Sign up FAST! Login

Love-Hate Relationship with Stack Overflow

Stashed in: User Generated Content, Software!, Curation, Seinfeld, Active Users

To save this post, select a stash from drop-down menu or type in a new one:

I didn't realize how huge their user community now is.

At present (and I can check this by looking at the Users page sorting by reputation): Total number of user accounts: around 3.6 million. 127,000 of us with reputation over 500. Over 39,000 of us with reputation over 2000. This means when you ask a question, unless it’s on a really obscure topic, you’ll get an answer. And on common topics in C or Java or Python or Javascript, you’ll get an answer fast. You’ll also get lots of people voting on answers. All this volume (and whatever they do for search engine optimization) makes answers show up on Google, so when you search for technical topics, Stack Overflow questions often come up in the search results.

The article also extols the user interface and how fast the website page load is.

And the social features. And the searchability.

What's bad about Stack Overflow are the assholes and the Soup Nazis.

Hmm. How shall I say this?

Every online community has its share of assholes.

Stack Overflow and its sister websites are online communities. Therefore, Stack Overflow has its share of assholes.

Now, a good website has moderators that keep the asshole factor to a minimum. And I think Stack Overflow has succeeded in this regard, at least as much as one can hope. But the site is large enough that the policing isn’t just done by a few good guys, it’s done by all sorts of people with high reputation, and the people that police the assholes become assholes themselves. Really good moderators will keep their best face forward publicly, and not engage in heated conversation, but do what they need to do quietly. It’s a dilemma. Do we just allow the really decent people to be moderators, and to get overwhelmed by the work they have, or are we realistic and allow lots of people to participate in moderation, and live with a few errant assholes?

Stack Overflow has taken the realistic viewpoint. There are a handful of democratically-elected moderatorswho are supposed to follow some pretty-clearly worded guidelines about how to be good moderators. The site also has a much wider set of users with privileges:

  • 39,000 users with a reputation of 2000 or more can edit other people’s questions.
  • 26,000 users with a reputation of 3000 or more can vote to close questions. Five close votes puts a question “on hold”.
  • 6,900 users with a reputation of 10000 or more can delete questions.

With such a large volume, the site needs all these users to share in the work of editing. It’s realistic. Not perfect, but realistic, And that’s okay. The problem comes with culture.

Soup NazisSeinfeld fans will recall the November 1995 episode, The Soup Nazi, in which the cast learns from Kramer about a shop that serves fantastic soups. It’s run by an eccentric guy who has very strict standards about his patrons, and if they don’t go through the proper ritual and supplications, he yells, No soup for you! and the cashier yanks it away before you can object.

The problem with having strict standards of this type isn’t the Soup Nazi himself, it’s when this attitude spreads and it begins to pervade the larger community.

But which attitude are we talking about, anyway?

The Ugly

Automation should be used for good and not for evil. While I think the staff behind Stack Overflow has done a wonderful job in most cases, there are a few things in which the StackExchange software has been automated in ways that are ugly.

One is the great Comment Timer debate. Stack Overflow implemented a timer throttle on the comments. You can only post one comment on the site every 15 seconds. And if you’re a fast typer, it blocks you, and you see this nonsense:

stack overflow comment timer is bullshit meme Imgur

The “timer reset” business is the ugly part. You have to wait 15 seconds. And the obvious response, if you feel you know what you’re doing, is to wait exactly 15 seconds and then press Enter again. But it doesn’t tell you when the 15 seconds is up, so if you wait 14.5 seconds by accident… Denied! you have to start all over again. C’mon guys! What the hell? Really? At least it’s only 15 seconds now; it used to be 30 seconds.

I have a problem with computers acting as absolute barriers for actions that really shouldn’t have absolute barriers. Like the automated phone systems (“Please press 1 if you would like to hear your account balance....”) that are aimed at replacing actual human beings. Most of them have a way to bypass and talk to a human being (e.g. press 0 a bunch of times), but some of them don’t, and if you try the press-0-a-bunch-of-times, they tell you Goodbye and hang up. But I had a legitimate purpose; I listened to the available options, and my question fit none of them, and your inflexibility wasted my time and prevented me from getting help, you damn computer.

So if the goal is to Increase Quality, I have no problem with the computer prompting me to wait a little bit, or try to write a question or answer that doesn’t include certain words, or is too short. That’s fine. Let me stop and think for a few seconds. It will greatly cut down on my “transgressions” of the rules. But if I really know what I’m doing, just let me do it, dammit! If it’s really awful, someone will flag it and it’ll get fixed. The automated aspects of Stack Overflow that aim to Increase Quality should act as a thin barrier that let you push past it if you feel strongly.

Instead, they’re inflexible. No “+1” in your comments.

You May Also Like: