.

If I find it and it's not answered, I'll do research and try to answer it myself. If it doesn't exist, I'll ask. If I find the answer before anyone else does, I may answer it myself.

I'm not going to stop doing that, and I don't see why anyone else will, either. What the overall trends are in the site really has no bearing on my individual participation, so it never feels "stagnant" to me.

Maybe you're imagining users who show up and surf for questions to answer, and those people are getting bored? That's just not the way I use the site, though.

Leaving the problem of 100 new questions 90 of which are just dupes of existing PHP/Python answers and nobody can spot and answer the new Ruby ones

They've had a feature for a long time where you can mark which tags you want to see and which you don't.

Which works if the confused new user knows enough about the problem to tag it accurately.

There are a lot of questions tagged openGL asking how to do file wildcards (to load images) or visual-studio about how to pass arrays to functions

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