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We've talked about how we should act towards new users a lot in the past.

I'd like to discuss some of these questions again. But more important than that, I hope this question will help us learn more efficient ways to encourage newbies to become a part of the community without frustration.

As a PhD student, I assist with undergraduate teaching. One day, a student opened up the topic and we started discussing the best ways for them to learn and keep up with the fast-paced programming world. When I encouraged them to use Stack Overflow, one of the students brought up that they were a little scared to get harsh comments on Stack Overflow.

A bunch of them admitted looking up for their programming questions in SO, but they said they never ask a question and that they would stick with google search restricting it to stackoverflow.com domain.

This last part was actually good, because if their question was already here, they would be able to find it. The bad part is, there's a definite friction towards new users, and I witnessed this first hand.

The main problem here seems to be the comments/answers that are almost very rude and/or insulting to the OP of a particular question. This generally happens to newbies because they are probably the ones least familiar with the current SO ecosystem. I understand that we can flag the comment/answer for moderator attention and/or report to team@stackoverflow.com. But before the answer/comment gets deleted, the harm is done. OP has already felt insulted.

Questions:

  1. We still see rude behavior, so clearly the current solutions aren't working. Are there better ways? I believe there should be a better mechanism to discourage this behavior on the part of commenters and answerers. Should there be a way to warn the owner of such a comment which makes her/him take it seriously?

  2. How can we be more welcoming to users? This doesn't just apply to users coming from a classroom setting, but in general.

Update: David Robinson's answer does a great job explaining how proper introduction to SO can be addressed in a classroom setting, it deserves its own appreciation but does not cover both questions in their entirety. Rachel's answer covers both questions in a more general setting, hence it is more complete. I am accepting Rachel's answer based on this criteria. However, I will gladly revise if there are new answers and/or the current answers are revised.

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What I am curious to know is how many of your students weren't able to find their answers on Stack Overflow? My thought is it's probably a small percentage of students that would actually need to write a question in the first place. If you have data on this, that would be awesome. –  jmort253 Mar 22 '13 at 5:36
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I don't have numbers, but I can certainly collect more information. I am even willing to do a small questionnaire if need be. –  meyumer Mar 22 '13 at 5:37
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Everyone I've seen people be rude to has clearly not even bothered to read the FAQ. I hope your students are conscientious enough to do that, just like they'd read the rules posted anywhere before barging in, so I don't expect they'll encounter any problems. In my subjective experience, the people who are treated unkindly are the people who don't bother to help themselves and don't put any effort whatsoever into either their question or learning how to use the site. It's not a crime to be new or inexperienced, we just have high standards and we intend to keep them. –  Cody Gray Mar 22 '13 at 5:39
    
That is understandable and certainly true. Reading the FAQ is the zeroth requirement for someone new. BUT, the negative impression for getting involved which the students currently seem to have still tells me something is wrong beyond just being a consequence of high standards. –  meyumer Mar 22 '13 at 5:43
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If they feel intimidated, it's probably because they see others asking questions like they would ask, and getting shot down. The students who are confident in their question-asking ability shouldn't feel intimidated by this; they'll realize that the backlash is coming from poorly-asked questions rather than naive quetions, as Cody points out above. If their confidence is well-founded, they should be just fine here. Maybe some good-question-asking training is in order? –  The Community Mar 22 '13 at 6:16
    
Thanks for the edit @George Stocker. Leaner the better, I included too much of my thoughts in the initial version to cover up the whole nine yards. –  meyumer Mar 22 '13 at 12:25
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In regards to your 2nd question, I wrote up something fairly recently about effective ways to guide new users for those that are interested in helping new users –  Rachel Mar 22 '13 at 13:25
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One key point I'd emphasize to your students is that terse != rude. Just because comments don't contain a lost of "please" "thank you" or other such content, and instead focus very specifically on only addressing technical content, doesn't mean that they're being rude. Generally assume that any given comment is not intended to be rude, but rather to convey some information to you (even if you're wrong, you're better off making this assumption). SO users very rarely personally attack new users, users just tend to think they're being personally attacked when they aren't. –  Servy Mar 22 '13 at 15:32
    
@Servy So, is it appropriate to communicate the same way you described with a co-worker also? Would you answer a really dumb question asked by your co-worker that way? Or, whatever technical information you are passing, will you make sure it is passed nicely? SO, being a virtual environment, does not mean that we should be less-polite. The impact of which on new users being more catastrophic. (And don't forget the question is not only about my students. It is about new users at large, per se.) –  meyumer Mar 22 '13 at 15:36
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@meyumer When I'm asked a technical question from a college I am professional, not personal. I am often terse, and generally avoid social banter, except with those few people who I've worked with closely and developed a professional relationship with. If you're interested in holding an informal conversation with someone then consider using chat, rather than a formal SO question which is specifically not intended to be personal at all. Once again, just because a post is not personal doesn't mean it's rude; it means it's neutral. That's good in my eyes, not bad. –  Servy Mar 22 '13 at 15:50
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@meyumer The critical difference here is that conversations with your coworker aren't compiled into a repository of knowledge for everyone to peruse. Niceties are ... well, nice, but since they are centered around the OP and the answerer, they are unnecessary anyone who visits that page to find solutions to their problem. You might have gone through traditional help forums submerged in "Thanks, this worked for me" comments. That is what we're trying to avoid by encouraging terseness. –  Asad Mar 23 '13 at 21:35
    
@Asad I agree. But the question or request here is not about encapsulating the technical answer in a polite package. It is about the really insulting or discouraging comments. As we do not require additional politeness, I believe we also do not require to include negative social content to our answer/comment. –  meyumer Mar 23 '13 at 22:10
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In general: the lower the quality of the question, the lower the quality of comments will be. Ask better questions, get better comments. Pretty easy, makes sense, no technical solution to this social problem. –  user7116 Mar 27 '13 at 3:31

5 Answers 5

up vote 21 down vote accepted

We still see rude behavior, so clearly the current solutions aren't working. Are there better ways? I believe there should be a better mechanism to discourage this behavior on the part of commenters and answerers. Should there be a way to warn the owner of such a comment which makes her/him take it seriously?

We can't force other people to change their behavior, but we can try to set an example in our own behavior. Some things that you can personally do:

  • Lead by example by leaving better versions of the typical "rude" comment

    SE sites are smaller than you may first think, even SO. On sites or tags I participate in a lot, I can identify the users that can probably leave the best answers, the ones that may be slightly rude, the ones that are tired of seeing the same question over again, etc. By setting an example with your own behavior, you can actually make a difference.

    As an example, if you see plenty of "What have you tried" comments, start leaving a more polite version of "What have you tried" that actually explains it better. Something like "Hi @username, can you tell us what you've tried so far? It will help us understand the problem better, and prevent us from posting something you've already tried." You'll soon start seeing other users adopt some variation of your style of comment instead of the blunt "what have you tried" comments. (And yes, I realize these are now blocked)

  • Leave a single polite comment debunking or rebuking the rude comment

    I say "single" because you do not want to get into a comment war over it. What one person sees as rude, others may see as perfectly fine. By speaking up, you're saying you see it as rude and are against such rudeness. Other users will likely vote up your comment if they agree with it, and upvotes typically reflect the community's opinion, which shows the new user that there are nice people as well as rude ones on the site, but overall the community is nice and polite :)

  • Do not upvote the rude comment, even if it contains some factually accurate information.

    It's too easy to mistake the upvote as approval/agreement of the rude behavior instead of for accuracy of the relevant information. Instead, re-post the relevant parts of the comment in a nicer way and try to explain the information better.

  • Don't participate in such behavior yourself (duh)

  • Flag rude comments for removal, or possibly for editing if most of the comment is OK and there is only one blatantly offensive word/phrase in it (Moderator can edit comments)

How can we be more welcoming to users? This doesn't just apply to users coming from a classroom setting, but in general.

I actually wrote up something recently about effective ways to guide new users for users that care to help guide new users.

I'm not going to repost the entire thing because it was kind of long, however to summarize, treat the new user like an actual person, and assume the user is simply uneducated about the site, and not illiterate, stupid, lazy, or trolling.

Show an interest in helping them solve their problem, and don't just dismiss them with a vote or a comment and move on. It also helps if you take a minute to actually explain problems, instead of just providing a link and telling a user to go read it.

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I'm also a PhD student, and have also suggested using SO as a resource to my undergraduate students. Rather than try to shape SO to be better at answering newbies, I instead aim make my students better at asking questions. Critically, this isn't just preparing them for SO- it's making them better students and future programmers: they'll get more out of office hours and will be more prepared for the development world. Knowing how to ask technical questions is no less important than learning how to write a for loop or populate an array.

Some of the fundamentals I've emphasized are:

  • Include your code and (if applicable) traceback. I can't believe how many emails I've received from students saying "I get an IndexError- how do I fix it?" without attaching either the code or the traceback. Teaching them about SSCCEs won't just make them better SO askers, it will make them better students.
  • Search for the answer first. The first time I told a class of beginner programmers that they should solve problems with Google, they actually laughed in disbelief. Most teachers would send their students to a textbook or lecture notes (imagine a history professor saying "To prepare for the test, Google the Spanish Civil War"). You can change this attitude in your office hours- when a student has a problem that you know how to solve, tell them to Google it rather than giving them the answer. Once they see the solution pop up, they'll learn the importance of simple research.
  • Show what you've tried. This is a matter of academic integrity for your students (not doing their work for them), but for SO it's a survival tactic.
  • Be professional. I find this an underrated component of the student-teacher relationship. Students shouldn't be sending TAs or professors emails filled with grammatical errors, or that mix technical questions with chatty dialogue. Similarly, explain that when you post a question on an online resource, you're not using a social network- keep the question concise and free of noise.

I also refer them to excellent sources such as Jon Skeet's Writing the perfect question, which in my view prepare students far better than reading the FAQ.

These suggestions are familiar (even cliched) to experienced programmers or SO users- but everyone has to be taught them when they start. The SO community doesn't have time to educate every new user about these fundamentals, but teachers have not only the time but the responsibility. The way we do that is by holding them to the same standard as students that StackOverflow holds them to as askers.

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That, sir, is a very good answer for the OPs situation. It, unfortunately, is difficult to apply globally. Not everyone has someone willing to teach them. –  ben is uǝq backwards Mar 22 '13 at 8:22
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This is the description of how to approach SO or any other Q&A site or discussion forum for that matter. It should have a simple permanent link so people can be easily referred to it. –  Monolo Mar 22 '13 at 8:23
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@benisuǝqbackwards: I think that these are the cases that can be fixed. SO has always had an influx of poor askers who refuse to read instructions, and there's little that can be done about them that's not already done by the system (How to Ask page, feedback from votes, and eventually auto-bans). The OP, on the other hand, is describing a class of users who seem motivated and responsible, and can become great askers given the right guidance. Thus, I think the solution is to change them for SO rather than change SO for them. –  David Robinson Mar 22 '13 at 8:30
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This is a good answer to 'how can we teach students the proper way to get involved with SO?'. However, not an answer to my questions. Not all NEW SO users get to take undergrad CS courses where we can introduce and teach these to them. (I believe only a fraction of users have that opportunity). My question is mainly looking for the answers in the general setting, not in a classroom setting. I am editing the question to reflect this. –  meyumer Mar 22 '13 at 12:06
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I still think we need a New user? Click here link somewhere on the page. I'm always clicking those when I'm new to a site. I wouldn't think to click on "About" or "FAQ" to find information designed specifically for new users (To me, "About" is info about the site like it's background and owners, and "FAQ" is Frequently Asked Questions) –  Rachel Mar 22 '13 at 12:25
    
@Rachel, I read the linked question and answers. There is valuable information about New User landing page and the like. It is definitely one of the things that we can do for welcoming newbies in a better way. I would like to encourage you to write an answer to this question, based on your view of the matter. It will, at the very least, stimulate discussion. –  meyumer Mar 22 '13 at 13:04
    
@meyumer I actually made a new question about it because I believe it deserves it's own [feature-request]: Rename “About” to “New User? Click Here” for anonymous or new users? –  Rachel Mar 22 '13 at 13:43
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@meyumer I've found that a very significant number of very poor questions from students studying Computer Science (granted, often in first year courses). They really should have these expectations if they intend to continue with the field of study. As per the "about" page, "Stack Overflow is a question and answer site for professional and enthusiast programmers." If the users aren't serious about programming, and willing to act professionally, then they are not a part of the site's target audience. –  Servy Mar 22 '13 at 15:28

Your annecdote actually demonstrates a good thing, not a bad thing. The newbies searched and did not post. They were not, in fact, driven away at all. They just used the site in a read-only manner, rather than posting a question. Perhaps these newbies had the wisdom to see that the answers to their questions were already to be found here. And that is how it should be, for many kinds of questions; I believe that SO has always been intended as a repository of existing answers to questions.

When I see rudness it is directed at people who have themselves been rude. Not rude by being terse, or sarcastic, but by putting no effort into seeing if their question had already been answered, or had put no effort into making it easy for a knowledgeable person to answer their question; they are demanding that complete strangers put more effort into helping them than they are willing to put in themselves. To me that is incredibly rude; far ruder than the rudest comments I've seen here. If such people are driven away, nothing has been lost. Perhaps they will be rebuked, and return reformed. That would be a good outcome.

Rudeness directed at newbies who would be valuable members would be a bad thing; I can't say I've noticed much of that. Perhaps it is a problem; but you'll have to provide better evidence to convince me.

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I don't see how people being afraid of asking question because they were intimidated by rude comments is not "being driven away", and how that "demonstrates a good thing, not a bad thing". SO and SE are not intended to be used solely in a "read-only" manner, active participation (asking and answering question) is encouraged. –  Old Checkmark Jul 20 '13 at 8:00
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No, asking duplicate questions is not encouraged. The annecdote seems to be about novice programmers. They problems novices have are very much alike. As for fear: I see a cliff face and I am afraid that, if I were very near the edge I might slip on the loose pebbles there, so I move away from the edge, and my fear disappears. My fear was a good thing, not a bad thing. –  Raedwald Jul 20 '13 at 8:31
    
"Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing." –  Raedwald Jul 20 '13 at 8:45

I (and I suspect others) would be happy to cruise a list of likely bullying on the site and attempt to help. There are some indications you could use to create a list as a starting point; like the same 2 users going back and forth in comments, or a new/infrequent user's question getting downvoted. It's not necessarily bullying per se, but it could be a clue for us to take a look and make sure people are being reasonable and respectful.

I've also noticed that some mods overaggressively close questions by users who just aren't sure where to start, where to ask, or happened to land in the wrong niche of stackexchange without providing any constructive feedback to the asker. The list of posts up for close can be a pretty quick way to find bullied newbies (although this list seems to only be accessible at >3000 rep - it's likely that the bullied newbie won't have access to this).

StackExchange has a 'Move Question' feature to propose moving a question from one niche site to another, but many questions are just closed as Off-Topic rather than moved like they should be. It's so common to find questions closed as Off-Topic that clearly belong elsewhere that I assumed the feature must not exist, but there it is.

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You mention Moderators being zealous closers and question getting closed as "Off-topic" instead of being migrated.. Well there comes a point where (and a mod mentioned this recently in a comment.. I don't remember where.. I think it was @RobertHarvey) if they stopped to explain and help every single new user who won't help themselves they wouldn't have time for anything. I don't think those are good arguments. If a user won't take the time to search Google, won't read the faq, won't read the tour page, etc.. Well, we just don't always have time to stop and do their work for them. –  ɥʇǝS Mar 28 '13 at 3:33
    
(comment continued) While I know this sounds harsh, but with something like 15,000 questions per day we don't have the man power to handle every single bad question the way it could be handled. I believe we should be as nice as possible to new users, but we, the moderators in particular, can't comment on every bad question we need to close.. Which I guess brings us back to the problem on hand ;) –  ɥʇǝS Mar 28 '13 at 3:41
    
@Seth Fortunately users like RobertHarvey are looking at improving how Close is handled. However even just proposing reforms there he gets high Rep users shouting him down saying it's unnecessary, suggesting newbies take actions they lack the permissions to do. meta.stackexchange.com/a/166724/165445 If you feel the task is too large for the current team to take on, expand the pool of people eligible to take it on by lowering the required Reputation to propose where a question be moved to, and provide them with the above tools. –  Chris Moschini Mar 28 '13 at 10:33
    
@ChrisMoschini I like your answer, not surprised at all it got a downvote, I gave it an upvote, hopefully this will float it for some users to get the chance to read it.. there's definitely an attitude it's stack's way or the highway and if you don't do it the stack way, it gives some people rights to be rude.. I can be very rude, mainly to high rep users who have forgotten what it's like to begin.. programming can be so confusing, sometimes people don't know the correct words to use. –  user223277 Jul 20 '13 at 2:24

Negative comments drive new users away, how can we fix this?

Don't. We don't need any new users. We have plenty.

It's a tough old world out there and I see no reason to sugar-coat it for the benefit of yet more newbie users. We have over a million already as it is and it's not the case that we should do whatever we can to squeeze more in.

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It's a damn shame that I can't upvote this more than once. –  Jack Maney Mar 28 '13 at 2:11
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And I wish I could downvote it more than once. This is a terrible answer. We want the best new talent here, not just the best old talent. –  Ben Lee Mar 28 '13 at 21:51
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@Lightness Races in Orbit: Nobody is immortal. All the old talent will be replaced with newer ones. Our job should be passing as much experience as we can to the newer generations. So that they can take it one step further. –  meyumer Apr 22 '13 at 15:55

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