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I only recently learned about meta-stackoverflow and have now read over many questions and answers here. First off, let me say I do not make my employment by programming. I do biomedical research and programming is my hobby so my reputation on any SE site has no meaning to me other than as an indication that I'm contributing to the community. I love SO. It is one of the coolest things I've come to learn about in the last 2 years. However, it is disheartening to realize how successfully most of the people with the highest reputations argue in favor of the answer over the question.

I know that people who ask lots of questions might be annoying, http://meta.stackexchange.com/questions/23404/whats-the-deal-with-user-shore. But I have yet to see one of these people even come close to having as high a reputation score as those who attack them. Usually its like 10-1000X difference in reputation, so it feels like the senior quarterback picking on a grade schooler.

I guess what I'm saying is that the gaming of the system seems like it is on both sides of the equation. Arguably, the gaming is more on the answering side under the current system considering the relative reputation gain by answering alot and downvoting other answers/questions vs. the opposite scenario.

And not to end on a total downer, but most of these discussions on Meta end up making me feel like SO isn't really much of a democracy but rather an oligopoly. I'm not sure that's the intended goal.

Comments?

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"However, it is disheartening to realize how successfully most of the people with the highest reputations argue in favor of the answer over the question." I'm not sure I understand what you mean here. Also, keep in mind that the question you picked out is from 2009. That's a long time ago in Stack Exchange years. –  Cody Gray May 4 '12 at 4:47
    
I mean that people with high reputation scores overwhelming favor the sand/pearl analogy of Q&A valuation: blog.stackoverflow.com/2011/06/optimizing-for-pearls-not-sand endorsed by SO leadership. This doesn't strike me as a system with the appropriate checks and balances but rather a "yes, man" state. –  tim peterson May 4 '12 at 4:50
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Are you saying the only reason we have high rep users is because all the questions are on the first two paragraphs of all the manuals? Sounds about right –  random May 4 '12 at 4:51
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Part of the reason that you don't find question pumps with reputations like the best answerers is that steps have been taken to reduce the effectiveness of that strategy for gaining reputation which hopefully have not reduced the effectiveness for getting good answers. SO those who are in search of answers are getting what they want and those looking for reputation have to find another (hopefully more valuable) way. –  dmckee May 4 '12 at 4:51
    
@random, that doesn't help the perception... –  tim peterson May 4 '12 at 4:53
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Well, okay. We probably do. I'd try to convince you that I'm not a "yes man" for Jeff Atwood or anyone else, but that'll probably be a hard sell given my user name. You'll just have to trust me that I've disagreed pretty strongly on issues that mattered to me before, but in general, the guys who run the site are smart and have a great vision. Things seem to be working out really well; you even indicate this yourself. So my question would be, what about the arguments in "Optimizing for Pearls, Not Sand" do you disagree with? Otherwise, it's not so much blind acquiescence, but agreement. –  Cody Gray May 4 '12 at 4:54
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yes "things seem to be working out really well". But that is exactly why I became troubled about SO's future. All this hostility/condescension by those at the top of the pile strikes me out-of-control partygoers that won't know when the party stops. I disagree with the pearl/sand analogy because asking a good question can be just as hard as asking a good question. The merit of teachers, doctors, lawyers, journalists hinge on their ability to ask good questions. For doctors, questions are the pearls as most diseases are sand if detected appropriately. –  tim peterson May 4 '12 at 5:01
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I'm afraid I don't understand. Where is the hostility and condescension? And did you really mean to say that "asking a good question can be just as hard as asking a good question"? Yes, good questions are important. No one is denying that. Good questions are central to the working of a Q&A site like this one. The point is that we want to discourage bad questions. That's no slight against the people who write them, it's a very real observation gleaned by lots of time invested in analyzing the questions that the site receives. –  Cody Gray May 4 '12 at 5:11
    
to add to my first sentence of my last comment, I'm a "leather" skinned individual (as one high ranker described of @Shore) who can take lot of abuse. But given the level of hostility, I can't imagine SE's appeal extending beyond programmers, which judging from the categories (economics, photography, etc.) seems to be goal. In its current form, it is just too hostile for people to feel comfortable to ask questions. –  tim peterson May 4 '12 at 5:11
    
And answers are more important than questions, because without them, we would have nothing at all to offer to the rest of the Internet. Man, all these people get on Meta and claim "hostility" without citing any evidence. I just don't know how we can address these concerns without knowing where and how they exist. Yes, that's real frustration. I'm not denying a problem, I just don't see it. –  Cody Gray May 4 '12 at 5:11
    
hi The Establishment, I appreciate all your thoughts. Two last comments to follow up on your statement, "The point is that we want to discourage bad questions". One, my point about a lack of checks and balances is there is no way to discourage "bad" answering. And by "bad" answering I don't mean that answers that don't provide the right explanation. I'm referring to the undesirable consequences of disproportionately empowering those do the answering (democracy->oligoarchy). –  tim peterson May 4 '12 at 5:21
    
Sorry, I still don't understand what you're saying. What's wrong with downvotes? Aren't those checks and balances? –  Cody Gray May 4 '12 at 5:23
    
(continued) and two, from grade school, teachers always said, "there are no bad questions". I agree with this and not just for kids. I didn't start programming until age 34. I am now 35. In most cases (maybe @Shore excluded), people (myself included), don't even know what a good or bad question is. Learning is a chicken and the egg problem for everyone throughout our entire lives. By just dismissing people and their questions for being "dumb, redundant, and/or vague" one is not constructively helping someone learn, but rather likely impeding them. –  tim peterson May 4 '12 at 5:24
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@tim: "there are no bad questions". I agree with this and not just for kids. That's great. I disagree. There are many bad questions. From people who won't actually look for anything to people who [simply refuse to provide vital information, forcing you to guess](OpenGL Texturing Isn't working: displaying just white). –  Nicol Bolas May 5 '12 at 17:04
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let us continue this discussion in chat –  Nicol Bolas May 5 '12 at 22:52
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2 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

I've asked a couple of times in the comments for some evidence of the problems you cite, in particular the claims about "hostility", but I see it's not forthcoming. It's easy to toss claims like that around, but it's much more difficult to actually justify them. That's what will probably lead this very question to be closed as "not constructive"—not because your concerns are invalid or unwelcome, but simply because there's nothing of value presented in your question that we can use to address the problems. Please understand that I am not trying to deny that there might possibly be a problem of treating [new] users with hostility, but I simply do not know how we can work to address those problems without some evidence and how and where it is occurring.

Sometimes we all get frustrated and say mean things to one another. You probably do it, and I definitely do it. That doesn't make it right, it just makes us human. Hopefully no one gets their feathers too ruffled up because of what someone says to them online.

However, I do feel like I should point out that if you see someone being a dick to someone else, you should use your flags to bring that to the attention of our friendly moderators. Despite their high reputation scores, they are invested in the community and want what's best for everyone involved.

The BIG worry though is that then many people never get off the ground because their questions when they first start are deemed "dumb, redundant, and/or vague".

I agree that questions should not be closed simply because they are "dumb", or in particular, "too easy". Others have proposed a close reason of this very nature, but I oppose it, and it hasn't been implemented yet. Currently, as long as the question fits our general guidelines, it is fine to ask.

By "redundant", I suppose you are referring to questions that get closed as duplicates of another question. I don't understand what's wrong with this practice, or why it deters or frustrates people. Whenever I ask a question and it gets closed as a duplicate, I'm happy because it means that I get my answers without even having to wait. Someone else thought my question was so good that they already asked it, thus saving me a lot of trouble and effort. I get good answers that have been thoroughly vetted by the community without even having to wait. As for the rest of the Internet, there's little point in having the answers scattered out all over the place. When I go searching for the answer to a question, the first place I land is usually on Stack Overflow. And I like not having to click through 100 duplicates just to read all of the wisdom that is available. So no, I think questions that get closed as a duplicate are a win all the way around.

"Vague" questions are a big problem. They get closed pretty quickly as "not a real question", and for good reason. The simple fact is that our system doesn't work very well for this type of question. I'm not going to deny that programmers of all levels have questions like this—stuff that they're either not knowledgeable about or experienced enough in to phrase into a coherent question. It would be great if we could read people's minds and answer these questions. But the technology just isn't that advanced yet, and a Q&A site like this one actively works against answering questions where you have to do a lot of guessing. The FAQ is pretty clear about our requirement that you ask specific, answerable questions about real programming problems. Yes, other types of questions exist. Yes, they might be perfectly legitimate questions. But no, we do not and cannot handle them. We simply can't do everything, and it's best that we don't fool ourselves into thinking that we can.

So they get discouraged and don't engage in which case no one wins.

This may very well happen; I have no evidence to offer in support of either scenario.

However, I would point out that there's no reason for this to happen. At least, that is to say, discouragement is not the inevitable result of having one's question closed.

The point of closing a question, especially one closed as "not a real question", which is defined in part as one which is overly vague or not answerable in its current form, is to put that question temporarily in limbo so that it can be revised, without attracting any answers. When the question is revised (either by its original owner or another experienced member of the community) to something that is answerable, it can be re-opened without any old, now-obsolete answers lingering around.

example of condescension is @random's comment.

A couple of problems with this:

  1. This site you've landed on is Meta. It is the appropriate place to ask questions like the one you've asked, but it is also a very relaxed place with a very quirky sense of humor and slightly different standards than the main site. See this question and this other one for more specific details.

  2. That's random. He does that, and sometimes the rest of us try to copy his swagga. The comment was intended to be funny, not offensive. At worst, it's self-deprecating, which doesn't seem very condescending to me.

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Though "hostility" may not be the right word, i think comment/answers in your link shows an unfriendly: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/131176/…. For example, @daniel.sedlacek is criticized for not posing a good question about the use of semicolons. He has a reputation of 538, probably much less at the time. How was he supposed to know? Many people then say, he should just Google it to find the right stackoverflow question, but again this is a chicken and the egg. People when they are first learning don't even know what they don't know. –  tim peterson May 4 '12 at 6:03
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How was he supposed to know? By reading the FAQ. This has nothing to do with Google. I don't see anyone saying he failed to search before asking the question. The simple fact is that this question is not on topic for Stack Overflow. We're not saying it's a bad question, or that he's an idiot for asking it. No one is saying that he should already know the answer. They're simply saying that "We don't do that here". –  Cody Gray May 4 '12 at 6:08
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@Tim No one criticized daniel for posting a bad question, but for throwing a fit after his question was closed. The question might have been less than stellar, but if you read the Meta question carefully you'll notice he's preaching "Assume good faith.", a noble thing to ask of others, but where in that whole discussion is he doing as he preaches? The only thing I got from him was bitterness and hostility, and, well, I responded as such. –  Yannis May 4 '12 at 6:12
    
hi @TheEstablishment, thanks for your answer. I don't know, I'm still not convinced. I still see too much flawed philosophy and influence concentration. Does SE have an non-programmers giving input? –  tim peterson May 4 '12 at 6:16
    
The community team and CHAOS (which mostly handle the SE 2.0 sites) are both made up, I believe, almost completely of non-programmers. In fact, everyone here that isn't a "Software Developer" would count. Speaking of not being convinced, I still see too many vacuous phrases and empty claims. What "flawed philosophy"? Which specific philosophies do you think are flawed, and why? What "influence concentration"? What influence(s) do you think are being unduly concentrated? Or..whatever that means. –  Cody Gray May 4 '12 at 6:18
    
I think the fact that @daniel started out reasonable and ended by throwing a fit is important. I put fault on SE as the "customer is always right". While you may think there is nothing unfriendly about closing a question and have several legitimate for doing so, people when they first come have no idea about these reasons. All they know is they got the door slammed in their face. I am well educated and even for me the concepts that many SE senior people take for granted about how SE works are non-obvious/confusing/daunting to learn. For example, I just learned today what the badges are. –  tim peterson May 4 '12 at 6:24
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There are no 'customers' here, people are using a free service where everyone volunteers their time to help them. Until I start getting a check in the mail for the answers I contribute, I'm going to have a slightly different opinion about that. And no, there's nothing unfriendly about closing a question. You're not the first person to be confused about that, but to date, no one has come up with a better solution. The typical reasoning goes something like "well, new users don't understand this and feel like it's having a door slammed in their face, so we should stop closing questions". –  Cody Gray May 4 '12 at 6:26
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No, that isn't going to work. We can't do that. You have to come up with something else. If you have specific, constructive suggestions on how the SE site and user experience can be improved, please post a Meta question about that. I don't think people are willfully ignoring the problem, I just don't think anyone has any better ideas. Yes, we do think it's easy to use. I do now, but I did when I was brand new. All I did was read the FAQ and watch what others did. Seemed to come pretty naturally to me, but maybe I'm the exception. I also taught myself how to program by reading the docs. –  Cody Gray May 4 '12 at 6:28
    
how long ago did you learn to program? My argument is that it becomes harder to relate to people who are just learning the longer ago that was. My solution is to not use the language "closing the question". You may think that is stupid minutae, but the language is critical. Virtually all of FB and twitter's currency was built through the word choice they used, "Friending, liking, tweeting". The power of words and symbolism can not be underestimated. –  tim peterson May 4 '12 at 6:45
    
I started to respond to all of that, but then I realized that's just going to perpetuate the discussion in the comments. That's another thing that we don't do here. All of those concerns should be edited into your question so that people will see them and can respond. Perhaps some of your confusion stems from the fact that you think this is a discussion forum, rather than a Q&A site? –  Cody Gray May 4 '12 at 6:51
    
besides more tact with newcomers, i'd argue for more peer pressure amongst the elites for derogatory comments like @random's. You may say, "oh that's just @random". But I don't know this guy. To me, that was a jerk comment. Your interpretation is favorable to maintaining your and his position but dismiss the little guy's interpretation (me). Again, not a democracy. –  tim peterson May 4 '12 at 6:51
    
fair enough, i actually need to do real work now. Thanks for all the discussion. Just by you listening/responding for so long, you have given me hope and re-energized me on SO. Good talking to you, take care. –  tim peterson May 4 '12 at 6:52
    
@TheEstablishment Bit of a side point... CHAOS is non-programmers, yes, but the community team is made up of people with software development experience with a couple exceptions. Still, we're the community team largely because we can go beyond the typical developer mindset. –  Anna Lear May 5 '12 at 5:41
    
@TheEstablishment sorry to beat a dead horse, but see this link: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/17204/…. "Predatory" answering and downvoting of others is explicitly recommended. I've learned my lesson and now know how to behave but hopefully you can appreciate from Jeff's comments how newcomers frequently have this perspective of SO being hostile. –  tim peterson May 17 '12 at 16:01
    
@tim Sorry, that's an utter misreading of that question. The link is now dead, but Jeff is linking to someone else's blog post, outlining that person's suggestions on how to "get Stack Overflow reputation fast". Jeff simply summarizes the arguments made in the linked blog post in the event that the link were to go down, which it now has. That's recommended here; all questions should be self-contained. That question is asking for comments and other thoughts from the community on the arguments made by that other guy in his blog post. Jeff isn't endorsing them. –  Cody Gray May 17 '12 at 22:24
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What you describe as condescension is more likely fatigue.

As a moderator, I can tell you with certainty that there are many people who don't even make it through the front door. There are automated filters that block people who can't compose a sentence, and we routinely and summarily destroy the accounts of people who make it plainly obvious that they have no interest whatsoever in finding out the most basic details about how to use Stack Overflow properly.

I've been here awhile, and in the early days of Stack Overflow people could be counted on to more or less police themselves. The people who frequented the site were the early adopters, the top performers in their field of choice. You didn't need to show them how to act professionally; they knew how instinctively.

Today, without strict controls, I can tell you with absolute certainty that the site would literally be flooded with terrible questions. How do I know this? Because it's happened before. Those were the dark days, when the great unwashed had finally realized that Stack Overflow was the place to be. When every question on the front page was an indecipherable mess. Before the automated filters were put into place. We literally had to throw a machine at the problem to control the onslaught.

Does that sound elitist? Maybe. But the folks who come here without the slightest bit of respect about what it is that we're trying to do here are the reason we can't have nice things. You can't put Ming vases in the hallways if teenagers are skating through the halls all the time, so all you can do is ban the skateboards and put the vases in cases.

And the simple fact of the matter is that if you allow the people who don't care about the site to run things, the experts will leave. Then where will you be?

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hi Robert, that is a really great answer. I had no idea about most of what you just said. Thank you. I wish there was some way to make your thoughts more widely known. –  tim peterson May 4 '12 at 6:28
    
One outstanding concern is how people at SE feel power can and will continue to be distributed/redistributed. How much was/is/will reputation on SE be like land owning on the manhattan upper east side real estate vs. LA/hollywood land owning? That is, is reputation highly static vs. highly dynamic? My fear is that it is now too much the former. –  tim peterson May 4 '12 at 6:33
    
I don't know much about real estate in either of those jurisdictions, because I live in Texas where we have wide open space everywhere, including between our ears. But I do know that reputation on Stack Overflow is not a limited commodity. Anyone who wants to gain rep can do so easily. There's plenty of it to go around, all it takes is a bit of dedication. Recently, one new user has shot up the reputation leagues dramatically by focusing on providing really good answers to questions with bounties. –  Cody Gray May 4 '12 at 6:44
    
that's anecdotal but point taken, thanks again for your thoughts. –  tim peterson May 4 '12 at 6:55
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