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There is a distinct decline in the level of civility on all the sites here. Some of this is due to new users coming in and posting spam and other nonsense, but the off-topic and downvote buttons are doing a pretty good job of keeping this under control.

Unfortunately, a lot of this is coming from more experienced users, and the site's built-in moderation system does not (and probably cannot) handle this very well. Folks are rushing to pound new users down with "this belongs on meta!", "this is off topic", "this is a duplicate!" and "read the FAQ!". (Which is correct, but should be done nicer) All this, of course, is accompanied by a flurry of downvotes. This is not very welcoming to new users who don't know about meta, the FAQ, or what counts as off-topic.

Now I am not proposing that we just allow off-topic, meta, or duplicate questions. However, I think we could be gentler in the way we express these sorts of things. Explain what meta and the FAQ are and provide useful links. Just using please and thank-you when asking folks to read the FAQ or post something on meta would be an improvement. I also think we could rein in the downvoting a bit. Not that we shouldn't vote stuff down, but unless a new user's post is clearly spam, voting it down to -1 or -2 should be sufficient to send a message without piling on.

I like Stack Overflow and I want it to become a resource for everyone, not just an elitist site for people who were in the private beta.

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migrated from Jul 27 '09 at 10:57

This question came from our site for professional and enthusiast programmers.

The links to that information should be better displayed, and perhaps displayed more often. – Brad Gilbert Sep 16 '08 at 21:17
This is why I've suggested having comments for when things are voted down. That way people get helpful hints instead of just the big minus sign. Unfortunately, the suggestion was declined by management. :( – Kyralessa Sep 16 '08 at 21:21
For starters, let's stop using the derogatory term "noobs"? – Ates Goral Oct 17 '08 at 14:39
@Michael I think it's more likely it came from the word 'newbie' which I don't find offensive at all. – rustyshelf Nov 20 '08 at 23:42
As a noob here myself the most irritating thing I have experienced is being voted down without explanation. I'm not here to gain reputation but to get help. I try to be helpful in return. So if an answer is deemed unhelpful I would like to know why so that I can make better answers in future. – Noel Walters Jan 26 '09 at 11:08
Rolled back to "noobs". The term is used in our field and I don't think anyone takes it particularly offensively. Tired of political correctness everywhere. – Simucal Feb 16 '09 at 2:04
I totally agree, I've caught wind of this myself and I’ve only been here two weeks. It takes a lot to not attack back via comments. This “decline in the level of civility” can lead to very large nonsense/bickering comment chains. – NTDLS Feb 21 '09 at 5:16
I agree. It's very offensive to be a new user, post a question, and have it hit with "topic closed". Even it's a duplicate question, don't bar people from answering it. Some questions that I thought were reasonable were IMHO inappropriately closed. My reaction was "**** this ****ing site!" – Anonymous Feb 23 '09 at 20:01
I've always thought that we programmers tend to be a little bit arrogant. Maybe it comes with the binary numerical system understanding – victor hugo May 10 '09 at 19:27
The beatings will continue until morale improves? – sparks May 12 '09 at 23:56
This is typical. Someone designs and creates a system (StackOverflow) that fails to take into account the nature of human beings, and then someone (in this case, you) criticises the humans for just being themselves and not adapting to the flaws of the system. – Timwi May 13 '09 at 0:40
I'd definitely change "noobs" to "newcomers", because standard English is always more understandable. – Daniel Daranas Jun 26 '09 at 10:39
@mcandre: where in the manifesto is that true: [This is a place for specific, complex questions] That's your personal wish for this place, just as my personal wish for this place is somewhere between experts-exchange and slashdot. Guess what, neither of us are going to get what we want, but IMHO, if we were closer to my vision, we get a better tool all-around and not just some silo to your ego of eliteness. – darthcoder Aug 18 '09 at 18:23
I find so ironic that this post has been "protected" against newbies... – yms Apr 24 '11 at 22:37
I know that when I started I found the FAQ to be singularly unhelpful and got downvoted on my first interaction with StackOverflow because I had no idea why I couldn't leave comments or make votes (probably the two most used features of this website), so left a comment the only way I could, as an answer. I got downvoted with no explanation except the advice that I should have commented and / or upvoted (which I didn't have the reputation to do). It wasn't until just recently that I discovered the FAQ does deal with comments and votes, but only under Reputation, not what I came here for – James K Sep 16 '12 at 1:46

49 Answers 49

I've used Stack Overflow for all of a week, and today is my last day (I always keep a link for at least a week).

I've answered a few questions for people, found the reference for the question I asked. I posed an opinion question and the results were interesting:

  • Six answers within a few minutes
  • Question was suddenly down voted to -5, all in one go.
  • Two more answers, and question voted up to -4
  • Question closed by some other user within 10 minutes.

The answers were interesting, in that I didn't expect them and made me think. Unfortunately, there are no other answers. The question is still available at

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I suppose it doesn't add integrity to the rating system that it was closed as 'not a programming question' while 'favorite cartoon' has hundreds of up votes. – Anonymous Nov 20 '08 at 6:12
reopened and upvoted. don't give up so easily. – Steven A. Lowe Nov 24 '08 at 16:19

Just imagine the poster is someone else in your company.

Give 'naughty' noobs the same bland, negative, unemotional response you'd give to a "boss" who asked you to refactor code in some moderately inane way because they simply didn't understand that of which they spoke.

No need to even be supportive (although that can be nice) but flaming people for mistakes of form, judgement or fact is behaviour that should be beneath real problem solvers. Use the down-vote judiciously and the site will flow better than if we indulge our frustrations on others.

"That is a question that you'll find an ongoing discussion about here" is a polite and straight forward way to deal with a duplicate post that avoids offending anyone.

Practising such pat phrases will serve all of us well in our workplaces too. If you don't regularly need to politely and effectively deal with people who should know better misusing their opportunities you have worked in better places than me.

Anyway that's my two cents worth.

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I'm a noob. I've been following this site for a few days and so far I really like the format and the quality of topics and answers.

From what I've seen so far there most of the answers to questions are constructive and well thought out (exhibit A in the original post doesn't work). If Stack Overflow was just another forum site flooded with questions from people that won't do any footwork before bombarding a board with questions, I wouldn't have bookmarked it.

The FAQ was useful for me, maybe add some of the good examples of bad questions to the FAQ for us noobs too.. It might be fun to go through those too.

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I haven't been here long, but I see:

  • Sarcastic non answers getting up voted
  • People with "High Reputation" being complete jerks and personally attacking.
  • People with high rep giving completely inaccurate answers
  • Down voting everything a user says because he made you mad
  • Answers with the most cheer leading getting more up votes than clear concise answers.
  • Too many people have innacurate information and excessively repeating it does not make it any more accurate.
  • Post Whoring
  • Holy Wars

In general, I feel there are too many people with rights they shouldn't have.

Reputation is far too easy to obtain and there are a lot of people drunk with power.

I don't trust 90% of people, why should Stack Overflow?

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You pointed out these inaccuracies, right? – mmyers Apr 24 '09 at 17:57
"Managed code is waaaay slow compared to native even with JIT." Your phrasing is awfully close to trolling (there's no way you could back that over-generalized statement up); I'm not surprised it was downvoted. I notice you still had a net gain of 12 rep from that answer, though. (And I flagged the top answer there as spam.) – mmyers Apr 27 '09 at 14:08
I'm sorry, what did you just say? Is that slang or something? – mmyers Apr 27 '09 at 14:50

I just want to include myself as an example of this:

unless a new user's post is clearly spam, voting it down to -1 or -2 should be sufficient to send a message without piling on.

Now, I do think I had to be voted down, and the community should express itself so I can see if I fit in or not. But, as far as I can see, the reputation system is also associated with spam and bot prevention up to a certain ammount of points. So, until that is reached by any valid user this should be the focus: making the user able to use basic resources, such as voting, posting links, etc.

Maybe even the system should change a little bit on that sense. One thing is getting reputation to be able to moderate. Another thing is to achieve "human rights" in the system. And that should not be too hard for newbies.

Anyway, yet again, just my two cents as a newcomer.

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Cawas, downvotes on Meta are different from downvotes on SO/SF/SU. On Meta, since there is rarely a "right" and "wrong" answer, voting is instead a means to express approval or disapproval. The downvotes don't mean you asked bad questions. – mmyers Feb 18 '10 at 17:13

I agree, and I experienced this. I posted something off-topic and marked it as such. It was sufficient to have it downvoted, I don't need somebody flaming me to not post content like that on here. The training is built into the system.

As best I can tell, they're hoping to get some sympathy from other veterans to their cause to help their own rep.

I'm just trying to get to a point where I can upvote interesting questions and answers, and I'm not sure how to best do that when I'm not the quickest or most authoritative response.

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I think there's nothing wrong with closing (as duplicate, belongs on UserVoice or whatever else) a newcomer's questions. Of course, adding a comment explaining why is always nice, but I think the main thing is to just not downvote.

If the question is made in good faith, and it's going to get closed in another 30 seconds anyway, why bother downvoting it? Does it deserve it? Does the poster deserve to have the negative votes on his record, simply because he did not yet know how Stack Overflow works?

I try to reserve downvotes for questions that are either

  • made in bad faith, as spam or to otherwise disrupt Stack Overflow
  • or are simply bad questions (unreadable questions, no information supplied to actually make it possible to answer, or "questions" that aren't questions but blog posts or rants).

But a suggestion to improve Stack Overflow shouldn't be downvoted. It should simply be closed and directed to UserVoice. An off-topic question shouldn't be downvoted, but closed (as not-programming-related, or moved to Server Fault in some cases.

I often see questions that get downvoted because they belong on UserVoice, are not programming related, or whatever else. When I do, I generally leave a comment saying that there's no need for downvoting as well as closing the question, and encouraging people to bump the votes back up.

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Just something I wanted to throw in here.

I know it's a bit outdated, but anyone who's asking questions on the 'net in a technical forum should still read How To Ask Questions The Smart Way.

Specifically of consequence to this discussion:

Before You Ask

Before asking a technical question by e-mail, or in a newsgroup, or on a website chat board, do the following:

  1. Try to find an answer by searching the archives of the forum you plan to post to.
  2. Try to find an answer by searching the Web.
  3. Try to find an answer by reading the manual.
  4. Try to find an answer by reading a FAQ.
  5. Try to find an answer by inspection or experimentation.
  6. Try to find an answer by asking a skilled friend.
  7. If you're a programmer, try to find an answer by reading the source code.

When you ask your question, display the fact that you have done these things first; this will help establish that you're not being a lazy sponge and wasting people's time. Better yet, display what you have learned from doing these things. We like answering questions for people who have demonstrated they can learn from the answers.

Use tactics like doing a Google search on the text of whatever error message you get (searching Google groups as well as Web pages). This might well take you straight to fix documentation or a mailing list thread answering your question. Even if it doesn't, saying “I googled on the following phrase but didn't get anything that looked promising” is a good thing to do in e-mail or news postings requesting help, if only because it records what searches won't help. It will also help to direct other people with similar problems to your thread by linking the search terms to what will hopefully be your problem and resolution thread.

Take your time. Do not expect to be able to solve a complicated problem with a few seconds of Googling. Read and understand the FAQs, sit back, relax and give the problem some thought before approaching experts. Trust us, they will be able to tell from your questions how much reading and thinking you did, and will be more willing to help if you come prepared. Don't instantly fire your whole arsenal of questions just because your first search turned up no answers (or too many).

Prepare your question. Think it through. Hasty-sounding questions get hasty answers, or none at all. The more you do to demonstrate that having put thought and effort into solving your problem before seeking help, the more likely you are to actually get help.

Beware of asking the wrong question. If you ask one that is based on faulty assumptions, J. Random Hacker is quite likely to reply with a uselessly literal answer while thinking “Stupid question...”, and hoping the experience of getting what you asked for rather than what you needed will teach you a lesson.

Never assume you are entitled to an answer. You are not; you aren't, after all, paying for the service. You will earn an answer, if you earn it, by asking a substantial, interesting, and thought-provoking question — one that implicitly contributes to the experience of the community rather than merely passively demanding knowledge from others.

On the other hand, making it clear that you are able and willing to help in the process of developing the solution is a very good start. “Would someone provide a pointer?”, “What is my example missing?”, and “What site should I have checked?” are more likely to get answered than “Please post the exact procedure I should use.” because you're making it clear that you're truly willing to complete the process if someone can just point you in the right direction.


How To Interpret Answers RTFM and STFW: How To Tell You've Seriously Screwed Up

There is an ancient and hallowed tradition: if you get a reply that reads “RTFM”, the person who sent it thinks you should have Read The F***ing Manual. He or she is almost certainly right. Go read it.

RTFM has a younger relative. If you get a reply that reads “STFW”, the person who sent it thinks you should have Searched The F***ing Web. He or she is almost certainly right. Go search it. (The milder version of this is when you are told “Google is your friend!”)

In Web forums, you may also be told to search the forum archives. In fact, someone may even be so kind as to provide a pointer to the previous thread where this problem was solved. But do not rely on this consideration; do your archive-searching before asking.

Often, the person telling you to do a search has the manual or the web page with the information you need open, and is looking at it as he or she types. These replies mean that he thinks (a) the information you need is easy to find, and (b) you will learn more if you seek out the information than if you have it spoon-fed to you.

You shouldn't be offended by this; by hacker standards, your respondent is showing you a rough kind of respect simply by not ignoring you. You should instead be thankful for this grandmotherly kindness.

If you don't understand...

If you don't understand the answer, do not immediately bounce back a demand for clarification. Use the same tools that you used to try and answer your original question (manuals, FAQs, the Web, skilled friends) to understand the answer. Then, if you still need to ask for clarification, exhibit what you have learned.

For example, suppose I tell you: “It sounds like you've got a stuck zentry; you'll need to clear it.” Then: here's a bad followup question: “What's a zentry?” Here's a good followup question: “OK, I read the man page and zentries are only mentioned under the -z and -p switches. Neither of them says anything about clearing zentries. Is it one of these or am I missing something here?”

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I find RTFM and similar acronyms are rude and unnecessay. It would be more helpful to assume that the raiser has done all that they can think of doing on their own to find the answer to the question. They might not have read sources that are obvious to others. If someone is going to take the time to provide a response, why not give the benefit of the doubt and provide a reference and hints on the relevent sections in the reference. Perhaps the response could invite the raiser to return for more help if they still need it after reading the reference. This may also benifit many silent readers. – user147674 Jun 5 '10 at 0:11

I think civility could be improved in general, not just regarding questions about Stack Overflow. For example, the first question I asked here was a CSS question and I got a rude and slightly off-topic answer: "if you say liquid that usually means percent based dimensions, start associating things like that in your head" (I had not even said "liquid", and in the end there was no satisfactory answer to that question, which suggests it was not dumb).

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Follow-up comment on that answer: "then your solution is the same but with a new 400px div as child element of #rightnav (the terms liquid and fluid are interchangeable) " - none of this strikes me as terribly rude; if you don't find it helpful then ignore it / down-vote it. – Shog9 Aug 13 '10 at 18:49

I agree, thanks for bringing this up. I have at times been attacked personally just for making a logical statement. It's not always whether you are newbie or not, but it can be other subjective things such as if your question is liked or disliked (for example, Jon Skeet-related questions seem to get a lot of cheers here) regardless of its merits), which is why I brought up a related discussion in question Why is there a double standard regarding non-programming related questions at Stack Overflow?.

I am sensing a much higher civility in this thread, probably due to the way the question was posed.

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The good things we do in this life reflect in the next. We should all help each other. No question is too small, and no question is too large.

Long live Stack Overflow, and I hope its good ethics rub off on the old school elitists. Let's all work together to make Stack Overflow what it deservers to be.

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Interestingly (to me, anyway), I think that moderation in Stack Exchange has just hit a new level in "social experiment". In a way, you might even say that this is a sign of maturity for SO (but still a problem).



I'm going to talk about moderators here, but I'm not taking a shot at anyone. Really. I think that this is more of an interesting social effect than anyone being bad. So before I write the next bit, I want to thank all of the moderators for donating so much time and working so hard to make SO a great site. I mean that, and there is no sarcasm or disparagement intended whatsoever).

Now: Think about this: We have a number of rules and guidelines for using the site, and now we have a lot of moderators. As they work to optimize their job of moderating, they apply group-think based upon supporting the rules. They are doing what humans do -- optimizing their actions to complete their goal. In this case, moderating. BUT, does that necessarily mean that the work is doing the best thing for Stack Overflow (just my opinion, but nowadays, I think twice before posting and sometimes go elsewhere, because I don't want my question getting closed -- I just don't want the extra "intellectual tax" of dealing with cleaning up or thinking about a closed question, when what I'm really looking for is an answer.

Now that I've said all that, where else so you see this sort of group think effect? government bureaucracy! In way, it's really interesting, because in order to have that, doesn't the object of the bureaucracy have to be something that everyone involved feels is worth worrying about? So, in a way, cool! (that said, I'd like for it to be easier to post questions :)

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As someone new to Stack Overflow, I have to agree, to a point. I've noticed a certain SlashDottishness around here, though it's pretty limited so it is not that large an issue.

I think the environment will take care of itself over time. Those who don't need, want or deserve to be here will leave or be encouraged to leave.

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I recommend some type of cookie-cutter response that we can just copy-and-paste depending on the mistake made.

I agree with Outlaw Programmer, but would add that it would be useful if there was a menu or similar to quickly (and politely) allow "problem post" identification.

For example, if you see that a post is a duplicate, you hit a button, enter the url/id of the post duplicated. Successive viewers can then agree or disagree. The question poster will get a canned and polite notification.

So instead of templating being a burden on individual users, have it be a function of the system for the most common problem posts.

Offhand, those seem to be:

  • Duplicate
  • Belongs in user voice
  • Offtopic
  • Not a question
  • Unclear question (not enough detail to respond, etc.)
  • ...More as post requirements develop

In essence this would be a votable, post classification tag?

Quick and painless for advanced users...just chose the classification from a list of canned ones, or vote up the existing classification(s) if you agree.

It would be friendly and helpful to the new(er)bies. They would see "15 people think this post belongs in the uservoice section. Do you want to move it there?" or "107 people think you should probably add more detail to your question. Edit now?"

I would definitely support a template-message approach. I haven't participated much here, I admit (yeah, I know, I'm a n00b commenting on a thread about n00bs), but I have over 2 1/2 years' experience on Wikipedia, much of it in vandal-patrol. The template message system set up there works pretty well, and what I see in the suggestions from Outlaw Programmer and ee is a kind of combination between Wikipedia's system and Digg's Bury menu. Am I right? If so, I'd be 100% behind that method.

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Is there a limitation on when the deadline for posting on a question is considered beating a dead horse? ;)

I have little reputation, am a novice programmer, but I'm not scared to be voted down even if I answer honestly thinking I understood the question. Nothing will show me the progress I've made throughout the years like documenting my failures.

While being downright mean to someone is not the solution, I would assume people don't really need to be pampered...just my opinion as someone from the 'trophy kid' generation, you shouldn't always be protected or even rewarded when you make a mistake.

I love this place, even if I still have a lot to learn.


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I see a lot of discussion about "noobs" and such, but aren't we all technically new to the site. It's not that old yet (for example, if this site was slashdot instead, we'd all have really low UIDs).

I mean, the only difference between people joining now and people who "have been here since the beginning" is something like two months (if that). And most of that time was spent in private beta. I think the question itself promotes hostility to those who didn't join the private beta as it starts to create cliques of users in the community.

Pretty soon we'll have the group of guys who were in the private beta, the group who joined during open beta, the people who joined the first month, the people who know Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood personally, and it will be a mess of down votes and bickering in the answers and comments with moderator powers being thrown about willy-nilly.

Please, let's just ask questions, give answers, vote on the best of each and try and ignore who said what and concentrate on what was said.

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I'll add an example of what happened today. Today I've seen two quite "easy" questions. They are so easy that they could be funny.

32 bit unsigned JavaScript bitwise operation is one short

Now... Everyone that has a little of knowledge of IT should be able to answer both of them without problems.

  • The first one was upvoted 8 times (at the time I'm writing).

  • The second one was downvoted 24 times and closed by a moderator for "closed as not a real question". At this time it's the fourth most downvoted question (the wood spoon). I'll add that the question wasn't badly formatted (there isn't any revision on it and its formatting is quite good) and the English is good.

I hope this isn't "n00b friendliness" :-)

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The tooltip on the downvote button says, "This question does not show any research effort; it is unclear or not useful." And a question about what && and || mean is about as basic a question as you can get. I'm having a hard time believing that question was asked in good faith. – mmyers Sep 12 '11 at 22:20

We probably need to distinguish between two types of "new users":

  • New users to SO/SE
  • New users to a language/tool or whatever the subject of a question.

They are usually correlated, but we need to think about them separately. Personally, I prefer new user questions to questions so specific that they can be answered with a single line. But I understand that there are others different than me (and I do reply with one-liners from time to time).

My answer to the present question is to:

  • Establish a system of tags or ranks that allows askers to classify their questions as "beginner" / "real beginner" / "intermediate" / "advanced" / "postdoctoral". And allow potential answerers to search by difficulty level, of course.
  • Criticize questions according to the assigned difficulty level.
  • Guide users to become proficient in SO/SE as we are doing today: sweetly. Assume that question's difficulty is also an indication of SO/SE expertise level. Be lenient or demanding accordingly.
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the issue is not with easiness. The issue is with laziness and the resulting immense duplication of questions and thus fragmentation of knowledge. Easy questions in obscure topics are fine. Easy questions already answered by the manual are not. – Jan Dvorak Aug 18 '13 at 7:05
you are free to propose a site where heavily duplicated trivial questions are welcome. I don't want these lazy questions on SO. I will not use tha site as my source of knowledge. I might contribute with answers. – Jan Dvorak Aug 18 '13 at 7:18
I've been a Wikipedia editor and contributor for a long while, but I have encountered that SO is a lot more fun precisely because of the newbies. I'll follow them wherever they go. And come back to SO from time to time too, as well as Wikipedia. – Mario Rossi Aug 18 '13 at 7:28
There have been several occasions where I wanted to abandon SO (except that it's the fastest place to resolve code issues/puzzles) because I would send an hour refining my question to make sure I had everything I could to inform the answerers only to be downvoted because of a lack of information. It's not laziness, it's not because I didn't read the FAQ or guides. It's because I'm new. I just don't know... that's why I post here! – jtsmith1287 Aug 18 '13 at 18:46

The point to be noted is that, downvoting isn't the only trick to teach the new user, how to not post syntactically ill questions.

The experienced user here are much more aware of all the guidelines and regulations of this community. But the new user is not.

Whenever a new user logs in, they don't bother to read the FAQs of community. Not even someone else would bother to do so, if they are using the site for the first time.

I don't think there is anyone who reads the FAQs of each and every site they open. Nobody thinks it as useful.

The new user should be made aware of the point that Stack Exchange sites works on some guidelines that should be followed strictly to wrap your posts into relevant words.

There are better ways of doing so. Comment with relevant links are powerful enough to direct the new user to the FAQs page instead of a heavy volume of down votes. Two or three downvotes are sufficiently enough to let the user know about how this site works.

Getting a large volume of downvotes in the initial stages are worth embarrassing, as I got in first post of mine.

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I surely do read FAQs of sites I participate at. Also, I browse around to see how others are participating. In other words: I do put effort in understanding the site I'm using, before I use it. And, as already pointed out to you twice: downvoting might be different here. So, even nice comments don't help make you understand? Then I'd say: good that downvotes do make some feel something was not appreciated, and feed the ban. – Arjan Sep 15 '12 at 10:08
These sites are not some personal help forums, to get one's problems fixed. Why wouldn't a community be allowed to get rid of content they don't appreciate, by downvoting it? – Arjan Sep 15 '12 at 10:28
Just for some perspective: the last two weeks Stack Overflow had an average of 5,428 new questions per day. That's one every 15 seconds. – Arjan Sep 15 '12 at 10:38
I always read the FAQ and possibly even ask a Meta question on a new site, to make sure my question is not downvoted into oblivion. :) And... it works! – Alenanno Sep 15 '12 at 10:53

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