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I have been an SO user for quite some time and not an entire dimwit when it comes to my languages of choice. SO is a very useful resource and has helped me out of a pinch many a time. However, when it comes to:

  • Answering a question: I will only do so if I think nobody except the person facing my exact challenge will ever see my answer (i.e. questions with hardly any up-voting or even one with a bit of down-voting). I would never, ever, ever answer a popular question even if my solution ended world hunger AND solved the quandary of time travel (provided that was what the OP was asking for, of course).
  • Asking a question: I will trawl Google's nether regions before posting a question on SO. I will scour forums that still think blinking text is cool, before asking a question on SO. I have never asked a question on SO. This is only my second on ALL the Exchange sites.

Why? A number of reasons:

  1. Exchange moderators are a bit, um, what's the word? Well, the nicest word I can come up with is "complicated", possibly "unpredictable". I have seen other users get flamed for seemingly minor "offenses". You sit on the sidelines going --> o.O <-- and thinking to yourself "Even though I wanted to know the answer to that question, I am so glad I didn't ask it. Thanks for taking the heat there, fellow user". I myself had an answer deleted after 1 down-vote. (Between you and me I think it was because, turns out, the mod was a Java dev and I made a Java joke... Knock, knock... teehee ^_^). I don't mind the deletion, but after only 1 down-vote? And no feedback as to why I'm a complete nincompoop?

    So... if I sit down and try and write a good answer (taking hours off my pathetic little existence), 1 of 3 things might happen: a) I get the answer right before everyone else and get some SO points. Hooray; b) I get the answer right but am too late and get no SO points, but maybe some up-votes. Hooray; And of course a) and b) contribute to the greater learnings of mankind; c) I get it all befuddled and get nothing, not even feedback to help me develop. (Don't nobody refer me to the FAQ on how to answer well. I've read it!) I'm a busy old girl and I don't know about anyone else, but there seems to me to be limited to no benefit to contributing to SO.

  2. SO users, by and large, seem somewhat... "combative". If I ask a question or give an answer I would like to come back to positive and constructive responses. I want to grow not groan inwardly when I check back in. And I know some of you are saying SO isn't responsible for the behaviour of random users, except that from what I've observed it tends to be the more entrenched members (the +10ks or whatever) who are the most inhospitable. There seems to be a very defined and accepted methodology around here and it seems to me divergent thinking is not encouraged.

    So... if I sit down and try and write a good answer (taking hours off my pathetic little existence), there is every likelihood that a +10ker is going to come along and say something mean... and make me cry... sob, sob...

To summarize:

I won't take it personal if you only read this part:

  • Now that I can vote and comment, I don't care about SO points o.O I make the odd edit when I have time just to add to the readability of a useful site. (Thanks to some advice I got from the first, and only other, question I posted here).
  • I won't ask a question or answer a question because there is no foreseeable benefit to me (yeah, I said it). I would love to contribute but there is no point.
  • No, I don't sit and cry in front of my keyboard because of trolls on SO. I just limit my interactions on SO because it is so widespread and unchallenged among the established users.
  • If I am looking for tried and tested and practical, I come to SO. If I am looking for exciting, bleeding-edge, fraught-with-difficulty, new strategies - not SO. A mod probably deleted that answer already. To me, SO is not the cutting edge of development. The Google leads me here. If I'm really looking for creative, innovative solutions I exclude SO from my search to skip all the false positives. Sorry SO :(

The Question

What can the SO members (and "elite" in particular as the "leaders" and content decision-makers) proactively do to create a more friendly SO that encourages the development of developers and ideas (horribly scary, fabulously subversive ideas that don't even have docblocks) and not just the development of SO points. From what I understand that is the point of the site (the developing developers bit, not the points bit).

PS: If you aren't an elite, it's okay. We all have SO Point Envy. Your little ole plebe self can answer too. I won't delete your stupid answer or nothin'. And if I found out a mod did, I'll stick 'em.

To answer or not to answer

  • Please don't suggest a new feature. Features don't change human nature or the mood of a site. There is no "ego-off" button. Let's work with what we got - very talented, intelligent people.
  • No "themming vs ussing". Answers are to revolve around "I" not "those damn elite!" or "those damn plebes!" I am allowed because it's my question.
  • Don't suggest the creation of another site document or editing of an existing site document. SO members aren't the most rule abiding citizens in the universe. A new "code of conduct" just won't cut it, I'm afraid.
  • Don't refer me to the site documentation. I've read it!
  • Don't tell me there is an Exchange for horribly scary, fabulously subversive ideas. There isn't. I checked.
  • Don't go the whole, "If you aren't happy go somewhere else" route. That is hardly constructive. Plus, I already have diversified from SO. So there. Finger snap.
  • Please don't ask for links to posts to illustrate my points. I have read so much SO it would be inane to try and isolate an instance that springs to mind. But this is very much my perception of the site after two years and as Dr Phil says, "Perception is Reality". Dr Phil is never wrong! That and also the fact that some pages have gazillions of hits and hardly any contributions, alternate suggestions, etc. Thousands of people look at a topic and only 5 have something to contribute? Seems odd... And seems a bit of a shame too. So much potential knowledge not on SO...

In conclusion

All done. Please, argue amongst yourselves.


EDIT: Most illustrious members of so many ks that I feel all bashful, please advise. Now that my question has been marked duplicate (although in my woefully inadequate and 'subjective' plebe opinion it is not) and I am no longer able to submit my own answer, where - oh, where?!? - do I submit my answer? On the other question where it will make no sense and be entirely out of context? Or do I add it up here in defiance of all the site docs? Yes, I reread the site docs. My angst remains.

Or do I, sadly and with an air of dejection, shuffle back to the SO rep obscurity from whence I came?

And no, the answers did not address the question because the question asked members to reflect (implying objectively, as in a thought exercise considering another point of view, not just reciting one's own pre-established point of view) on how the status quo (of which a number of complaints have been made*) may be changed. I would have accepted an answer that included any sentiment along the lines of:

Well firstly, I completely disagree with you about everything! Especially that whole "controversial new ideas" thing. No new ideas in SO EVAAAAAA! However, if I was to consider that your point of view might be anything other than complete nonsense (which it is in IMHO :P), I would try and do things like... [xyz]

Where [xyz] are viable, easily implementable steps that may conceivably work towards (slow and steady wins the race) addressing the issues I identified.

And, yes, I do understand that that is "the way things are", that it is the "culture" and that sifting through obnoxious comments helps me "grow" as a coder *rolls eyes*. I am sure the whole "alienate all the new users" business model is bound to take the world by storm. But until it does, and as a member of this community and part of this culture and currently up on my SOp box, I proclaim in a loud voice:

"SO can be better! The only systems that never change are dead systems! Is SO dead?!? I say NAY! Roll in the change, reopen the question! Let me have my say! Vive le France!"

PS: I would have made a joke about the revolution, the elite and guillotines but that makes @Servy anxious. No threats here, Servy, not even tongue in cheek ones! ^_^


*See:

At this point I got bored of copy and paste. It's a long list...

share|improve this question
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"hunt them like the Predator and down-vote everything I can lay my hands on" - Good luck with that. –  Anna Lear Oct 18 '13 at 18:11
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« I will trawl Google's nether regions before posting a question on SO. I will scour forums that still think blinking text is cool, before asking a question on SO. I have never asked a question on SO» That means you're doing it right, and I for one salute you. –  Josh Caswell Oct 18 '13 at 18:14
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There were so many cool turns of phrase, witty/funny lines, and proper spelling of 'quandary' that I almost wanted to up-vote. But I'm holding off for now. Not sure how productive this will turn out. –  Andrew Barber Oct 18 '13 at 18:14
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"Please don't ask for links to posts to illustrate my points. I have read so much SO it would be inane to try and isolate an instance that springs to mind." If the problem is as pervasive as you're suggesting, surely you can find examples easily. Or keep an eye out for them in the next few days, and come back and edit them in. If you never see another example, then surely that means the problem isn't there. Saying that "perception is reality" is too easy - because I can just as well say that I perceive that Stack Overflow is fine, therefore it must be. –  Jon Skeet Oct 18 '13 at 18:18
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FWIW, while I see a lot of "negative" comments on questions - because there are a lot of bad questions - I very rarely see them on answers, unless someone is actively promoting bad practice. –  Jon Skeet Oct 18 '13 at 18:19
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Why is Stack Overflow - and Stack Exchange in general - so scary (and filled with crazy people)? Because the technical sites are spawned from the culture that gave us THIS –  voretaq7 Oct 18 '13 at 18:41
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@JonSkeet negative comments on bad questions is still bad. It's every bit as bad as negative comments on good questions. It's perfectly fine to ask the OP for clarification, or to tell the OP to narrow down his problem so we don't have to post a wall of code, but if you find yourself wanting to insult the OP, you need to restrain yourself –  Sam I am Oct 18 '13 at 20:55
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@SamIam: I deliberately put negative in quotes. I mean the kind of comment that I've seen OPs get annoyed about, even though the comments themselves are just reminding them of the things they've already agreed to when asking questions. Things like us not just doing homework, or needing more information etc. I'm not talking about insults. –  Jon Skeet Oct 18 '13 at 21:34
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Brilliant piece, great writing , thanks –  Adel Oct 19 '13 at 1:03
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What are "SO points"? If you're talking about reputation, then this makes no sense: "I get the answer right but am too late and get no SO points, but maybe some up-votes.". Getting upvotes corresponds to an increase in reputation. –  Asad Oct 19 '13 at 1:06
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There's no doubt the tone on SO is a huge problem. But that aside, I've become comfortable with SO being the headquarters of a conservative, "tried and tested", mainstream way of thinking. It's an incredibly valuable echo chamber where new programmers learn good practices and get called out for bad ones. In that, it actively fights the kind of stuff that tends to end up on the DailyWTF. To me, that alone is a gigantic achievement for the craft of software development. A place to discuss the bleeding edge would perhaps need a different format, and different community standards. –  Pëkka Oct 19 '13 at 15:05
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@High I think what Josh was saying is simply that when you start a discussion, you're more than welcome to respond to the responses. I'm sure no attack or insult was intended (if that's how you interpreted it) –  Pëkka Oct 19 '13 at 20:42
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Wow, even Meta with its high tolerance for discussion is not a place where you can seriously ask people to tell you how they would implement something THEY DO NOT WANT. Instead, people will tell you why they don't want it, and suggest you some strategies for better enjoyment of what exists. Demanding the answers you think this question deserves just leaves me shaking my head. –  Kate Gregory Oct 20 '13 at 14:45
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Claiming that the only type of change that could "save the site" would be letting you have your way is just silly. It is ridiculous to demand that users post suggestions to mold the site in the image you conceive for it, even when they nearly unanimously disagree with your vision. Your question started out being vague (what constitutes "development of ideas"? what if I think that's already happening?), and now, after your edit, it is clear you aren't seeking discussion or the genuine opinions of others at all. –  Asad Oct 20 '13 at 17:41
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If you didn't get answers of the kind you wanted (as (loosely) opposed to the content) after 700 people have viewed your post, you should consider that you perhaps didn't communicate your intent as clearly as possible. Have another go if you want, but dismissing our responses as dismissals of your question may be missing the point and just makes me wonder further what your intent is. Have you reflected on the replies as deeply as you wished we had reflected on your post? In short, just what are you looking for? –  Josh Caswell Oct 20 '13 at 19:08

11 Answers 11

Stack Overflow was not built on the cultural norms of forums; most of the angst that occurs when new users come here occurs because new users think we work just like forums, but we don't (We don't work like Facebook or Twitter either).

New users could go a long way towards getting a better reception if they actually spent a few minutes figuring out how Stack Overflow works, and what the cultural norms are, before writing their first post. The chilly reception that new users get when they break these norms happens because:

  1. The failure to spend a few minutes learning the basic facts about Stack Overflow before posting under-specified shopping questions filled with spelling and grammatical errors is perceived by the community as laziness and rudeness (which it is), and

  2. So many new users do this that it causes moderation fatigue. The community has to explain this over and over to new users, and they get tired of doing it.

So while we do value civility and professionalism, we also expect a nominal amount of it from new users, and the responsibility of getting a good reception rests mostly with them.

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+1, though you should perhaps change "few minutes" to "few days". The seasoned forum users you talk about wont get used to and accept SO in a few hours, let alone minutes. –  James Oct 18 '13 at 23:05
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@James: The OP of this question has been here for a year, and I daresay he still doesn't get it. –  Robert Harvey Oct 19 '13 at 0:11
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@RobertHarvey, the OP, as a self-proclaimed "busy old girl" and a with the title "High Priestess", I daresay is a she. –  Ben Lee Oct 19 '13 at 0:38
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@BenLee: Whatever. –  Robert Harvey Oct 19 '13 at 0:54
    
Haha, good one. [Bookmarked] –  Ben Lee Oct 19 '13 at 4:48
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@RobertHarvey: Sort of related. –  Jamal Oct 19 '13 at 22:38
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I would agree in entirety, except or one thing: Learning how to write and ask good questions is difficult. It's something we take for granted, because most meta users are decently good at it, but it's very hard to figure out, especially in a foreign language. –  Emrakul Oct 20 '13 at 17:07
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I'm afraid I have to disagree with the view of just "spend a few minutes..." She's done that. Moderator/high-rep-user hostility is a real problem. Psychologically, it looks like the attitude police are prone to develop after a few years of "correcting" wrong-doers. I've seen users referred to other sites like Programmers for a more discussion-like experience. I can tell you that the kids running Programmers are far quicker to downvote and close than SO. There are people there who have cast as many downvotes as upvotes. –  DocSalvager Oct 24 '13 at 7:23
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@DocSalvage: Spending a few minutes learning the site only works if you bring an attitude of openness to the exercise. Otherwise, you still wind up bringing all of your bad habits from forums here. Programmers is not a "discussion" site, any more than Stack Overflow is, and if folks are getting referred there because they want a discussion, then that is the reason their questions are getting closed. –  Robert Harvey Oct 24 '13 at 15:44
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I see far more Meta posts complaining about how nasty this place is than incidents of people being nasty. I do see plenty of downvotes and critical comments for badly written questions. I think some people are opposed to critical comments even when they are justified and even when they are directed at others. –  Raedwald Oct 24 '13 at 23:19

The StackExchange sites are full of people. Some (by no means all or even a majority) occasionally act scary or crazy. That said, I don't think your examples qualify as examples of scary or crazy behaviour.

I have seen other users get flamed for seemingly minor "offenses".

Depending on your definition of "flamed" you should never see this. Flag such comments as offensive, and flag answers that only complain about the question or about other answers as "not an answer". If you can, edit the flaming out of otherwise reasonable answers. It's possible by flamed you mean a comment like "without showing us your code we can't answer the question" or other such reasonably-toned requests for further information. Should that be the case I will remind you there is no "hitting below the belt" allowed but you are not allowed to wear your belt around your neck.

I myself had an answer deleted after 1 down-vote

Typically "reasons to delete" and "reasons to downvote" have little or no overlap. Answers are deleted if they're not answers - just a link, just a joke, just a request for more information or an assertion that some other answer is wrong. You seem to imply that nobody should delete an answer until it's achieved some number of downvotes. That's not how it works, not at all.

What can the SO members ... do to create a more friendly SO that encourages the development of developers and ideas ?

Not much. Especially not ideas. It's not what the sites are about. Questions and answers. No more, no less. You want a community, you want to develop ideas, you want to make friends? Well those things happen for some of us. But they're not the point and you're never going to get anyone to agree to do things that work on developing ideas and developers. Questions and answers, that's all.

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Well said. Well said. –  Peter Mortensen Oct 18 '13 at 21:40

I will trawl Google's nether regions before posting a question on SO. I will scour forums that still think blinking text is cool, before asking a question on SO. I have never asked a question on SO. This is only my second on ALL the Exchange sites.

That's amazing and exactly what you should be doing. We don't want people to be posting questions because they spent 30 seconds trying to figure something out and couldn't. We want to have really hard questions that will be interesting to experts, useful to others, and that won't be the same 10 questions asked day after day.

If the answer to your question is already readily accessible through other SO questions, or even elsewhere on the web, then we don't want you posting another question. That you take the time to be very sure that you have no other means of getting an answer is desirable.

As for answering, part of that comes down to just getting some experience. You need to get used to what the community values in answers, what it really dislikes in answers, etc. This takes both time and experience. You'll have answers that seem good to you but that others don't like. Sometimes it's just because your answer isn't clear, is too long, is too short, isn't formatted well, or it could be that the community generally doesn't like the content of the answer.

While it is true that some people don't respond very constructively to problems they see in an answer, many do. I've found it important to do whatever you can to assume that someone is responding constructively, and in good faith, even if it reads a bit combative. Sometimes it's just the fact that tone doesn't translate well over the internet, sometimes it's because someone was just being terse, not rude, other times it's because they don't have a full mastery over the English language, and in some cases they really are being rude, but you're better off pretending they responded constructively anyway. If you find the responses devolving despite your best effort to remain constructive, just stop participating. Some people just aren't looking for constructive discussions.

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I up voted after reading your first paragraph. Then I read the rest, and decided not to remove my up vote. Aren't I nice? ;) (Yes; I read the whole thing that fast!) –  Andrew Barber Oct 18 '13 at 18:20
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Hell, I usually won't ask unless I've made a prototype reproing my issue. Putting effort into answering your own question often short-circuits the question in the first place, as you tend to find it. –  Won't Oct 18 '13 at 20:01
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Should people really have to take a few more hours to have to read through "forums that still think blinking text is cool" before asking a question? I thought that SO was intended to stop people having to read these horrible forums and waste their time there attempting to get an answer to their question (assuming it's of sufficient complexity and they've searched for it within SO, of course). –  Qantas 94 Heavy Oct 18 '13 at 22:55
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@Qantas94Heavy SO has never taken the stance that all programming knowledge needs to be on this site. If the information being sought after is readily accessible it doesn't need to be added here as well. If the information exists elsewhere, but it is not of high quality, it is not discoverable, is not understandable, etc. then it can be appropriate for it to be on SO as well. –  Servy Oct 18 '13 at 23:21
    
Since when did "forums that still think blinking text is cool" become highly discoverable and of high quality? –  Qantas 94 Heavy Oct 18 '13 at 23:23
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@Qantas94Heavy The problem with using that as an argument is that it is entirely anecdotal, and human beings' tendency for exaggeration means that it could refer to pretty much anything, eg. an official documentation site where the OP doesn't like the sidebar layout. –  Asad Oct 19 '13 at 1:17
    
@Qantas94Heavy They are not universally bad and to be ignored entirely. The problem with them is that they often have a lot of crap; that doesn't mean they never have useful information, or that certain topic aren't easy to find and resolve using them. It's something that needs to be judged on an individual basis. If a reasonable amount of research/effort can resolve the issue you need not ask it on SO. If it can't, despite that information existing somewhere buried on a forum, then asking it on SO is beneficial. –  Servy Oct 19 '13 at 2:52

This may make me hugely unpopular, but I don't think we need to do jack to encourage a more friendly environment. I think we need to do more to encourage quality in the environment we have.

Of course we should not allow people to be blatantly hostile and unwelcoming, but if someone is being a lazy prat asking questions that are clearly answered in the documentation (which they've equally-clearly not bothered reading) I see no reason for the Stack Overflow community to wet-nurse them. We don't need more Help Vampires in the world.


Two items from your question that I'd like to address specifically:

Asking a question: I will trawl Google's nether regions before posting a question on SO. I will scour forums that still think blinking text is cool, before asking a question on SO. I have never asked a question on SO. This is only my second on ALL the Exchange sites.

GOOD! I wish more people were like you!

Stack Exchange sites are not Google. You should darn well do some freakin' research before asking a question on any of the Stack Exchange sites, and you should back your question up with that research when you post it. (Tell the community what you've tried, and how the results differed from what you wanted.)

I may just be a guy who comes from the mean site, but frankly when I see people posting questions with ZERO effort on their part to investigate or solve the problem I want to just smack them across the face with my shoe. There are so many "HALP! IZ BROKENS!" questions on SF and SO that could be answered by simply typing the title of the question into Google and reading a couple of paragraphs that I despair for the future of the technical professions.


Answering a question:* I will only do so if I think nobody except the person facing my exact challenge will ever see my answer (i.e. questions with hardly any up-voting or even one with a bit of down-voting). I would never, ever, ever answer a popular question even if my solution ended world hunger AND solved the quandary of time travel (provided that was what the OP was asking for, of course).

This is kind of sad.

I would hope that you would opt to answer any well-written coherent question for which you have an answer, and for which your solution wasn't already mentioned in an existing answer (and if your solution is contained in an existing answer I would hope you would upvote such answers to call attention to them).

Of course it's entirely up to you how you elect to share your knowledge, but avoiding "the popular questions" because you're afraid someone will disagree with your solution or point out flaws in your reasoning seems shortsighted. You "want to grow", but if you actively avoid any sort of feedback (aside from adulation from the person you may have helped) it's pretty hard to do so.
Echo chambers of positive feedback are not conducive to growth and improvement.

Some of the best questions and answers on the Stack Exchange network have multiple, often contradictory, solutions and extensive commentary on benefits and drawbacks of each.
I can't force you to value that kind of dialogue the way I do, but I hope you can see that it does have value in a large number of cases.

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There is no "ego-off" button. Let's work with what we got - very talented, intelligent people.

I think you've hit the key on your own here: we're talking about a teeming mass of humanity, on the order of an large city, each member with a slightly different agenda. All of them are pretty smart, and most of them belong to a category of humanity (in)famous for its hubris, love of independence, creativity, and pursuit of correctness.*

Influencing the behavior of this crowd is herding cat-centaurs. There's a lot that can be done; we're all still humans with brains that love a little squirt of dopamine, for example. Policy is generally pretty difficult to create, sustain, and enforce here, though. You can look at the war over deletion of old questions, and the "Summer of L***" discussions (1, 2) for evidence of the divided "electorate". Changes in behavior seem to emerge organically or be enforced systematically, that is, with technological measures. Given that, if you have a policy goal, I'm not sure that you can accomplish it without some semi-paternalistic proposal. There's just too many people, and the potential for political interaction and especially persuasion is fairly limited.

In short, "Peoples is peoples".


SO that encourages the development of developers and ideas (horribly scary, fabulously subversive ideas that don't even have docblocks)

Here I think you are on the wrong track. I don't think this is what SO is intended to be, or has much chance of being good at. Speculative, scary, fabulous ideas certainly have a place in our programming culture, and they are fascinating and everybody should keep an eye on them and participate in the discussion of them as personal ability allows. But those ideas, and the writings about them, don't seem likely to hold up as solutions to particular problems that will withstand the passage of time.

SO (and to a varied extent the other SE sites) is for archiving and cataloguing particular solutions to (reasonably) concrete programming problems. "I'm trying to Z and I've seen solutions a and b, but they don't quite work because 1 and 2; can I split the difference?" "Why doesn't this code X like it should? I have found that a is not true. Do I need to test for b? How do I do that?" and so on.

If I am looking for tried and tested and practical, I come to SO. If I am looking for exciting, bleeding-edge, fraught-with-difficulty, new strategies - not SO.

That's exactly the idea. I think you may be expecting something that SO won't -- and can't -- provide.


*For some -- occasionally extremely local -- definition of "correctness".

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We're not allowed to say "Love" anymore? Since when? –  Servy Oct 18 '13 at 18:48
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Love is a four-letter word, @Servy. –  Anna Lear Oct 18 '13 at 18:48
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It's just my own private little protest against past mistakes, @Servy. See my footnote about local definitions of "correctness". :) –  Josh Caswell Oct 18 '13 at 18:48
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So is @Anna, A***. –  Servy Oct 18 '13 at 18:51
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I love "pursuit of correctness" :) –  Pëkka Oct 20 '13 at 16:48

What can the SO members do to create a more friendly SO that encourages the development of developers and ideas?

Setting aside that you're assuming the need to make SO "more friendly", here's my opinion: Just don't get so hung up on those personal issues. Stack Overflow is not a forum, and Stack Overflow's goal is not to fulfill the need for human fellowship. The way to use Stack Overflow to develop yourself and help others develop is to ask interesting questions and provide useful answers. It doesn't matter if you have 1 point of reputation or 10k or 100k.

It's great that you research your problems thoroughly and consequently don't ask all those questions you already managed to resolve by yourself, but don't feel too discouraged: If you have something that's sufficiently interesting and not already well known, go ahead and ask. Keep it factual, clear, to the point, and humble, and it will be good: you learn something, those who answer learn something, and those who read your post in future learn something.

The same goes for answering: If you see a question where you understand the problem, and it's "worthy", i.e. not an obvious duplicate or patent lack of effort, and if you can come up with a clear explanation which brings your own expertise to bear, then go right ahead.

There's no need to introduce yourself, to apologize for being new, or to explain the larger context of your life. Just make sure you're right. And indent.

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"And indent... with spaces." \me ducks –  Josh Caswell Oct 18 '13 at 19:15
    
@JoshCaswell: Well... "indent so that it looks indented", for all I care. –  Kerrek SB Oct 18 '13 at 19:15
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I should say that I stole the phrase "need for human fellowship" from someone else on Meta, and I think it's a great description of what SO is not for. –  Kerrek SB Oct 18 '13 at 19:18

The problem/Motivation

Asking

I will only do so if I think nobody except the person facing my exact challenge will ever see my answer (i.e. questions with hardly any up-voting or even one with a bit of down-voting).

That's interesting.

Why? Well, maybe "Why" is not the right question to ask here, as you answer it shortly afterwards.

But here's my motivation:

Firstly, I participate more on science-y sites. I don't like SO too much, mainly because the questions seem to be of the "fix this for me" type; problem-oriented instead of concept-oriented. I know that having a large quantity of such questions is part of what makes SO successful, and that these questions are widely accepted by the community. I just personally don't like the majority of questions on SO, and as I try not to impost that personal opinion on others (though initially I naively used to use that opinion in meta discussion), IMO that's OK.

I'll address why I answer questions on science sites first (as you did mention SE in general in your question), and then I'll get to SO.

On sites like Physics, Chemistry, Space Exploration, and Astronomy, I answer to learn. When I answer a conceptual question, I have to codify my abstract thoughts on the subject into understandable English. This isn't always easy; concepts can be quite nebulous in my mind without me ever knowing that. Doing this exercise automatically ends up with my own thoughts getting clarified — especially in situations where I didn't know they were murky in the first place! Besides this, I get to learn from comments (especially when I deliberately answer something I'm not sure about and add a disclaimer), as well as "competing" answers. Many a time I find that other people have interesting ways of explaining something, and one can properly appreciate their explanation only after having attempted to explain the same thing oneself.

What about non science sites? Well sites like Information Security (and Robotics, and a couple of others), have at least a partial focus on problem solving, but are quite conceptual too. On Sec.SE I've learned a lot about the topic while answering, partially from comments, partially from other answers, and partially from having to confirm my knowledge (in a topic that I'm nowhere near being an expert at) and learning more things in the process.

What about Stack Overflow? I'll first note that I have 2k rep on SO, so that probably puts me in the "pleb" category. Oh well.

I'm an amateur programmer. I don't program for a job, nor do I intend to. I do participate in open source and write fun projects of my own. But I don't have industry-level expertise with any language.

On SO I usually answer stuff when I'm bored. Do I get anything out of it? Well, many times I make small mistakes (more times than I'm proud of, for sure), and commenters tell me. Sometimes I may write code inefficiently or not use some built in function that makes the code simpler. I've gotten pretty helpful comments in these cases, and I learn.

Of course, you're probably an expert, or at least not prone to leaving answers that may attract such comments as you won't make such mistakes. In that case, I recommend you read this post (the OP, at the time, was not an employee of SE), and the answer on it by the OP. It's a very good read, and it focuses on this same issue — why should an expert answer stuff on this site?

solved the quandary of time travel

FYI: It's already been solved. Travelling to the future with a shorter proper time is possible, and non contradictory. Travelling to the past, using any mechanism (be it a wormhole with a spacelike separation, or a spinning cosmic string, or whatever) is not possible as each of these mechanisms destroys itself by a feedback loop of vacuum fluctuations the moment they become time machines.

(Hey, it's Meta. I can include some physics in my answer, right?)

Answering

I will trawl Google's nether regions before posting a question on SO. I will scour forums that still think blinking text is cool, before asking a question on SO. I have never asked a question on SO. This is only my second on ALL the Exchange sites.

This is good. That's exactly what we would like everyone to do, more or less.

I like to think I do the same (usually). On SO most of my questions have cropped up because Google couldn't help me. On concept-oriented sites, usually this isn't an issue at all because Google isn't as good at fetching conceptual explanations as it is at fetching solutions to specific problems.

But if you don't have any questions on SO because of this, that's great! It reflects on the progress of the Internet, and also on your own expertise :)

Of course, if you find a particularly tough problem that took a lot of Googling and piecing together to solve, then perhaps you may wish to share your eventual solution by self-answering. There's a "Ask and answer your question" checkbox on the ask question page, where you can ask and answer the same question simultaneously. It's a good way to share your solution to a problem you think is relatively hard to find via Google/etc, where the problem is of the type you feel would be at home on SO.

The reasons

Moderation-asking

Exchange moderators are a bit, um, what's the word? Well, the nicest word I can come up with is "complicated", possibly "unpredictable". I have seen other users get flamed for seemingly minor "offenses". You sit on the sidelines going --> o.O <-- and thinking to yourself "Even though I wanted to know the answer to that question, I am so glad I didn't ask it. Thanks for taking the heat there, fellow user". I myself had an answer deleted after 1 down-vote. (Between you and me I think it was because, turns out, the mod was a Java dev and I made a Java joke... Knock, knock... teehee ^_^). I don't mind the deletion, but after only 1 down-vote? And no feedback as to why I'm a complete nincompoop?

If you're talking about SO, I assume you're including high rep users with partial moderation privileges because the moderators form a very small part of the overall moderation and aren't encountered that much.

Firstly, I'm not sure if I'd call it flaming. But you're right, users do feel antagonized when other users try to teach them the rules. Well, the main issue is that SO looks similar to a forum at its outset, but the forum mentality doesn't gel well with the policies here as it was more or less explicitly designed to not be a forum. And this design seems to be working well for the primary goal, "Making the Internet better" (creating a repository of easily found Q&As which are useful to many others)

SO tries to be focused towards the goal. Really focused. So, for example, answers that don't answer the question at hand may get deleted. Questions which are of a type that won't lead to constructive answers or won't really be helpful get closed in a similar vein.

I myself have seen many examples of users getting "flamed" for not following the rules, an I myself may have participated in some of this. I don't know. Ideally, I feel that users should be handheld through this. I've done this on many smaller sites, and it really leads to a more constructive experience for all involved. But I can't think of any way to make the majority community of SO to listen to this. Each person has their own reason for being here, and many are too exasperated to be very nice. It's the Internet, it's hard enough keeping things civil.

Still, as an experienced user, I don't think you should have a problem with this. You've read the rules (yes?) and probably can abide by them. Many times it's the way a question has been written and not the core question itself that others take objection against.

Moderation-answering

So... if I sit down and try and write a good answer (taking hours off my pathetic little existence), 1 of 3 things might happen: a) I get the answer right before everyone else and get some SO points. Hooray; b) I get the answer right but am too late and get no SO points, but maybe some up-votes. Hooray; And of course a) and b) contribute to the greater learnings of mankind;

Meh, I personally don't care much for rep. But I think I've addressed the "motivation" bit above in the "Answering" subsection of the "The problem" section.

c) I get it all befuddled and get nothing, not even feedback to help me develop. (Don't nobody refer me to the FAQ on how to answer well. I've read it!)

I'm a busy old girl and I don't know about anyone else, but there seems to me to be limited to no benefit to contributing to SO.

As for "anyone else", again I refer you to this post :)

Combativeness

SO users, by and large, seem somewhat... "combative". If I ask a question or give an answer I would like to come back to positive and constructive responses. I want to grow not groan inwardly when I check back in. And I know some of you are saying SO isn't responsible for the behaviour of random users, except that from what I've observed it tends to be the more entrenched members (the +10ks or whatever) who are the most inhospitable. [...] So... if I sit down and try and write a good answer (taking hours off my pathetic little existence), there is every likelihood that a +10ker is going to come along and say something mean... and make me cry... sob, sob...

Huh, well, I think I addressed this in part in my moderation-asking section (because both of these points you made are pretty similar).

Anyway, the thing is that these folks are exasperated with seeing the same type of issues again and again. And they really shouldn't get combative because of this, they should preferably just not comment, but most people feel like saying something about it.

I've somehow not received such comments myself, though.

There seems to be a very defined and accepted methodology around here and it seems to me divergent thinking is not encouraged.

There is, in a sense. The SE model is one that seems to work, and the policies are made t go with it and reshaped by the community at times.

Divergent thinking is encouraged in a fashion. On the main site, if you post something that doesn't follow the rules, that's definitely not encouraged. That's not divergent thinking, that's divergent behavior. But bringing up these issues on meta and seeking for a way to get them fixed — that's encouraged.

Your summary

Most of this has already been addressed above, though not this bit:

If I am looking for tried and tested and practical, I come to SO. If I am looking for exciting, bleeding-edge, fraught-with-difficulty, new strategies - not SO. A mod probably deleted that answer already. To me, SO is not the cutting edge of development. The Google leads me here. If I'm really looking for creative, innovative solutions I exclude SO from my search to skip all the false positives. Sorry SO :(

That's because this isn't really part of the goal of SO. SO doesn't mind innovation in answers, but its goal is to help create a repository of easy to find solutions to practical problems that people actually face. "What's an innovative way of doing X" doesn't really work towards this goal, I'm afraid.

Though Programming Puzzles & Code Golf Stack Exchange comes close. Not exactly what you wanted, but close.

The actual question

(Reader: If you have reached this point without skipping anything, I present you with an imaginary meta-waffle)

What can the SO members (and "elite" in particular as the "leaders" and content decision-makers) proactively do to create a more friendly SO

Handhold. See a user making a mistake? Politely explain him and help him correct it. Sure, close the question if you wish, but leave a nice comment explaining how to fix the question if possible. And not a boilerplate, I'm talking about one tailored to that specific problem.

And be nice. If you want to say something derisive to an answerer? Don't say it at all.

that encourages the development of developers and ideas (horribly scary, fabulously subversive ideas that don't even have docblocks) and not just the development of SO points. From what I understand that is the point of the site (the developing developers bit, not the points bit).

As mentioned before, that's not exactly the point. True, I'd love a more conceptual Stack Overflow (Programmers is more conceptual, but not in the same way), but that's not the reason SO was made.

Note that not much can be done to solve the problem at hand given your constraints. It's virtually impossible to convince the majority of a large body of people to change their habits, which you seem to have touched on. New features and policies seem to help, though. The recent changes to the close system have lead to some implicit handholding from the system, which partially solves things.

Really, it boils down to "How does one convince a large body of users to behave differently without modifying the environment", for which the answer is "you don't". The behavior of such large bodies is controlled by the environment, and IMO modifying that (eg new features, etc) is the best way to go. Unless you can get a smaller (but at the same scale) body of people to behave in the new way. In that case, people may start changing their ways. But the SO community is so large that I'm not sure how this could be done. Other sites with similar problems may find it easier, though.

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"If you have reached this point without skipping anything, I present you with an imaginary meta-waffle..." And I give it right back to you for writing such a lengthy answer :P –  uɐɯsO uɐɥʇɐN Oct 19 '13 at 5:51
    
@uɐɯsOuɐɥʇɐN haha thanks :> –  Manishearth Oct 19 '13 at 5:53
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That answer is immense :P I cant even dare to read –  NullPoiиteя Oct 19 '13 at 11:06

A quick traverse of your profile on stackoverflow shows 4 answers. Two are upvoted, two are at 0. No questions. So you've hardly accumulated a statistically significant number of interactions with the community.

To the extent that I can follow your rather postmodern writing style, I glean that your views are based on reading other peoples' interactions with the community.

The premise of these sites is that they are centered on experts. Experts who are willing to devote time to helping others. If the experts go away, you're left with Yahoo! Answers. Keeping the experts here and typing is a bit like keeping a zoo with large carnivores and elephants. Beautiful, instructive, but occasionally hazardous. Sometimes a hiss, sometimes a bite, and if sufficiently provoked, sometimes a headstand.

However, I suspect that some of your perceptions result from phenomena that aren't even the sabre-toothed programmers. Rather, they concern the nature of crowd-sourcing.

The power of the crowd is that it has many willing fingers and can thus tackle really big problems. The weakness of the crowd is that it includes your crazy uncle Earl. In any five-minute period, someone will deliver a vote as a result of taking Orders from Jupiter on their headphones, and someone else will type a snide remark into a comment because the cookie he or she pulled out of the box is stale.

So, taking every bit of feedback you get here to heart, let every bit of feedback that other people get here, is a really good recipe for heartburn.

Yea, some people behave a bit like jerks on the site. Some other people scurry around throwing flags and processing flags to deal with it. You don't get to see that part.

So, I'd hope that, after two years of apparently sitting on the side of the pool, you'd consider just jumping in.

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Thank you for the encouragement :) Just one thing: you assume this is my only account... o.O... ^_^ I just can't help but wonder, and as The Shining Overlords of Nespah have instructed me to ask, can there be warmth and love and khumbaya in SO? If so, what role do we have to play? Not as the mods, but just as the ordinary folks. –  Just Plain High Oct 20 '13 at 20:57
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Well, I'm not a fan of sock-puppets as a general internet principle, so I assume that people don't use them until proven otherwise. I really don't have any more response than what I've written, which could be TL;DR's as 'there's plenty of friendly behavior on SO.' –  Rosinante Oct 20 '13 at 21:18

I'm in complete agreement with "High Priestess..." and have expressed some of my general views in a comment on Robert Harvey's answer. A concrete technical suggestion now occurs to me though that would contribute to resolving this problem... Let me expand on that...

Rationale
The #1 objective, the primary driver for aggressive "policing" by moderators, seems to be to preserve and enhance the high quality of answers. People looking for answers should be able to see good answers far quicker than scrolling through a lot of forum discussion. I get that and agree.

However, I wonder if having separate mechanisms for doing that has become psychologically counter-productive...

  • Upvoting bubbles best answers to the top
  • Downvoting also bubbles best answers to the top
  • Closing forbids further answers

For the most part, people will only scroll through answers until finding the info they need. Upvoting insures that the answers most likely to provide that are first. While I'm sure downvoting was intended as a means to discredit factually incorrect answers, it is being used much more aggressively than that.

A recent case in point is a controversial answer I gave on a Unix & Linux question. There is nothing factually incorrect in the answer, though it runs counter to what is preached because it is assumed all Unix/Linux environments are multi-user. The question though was about one of the few Linux distros that are specifically designed for a single-user environment and thus I felt my answer was beneficial. The only reason this is relevant here, is because we are talking about perception.

As a relatively low-rep user, downvotes matter to me, while I'm sure someone with an 18K rep wouldn't notice even dozens of downvotes. Just as millionaires find little if any merit in the complaints of people making less than 100K (assuming they even acknowledge that such people exist), many of the answers and comments from high-rep users on this question alone exemplify the problem @High-Preistess-Of-The-Tech is trying to get acknowledged.

Personally, I've never encountered a closed question where the answers were truly redundant to some other question. Everyone arrives here with a different personal knowledge-base, so saying much the same thing in different ways answers the question for more users than allowing only one interpretation.

Edit per gnat's comment. Thanks Gnat!
A Small Improvement: Diminishing Verbiage
The less aggressive discrediting of answers that we propose would probably result in more answers, and thus a longer page-load time which is the bane of any website. To mitigate that, I'd like to submit that the amount of answer verbiage initially displayed could be diminished on lower-scored answers.

I develop webpages so yes I know such features are often implemented by sending everything and just hiding most of it, which would probably do little if any good. A programmatically simple solution would be pagination for the lower-scoring answers. Asynchronous loading into hidden tags via AJAX could also be done. I'm sure there are other mechanisms as well.

We all want SO and the other SE sites to thrive. If we didn't, we wouldn't bother to risk further intimidation and sanctions to make these pleas.

I hope you will acknowledge this problem and keep an open mind to solutions.

Psychological basis in support of reinforcement over punishment
The Wikipedia article below describes the four forms of operant conditioning. In our context here, we want to encourage questioner subjects to ask clear, concise, unambiguous questions and answerer subjects to answer in kind.

Upvotes are our positive reinforcement.

Downvotes are negative punishment. The receiver of a downvote's first inclination is likely to be an avoidance (i.e. cease asking/answering) that must be overcome.

Closures are more severe negative punishment. They say to the questioner, "Your question is stupid and you do not deserve an answer." No doubt there are questions and answers for which most of us would find this an entirely appropriate response. However, it seems that some moderators are becoming overwhelmed from the volume of bad actors they deal with and, like brutal cops, are overreacting to minor transgressions.

The most critical difference here from the experiments talked about in the article, is that our "subjects" can leave (avoidance) whenever they want, and are doing so.

The most applicable section is in this excerpt from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operant_conditioning

Operant conditioning to change human behavior
Researchers have found the following protocol to be effective when they use the tools of operant conditioning to modify human behavior:
- State goal (aims for the study): That is, clarify exactly what changes are to be brought about. For example, "reduce weight by 30 pounds."
- Monitor behavior (log conditions) Keep track of behavior so that one can see whether the desired effects are occurring. For example, keep a chart of daily weights.
- Reinforce desired behavior (give reward for proper behavior) For example, congratulate the individual on weight losses. With humans, a record of behavior may serve as a reinforcement. For example, when a participant sees a pattern of weight loss, this may reinforce continuance in a behavioral weight-loss program. A more general plan is the token economy, an exchange system in which tokens are given as rewards for desired behaviors. Tokens may later be exchanged for a desired prize or rewards such as power, prestige, goods or services.
- Reduce incentives to perform undesirable behavior
For example, remove candy and fatty snacks from kitchen shelves.

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more answers don't led to longer page-load time here, as the list of answers is simply split to several pages, each within a size limit. for an example, get to Formatting Sandbox here at MSO, having over 200 answers, scroll down and see the list of subpages it is split to –  gnat Oct 24 '13 at 9:16
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I hope your answer gets some attention because I really do agree with it :). Thank you for bringing a different perspective. –  Just Plain High Oct 24 '13 at 18:12
    
People who downvote solely because they disagree with an answer should at least have the courage to leave a comment making their case. I find not doing so to be the equivalent to a verbal dismissal or a physical backhand... thus, an example of exactly what we are talking about. –  DocSalvager Oct 26 '13 at 22:02
    
Awesome answer. One of the few that's not simply pandering self-justifying platitudes. I appreciate that it is based on a science of behavior. It's all in the contingencies. It seems observing what gets closed (and what doesn't) that closures and down-voting are frequently (but certainly not always) a function of bolstering the deletionists' ego (i.e. reinforcing them through the application of averse stimuli to others) than working to improve the community. This is in part related to the unfortunate meme in the CS community that negativity somehow meaningfully correlates to merit-it doesn't. –  Donnied Apr 22 at 13:50

I'm not a SO guy - I'm on SU and SF more, and there's a few things I realised along the way

  • SOFUE works best with wicked problems. It's for the actual difficult stuff, the ones you're staring at and have no idea where to start. On SU I've asked 84 questions and some of them are completely unanswered. I have answered about 1942 questions (as of 10pm GMT +8 on Saturday 19th october). If you're trawling the internet, looking for answers, and use SOFUE as your last port of call, you're doing it right. I think I've expressed my views on the subject in detail here . To sum it up - you need to do research on your own, but this is a good place when you're stuck. At times, I've found someone already asked my question, or typing out the question helped me rubber duck the issue

  • As for mods proper, they're "human exception handlers" . They do as little as possible - as per the theory of moderation by which we mean a lot - they handle flags, and other such things. A good chunks of closures and deletion is by the community. I'd worry less about individual mods or even users, and try to get a feel for what the community finds acceptable as a whole.

As (plausibly) an elite user on SE I do edits (even little ones). I've had regulars on chat jokingly complain I'm trolling them with one letter edits - which ends up with them getting better at writing. I comment (usually to the point - my snark towards spammers though, is legendary) when I end up needing to make substantial edits. I share my "secrets" freely - like here

  • Understand the community culture - SF has a fairly unique one that occasionally baffles people off SO (much to their annoyance). SU has one. For a system with little social interaction outside chat, each site gets its own flavour. The trick to wicked rep is to understand the audience. On SU, I've posted about microwaving cds and posted screenshots using OS/2 simply cause I know my target audience would love it (and it shows a point I am trying to make).

Metas are a great place to understand the mechanics of the site. Chat and comments help work out the social nature of the place (I'm on chat a fair bit. I've occasionally been pointed at fun questions there).

  • SOFU is full of geeks (as is a lot of SOFUE). We aren't combative, we're loudly passionate.

Most people come to SOFUE to ask questions. The epic users stay to answer them. I've had entirely awesome answers which draw on my love of my specific field go underloved. I've had answers I've posted high on flu meds get upvoted the heck up. I'm proud of my answers and the work that went into them. If some mod thinks it's bad (well on SU, they'll tell me on chat), and comments as such, the hell with them. It's your answer, and if you think it's great, it's great, imaginary internet points be damned. I'm fairly proud of most of my answers, and If I come across a crappy one liner from when I was a newbie, I tend to revise them.

Imaginary internet points aside, according to Jeff Atwood, the real benefit is you become a better writer


As people keep saying I use too many abbreviations I've added a handy and slightly humorous glossary :
SO - Stack Overflow (You should know this!)
SU - Superuser (My main site on the network. Great place for general computer questions)
SF - Serverfault (Where I absorb awesome knowledge on chat by osmosis)
SOFU - Stack Overflow/Serverfault/Superuser - AKA the trilogy. These were the original sites on stackexchange
SOFUE - Not a Japanese dessert - SOFU + Stackexchange. Odd way to say the stack exchange network.

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As someone not familiar with much of SE beyond SO, I couldn't understand this without using this glossary: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/40353/… –  bdean20 Dec 5 '13 at 0:34
    
If you can't find an answer on SOFU (and have had to read obscure web pages) I would ask the question and answering it myself, so my future self (or other people) needn't go through the same pain. –  hayd Apr 16 at 22:11
    
"SOFUE" Gesundheit! –  Adam Davis Jul 7 at 21:57

Stack Overflow is probably no more "Uh-oh, here comes the Internet" than the rest of the Internet, in my opinion. However, to the extent that it is, I find it very hard to take for anything more than a few minutes at a stretch.

The most interesting questions are shut down without a hearing because someone can, and a few times I've seen questions shut down that strike me as completely innocuous. On the answering side, if I spend ten minutes helping someone out by experimenting / researching on a question for them quickly, by the time I get back to it five other people have nailed it. On the question side, I've had several good answers (thank you), but many of the hardest problems I've run into are hard for the rest of the world too and remain unanswered -- which hasn't prevented some industrious statistics consumers from criticizing me for a poor accepting the right answer ratio.

The main benefit is that Google spiders the answers, so over time it's become a great static resource. But as far as any feelings of community, camaraderie or human warmth are concerned I find I do better with my cockatiel.

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..perhaps you would like to edit his into a much more readable format? It's currently a wall of text that's a bit daunting to take on. –  Malky.Kid Nov 22 '13 at 2:09
    
Eleven lines of text is a wall now? #TwitterSucks. :) –  John Lockwood Dec 4 '13 at 23:21
    
But OK, I've tried to chop it up somewhat for you, but here's the executive summary: OMG Q&A police faceslap LOLCat Ron Paul 2012. :) –  John Lockwood Dec 4 '13 at 23:24
    
Be a regular on some chat room. It may help with the feeling of community. –  Tshepang Dec 4 '13 at 23:59
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There's no need to be snarky, I was just trying to help. Was I impolite in anyway for you to act like that? –  Malky.Kid Dec 5 '13 at 0:30
    
Plus, your answer was a wall of text, with no line breaks at all. Am I wrong? –  Malky.Kid Dec 5 '13 at 0:42
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No, sorry, I had hoped the smiley face would have indicated that I was kidding around with you, so if it came off harsh I apologize. Were you wrong -- no, of course not, it's a matter of opinion whether 11 lines of text is enough to constitute a wall. When I was used to reading Vonnegut as I was in high school I probably wouldn't have written it that way, so blaming it on Twitter was perhaps rude of me. Apologies again. At the end of the day, part time jerk though I am, I respected and valued your opinion enough to actually make the change you suggested. –  John Lockwood Dec 6 '13 at 19:27
    
@John Lockwood Perhaps having a sense of humor wouldn't hurt. My apologies as well :) –  Malky.Kid Dec 7 '13 at 22:44
    
No worries, thanks. –  John Lockwood Dec 9 '13 at 0:15

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