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Apologies of this has come up recently / been done to death, I've only just discovered Meta Stack Overflow.

I signed up for Stack Overflow just after its launch nearly a year ago, and the quality of answers was so high it was a genuinely fantastic resource.

However, my recent experiences have been anything but positive. It appears to me now:

  • Users are only interested in spraying quick answers in the hope of gaining some reputation points
  • Users have no real interest in following up and engaging in dialogue or answer improvement
  • Any question that is 'deep' or difficult or cannot be answered with a quick, fired-off, answer, either doesn't attract any response at all or attracts facile / low grade / sarcastic answers
  • A lot of the high quality users have lost interest
  • People seem more interested in having a rep than actually answering, helping, guiding, teaching and sharing knowledge

I am finding myself returning to some of the older specialist forums after being frustrated here, and actually getting better answers and discussions than I can here.

Has anyone else experienced this? Is anything in the works to try and tackle it?

Edit: Why the down vote? Is anything even slightly critical of Stack Overflow deserving of instant opprobrium?

Some points:

  • I am in no way criticising Jon Skeet and the other 'power' users who have given a huge amount of their time and knowledge, they are fantastic guys but they can't be expected to answer everything
  • I know it's a question and answer site. Providing a response and following up with edits in response to questions or requests for clarification about an answer is what made Stack Overflow so good originally and should be a fundamental part of what happens here.
  • I don't have a problem with quick answers - if they're useful then all the better if they're also quick, who needs an answer six months later?
  • I don't expect people to code solutions for me - I'm a self-starter, self-finisher and happy to figure things out from suggestions from experienced guys. I don't need or want to be force fed.

An example question, asked today, clearly explained and not too deep, technical, or obscure. All I was looking for was a response from someone technically competent and with a bit of experience solving the problem I had posted about. Instead I got one facile answer, one completely sarcastic answer and one that made a vaguely interesting point about associative databases but still fairly useless given the question. You be the judge..

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marked as duplicate by gnat, Azik, Aziz Shaikh, Hugo Dozois, hims056 Nov 6 '13 at 5:02

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

Can you give some examples? And, don't spare me if necessary. –  John Saunders Jul 2 '09 at 22:22
I have to disagree with you. There are some truly fantastic contributors that I see post on a daily basis who give wonderfully complete answers and check back. Perhaps you're not asking your questions the right way, or simply expecting too much. I don't think it's fair to throw down a complex problem and hope someone looks at it and completes it top to bottom; and the odds are the question is in regards to something you're getting paid for doing. Its fair more helpful to lead someone to an answer than to spit out a correct answer in full. –  Ian Elliott Jul 2 '09 at 22:25
I'm not criticising all contributors, far from it, it's just the top guys cannot answer everything. Have a look at my example. I'm not looking for people to code a system for me, I'm looking for someone with a bit of experience to point me in the right direction or share their experience, that's all. –  flesh Jul 2 '09 at 22:50
Sorry to be so pedantic - "improval" isn't a word. You mean "improvement". –  Lucas Jones Jul 2 '09 at 23:14
I just tried to see your example question from your point of view. I answered it in a way I thought might be closer to what you were looking for, and different from many of the other answers. I'd be curious to know if my answer is more like what you wanted to see. –  John Saunders Jul 2 '09 at 23:29
John - I think your answer implied that I hadn't phrased the question particularly well :) –  flesh Jul 3 '09 at 0:03
@flesh: really? The edited answer, mentioning UI? Can you say what it is that gives you that impression? It wasn't my intention. I believe you're accurately stating most of the requirements. I hope you're focusing on the data storage requirements and leaving out the requirements that would help your customer produce good business objects. I suggested some things to consider in that direction. –  John Saunders Jul 3 '09 at 0:10
No not the edited answer - i posted the above comment before I saw the full rework. And I did appreciate the full answer by the way, the only one so far to actually address the points I was making, so in some ways this thread still stands (though points about hostility below noted and taken). –  flesh Jul 3 '09 at 8:38
Yeah, I don't think it's SO's fault - it's a genuinely brilliant platform - but sensible questions from more advanced developers who are looking for a fairly advanced response seem to get lost in the maelstrom of relatively junior developers who are intent on picking up rep.. –  flesh Jul 4 '09 at 11:41
+1 for this question, It's something I have noticed for a long time now but hesitated to raise a point for since I hoped the community would resolve this over time. But since I don't feel there's any improvement in this regard, I think we need to rediscuss this (Heck it's almost a year ago!) –  Johannes Rudolph Aug 7 '10 at 9:03
Added some examples that showed up today (edit needs to be reviewed...) The bar to entry/ask a question just seems way to low now. SO seems to be getting overloaded with localized questions with new users that aren't putting much effort into solving their own questions. I'm afraid if this keeps up the quality users are going to drift away. –  monkut Feb 13 '12 at 8:38
This question SHOULD be the top priority for the site's owner to do something about, since it points directly at the problem that makes the site so sucky to use for most people. There should be a way to flag the stupid jerks and reduce their influence to nothing! Every website has a 'corporate culture' that reflects its ownership, which suggests in this case that it is owned and run by some kind of dipshit who normally behaves like a creep already, so what can you expect? –  Only as a last resort... Dec 1 at 10:46

5 Answers 5

Okay, here's my 2 cents. You ask a very legitimate, but very complex question. Generally this is a question that you would put to an architect, not a developer. And then you ask ...

"So what is the best solution?"

Points I think you need to recognize about your question: (1) it's hard; (2) it's not typical for SO; (3) it's targeted at architects. So, the only people that are going to be able to answer you are: (1) someone who has done this before; (2) an architect that decides to sit down and spend an hour or more researching the problem and composing an answer.

Recognizing #1, it's a hard problem, you get typical answers of the type "did you push back?" Those make sense. To those reasonable responses, you say ...

I cannot simply say, sorry, why don't you try a more traditional approach and to suggest doing so is naive.

I push back on requirements for a living, so I think your statement is actually the naive one. I have actually been blamed by customers for not pushing hard enough do dissuade them from a bad course of action after something I recommend (strongly) against blew up in their faces.

Then you get a smart ass "hey give them Java and say go for it!" And you let it drag you down and you start to pop-off. As such, you lose any credibility in the question that you may have had. That answer should have been water off a duck's back.

You got legitimate answers (not the answers you wanted) and you immediately went ad hominem with your response ("you're naive!") Personally, I think your expectations of SO are too high.

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Ok, fair enough, points taken (in good spirit). The only point i'd take you up on is me being naive. I understand absolutely about pushing back, I've done enough project management and client facing work to know the importance of pushing back... when you can win the battle. However, I also get annoyed at developers who push back on absolutely everything just for the sake of it - default mode is always awkward, rather than helpful - we have all worked with them at some point. Plus, servicing client demands is always about being accomodating where you can, otherwise you'd have no clients... –  flesh Jul 2 '09 at 23:25
I'll have to remember to give you an upvote in half an hour when I get my new votes. You basically detailed everything I was talking about in my edit concerning his perceived hostility. –  TheTXI Jul 2 '09 at 23:27
.. and in this case the requirement is non-negotiable, it's a 'must have' feature of the system they want, period. So yes, I didn't get the answer I was looking for and I should have taken the sarcasm better, and maybe my disappointment was exactly because I have high expectations of SO. On old style forums I woudn't have been surprised to receive no answers at all.. so you're definitely right there. Lastly, I don't expect anyone to spend an hour researching and answering for me, rather I'd hoped that my problem, being fairly common place, would attract a quick 'you don't want to go the .. –  flesh Jul 2 '09 at 23:29
long narrow table route because x, y, z' ... anyway, ive written enough. thanks for your considered and thoughtful answer :) –  flesh Jul 2 '09 at 23:30
@flesh: You're right -- you have to be smart and tactical when you push back and you never always win. Believe me I'm with you. I've done somethings I knew were horrible, because if I pushed back one more time, I would lose the contract. :) And, your question (I should add) is very interesting, I would love to architect a dynamic Domain Specific Language! But, that's a lot of work no matter how you slice it. I think break down your question into smaller bites and you will get what you're looking for. –  JP Alioto Jul 2 '09 at 23:32
@flesh: you were looking for an answer from experience. The answer was, "don't do this". Sorry to hear you've got "one of those clients". Maybe you should send them the URL to the discussion on SO. :-) –  John Saunders Jul 2 '09 at 23:32
hehe - cheers guys. i guess my frustration was that feeling of being caught between an awkward client requirement, people firing off 'change the requirement' type answers (when I know I can't), and having a bad day. In case, you're interested I'm leaning towards a dynamic schema solution, it's going to be horrible but I just can't see anyway a long narrow table is going to scale. Anyway, appreciate your feedback, it's kind of becalmed me :) –  flesh Jul 2 '09 at 23:48

StackOverflow is a Q&A site, it is not a discussion site. Is there a problem with someone getting a very fast and correct answer? Does every answer need to be long-winded?

I am generally one of those people who will post fast answers, but I will also go in and revise my question as I go along adding more and more information the longer it stays open. This does not have to be the case in every instance because sometimes the best answer is one that tells you what the answer is and then gets out of the way. If I want to know 2+2, I don't need a dissertation on the subject before being told it's 4.

Edit: After looking over your recently posted example, I think one reason why you may not be getting the number of answers (or quality of answers) you like has a lot to do with a perceived hostility in you responses to them. There was a sarcastic answer, but it raised a legitimate point and he even clarified it in another response after that. It seemed to me as someone looking on after the fact that anytime someone posted an answer that didn't gel with your desired outcome, you attacked (whether you realized it or not). That is a good way to keep people from continuing to work with you towards a good answer, and it may actually scare off other people from even starting to answer your question.

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Im not complaining about the 'speed' of answers. see my example question... –  flesh Jul 2 '09 at 22:44
agreed, I was in a bad mood today (client related :)) and I responded to the last sarcastic answer in a way I shouldn't or wouldn't usually. But my question was quite clear - I dont need an answer that says 'tell your client to change their entire business strategy' - thats a pointless suggestion IMHO. –  flesh Jul 2 '09 at 22:57
@TheTXI: Agree. Sometimes the best answer is "that is the wrong question", "you have started towards a solution in the wrong direction"... See XY Problem: perlmonks.org/index.pl?node_id=542341 –  Richard Jul 3 '09 at 10:42

I'm pretty sure this will be downvoted to oblivion*, but I believe this is yet another example of what seems to be a fundamental rule on the web: Any useful or interesting site which allows user interaction will over time be rendered useless by plain bad contents without enormous effort from the owners' side. That is not to say that a site will not be used anymore beyond this point, just that the savvy and productive users will have left for greener pastures, leaving the rest to spam and bicker.

Anyone who's been using the web for a few years probably have seen at least one good site go bad from sheer overload of bad content. Digg and LinkedIn Answers are there, Reddit and del.icio.us are on the way, and only a few sites seem to survive in the long run: Wikipedia comes to mind.

Maybe a similar moderation structure would be useful - I know I'd love to see a lot of questions here answered with "RTFM!" and a delete (at least it should be possible to hide all closed questions). Another issue is bad tagging - A lot of vendor-specific questions are marked with general tags. This badly weakens the very useful tag filtering options - I don't want to hide all SQL questions, only those related to vendors I'm not familiar with. Tag moderation could be very useful, but it seems rare in practice. Another suggestion would be heavy deduction of rep for bad questions (closed or downvoted), and some sort of entry barrier to asking if you've got few points or lots of downvotes.

*No, that's not a stab at Slashdot at all.

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Yeah you're right, it is a more general web phenomenon, it's a shame people haven't discovered an effective way to counter it.. –  flesh Jul 4 '09 at 11:42
It is RTFM'ers who give new users the impression that uncivil behavior is OK on StackOverflow. It is not. The only way you can teach good behaviour is by being well-behaved. Telling people to RTFM is NOT good behavior. –  Robert Harvey Aug 7 '09 at 17:51
@Robert Harvey: But the published objective (at least from Jeff) is for questions to be posed about programming problems where the questioner has at least tried to solve the problem and has hit the metaphorical brick wall. Responding to the "How do I?", "What's the best?" type questions where the questioner is expecting someone else to do the leg work for them is counter productive and at the end of the day I'm human with only so much patience. The quick-fire bunch are so desperate for rep they are answering these questions (often badly and getting up votes irrespective as there are no ... –  Lazarus Nov 12 '09 at 16:58
... other answers) and therefore encouraging the problem. I appreciate that we all had to start somewhere, and many of us start again (with a new language or technology) on a fairly regular basis, we understand that the best way to learn is to try to solve the problem yourself and so we go and research and struggle and sometimes we win, sometimes we don't. When we don't we did have a great place to come to ask other real developers for help, now we'd be lost among the dross and our questions will disappear down the list so fast we might as well have not posted. –  Lazarus Nov 12 '09 at 17:01
Is the answer to be uncivil? Probably not, may be is should be RTM not RTFM. Sometimes the repeat offenders are so blasé I get to the end of my tether with trying to guide them to help themselves with something that's a single Google search away. At the end of the day it's not the uncivil people who annoy me, it's the painfully polite people who are asking you to do their work for them, the ones that you'd feel bad being rude to even though they are being rude to you by expecting you to do their work for them. I can be so polite to you, you'd punch me :) Please delete this as applicable. –  Lazarus Nov 12 '09 at 17:10

Quality and Quantity don't go well together.

In the beginning, we had high quality users that were really into programming that discovered Stack Overflow. Other quality users came in through advertisement like social communication. But, over time Stack Overflow got popular on a site like Google; so, while Stack Overflow was originally intended for professional and enthusiastic programmers as noted in the FAQ, about any programmer finds his way to our site now. The quality of Stack Overflow suffers under the quantity of new users...

We can't just block Google and deny new users, that would be rude.

We have mechanisms in place to decrease the amount of low quality.

As we can't battle quantity, we can at least try to get rid of the worst quality and users:

If you look for the best solution, you will rather get a sea of answers than a technical expert.

If you look for knowledge, asking for the best solution will not result you in knowledge that is from the degree of a technical expert. But rather any user that has any knowledge on the terrain of your question will attempt to provide you with a solution, after which the best solution will win.

This is where the close reason not constructive comes into play, you can't simply define what best means in the case of your question as it means something different for everyone. More explicitly, let's look at how the following close reason is one that does apply to the current form of your question:

This question is not a good fit to our Q&A format. We expect answers to generally involve facts, references, or specific expertise; this question will likely solicit opinion, debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion.

That sea of answers that you got, are merely the result of polling for the best solution.

In other words, you can't expect Quality when you are looking for Quantity.

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I think the large part of this issue is simply that there are more people asking and more people answering. Many are answering trying to be helpful even though their answers aren't working for the poster.

Don't get me wrong though, there are a lot of great questions and great answers that get posted many times a day.

Because the focus is on getting answers, I am curious to see if the rate of accepted answers has gone up or down since the launch.

The honeymoon days were great, where you even had computer science legends answering and asking questions, but the floodgates have opened and there are just more people interested the site.


About your example question, I think it has one foot on ServerFault and one foot on StackOverflow.

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I think you're close to the reason why it was so good when it started and my experience is that the rate of accepted answers is going down - for me at least.. –  flesh Jul 2 '09 at 22:45
Really? Is it worth asking over there? –  flesh Jul 2 '09 at 23:04
Yes, many server type specialist there. –  Ólafur Waage Jul 2 '09 at 23:05

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