I love Stack Overflow. As a software developer, I think it is one of the most important and useful resources ever made, helping me quickly resolve countless issues in my work and side projects.
I also hate it with a passion, and think it can be a royal pain in the ass. My main reasons for this stem from the community, especially those with moderation powers, being made up of a bunch of kids (not necessarily in the physical sense) who are addicted to the gamification system and will do anything to ramp up their reputation.
Given that I ask about as many questions as I answer, the result was that I have seen many of my legitimate questions closed and/or downvoted for various reasons such as “not constructive” or “duplicate”. Many times, the people casting such judgement would not actually understand the question.
One of my biggest frustrations with the site came when I asked the question “Task.Factory.FromAsync with CancellationTokenSource“. A troll with very high reputation (read: mod_powers++) marked this question as a duplicate of another question which had nothing to do with mine. When I challenged him, he went as far as to edit the unrelated question such that it did answer my question. He actually admitted this in the comments to my question (which have by now been cleaned up by moderators after I reported the matter, but I have conveniently kept screenshots), and even asked me to offer a bounty so that he could get more points:
As a regular user of Stack Overflow, I was highly put off at not being able to ask any reasonable question without it being closed down.
Answering questions is just as frustrating. Typically, when a question is asked, a barrage of short, two-sentence answers will appear. These will be progressively edited into better answers, but as long as they can get something in initially, they will start accumulating points. This is a common tactic and discourages spending the time to write well-thought answers for relatively little reward. Not that I believe that the reward system is more important than the quality of the questions and answers. But alas, many people do, and that is the reason for this sort of phenomenon.
And you can tell that something is really messed up when you get entire courses, such as this 6-hour Pluralsight course, explaining how to use something that is supposed to be a Q&A site.
But in fact, what I am describing is nothing new, and has been going on for many years. In fact, around 2013, Michael Richter wrote a very informative post about the problems plaguing Stack Overflow. It has disappeared from its original location, but can still be read (along with around a couple of weeks’ worth of comments) thanks to the Internet Archive.
I am reproducing Mr. Richter’s article below for ease of future reference. Aside from the issues with Stack Overflow, I would also like to emphasise the story around his “goto” answer, which reverberates a problem I encounter extremely regularly with developers being too religious about what they have been taught, and not using their head to adequately reason about techniques in the particular context they need.
Without further ado…
“Why I no longer contribute to StackOverflow” by Michael Richter
I was active in the StackOverflow (and the broader Stack Exchange) community for a while. I no longer am. Here’s why.
I have an account at StackOverflow. Follow the link and check out a few stats:
- I’ve been a member for almost four years at the time I’m writing this.
- I’ve scored over 14,000 points in their gaming system.
- I’m in the top 3% of their contributors overall as of this writing.
I point this out not to brag but to make sure it’s clear that I’m not writing this because of “sour grapes” or because I’m not getting the recognition I think I deserve. Indeed, to be blunt, I’m getting way too much recognition, but more on that below.
If you’re a software developer of any kind, and if you haven’t been sleeping under a rock, you know of Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood’s StackOverflow (and broader StackExchange ecosystem). For the rest of you, allow me to lift up your rock a little and explain what the site is.
In brief, you ask questions related to programming and other people answer them. The site is “gamified” (what an utterly horrendous neologism, that!) so you score points for asking questions that get voted up, answering questions and getting voted up, for doing book-keeping tasks and a variety of other things. You can also earn “badges” (gold, silver and bronze) for accomplishing certain things.
The intent of the system is to provide some form of recognition for people who help others with software development problems. It sounds innocuous, but in the end I find it vaguely distasteful and off-putting.
I’ve been asked more than a few times now why I think this, so today I will commit my explanations in writing once so I can just point to this page instead of repeatedly saying the same thing.
The problems I see with StackOverflow are summarized in this list:
- Poor pedagogy
- Poor reward system
- Poor community
I’m willing to engage in discussion of any of these flaws. Comments are turned on for this post. They are, however, moderated so if you plan to simply spew bile at someone who dares say bad things about a site you like you:
- won’t get your 15 seconds of Innarwebs Fame™®;
- will add to this counter of people who contribute to point #3 above: count so far: 6
As an educator, I find the StackOverflow approach to “helping” people unproductive and contrary to any kind of real learning. For illustration, go back and take a look at my profile. Specifically take a look at the tags tab. See the #1 tag there? Java. Most of my answers (and most of my points) come from Java-related questions.
Now comes a confession.
I’m not a Java programmer. I’ve only ever briefly programmed in Java professionally. I hated the experience and I hate the language. I certainly don’t consider myself a Java expert. Yet I managed to get the bulk of my points from Java. How is this possible?
It’s possible because I did what many of the people whose questions I answered (and got points for) should have done for themselves: I saw a simple Java question, hit Google, read briefly, then synthesized an original answer.
There’s an old cliché in English: give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime. StackOverflow is filled to the brim with people giving fishes. The people asking are learning nothing useful beyond the shortest of the short terms and the people teaching are not helping in any but the most trivial of ways. In the long term, I submit, StackOverflow is probably holding back the development of programmers (and thus the entire field of programming).
Poor reward system
Incidentally, my #2 tag is C++. There was a time I would cheerfully have called myself a C++ expert. These days I still likely know more about the language than most people working in it, but I have, if it’s at all possible, an even deeper abiding hatred of the language than I do for Java.
So why, if I hate Java and C++ (and several other languages that score well on my tags list), do I bother answering questions on those topics? This is because of the second problem I have with StackOverflow: the reward system is ludicrously designed.
The high school “cool kids table”
The very nature of StackOverflow’s structure has it such that only those who answer simple questions of the most popular programming languages will get a reward. To illustrate this, look at the difference between this Java-related answer and this non-Java one.
The Java answer scored me 460 and took me probably under a minute to write. The one about operating systems scored me 60 points and likely took about fifteen minutes to write.
If you’re going for points (and that’s the entire raison d’être for gamification!), are you going to waste time like that for 60 points when you could fit in a dozen 460-point answers? Of course not! You’re going to go wherever the points are, And the points are the low-hanging fruit of trivial questions from popular languages. The way StackOverflow is structured rewards people who put as little work as possible across as many simple questions as possible within only the most popular segments. Spending thought (and thus time) on answers interferes with points- and badge-mongering. Answering questions outside of the top ten languages similarly interferes.
This “cool kids table” problem has a very real effect. Look again at my profile. 218 answers. 10 questions. Why is this? I could arrogantly claim that this is because I know more than everybody else, but the real reason is that getting answers on any question that requires thought is a non-starter. As my approach to scoring points (Google + hasty rewrite) shows, I’m quite adept at answering trivial questions myself. For a prime example of the problem, consider this question. It got five answers (one of which you probably can’t see), only one of which even really answered part of the question. Why? Because answering the whole question would have taken a lot more work than most people in StackOverflow would be willing to put in. There’s just no percentage in spending time on difficult questions when you can hoover up a cool thousand points in a fraction of the time.
Even if the “cool kids table” wasn’t an issue at StackOverflow, the system is still largely broken. Remember how I have over 14,000 points as of this writing? Two years and a bit ago, when I decided to stop participating in StackOverflow, this was not the case. I was “only” at OVER NINE THOUSAND! and several hundred points shy of getting moderator status. In well over two years I have contributed nothing to StackOverflow: no questions, no answers, nothing. (Well, that’s not true. When my score went over 10,000 I tried out the moderator powers for a couple of edits, just to test them out.) Over one third of my reputation was “earned” from me doing absolutely nothing for over two years. Indeed I went from the top 4% of contributors at my time of departure to the top 3%, despite, you know, me not doing anything.
Any scoring system that allows this to happen is simply broken in my opinion.
And now my reputation score will go down!
As of this writing my score was, as mentioned above, over 14,000. (14,076 to be precise.) I predict that this is going to go down as more people find out about this blog entry and start voting down my questions and answers in petty revenge. How do I know? I’ve been on the receiving end of sudden bouts of negative votes before. Consider this question about ‘goto’ constructs, for example. As of this writing it has 72 up votes and 13 down votes. It is simultaneously one of my most popular answers as well as one of my most hated ones.
The people who hated it weren’t content, however, with merely voting it down. No, after I posted that answer I had a mysterious downward turn in my reputation as downvotes appeared all over my answers. People got so upset at my mocking one of the Holy of Holies of computing that it wasn’t enough to just downvote the answer, they had to punish me. (Their selected means of punishment was as highly amusing as it was highly ineffective.) This is not the way a community of mature users acts.
That kind of behaviour is, of course, inevitable in any kind of Innarwebs™® interaction. Pseudo-anonymity makes doorknobs of otherwise-normal people. There is something else, however, in the whole Stack Exchange hierarchy that bugs me: the creeping authoritarianism.
The “flavour” of StackOverflow today is entirely different than the flavour it had when I started. When I started the community as a whole still had a bit of a sense of humour. Sure sometimes questions and/or answers would be a bit off-topic or a bit irreverent, but it gave more of a community feel that way, even if it was on occasion less-than-“professional”.
This changed slowly but surely in the way that all “community moderated” things change. Here is the recipe that all such “community-driven” approaches almost, but not quite, invariably follow:
- A wide-open community based on “merit” is built.
- The community gets a kernel of users who build up “merit” by virtue of, basically, being obsessive twerps.
- As this kernel of “serious” users builds up its influence, they start to modify what the standards of the community are to match their own desires.
- These standards get enforced on other members of the community who lack sufficient “merit” (read: who have a life outside the site) to fight back.
- The tenor of the community changes to match the notions of the obsessive, but “meritous” minority.
- Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
This happened at Wikipedia and it’s happened at StackOverflow. StackOverflow was once fun. It is no longer. StackOverflow once had a tolerance for things a little outside of the norm. It does no longer.
Take a look at the site now. Some of the most popular questions and/or answers are now locked down and only kept for “historical reasons”. Consider this answer. It’s likely the best-known and most-loved answer on the entire damned site! It’s funny and it’s informative. But it’s something that makes the current powers-that-be at the site crazy and thus it is locked and we have this ominous note appended: “This post has been locked while disputes about its content are being resolved.”
What. The. Fuck!?
There are a number of reasons why I stopped contributing to StackOverflow. I am disquieted by its poor pedagogical value, I think its scoring system is fundamentally broken and rewards the wrong things, and I think its community lacks maturity even while it becomes more and more pointlessly authoritarian. So what would I recommend as an alternative?
How about learning? You know, that thing that puts information in your head that you can apply later at need. Use Google. Use Wikipedia (if you must). Use RosettaCode for code examples. (Contribute there too!) Engage with other users of the tools you use in the form of user groups, mailing lists, web forums, etc. Learn foundational principles instead of answers to immediate questions.