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StackOverflow Considered Harmful? (codingthewheel.com)
99 points by codingthebeach on Feb 20, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 90 comments

Here's the thing about stack overflow:

How many people have worked at a location that has blocked stack overflow?

Because I have worked with an organization of about 2500 people, not all of which were IT. One day, management went on a mad whitelisting crusade and blocked about 98% of the internet, including the stack exchange network.

IT ground totally to a halt, across all our branches. No programming, no sys-admining, no help desk.

Stack overflow is not a programmer social network, and it is not a Q&A site.

It's the new textbook. Developers and sysadmins used to keep hundreds of kilos of dead tree libraries with them because only the textbooks contained the arcane knowledge like "component X was actually not implemented properly, and will crash under Y circumstances". Languages and libraries never advertise that on their website.

Post-stack-overflow developers and admins use stack-overflow as their source of kooky corner cases and badly explained concepts documentation. They don't have or need the dead tree books.

So considered harmful? In my experience any IT staff who say they don't rely on stack overflow are lying.

I would think very seriously before taking a job at a place that blocked stack overflow, both because it's saved my ass more than once and because, well, I don't like places with white lists. I'm okay with a black list - people shouldn't be surfing porn or political circle jerks when they're on someone else's dime. But it's frustrating as hell to realize Google found a site with the answer I need but I can't open it because it's not on the white list.

IT managers typically give the reasonable-sounding response "It's no problem to add sites. Just let us know which ones you need and we'll add them after we take a look."

To which I say "Great. Give me your home number so if I'm chasing some weird error at midnight during a big release I can call you every five minutes to get you to add entries as I look for a solution.

Interestingly, this "textbook for modern programmers" usage was one of the explicit goals for the site:

> Programmers seem to have stopped reading books. The market for books on programming topics is miniscule compared to the number of working programmers.


That's neat, I didn't know that. Mission accomplished then!

The amount of all-round bad advice on SO is staggering. It also encourages "copy-paste" coding and systems engineering, without the engineer really understanding the issue.

There are a lot of bad answers. But it doesn't in courage copy-paste anymore than any other site with samples, including the reference manual. It isn't SO's fault if people don't try to understand the answers. But between the multiple comments and multiple answers it does a better job of indicating to the user that they still need to understand the solution.

Except for those of us that learn by example. I taught myself sql the past month through stack exchange and PostgreSQL's manual. Typically, I'd find a stack overflow question that points me to the appropriate section of the manual to read.

For IT, I find that most of the useful answers I get nowadays are from Nixcraft and DigitalOcean.

Not to say that there aren't a few useful answers at ServerFault/StackOverflow, but the moderation and design has made it hostile to all but the most simple questions.

I like Stack Overflow. I agree with many of its criticisms, but I still think it's a huge gain for the programming community overall.

I think the worst aspect is the endless "your premise is flawed, you should do <this> instead" answers. I often formulate toy examples, or ask questions out of curiosity rather than practical need. Somehow, users always latch on to the irrelevant part of my question instead of answering the part I care about. It's gotten to the point where I put big disclaimers in my questions to steer users away from those useless (to me) responses.

I got so annoyed with this pattern that I now consciously avoid writing anything that's not a direct answer to the user's question. I wish others would do the same.

My buddy and I call that "I asked how to use a ladder, you told me to take the elevator" syndrome. I'm picking apples!

That's why in your question, you need to state that you're picking apples!


Makes no difference in my experience. Geeksplaining is an unstoppable force of obnoxiousness.

I will usually under or over answer for those kinds of reasons... If the specific case is pretty narrow, I'll write either a thorough answer to a more broad scope, or a specific answer with some additional info on alternatives.

Sometimes I will write a very broad answer, especially when it's apparent the person doesn't seem to have looked into finding anything, and just asked a question on SO, which happens a lot.

I used to sit in the review queue and try to save questions from being marked as duplicate because it sounded similar to another question but was fundamentally different if the other reviewers just took the time to comprehend what was being asked rather than blindly voting based on title. The worst was when they would post why it's not a duplicate of another post in their post and it would still get shutdown by the reviewers. It was a losing battle and demoralizing. I also hated pedantic edits to people's questions and tried to shut them down, but everyone always seemed to agree that capitalizing the "s" in JavaScript 5 times in a question or removing that "thanks" at the end because the guidelines say you shouldn't do that was super important.

Many times, especially in tech, advice is more valuable than a direct answer. See, for example, this blog post for a good analogy: http://weblogs.asp.net/alex_papadimoulis/408925

The problem is that not everyone is a very good teacher or judge of when it's proper to give advice. So you get a lot of people who don't know the answer and instead provide some workaround using technologies they do know and are comfortable with, which isn't necessarily helpful.

This highlights one of the fundamental flaws of text-based communication.

In text-based communication, deciding what is important is 100% on the reader - and while to you someone may be responding to irrelevant parts of your questions - to them, it is what they found interesting and thus important.

In face to face communication, the onus of importance is far more shifted to the speaker, because based on tone and facial expression - combined with societal norms - the listener has a much easier time seeing what you find important and a much harder time being able to only latch on to the irrelevant tidbits.

> where I put big disclaimers in my questions to steer users away from those useless (to me) responses.

I have found myself doing a very similar thing - essentially trying to convey the information that gets lost of text to insure the reader can understand what I want to convey is important.

I think a better approach is to answer the question as best as possible and provide constructive guidance for a better approach if they are headed down a fruitless path. Those are the best answers when I'm querying SO for solutions to my own problems.

A disclaimer is the right way to go. The more guidance you can put into the question, the better off everyone is.

Do you downvote answers that are not direct answers to the question?

You're already going against what Stack Overflow is by creating toy problems.

Stack overflow is for asking real questions and solving real problems.

Considering that whenever I google a programming question, the most useful answer is generally on StackOverflow and at the top of the search results, I have a hard time considering it harmful in any way. It might not be perfect, but I don't know anything better.

Considering that whenever I Google a programming question, the most relevant question has been moderated into oblivion and so I have to seek my answer elsewhere.

Above is a bit toungue-in-cheek, but it is true in many cases. I don't find SO as the definitive answer site for that reason, but there is a lot of good information there.

Other very useless answer is having the first result as: 'This is a common question, you should use Google'.

This doesn't happen in SO, but it happens often enough in other forums.

> whenever I Google a programming question, the most relevant question has been moderated into oblivion

That or bombarded with "just google it" replies.

If any answer on stackoverflow is "just google it", the said answer will be downvoted because it doesn't actually answer the question.

The author of the article isn't saying it's harmful for people searching for questions that already have good answers.

He's saying that people who contribute heavily to the site with answers, knowledge and moderation are probably better off spending that time doing something more productive.

And with the gamification system keeping them at it, it harms them when they could be doing something more productive than chasing Internet points.

Probably. And I probably should have done something more productive than building up 25K reddit points, but I don't blame reddit for that. If I'd spent the time on stackoverflow instead, it might have been more helpful to people.

How's it different from mailing lists? IMO after a certain stage the gamification aspect goes away (for high rep users) - that's not the reason they contribute.

What a strange rant.

First of all, this guy continued answering and asking questions since he published this article, so I guess he changed his mind about deleting his account. http://stackoverflow.com/users/2189331/jdevlin

Secondly the italic bits about how he should be allowed to delete questions because he created the content make no sense. All SO questions and answers are collaboratively created so he can't claim ownership.

I agree the moderation is out of hand, and it should be easy to delete your account (but what's this about a link that "got misclicked")?

There are plenty of collaborative communities where post deletion is allowed. There is clearly a different level of value between a SO question and a reddit comment thread, but deletions are almost always disruptive in some way.

But those posts have his name on them. He is judged by them, and he in some way has to stand by them. I don't know that deletion should be an assured right with all user-created content, but no one should be publishing someone else's content under their name without their continued consent.

>... no one should be publishing someone else's content under their name without their continued consent.

I disagree. That's the deal when you add content to one of these kinds of sites - you don't own it. And you know that going in. And there are valid reasons to disallow it: if people start deleting their own answers the conversation becomes (in some cases) impossible to follow.

It's kind of silly to be so heavily invested on a site like this and then expect them to change the rules when you're ready to move on.

But StackOverflow sites allows deletion, at least in part, as the author points out. So it is fair to say they aren't really enforcing that notion either.

I don't think I'm necessarily hinting at a copyright issue, though I think some control over attribution is pretty fundamental to it, but the point I'm trying to make is that the right of attribution is a stronger one than SO's right to maintain high-quality content. There are a number of ways that right can be accommodated, and it is the job of the publisher to figure out how.

knorby, my main point wasn't about who holds copyright here, but it was to say that when he deleted a question, he was also deleting answers that other people had written. You really do need a good reason to do that.

Why is that the author's problem rather than a problem of StackOverflow's? I'm not going to suggest I know a better way, but it is up to them to figure out. If you build a site around user-generated content, these are problems that can't be dismissed.

Anyway, I would say a user has a stronger right to delete content than other users' have to keep their connected content up.

The issue is Creative Commons content, if you are legitimately pruning old low value content of yours that is totaly fine. But rage quits where people just want to take their content and go home, withdrawing it from the commons out of anger, is not OK.

You can always get to older content even deleted content through the regular Creative Commons data dumps that the whole Stack network publishes torrents of. You can also, if you sign an NDA, get a more complete data set for research purposes.

It's pretty clear you need a way for people to remove their names, then.

That appears to say you have "you could ask, a mod might action it, but if they're opposed you might be able to beg a dev to ..." That is to say, you really don't "have that".

>withdrawing it from the commons out of anger, is not OK.

This is pretty obviously not what happened here, though.

After posting this, I thought: well, what I said was entirely correct, but why did I bother objecting to some random guy's sour grapes story? And then the answer came to me... I did it because I want the ycombinator points! There is a point whore in all of us...


I am so over titles of the form "* considered harmful" when it has something to do with someone's opinion and IT/computing.

Please just stop.

And -gate over trivialities.

I like to call this "gategate"

Considered harmful... by this one person.

"Considered harmful" considered harmful ;-)

But how will you get clicks if you don't resort to ever-more-Buzzfeed-esque titles?

Yeah, right? He should've just said "13 reasons why I will never use StackOverflow again."

I made the mistake of clicking one of those "13 reason ..." links the other day. Each of the thirteen reasons was split into 4 parts, so I had to navigate through 52 pages to read the entire article. I quit when I realized what they'd done (5th section).

I'm not going to waste my time ... especially when your site is ad-laden and slow. The funny part is that this is probably a consequence of Adwords not allowing asynchronous ad updates on a page. They needed me to navigate through 52 pages to increase their impression counts.

Very sad ... and now back to my regularly scheduled uBlock.

better yet "I Tried to delete my StackOverFlow account. You won't believe what happened next"

You'll never believe number 10!

Software Developers HATE This!

13 reasons why StackOverflow is considered harmful?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betteridge%27s_law_of_headline... Seems applicable here given the interrogative mark.

This sounds like a similar problem to Wikipedia: great resource, bad community. I've never been active in the SO community, and am no longer active in the WP community, so my experience with both is as a read-only resource. Both are excellent in that regard.

I thought the exact same thing. When reading this, I was reminded of similar rants I have seen about Wikipedia.

As a casual user of both sites, I have had pretty much only positive experiences. I use both sites are starting points for ideas not the final truth on a subject[1]. When one invests a lot of time into something, one usually becomes emotionally involved and that can lead to conflict in these massively collaborative projects. The only time I post to either site is when I am looking for an answer and can't find it -- if the question is not posted I'll post it myself or if I figure it out later I'll go back and post the answer (or edit the page in the case of Wikipedia). My usage is pretty sparse, but I have never experienced moderators lashing out at me in any unfair way.

[1]: Especially with Wikipedia I tend mainly to use it as an aggregation of links to other more trustworthy sources. With SO, I test the answer myself before blindly using it.

Planet Earth: great resource, bad community.

All communities trend to strictness over time, otherwise they do not survive.

But anyone can bring this up on meta, if they have data, if they have examples, and lobby for change.

Some of the SE sites are much more hostile than others. Maths is pretty harsh; gaming not so much.

It's interesting how some sites manage to be strict and not horrible while other sites don't manage that so well.

I'm not sure how that culture is nurtured. Setting expectations is important - but you can't do that for all gajillion sites; and you can't do it after you've left.

When I look at the previous alternative of experts-exchange.com vs SO, I am so grateful to have a free site like SO. The gamification of it is simply a BETTER alternative to it being a pay-walled garden.

I can't say this wasn't unexpected. I've read so many useful questions on there that were seemingly derailed by the mods and people complaining to the mods in the comments section. I understand their point of view about the strict QA format. That's their business model and it's how they became who they are, but not listening to your core audience begging you to reform your policies is a clear sign of stagnation and complacency.

Leaves them wide open to be dominated by a newcomer.

That is simply not true! SO has changed a few times over the time, discussions, suggestions to improvements are constantly being discussed in meta. For the most of it - most of the changes that I saw in my 3+ years there were good changes. That's a constant uphill battle that must take into account malicious users and trolls.

And to the article writer: once you wrote a question and people responded it is no longer "your" question. It belongs to the community: as an example I'll give you a 3 lines question that was answered by a few paragraphs answer including screenshots, links etc. Who put more effort into it? the OP or the guys that answered ? Now, if you delete such a question - you're deleting all the useful comments and answers as well. And yes, if you try to do that for multiple questions in a row - it looks suspicious and you should be stopped!

As for the "attitude" towards new users, this happens only when the user posts a bad question, and by bad I mean: 1. impossible to understand 2. impossible to reproduce 3. already been asked multiple times 4. HM or alternatively, posted a question that is far from perfect but can be improved - but then he/she bails off and not respond to comments.

In all the scenarios above - I'd rather have this question put on hold, until the user improves it.

And in general, when you join a community you should put minimal effort in learning the guidelines of acceptable behavior - if you don't like it - don't use it.

Personally, I find these guidelines useful and helpful.

All in all, I like the interface, I find it as a GREAT resource of learning and developing my personal skills, and unlike the author - I LOVE SO.

> As for the "attitude" towards new users, this happens only when the user posts a bad question

This is not true in my experience. Several times in the past month, I've googled for some problem or other and found a StackExchange question with my exact problem and several useful solutions, which had been closed because a moderator deemed it insignificant or overly broad. I understand the need for community standards in a site like this, but if your standards are getting in the way of the actual questions people want to ask, you need to change the standards, not crack down on legitimate use.

Junk title, but you can apply this article's critique to many communities in general (especially online ones with a myopic user base). On the whole, the StackExchange sites contain a wealth of information that's readily accessible and can't be duplicated easily. There's certainly room for competition that's not just a plain forum, but what that looks like I'm not sure.

"Harmful" though? Have we already forgotten "experts-exchange" so soon?

Plenty of people complain about SO but no one is stepping up to challenge them.

FWIW, I personally scheduled his account for deletion weeks ago; not sure why it wasn't removed, other than that the system thought he canceled the deletion (which we allow, because deletion is permanent).

We're working with him now to figure out what happened.

Out of curiosity, not hostility, why can a user not delete their own account? Why is there no obvious account option that says 'permanently delete account' which would remove a user from the site? All the content would still be there, the user would simply lose the ability to create more content and make edits?

Short answer: most users can do exactly that.

There's an automated process that confirms the request via email and starts a timer that, if not cancelled, removes the account. For accounts with a non-trivial number of posts we hold them for manual confirmation just to prevent unfortunate accidents (there's no undo - more on that next) but all it involves is an affirmative response from an email associated with the account.

The longer answer is... This is one of those very early design decisions that, in hindsight, was probably sub-optimal. Ideally, account deletion would amount to nothing more than flipping a bit on a database record, at least in the short term - if someone regretted their decision a day later, no harm done; just flip it back. But things are not ideal, and deleting an account actually purges rather a lot of information that can't easily be restored - so given that a non-trivial number of users do change their minds (especially those with a long history of activity that will be lost), it's worth everyone's time to make double-sure before hitting the big red button.

We've slowly been improving the process over the past few years, but it's still no where near ideal from anyone's perspective. I could go into more detail, but... Can sum it up with, "We're now only wasting ridiculous amounts of time on this instead of utterly insane amounts of time".

I love when action is taken after people write successful blog posts.

Protip: if you really want prompt action taken, just write what you need in the email and leave it at that. The folks doing support for stuff like this handle hundreds of emails a day, and every time we need to wait for a reply from someone before proceeding that's gonna slow everything down.

Blog posts are always fun, and certainly brighten up what is otherwise a dreadfully boring task, but... not really the best way to get action if that's all you're after.

I came to similar conclusions in 2010 or so; I had gotten a fair number of points whiling away my hours as a help desk TA in my CS department, I then got a job, asked some questions about Perl, and then faded out. Then as I realized money making was - broadly - absent from SO, it became clear that the digital sharecroppers were what was fueling whatever money making venture it would turn out to be.

As the community moderation approaches began to migrate from the lighthearted to the grim-faced bureaucratic, I migrated away.

While I have derived value from SO, I derive more value today from reading documents and manuals than I do from StackOverflow questions.

I have a love(70%)-hate(30%) relationship with SO. Pros: - someone often had a long time ago the same problem as I have, the are 14 answers I can shop in. - I learned a few concepts just because so many people were referring to them (comprehensions in Python for instance - magnificent) Cons: - incredible ego of some, punishing what they feel bring "wrong" with coward, anonymous downvotes - someone always knows better what I want to ask, even though my question is well-researched. It is well researched exactly bacause I want to fend off these guys, but they are still there, lurking in the shadows :)

SO is like an advanced news group. Once you post something it's there forever because they publish their DB every month and it's up for grab and copying.

To sounds to me like the guy acted like an arrogant jerk, and a mod or bunch of mods has a low tolerance for such behavior.

SO is a victim of its own success, it's too big and has a DMV like user experience. But if you act like a jerk, you shouldn't expect a warm response.

I had this problem with forums before. As I requested my content to be removed from a site, my account was suspended and they actually reposted some stuff I had deleted, and blocked my account. I lost the right to my content, even though my name was still there. It was just a small dev forum, so it wasn't a big deal.

But it's funny because when you join those sites, they make it clear that any content you may find in their website is not their responsibility, as they are just a place for people to express their opinions, and any texts you find are owned by it's authors. But once you don't want your opinions there anymore, suddenly your texts become their texts and you're a dick for preventing them from making money of your content.

Content on Stack Exchange is licensed under CC-BY-SA. Therefore Stack Exchange (as well as any other site on the internet) has the right to repost your material if they attribute it and share it properly.

I didn't know that. Anyway, this may be the case of Stack Exchange, but the website I had problems with stated the things I said in their agreement.

SO is much more pleasant if you stick to the less populous niche tags where there isn't a race to get the first answer, pompous mods, and other negative side effects of gamification.

> a race to get the first answer

This seems like desired behavior, no? Quick answers ought to be a goal for Q&A sites.

Not when it is at the expense of quality, or, say, actually answering the question.

My biggest frustration with StackOverflow is the massive splitting, combined with the restrictions on low-karma (i.e. new) accounts for subsites.

My biggest problem with SO is the number of questions that are closed as off topic. Thankfully they were answered before being closed

This article should be titled "StackOverflow Rep-Whoring Considered Harmful?"

I still don't understand what this guy's on about.

why care about badges/scores. Just contribute, help and get help. It's great for just that. I find answers to 70% of programming questions I have.

I think, part of the trouble comes from the situation that many people care (to much).


I don't think so. In my opinion, close-votes are the biggest problem. As I learned lately, 5 votes are enough to take a question down and then no new answers are possible, even from people that where just writing one.

I really hated it, when my questions (or questions, I wrote answers for) where closed down. You invest effort and time to write a question or answer -- but all is senseless as soon as 5 people kill the question. And also it takes forms that every question that is just a small degree beyond the "group norm" will be taken down in short time without that anybody can do something about it. 5 "Soup Nazis" (as somebody else named it) or just people that do not read carefully suffice (there is nearly no benefit, to do so -- there are some "attention" checks, but those mostly will guide you to adhere to group standards and less likely will force you to really understand the question).

I did not find out completely, but it even seems that when some moderators vote to leave questions open and 5 others vote to close, it is closed. That would be the most ridiculous thing!

BTW: I give you an upvoting, at least here, because the voting system should not only reflect opinions, but interesting views.

You would be surprised how many incorrect answers there are. I can say for certain this is happening in at least two of the top 10 tags on SO. The worst part is that some offenders don't care as long as the answer gives them a positive net reputation. Downvotes really help with this problem.

To the contrary: it has always been difficult to rank questions on Stack Exchange because there are far too few people casting downvotes on questions.

I have to disagree. Downvotes (when actually merited) serve the purpose of not only helping sort out which answers are of the best quality, but also (especially when accompanied by an appropriate comment) inform the person who tried to answer the question that his answer hasn't simply been ignored, but has actually be read and found wanting. As already noted, adding a comment telling exactly what was wrong, or how the answer could be improved is even more helpful as a rule, but a downvote can still be a useful tool.

There are a couple of limitations on that though. The first is that the downvote really is merited. The second is that if it's at all reasonable, you do add a comment explaining the down-vote. Nearly the only exception to commenting when downvoting should (IMO) be when there's already a comment pointing to the problem, so the added downvote is just to help the score reflect the answer's (lack of) quality.

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