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Why do some people not ask questions on SO? If it is only for reputation (which basically boosts their CV), they could instead do some investigations in spheres that interest them. So what's the point in only answering questions? Training to become a consultant?

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They're good with Google? – Jakub Hampl Mar 22 '11 at 17:14
Jack of all trades, master of none? – Uphill Luge Mar 22 '11 at 17:33
@Hans Passant, If you'd post that as an answer I'd probably choose it to be correct. (+/- some details) – Denys S. Mar 22 '11 at 18:28
jzd covered it pretty well. – Uphill Luge Mar 22 '11 at 18:29
*** SUMMON JON SKEET *** – user27414 Mar 22 '11 at 19:08
I'll add that (paradoxically) I think it's more difficult to make a good question than to answer it. When you answer a question, the limits are already placed around you. When you ask a question, the sky is your limit. – xanatos Mar 22 '11 at 19:09
@xanatos, some people like being placed in boxes and figuring there way out of there (according to that statement, which is subjectively true) :D – Denys S. Mar 23 '11 at 12:41
I would find this question more useful if it were reversed - "why do some people only post questions and NO answers". interestingly I've found a number users who've posted Questions in the hundreds, which is not a bad thing, but then it gives them quite a rep. Which makes you think they should know stuff because you assume the rep is from answers they've given. I was a little surprised to see one or two 1K/2K rep users post slightly vague/silly questions. – gideon Mar 24 '11 at 9:14
Maybe because they know EVERYTHING? – Calmarius Dec 27 '13 at 16:03
@Calmarius, there's not a single person in the world that knows everything. – Denys S. Dec 27 '13 at 17:14
I think it's more difficult to make a good question than a good answer. Answer: Find a question (easy: they're on the home page), if you know the answer, post it. Question: You're stuck, you waste people's time on SO, you get downvoted and question-banned. – bjb568 Apr 15 '14 at 3:39

12 Answers 12

up vote 252 down vote accepted

I'm one of those people who primarily answer questions. The reason is simple: I don't have many good questions to ask.

Usually when I have a question, I find that it's already been asked and there's no need to duplicate it. Once in a while I do come up with something that hasn't yet been asked and answered, and then I post it as a new question.

I also enjoy the research I occasionally have to do in order to be able to answer a question well. Other people's questions are often a good way to expose myself to things I normally wouldn't come across on my own.

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+1 this lines up exactly with my situation. – jzd Mar 22 '11 at 17:16
This one is hard for me to understand (probably cause I don't have a bag of experience behind my back) but since so many people support the idea it looks like it's the actual cause. – Denys S. Apr 13 '11 at 15:50
But then what is a real good question? That just drives me crazy :-) – EASI Jun 15 '13 at 11:45
I think the same way + I like to add to myself, that it's because I'm very very smart ;0 – BartoszKP Oct 3 '13 at 22:19
+1 I have 18 questions, but over 9K answers, that's a 500:1 ration. – Peter Lawrey Oct 29 '13 at 21:19
+ 1 I agree with everything that you said above :D – Siddharth Rout Dec 10 '13 at 20:20
I wish I posted mostly answers. I post lots of questions because I am so ignorant of what I am doing. :) – neuronet Apr 6 '15 at 15:49

Answering questions is a great way to learn a topic at a deeper level. I find I learn more from reading and helping others than asking things myself.

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+1 Got to agree that answering questions keeps the problem solving muscles tuned. – amelvin Mar 23 '11 at 16:17

I rarely ask questions, mainly because most questions can be answered by Googling (!?!) and after 20 years service in software development and countless project tours-of-duty you do try to become as self-sufficient as possible.

Every question I ask is carefully considered as I value my SO account - so by the time I've phrased and re-phrased a question a new line of enquiry often opens.

The usual questions I ask are in techs that are entirely new to me or entirely new - and half of my questions never get any replies anyway.

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+1 for the second paragraph. I've figured out that the SO Ask a question-page is an effective rubber ducking tool. – Time Traveling Bobby Mar 24 '11 at 9:33
There was a sprechhund on Midsomer Murders last night - does the same job for murder police, apparently. – amelvin Mar 24 '11 at 22:45

There are many, many thoughts as to why people do anything, including giving free advice and information for what may seem to be no external incentive.

I subscribe to a much shorter list, but a relatively reasonable list of 16 basic motivations for human activity can be found on Wikipedia. Several of these motivations may lead one to answer questions on Stack Overflow:

  • Acceptance, the need for approval
  • Curiosity, the need to learn
  • Order, the need for organized, stable, predictable environments
  • Power, the need for influence of will (especially for those who participate vigorously here on meta... ;)
  • Saving, the need to collect
  • Social contact, the need for friends (peer relationships)
  • Status, the need for social standing/importance

Out of these, Stack Overflow selects very strongly for individuals who are motivated by status and acceptance. You get immediate feedback on your contributions to the site, and it's very simple to find your standing in the community. Social contact is given through posts, comments, and the chat feature. Curiosity and Saving are fed through the vast wealth of knowledge the site accumulates. Power comes from the advanced abilities one gains due to their reputation. And there are even individuals who come only because the system is very well ordered and understood - it's easy to interface with the site because there are rules, and they are enforced.

Of course, most people are motivated by more than one thing, but generally you can look at the list and count on there being two things that bring you back for more, despite no other apparent incentive.

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Very interesting link Adam. Thanks for that. – user150926 Mar 22 '11 at 18:43
See also Robert Sapolsky's Human Behavioral Biology course if that stuff interests you – bobobobo Apr 24 '12 at 13:47

Do you think it's easy to have a peer-review of how good you are as a programmer? When you go to a interview for a work they want hard facts, and they know they often get lies... But if you have a very high reputation on stackoverflow for your answers... well... THAT is a fact you can give. Perhaps you can't resolve their stupid interview-algorithm or you don't know how many ways there are to write a web service in C#, but there is someone that can tell that yes, you REALLY are good. The other way is to write a book :-)

And I will add that when you are good enough, google is enough for 75% of your questions. 24% of the other questions require responses too much long or too much based on your code and so you don't ask them (or perhaps you know that it's only a matter of time before you crack the problem). 1% you can ask.

If you are good enough, when you can't do a thing the first reaction isn't "ask someone else". It's "try harder".

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Completely agree (not with the interview part, though :D). Through this question I got all the variants (which were not obvious, i.e. the one with "I have no good question", that's actually bad if someone has nothing to ask about), so I had my own intention after all. :) – Denys S. Mar 22 '11 at 18:58
@den I'm obviously biased, but I don't think it's bad to have nothing to ask about on SE sites. It doesn't mean I don't have questions at all. It simply means I don't have questions that need to be asked on SE either because they've already been asked, are off-topic, or simply would not make a good SO/SE question (e.g. a poll). – Adam Lear Mar 22 '11 at 21:50
@Anna Lear, Yeah, I was talking particularly about SO/SE, cause usually it's the fastest resource to produce options that should be tested, and that's why I use it predominantly (other resources are usually specific). Sorry for that, everyone differs in his means of getting things done. :) – Denys S. Mar 23 '11 at 12:40

What if computers and programming languages are the spheres that are interesting?

Some of us have worked with this for a long time, and already asked all the questions a long time ago. If I can pass on the answers to those that have the same questions now, that makes me feel good. It also somewhat feels like a payback to those that once took their time to answer my questions.

With 30 years experience you really don't need to boost your CV anymore. :-)

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Who said that they are not?) – Denys S. Mar 22 '11 at 18:27
I'm in total agreement. Some of us do this type of stuff because we enjoy it. Pure and simple. – Peter Rowell Apr 9 '11 at 5:17

Maybe they don't have any questions? In other cases, they may be embarrassed at having to ask questions and may do so from a different account.

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I just like fixing things. :/

A question without an answer is a problem unsolved. As a developer I'm a problem solver by nature, so I answer for the love of making things work a little better. Even if the problem happens to be people rather than code.

Although to be fair I ask a few things, so I'm by no means as magnanimous as I try to make out.

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Well, I actually am a consultant. So I have all the questions and all the answers.

And answers pay better here.

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You get money for reputation? :) – Denys S. Mar 22 '11 at 18:15
Sweet, sweet reputation. I get bragging rights over co-workers for one ;) – Daniel DiPaolo Mar 22 '11 at 18:16
Consulting: If you aren't part of the solution, there's a lot of money to be made in prolonging the problem. ;-D – Adam Davis Mar 22 '11 at 18:20

My main sphere of interest these days is a relatively minority-interest language, REBOL.

The REBOLsphere has a thriving, if small, community; and it has forums and such that predate SO.

Newcomers to REBOL may ask questions on SO, and REBOLlers are happy to answer them here. And a couple of people have chosen to ask most of their REBOL questions here.

But in general, SO is not the natural place for asking REBOL questions: the REBOLsphere and the SOsphere have very little overlap.

That may also be true for many other "long tail" topics and for mainstream topics from another mainstream (SO has very view mainframe questions for example, another of my interests; mainframers are also served by pre-existing community ecospheres).

That leads to some interesting questions about how and why and should SO adapt to be the destination Q&A site for various long-tail spheres. But they are other questions, and this is an answer.

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Most of the times because by answering questions it seems that we are able to learn more quickly. Like Will Thalheimer presented in his "The Learning Benefits of Questions" article research shows that that questions can produce significant learning and performance benefits, potentially improving learning by 150% or more.

And sometimes because: "I wish I had an answer to that because I'm tired of answering that question." Yogi Berra

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A late, late answer... I post few questions because I have other sources of information and usually my questions are so specific that only a few people could possibly answer them. Most of my questions stem from other answers or discussions - someone brings up an interesting point so I ask a separate question rather than a hard-to-find chatroom discussion.

On bicycles, for example, the last question I was tempted to ask led the Australian importer of the product to refer me to the manufacturer in Germany who got an engineer to email a reply. So my question here would likely have been one that between one and five people in the world could have answered. It is also not something that other users would have found useful "when servicing this rarely-serviced part, if you happen to have made your own copies of the right tools, you can...". Before that is a question that is still open now and the answer appears to be "no, no-one makes that".

But I do enjoy crafting answers to questions about bikes, and generally sharing my knowledge. Quite a few of those involve links to posts on my personal website where I also share knowledge (but in a way that isn't necessarily relevant to SE. The website is "I did this project" which sometimes leads to "I had that problem too, so I did this project").

I also find that my questions tend to attract downvotes, often with no discussion, and I am guessing that that is because they tend to be quite closed questions, or they require considerable knowledge to answer. "I want to do Q. I have found references A,B and C that say Q can be done. But trying X,Y and Z none of them work. Here is my documentation/a simple example". Not infrequently I get answers like "don't do Q", "use tool X instead" or "here's how to do something-like-Q", and I edit my question to make it clear that "like-Q is not Q". They also attract positive comments, sometimes of the form "that is a perfectly formed question, thank you". But also downvotes.

(FWIW I have an account per employer for work-related questions because that way the account and the job-related questions stay with the job when I leave)

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