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I am going to write a series of posts disclosing essential problems of the main site, which makes it a source of bad practices and wrong solutions.

Stack Overflow Is Not A Forum.

This is the worst one. Although some take pride in it, it's actually a shame.

Every forum eventually develops some sort of a knowledge base where all newcomers with repeated questions to be sent. The great thing with such a knowledge base is that its entries are subjects of constant development and improvement. You know, it's some sort of normalization - instead of having a-thousand-and-growing quick-n-dirty answers from passers-by there is a single one, written and polished by professionals. (A small but indicative detail: on SO, if you have your answer in constant development and improvement, it will be taken from you).

But Stack Overflow is not a forum. It is more like an anonymous imageboard to its participants - they scarcely know each other; they have no idea on the background, on the history, on the other questions or answers. Their only intention is to give a quick answer in pursuit of a few reputation points. This makes answers quality below any acceptable level. Yes, sometimes some professional feels like writing a detailed answer, or an experienced developer smells the real question under the phrased one and answers properly. But the worst thing with professional developers is that they don't have too much spare time to hang out on imageboards. They have work to do. But all the newcomers, who don't care to search even a little - they won't wait! Yet there are always some enthusiasts hanging around, eager to answer. So, we have Stack Overflow bloated with thousands of repeated questions with bad answers.

As a programmer, I find this approach extremely inefficient. Having the same answer scattered in thousands of posts makes it hell to maintain. So - all the wrong and outdated answers remains in place.

Okay, a few people who care are trying to create some sort of "reference questions". Even if they succeed against strong community reluctance ("this doesn't fit for SO!") - they'll find all their effort in vain. It's imageboard, Luke! Nobody ever cares about such questions' existence. Or - even if someone is aware of the already existing answer - they have a choice: to answer and get some points, or to vote for closure and get nothing. What would you choose, %username%?

Yes, I know, it's the perfect forum I have pictured above. In reality newcomers are often sent into a FAQ section inappropriately - that's why forums are despised. Okay, this thing about forums is an extreme. But Stack Overflow is just an opposite extreme! which is no better.

Although I do understand the intention - "a quick answer without questions", I also understand that knowledge that cost you no effort will do no good either. I only pray that physicians have no such a site where one can ask "how to perform an appendectomy". And get an answer.

Something has to be done about it. No, the status quo is no good. Because

The Rules That Never Work.

A distinct thing is Stack Overflow's set of rules. Every time you raise a problem on Meta, they always have a solution for you. Say, "there is a bad question" - "vote to close it". Nobody cares if it never takes a proper number of votes. Nobody cares if it already has an answer (so - there is no point in closing it at all). Nobody cares at all.

This problem is somewhat similar to one on the main site: Nobody cares about solving a problem, but only to answer a question (though most formal and useless way).

Meta Site.

This is a rather funny one. Some people dedicate themselves not to answering questions but to answering questions on answering questions. So, they have no real picture of the things, but always have an opinion on them. They can answer any question in the world. The only problem with their answer - it is totally useless. By closing a question that states a problem it's impossible to solve a problem. It's like a child who closes his eyes and thinks that nobody sees him too.

In their imagination everything is all right and perfect: there are wise laws and dedicated community to solve every problem in one click. So, there is nothing to discuss - they always have an answer. Every question has been answered already. Who cares if the problem persists?

The only reply you can get here (if you read between the lines) is:

"This site is for asking questions and getting answers, and not for solving problems. So, get out of here and let us continue chatting on wonderful subjects like inappropriate comma in the tag description or a temporary fault in the reputation calculations."

Even the button name proves it: not "Start Discussion" but "Ask Question". So, Meta takes itself as a some sort of fast-food joint - "Get your grub and get out! This is not a place for discussions!". But I wish there was one.

share|improve this question
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If you want to chat with people... well... that's chat. –  Oded Jul 7 '13 at 13:18
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Meta is a place to discuss to some extent...but you have to actually participate in the discussion... –  Bart Jul 7 '13 at 13:22
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Unfortunately, you are explaining here what you see as a problem, you are not describing why it is a problem for the 99% case (oh. It isn't. That's why). Nor are you suggesting any solutions or anything constructive. Why do you keep ignoring the community and community managers? –  Oded Jul 7 '13 at 13:22
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You must have had better experiences with forums than me. I often find myself browsing through pages of posts, most of them saying "I have the same problem" or "The solution provided by Z does not work" or "The solution provided by X works for me". Then I have to find that particular post they are referring to. A rather annoying process IMO. –  Felix Jul 7 '13 at 13:22
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What you say about SO vs forums reminds me of the famous saying by Churchill: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." –  Oded Jul 7 '13 at 13:24
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I don't see how any of the points you mention would be the tiniest bit better if SO were a forum. That premise doesn't make any sense to me. –  sth Jul 7 '13 at 13:32
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I always wonder why you keep coming back to SO since you clearly don't enjoy the site. Why not just leaving? –  juergen d Jul 7 '13 at 13:49
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As for your "reference question", I'm assuming you're hinting at this creation of yours? I get what you're doing there and you've obviously put a lot of effort into it, but in the world of SO it's a monstrosity. The very line "If your question has been closevoted with this list, please find your question below and apply the fix to your code" illustrates perfectly why it's a bad idea. –  Bart Jul 7 '13 at 13:57
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You write well, and have a lot of knowledge to share. You need a blog! –  Ernest Friedman-Hill Jul 7 '13 at 16:51
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Also: I think the assertion that "things are never explained at SO" is absurd; I try to explain all of my answers, and I never, ever just 'give tem teh c0dez.' Still, I rarely write more than half a dozen sentences; this approach has worked fine for me. –  Ernest Friedman-Hill Jul 7 '13 at 16:53
    
-1 From the first sentence. –  fbueckert Jul 8 '13 at 13:51

2 Answers 2

You're painting with a really broad brush here, and implicitly insulting a lot of folks along the way - folks who do try to explain things, write generally-useful answers and even occasionally put the time in to edit the questions they're answering into a form that others can find...

That said, you have a few good points:

  • So, we have Stack Overflow bloated with thousands of repeated questions with bad answers.

    Absolutely. To be fair, a lot of them are also bad questions, so to a certain extent this is a garbage-in-garbage-out problem; still, it's not hard to find folks grinding their way to 100K with lazy, copy-paste answers that they've never bothered to test much less explain...

  • But Stack Overflow is just an opposite extreme!

    Not exactly; the opposite extreme of a moderated forum is an unmoderated forum (at least when it comes to allowing anyone to ask anything at any time). Other possible extremes include things like Wikis (where answers are given in response to questions no one asked) and Twitter (where questions are simultaneously asked to everyone everywhere and no one at all).

    Stack Overflow is - has always been - a weird hybrid; it is moderated, but only after the fact. One would certainly expect this to collapse under its own weight - indeed, I rather expected this to happen in the second year of its existence. Instead, moderation has grown with the site. Closing isn't the best metric for this, but... It is something*. Here are closed questions as a % of total questions over time on Stack Overflow:

month-by-month, closed questions (all-time) as a % of asked questions (all-time) has increased from just over 4% to just over 8% since 2011 *specifically, something I don't have to write another query for given I already had this laying around.

  • Okay, a few people who care are trying to create some sort of "reference questions". Even if they succeed against strong community reluctance ("this doesn't fit for SO!")

    This is a bit of a problem. Like it or not, reference questions are occasionally useful - there are simply too many potential variations on common questions to expect all of them to ever be answered well if answered piecemeal. At the same time, we sorta poisoned the well with Community Wiki in the past, and never quite finished Tag Wikis (you still can't actually search for them), so even if someone does try to sit down and answer a common class of question... There's no generally-accepted, generally-useful place for them to put that!

    I suspect the solution - if there is one - lies in your previous statement:

    they have a choice: to answer and get some points, or to vote for closure and get nothing.

    Closing - especially for duplicates that aren't exact matches - is slow and hard. OTOH, posting an answer with two lines of text and a link to your more comprehensive answer on a different question is dead easy. And also gets you rep. I know what I'd do...

  • Some people dedicate themselves not to answering questions but to answering questions on answering questions. So, they have no real picture of the things, but always have an opinion on them.

    There are actually a couple of different problems here...

    First, there are the people who do nothing but hang out on Meta - some of them even have 2-3 times the reputation here as they do on any other site. Those people are the worst...

    Second, there are the people who are extremely active in answering questions... On a site that isn't Stack Overflow. They're here because they're interested in the whole "network meta" role of the site, but sometimes they give astoundingly bad answers to questions from folks on Stack Overflow since they've never had to deal with the sort of problems that arise only there. It's not their fault; they may be offering guidance that would be very useful to someone on a site that gets 30 questions a day, tops... But they're still not helping.

    Finally, there are folks who start discussions here without any clear idea of what they actually want to discuss. Maybe they're really upset about something, or just can't be bothered to go back and edit their stream of consciousness after they've finished dumping it into the text field. Those posts practically beg for all and sundry to share whatever tangential opinions pop into their heads, since... Who the hell knows what we're even talking about here? Those people are also the worst.

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"some of them even have 2-3 times the reputation here as they do on any other site" Hmm... I wonder who that could be...? :P –  Doorknob Jul 7 '13 at 20:34
    
My rep here is much higher than other sites. But then again I really don't know why. I think its mostly from a few specific answers –  Wes Jul 10 '13 at 21:30

Stack Overflow is a question and answer site for professional and enthusiast programmers. There exists an expectation that people asking questions will have their own experience and knowledge base from which to pull, and that their questions will target specific, identifiable problems.

You offered an analogy of a "how to perform an appendectomy" question on a site geared toward physicians. According to the Stack Overflow system, that question would be too broad. Questioners are expected to know how to locate the area of the appendix, how to sterilize the process, how to make an incision, etc. Good questions should address one small part of the process, not the whole thing. Those that ask for broad explanations should be closed.

Carrying your analogy forward, this site won't teach people how to perform appendectomies. It may help the physician who needs to glance up during the surgery to figure out how to finish that tricky seventeenth stitch.

Instead of trying to change the mission and purpose of Stack Overflow, consider that the site is working as it is intended, and as long as the various members fulfill their roles (answering, voting, closing, reviewing, etc) it will continue to work quite well.

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I was going to write a similar answer, but I don't think I could top this. I think it might be appropriate, though, to explicitly make it clear that if someone really needs the sort of unique, novel, not-previously-published answer that requires a billable hour to create, well, they should find a consultant and pay them for their time. –  Ernest Friedman-Hill Jul 7 '13 at 16:39
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This Stack Overflow of yours is an imaginary one. That's exactly what I am talking about. In your imagination this would be a closed question. In reality there would be a dozen of answers from eager participants. In your imagination something indeed "expected" from a questioner. On reality nobody ever cares. Unfortunately, I am a programmer. So, if I would "consider" instead of observing facts, I wouldn't have my job done. –  Your Common Sense Jul 9 '13 at 6:26

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