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As the comments on the summer of love blog post have shown, there is much discussion about civility on Stack Overflow. One particularly important sub-set of the issue is what is called "accidental rudeness" - seasoned Stack Overflow users pointing out newbie mistakes in a curt way bordering on rude. That is often understandable self-defense in light of ~5,600 new questions a day, but it still is a problem.

Shog and others argue, and I fully agree, that the problem with this "accidental rudeness" is that

  • it's terrible as a first experience with a new site
  • It creates broken windows for those hundreds of on-lookers who pass by and see it.

I have experienced this first-hand in the last forum I frequented, and was a moderator in for many years. It's essentially degraded into a place where veterans shout "RTFM" at newbies. It's still a helpful place staffed with great people, and of course it's the newbies' fault as well, with their sucky "I'm unable to Google the simplest query" and "send teh codez" type questions. I'm all for firmly telling off slackers. But the tone in the forum has become unbearable to many, including myself. It's possible to interact with everybody in a professional manner, without being rude. And when onlookers go, "gosh, what a bunch of dicks", that is a bad thing for the community even if the OP deserves the rudeness.

As Robert puts it brilliantly in a chat conversation (link coming soon), eternal September is already upon us and it's pointless to fight it; what we need to do is embrace it and find ways to live with it. The number of dumb/lazy questions, and innocent newbie mistakes, is only going to grow.

This is a social rather than a technical issue - I have yet to see a technical way to enforce civility that is not silly or dumb in some way. The discussion about pro-forma comments showed that even the best-meant mechanism can be used counterproductively (although I still think this feature is needed).

Maybe the community needs a group of people dedicated to keeping an eye on community interactions (especially interactions with new users who meet negative feedback) and leading the way by contributing professional, polite comments to help them out - in essence, doing what many, but not enough, users on SO already do?

Enter image description here

Source

If you're not nice, we will ████ you up!

No, seriously: they smile because they are there to help you. The red smudge on the forehead of the one to the left is from a strawberry.

I'm not talking about bleeding-heart niceness with Unicode hearts and smileys; nor about dishonest "your call is important to us" customer service BS. Sometimes people need to be told to Read the Fricking manual, or that they should go away. Many questions on Stack Overflow should be turned away because the OP's need to learn the basics of programming first... but even that can be said in a professional manner. The difference is as small as between, say

Stack Overflow is not your research assistant

and

Welcome to Stack Overflow! Our community generally expects askers to have done some prior research on what they are asking about. At the very least, they should work out a specific technical question. You can find more information about this in our FAQ, or on this page: .....

I'm envisioning a group of people that

  • has specific, "bat-signal"-like tools to see potentially problematic discussions (for example, newbie posts that get downvoted and commented on a lot; posts with concentrations of offensive flags)

  • concentrates solely on educating new and young members, setting the tone in discussions, and entering conversations when things get out of hand. Most of the time, they will add good, helpful comments with links where a newbie doesn't follow Stack Overflow etiquette.

It's not a perfect comparison, but the current moderator job description is a bit like the police force of Stack Overflow - they get called in emergencies and resolve disputes; they have the authority to use force if necessary. This new group I'm thinking about would be more like social workers or medical services, focusing on interacting and teaching, and leading by professional example rather than censoring others' rudeness. (Of course, they will work closely with moderators.)

This would not be the most fulfilling job on the planet, as many well-meant comments will feel like a wasted effort because the specific user being addressed isn't worth it. But I think in the long term, the totality of this kind of tone-setting would have a very positive effect on the athmosphere on the entire sites.

I can think of different ways of implementing this:

  1. Establish a new class of moderator position that deal exclusively with this. They maybe wouldn't even have to have all "police" moderator powers; it might be enough to treat their flags with preference. What this class would have to look like exactly would need a lot of further thinking.

  2. Hire people to do it - as kind of low-level community liaisons that work exclusively in this role.

  3. Make it part of the job description of the current set of hired community managers - I have no idea whether that would be feasible or not, though. I guess they are busy enough already.

  4. Make this a 10k+ or 20k+ privilege, although I can't see this working any better than it is currently - after all, rep is not necessarily a measure of diplomatic skill.

Would this solve the problem, and be a wise path to take? I'm not sure. It would partly go against Stack Overflow's guiding philosophy of a self-regulated community, and people in this role would have to have some knowledge about the tags they operate in, as well. But the issue of civility is there, and I thought it good enough an idea to suggest and think about.

To make it real clear: this "SWAT team" would not be there to hold hands, or to censor, reprimand, or edit other users' real or perceived incivility. That wouldn't go down well with the community, and rightly so. They would merely lead by example by providing excellent, professional guidance in comments, and maybe also to some extent through editing. Pretty much what many active users on Stack Overflow already do.

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20  
Flawed premise: That any of this is "accidental"; we're generally a group of cantankerous sods. –  casperOne Jul 27 '12 at 12:29
    
@casper ssshhh!! They mustn't know. –  Pëkka Jul 27 '12 at 12:31
9  
I have to downvote this simply because I can't stand these kinds of fake-nice-to-retain-headcount groups. Nothing personal. –  Toomai Jul 27 '12 at 12:33
25  
@Toomai, it is not about being nice "come on, we don't care you didn't do research, we'll love you anyway". This is about telling "research or GTFO" in such a way that people won't go ballistic just from the tone, but think "maybe I really should've done that" instead. –  Oleg V. Volkov Jul 27 '12 at 12:39
6  
Damn, I really want to make a bunch of sarcastic nominations, but that would go against the "Summer of Love" spirit. –  Bill the Lizard Jul 27 '12 at 12:58
3  
Don't like guys with three guns and a big smile, he has probably just shot his first Unicorn. Agree on the text though. –  Bo Persson Jul 27 '12 at 13:02
    
Moderators get called nazis or "meta police" all the time, now you want to create an extra class of moderators just to, uh, police what people say, basically. I strongly recommend against this particular approach. It just sounds really really bad –  Ben Brocka Jul 27 '12 at 13:27
3  
That guy on the left looks a way off. –  casperOne Jul 27 '12 at 13:29
    
@Ben no, policing what other people say is explicitly not what these new mods are meant to do. Is that not clear enough in the post? –  Pëkka Jul 27 '12 at 13:32
    
It still sounds really bad. Sounds like you basically want a bunch of people to chew people out for being "rude". IF you see Community Assistant Johny comment after you, you know you done goofed, that sort of thing. This does not sound healthy as opposed to community members just being polite and guiding people and flagging rude posts like they're supposed to –  Ben Brocka Jul 27 '12 at 13:41
    
@Ben hmm, interesting perspective. That's not the spirit it's meant in, of course - that mustn't happen... although on the other hand, if I comment nicely after a rude comment as a veteran user, isn't that basically the same? I'm not sure whether a dedicated team would necessarily have the effect of a "thought police". But it's surely something to consider. –  Pëkka Jul 27 '12 at 15:02
2  
There's a difference between curt and rude which is made more evident by the simple fact that a lot of an author's tone can be lost in written text. The FAQ could help by adding: put your big boy/girl britches on and enjoy the fact this isn't daycare. –  user7116 Jul 27 '12 at 16:11
1  
it's actually 5.6k questions/day. See stackexchange.com/sites?view=list#traffic –  Jeff Atwood Aug 4 '12 at 18:50
12  
I misread the title as "A SWAT team of mice". –  BoltClock's a Unicorn Aug 4 '12 at 19:08
2  
My workplace blocks images so I had no idea what you were talking about until I got home. –  dash Aug 9 '12 at 15:48

3 Answers 3

I think that the community is already the SWAT team, we just need to give them better weapons.

We had a very powerful weapon with the "What Stack Overflow is Not" post (10K only), but it ended up being used in ways that generally were off putting to people not familiar with the culture of Stack Overflow (although there is dissent, my particular issue is that the tool was blamed and not the people).

And this is absolutely a social issue, which requires a social response. However, as with all things Stack Exchange, we can absolutely provide better tools to game urge people into providing a better response.

To that end, I propose that we start undeleting the "What Stack Overflow is Not" post, but under the following, very strict provisions:

  • Before the question is opened, it is edited heavily to be the "Summer of Love version of What Stack Overflow is Not" (my suggestion for the official title being "What to avoid when asking a question on Stack Overflow").

  • Editing the body heavily to not be a hard indicator of what not to do, but rather, to indicate in a polite, non-offensive way the things that Stack Overflow prefers not to see in their questions.

  • The title and body of each answer is heavily edited to reflect the new attitude of the question post, and the answers are only undeleted when they meet the new "Summer of Love" guidelines.

Don't get me wrong, it's a huge undertaking, but perhaps that can be the first order of business for the community, so that they can provide a tool (in the form of the post) that can be used by all of us to leave a more positive response to people unfamiliar with the Stack Overflow way.

On a related note, if this post can be edited so it sees the light of day, then I believe we absolutely need to revamp the close reasons. I come across new users of the site all the time who quote the main site FAQ word-for-word to justify why their question shouldn't be closed without understanding that there's much more to our culture than they realize.

That said, with the revamped close reasons (I'm not suggesting we change the titles or general meanings of the ones we have) we could change the descriptions and not have links just to the main site FAQ, but to the new, friendlier document as well.

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3  
It's probably easier to just start over than to try to unearth What Stack Overflow is not. I am not 100% sure that post is fixable. –  jmort253 Aug 4 '12 at 23:02
1  
Dude but we need those Lego-Love soldiers. Please dont prevent this new Swat team. Please, for the unborn kookaburras man.. –  Adel Aug 5 '12 at 1:16
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@Adel That guy on the left looks like he's lovin all the wrong things. –  casperOne Aug 5 '12 at 1:26
    
I like the idea of resurrecting that post, or at least it's sentiment, in a friendly manner. As an aside I often find that it's best I stay away from SO if I'm getting wound up at work - I tend to take it out on newbies or those people asking those marginal questions. That said, however, sometimes the worst offenders need to be taught properly - and I do find the moderator flagging perfect for a quick-close (the ultimate weapon). –  Andras Zoltan Aug 9 '12 at 12:00
    
@AndrasZoltan The official request to do that is here: meta.stackexchange.com/q/142710/140951 –  casperOne Aug 9 '12 at 12:06

I wonder if we couldn't improve matters a bit by subtly enhancing the tools that could be used to give negative feedback. For example, an explicit "Too snarky" comment flag would be useful, as "Rude or offensive" frankly sounds a bit strong and I suspect people might hesitate to use it for that reason.

Furthermore, I don't know whether a user who has a comment deleted for rudeness/snark sees any notification of such (it has blessedly never happened to me, AFAIK) but perhaps they should. Imagine if when flagging a comment for rudeness/snark you could add a comment to the flag, and imagine if the person whose comment was deleted got to see the content of those flags. Some people -- the professional troll types -- would get pissed, but we already have tools for dealing with those people. It's the generally helpful but sometimes snarky people we're trying to influence here, and I think that list of comments would really help them.

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7  
The thing is that snark is often in the eye of the beholder... While real trolls are dealt with easily, having the community flag snarkiness in legitimate comments by legitimate users is a slippery slope. Leading by example would pretty much ignore what other users do, and set a high standard of civility - at least that is the idea. Partly related: If you really want to reduce the snark level –  Pëkka Jul 27 '12 at 12:58
    
+1 for the idea of comments on flags. –  Jordan Aug 9 '12 at 3:46

I'm a bit puzzled by the whole concept to be honest; I'm beginning to wonder if this is the treatment of symptoms, not causes.

What follows is opinion. I also might have changed my mind by lunchtime (GMT).

I think there's a few reasons why you'd see more instances of sarcasm than, for example, mylittlepony.stackexchange.com, but, for a while, I wondered if it was mainly to do with the target audience. For example, I used to believe the following:

  1. People in engineering/medical/software professions tend to be more sarcastic
  2. GoTo 1.

But then I've also noticed that people become more sarcastic when stressed or put under pressure. It's potentially a response to "I don't like this, so I need to release that dislike in some way." Pressure comes in all different forms, and I wonder if the following are triggers:

  1. Bad questions Now "bad" is subjective, but there are clearly some examples which deserve to be closed. However, when seeing these types of question, some people might get stressed or pressured - they'll feel it doesn't belong, it's an affront to what they believe, or, in a way, even worse, they will become condescending or insulting to the asker. This inevitably leads to the types of comment that seem to be a problem; the rude, unconstructive ones. Or the brusque or curt ones that can sometimes make the asker feel stupid, even when the commentor didn't mean that.

  2. Reputation MUST ANSWAR QUESTION FASTERST FOR MOSTEST POINTZ!!!!! NOOOOOO!!!! ITS THE RIGHT ANSWAR THEY ARE MINEZ POINTS. That's an absurd interpretation of what happens sometimes - but the fact is that competition brings out the best and worst in people. It's not surprising that sometimes people react badly to this, and, although personally I believe people should focus less on the points and more on the answers and integrity of the site, that's just a personal opinion. The reputation system is clearly a double edged sword though the "negative" edge is probably the smaller one.

  3. Bad Day Some people are just having a bad day. And bad days can be infectious.

  4. Language and Cultural Issues They exist, but anyone who attacks a non-native English speaker for poor English is doing everyone a disservice. Just edit the post!!

  5. Velocity Some things steamroller - positively (when, for example, someone creates an absolutely fantastic answer about CPU Branch Prediction and it has pictures of trains in it) and negatively (Why is C# so much better than VB.Net?). People tend to follow other people's lead - ever waiting in traffic while the person on the other side nips through the gap and seven billion other people then follow them through?

If we assume that any of this is accurate or true (tall order) then what next?

DO NOTHING

Well, maybe we don't need to do anything. Maybe we just keep supporting our wonderful (no sarcasm intended because they are) mods and editors so they keep making their decisions and keep the playing field relatively uncluttered. We also trust the community to leap upon the outliers in bad behaviour. Of course, if you believe the premise that StackOverflow is at risk of becoming a ruder, less tolerant place then this is not a solution. Possibly it's just becoming older and wiser.

New people join StackOverflow every day and just fit in with few or no problems, and start contributing immediately. Does "Summer of Love" mean "lowering the bar"? I don't think so, but I can understand why some people think it would. People who join stack overflow with the sole intention of mining it for answers have effectively failed the entrance exam, for example, and that's about as much time as should be spent on them.

DO STUFF

If the whole point of the "Summer of Love" is to make the site more welcoming to new users then maybe the following is true;

  1. StackOverflow is a very welcoming, and awesome, place if treated correctly. I firmly believe this.

In which case, a new user should, at least possibly have done their homework before asking their first question - people shouldn't just be able to rock up and expect all of the great people here to do their work for them for nothing. So have a little driving test or similar. Be aware that I'm not sure how many of these things already exist in one form or another so I apologise in advance for ignorance.

  • Make sure new users have earned the analytical badge before they can ask a new question?
  • Have a code of conduct where you tick off each point. Mostly symbolic, but it makes a point.
  • New users, or any user, that experience large negative drops in reputation should be flagged for review just to make sure things are going okay for them?
  • Limit the number of questions a new user can ask to just 1 or 2 a day to enforce the point that it might be free monetarily, but there is an obligation to use the quetions you have wisely. Up that limit as reputation is earned.

Conversely, the community has a responsibility (I guess) to help, welcome, and educate new users if it wants to grow further (it's already pretty big and sometimes has tentacles). This means that things like the following could be considered

  • Perhaps the system can prompt the user to consider editing a question a new user has asked if they are downvoting it or commenting on it.
  • Reputation adjustments on new user questions should be only visible to mods and the user themselves should get some indication to prevent the velocity argument of everyone else jumping on the new user and punching them to the ground for asking a bad question initially - give them an immediate chance to perhaps improve their question. I sometimes wonder if downvotes shouldn't be allowed in the first moments of a questions life (but flagging etc should).

On the other hand, maybe people should just spend more time composing their question in the first place. But they don't.

For tackling the 5 points above:

  1. Award points for people who help new users, or are particularly nice. Make the community the "Nice Team" by awarding a different class of points or badges for perceived good behaviour. I personally think this is gaming the population to enforce a set of rules contrary to those the community has developed itself but if you are trying to change behaviours then carrot is better than stick. Shiny Happy People badge?

  2. Defer reputation gains. Remove the instant gratification to reward slightly longer term thinking and behaviours. Hide a user's repuation points when they post an answer for the first n minutes to allow the answer to stand on it's own - like reviews where people look at the score at the bottom without reading or understanding all of the words.

  3. Not much you can do about that. Perhaps there should be a big "I'm having a bad day button" which alters the users avatar or locks them out of Stack Overflow for a few hours ;-)

  4. Again, the community have to rise to this challenge, and I'm confident the mods already have this covered.

  5. Velocity is a tough one too. Users with more rep have some sort of responsibility to use that reputation wisely, and I know that I look up to many people on the stackexchange network. As mentioned above, prompting to edit (rather than comment) might be helpful in certain scenarios. But somethings should be allowed to burn. And fast.

"Nice SWAT Team"

Going around telling people to be nice is going to put certain people's backs up - no matter how you dress it up. I also am not sure it will help, really, unless armed with better tools (or neural adjustment devices that are able to broadcast via monitor screens over the internet).

Maybe, just maybe, whenever doing something on StackOverflow, simply display the banner, "Treat other people as you yourself expect to be treated.**" to remind us that ultimately we are interacting with other peple, as this really is the ethos to be fostered.

**Just not when wearing bondage gear, for example. Please see 'What to Wear when using StackOverflow' for further sartorial tips.

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