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I've been observing the same pattern over and over in the last month or two, mainly on Programmers. People highlight parts in their answers not to emphasize something but to make their answers pop-up, draw attention and attract more votes.

I find this behavior detrimental to the content quality. While it's more entertaining to quickly browse through a list of answers, it's rather distractive and annoying while reading answers in concentration.

A fresh specimen: How do you find the most optimized way to write code?

There are lot of similar examples pouring in every day.

What is really sad is that mostly high-rep users abuse this tactic taking advantage of novices.

I for instance refrain from using this tactic since I believe it does more harm than good. I know it works but I don't want to be doing this myself.

I put forth that the feature of large fonts be disabled as of now. Clearly it has been proven that even the "most reputed" users cannot abide by the rules.

Bold is more than sufficient for all cases.

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At least in your example, it looks like those are headings to various sections in the answer, which is what they're supposed to be used for, esp. if you have an extremely long answer. –  waiwai933 Jan 22 '11 at 19:45
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Yeah. While bolded text might have done for this, I don't really think this is misuse as such. Maybe shrink the size a tiny bit? –  Pëkka Jan 22 '11 at 20:32
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In long answers it's a good way to organize content. In short answers it may be equivalent to shouting. –  belisarius Jan 22 '11 at 21:26
    
The ## setting on those headings (H2), is the correct one, IMO. H3 (###) is a bit small; you might as well just use Bold in that case. Josh K uses # (H1) all the time in his answers. I find it obnoxious, but when I suggested that the font could be a bit smaller, Josh claimed it was a standard (see comments on this question) Apparently he thinks all of his posts need Titles. –  Robert Harvey Jan 23 '11 at 1:26
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I don't think that banning the big fonts is the answer, though. You and I find it irritating, but I think we're in the minority, since there are many examples of this on programmers.SE, but few complaints. –  Robert Harvey Jan 23 '11 at 1:33
    
IMHO, the top-level heading is H1, simply by definition. So whenever there's only a single level, H1 should be used. The font could be automatically made smaller in case there are no other levels of headings. –  maaartinus Jan 24 '11 at 7:29

5 Answers 5

Bold is not sufficient

First off, using bold to indicate headings is just as bad as using headings to indicate emphasis. If a user gets it wrong - either way - then edit their post and fix it, just like you'd do for any other formatting error.

Headings are important

I prefer reading answers that are short and sweet vs. verbose and rambling. That said, I also prefer reading answers that are comprehensive vs. terse and incomplete. If you need three sections, five sub-sections, an introduction and an appendix to provide a good answer, then omitting the headings that denote these sections just robs me, the reader, of important visual cues. You might as well omit paragraph breaks while you're at it, and force me to go through your wall of text with a highlighter.

Drawing attention to your answers by making them attractive is also important

You worry that high-rep users are "taking advantage" of novices by formatting their text in an attention-grabbing manner.

So what? If they're writing and formatting their answers in a way that makes others want to read them? Well, more power to them. If you want to format your answers as a single huge paragraph of superscript, that's your prerogative, but don't expect a reward for your sadism.

Anyone willing to properly use bold, italic, code, heading, list, quote or any other formatting style available to them is helping the site by doing so...

Semantic markup is important

To your average human reader, a heading is nothing more than big, bold text. Except when it's normal-sized bold text, or underlined indented bold text, or bold text with a bit of extra margin after it, or...

Yeah. Headers aren't really about making the text bold.

  • If Jin [SOIS web designer] decides to style headers in a different way, then the markup allows him to do so consistently across the whole site, with a small change to a stylesheet somewhere.

  • If you get fed up with over-formatted text and rip your own eyeballs out, the screen-reader you buy will pick up on the headings and let you navigate more effectively.

  • If SO ever decides to support long, detailed answers by allowing anchor links to sub-sections, headings will provide a simple and elegant means to achieve this.

Meanwhile, that bit of bold text followed by a double-newline does nothing useful.

There are no rules, just guidelines

Well, ok, there are rules. But users who "break" those rules generally don't get anything for their trouble. Your own personal tastes certainly don't constitute a set of hard "rules" that others must live by...

If you don't like the way a post is formatted, then edit it. If you can't edit (or your edits are rejected) then down-vote it. If you don't feel it deserves that, then ignore it, give thanks that SO doesn't support <blink> or <marquee>, and get on with your life.

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+1 for the "give thanks that SO doesn't support <blink> or <marquee>, and get on with your life". –  Mehrdad Jan 24 '11 at 6:38

is this really a problem?

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Yes, I've set all of my webs to show with Comic Sans and you put there a glob of eye-piercing unsightly Trebuchet. Flagging as offensive. –  badp Jan 24 '11 at 7:37
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WHAT? Sorry can't here there is TOO MUCH NOISE! –  user136634 Jan 24 '11 at 13:42

Annoying

In my taste the captions bigger than ### are too large and rather obnoxious. I always use ### if a caption is appropriate.

Pleasant

An easy fix for the too large captions would be to change the style sheet for # and ## to use a more sane font size. One could even go as far as to produce the same kind of caption for #, ## and ###.

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The problem could be solved by making the # and ## font sizes a bit smaller on Programmers.SE. I haven't seen this problem on any of the other sites. –  Robert Harvey Jan 23 '11 at 3:20
up vote 4 down vote accepted

We are aware of the issue: it's been brought up on the Programmers.SE meta discussion site. As I mentioned in my answer and comments there, I don't think it's a particularly big problem, but there are a few users who seem to love them some formatting.

But the problem isn't the formatting choices available to people: it's the belief that the in-your-face formatting style is a valid way to attract attention to the post and gain upvotes. If you kill off <h1> and <h2> headings, they'll bold everything. If you kill off bold, they'll put a new line after every sentence.

The only surefire way to kill off that behavior is to educate those who might be unaware of what good formatting is by editing their posts and commenting, down-vote the posts of people who should know better, and flag those which are incredibly egregious (like, <h1> surrounding a multi-paragraph answer egregious). If people stop rewarding the behavior, people stop arriving at the conclusion that it's an acceptable practice to get their answer noticed.

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The only problem I can think of with the current system is that h1 in the context of a post is just as large as the question title itself. As such, the size of .post-title h1 could be decreased a tad (say, to 21px, so it's still bigger than h2's 19px.)

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