I've had a number of comments made about https://meta.stackexchange.com/questions/128548/what-stack-overflow-is-not, mostly to the effect that the post is too "cold and prickly" to properly represent the community of nice people that frequent Stack Overflow every day.

In particular, the Community Team likes some of the explanations of the land mines that people step on all the time, but they won't link to it because of its perceived tone.

How can we make this better?

Are there other problems with the post that could be fixed/improved, and if so, how?

  • 35
    "Stack Overflow is Not cold and pricky" :P
    – Zelda
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 18:58
  • We can expand on the reason for each topic and how to deal with it constructively.
    – Oded
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 19:01
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    @Oded: Possibly. But one of the characteristics I was going for was brevity. I think people mostly have a problem with the titles, like "Stack Overflow is Not a Mind Reader."
    – user102937
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 19:02
  • Understood, but that brevity (including the "is not" in the titles) is one of the things that may be causing the perception issue.
    – Oded
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 19:03
  • How can we fix the titles?
    – user102937
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 19:04
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    The condescending tone (especially of not your research assistant and mind reader) is the only problem I have with them. Many of them (especially the Forum one) are very neutral. The not a forum one is an example of a neutral, informative tone
    – Zelda
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 19:13
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    I think how it is delivered to people is also a problem. Often times I see links delivered to people in comments that contain just the posts's title, like "Stack Overflow is not your personal research assistant", and that's all. It comes off very declarative. Somewhat similiar to this question.
    – vcsjones
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 19:28
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    Are we completely settled on the "is not"? If you allow some deviation from that you could say something like "SO does not know what you're thinking or seeing" instead of "SO is not a mind reader". Perhaps that will allow for a more friendly tone.
    – Bart
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 19:49
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    If someone reads that post (or gets sent a link to it as a response to one of their questions) and thinks the tone is condescending, they need to check their premises. SO isn't able to coddle new users. I don't know about the rest of you, but I simply don't have the time to explain the rules to everyone. The people who take offense to that attitude are usually the ones who need the most meta-help, i.e. how to ask a question. If I had a vote, I would vote that "What Stack Overflow is not" remain as it is, possibly expanded to include more bullet points.
    – JimmyPena
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:07
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    Instead of linking to WSOIN, send clippycorn to pass the message :P
    – Lix
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:16
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    Since we're in middle of a moderator election, I just want to point out to everyone that I think this is a good example of top-notch site moderation. Not only did Robert go out of his way to create a canonical reference for us all to use to try and help get people to improve their posts, but he's following up on it after finding out that people aren't 100% satisfied with it. This is the kind of thing we're looking for more of. Thanks Robert. Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:31
  • I like your edits so far
    – Zelda
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 23:25
  • 4
    The WSOIN post could be improved by un-deleting it. Commented Jun 29, 2012 at 13:28
  • Why was the "What Stack Overflow Is Not" topic removed ?
    – teresko
    Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 6:36
  • 1
    .. sometime is think that SO needs annual "worst decision of year" price.
    – teresko
    Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 15:33

6 Answers 6


Comments linking to that post do get flagged as rude quite often (as you know). I don't think there's anything wrong with the Meta post itself, but when left as a comment some of the messages can seem a bit terse. I think it would help to soften the language in the title of each entry, since that's what people usually copy/paste as the body of their comments. So instead of

Stack Overflow is not a Recommendation Engine

we could have

Recommendation questions are off-topic on Stack Overflow

and instead of

Stack Overflow is not your personal research assistant

maybe it should be

You should show your own research when posting a question to Stack Overflow.

One that seems particularly snarky when taken by itself is

Stack Overflow is not a Mind Reader.

But the very next sentence provides a perfectly helpful replacement message.

Always provide enough information in your question so that we can answer it.

Since the first sentence of each answer seems to be just begging to be copy/pasted as a comment, I think replacing each of those bold messages with a friendlier version would help reduce the perceived rudeness of the post as a whole.

On a side note, I noticed that most of the answers on that post link to other Meta posts. It would probably be a good idea to go through and make sure they link to a relevant section of the FAQ where there is one, a related Meta faq, or a Stack Exchange blog post. Having an official reference to back up the assertions in those answers will lend them some credibility as real problems and not just idle complaints.

  • 8
    This subtle change would go a long way IMO. +1
    – Lix
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:06
  • I made some changes to some of the titles. What do you think?
    – user102937
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:20
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    @RobertHarvey It's a good start, but not enough. Admittedly, it's a bit of a Sisyphean task. These links are almost always used to say "you have done something wrong/bad, now spend some of your time and energy going to this link and reading up on why." It's hard to come up with any wording that doesn't sound unpleasant in that context.
    – Pops
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:26
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    @RobertHarvey Those are a lot better. I wish I'd been paying closer attention to which comments are getting the most flags so we'd know which ones to focus on, but it probably is just the top answers. Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:27
  • @BilltheLizard: "Stack Overflow is Not Your Personal Research Assistant" gets the most flags citing rudeness, by far.
    – user102937
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:43
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    @RobertHarvey I think that specific title (and some of the others) are bad because of the implied / assumed question. It's sort of putting words in people's mouths (Hey, I didn't ask for a personal research assistant. How dare they even imply that?). I like Bill's suggestion because it doesn't feel as much like putting words in the user's mouth. It's providing guidance. Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:56
  • @jadarnel27: What do you think of the new title?
    – user102937
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 21:02
  • @RobertHarvey Definitely an improvement (it sounds less accusatory without the "Your Personal" in there). Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 21:05
  • These are great suggestions from Bill. But in order to work The title of the post needs to be changed from "What Stack Overflow is not" to "How do I write great questions on Stack Overflow". @RobertHarvey has done a great job in incorporating feedback and toning down the rudeness and providing guidance on how to link to these questions. But if I'm honest I agree with Popular Demand that it doesn't go far enough. Rob I think you may be fixating on "What SO is not" when there is a much more positive and constructive question to be asked. Focus on what to do rather than what not to do. Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 14:21
  • @reach4thelasers: There are already many, many good posts on Meta about that. This post is about the don'ts, not the do's. You don't label the swimming pool rules sign "How to be a great swimmer;" that's not what the sign is for.
    – user102937
    Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 14:56
  • I hear what you are saying @RobertHarvey but signs in a swimming pool aren't personally directed at people the way links to the 'what SO is not' post are. I feel very strongly about this. I wrote a few crap questions when I first joined. Its almost a rite-of-passage. First you learn how to write good questions, then much later you learn how to write great answers. Good answers is something you figure out on your own - I've only learned recently what makes a great answer. But great questions come from comments "you need to tell us x" "Could you paste in the code for y..." Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 19:26
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    You don't teach new users to become excellent members of the SO community and writers of good questions by telling them what not to do... tell them how to do it. Do you teach a child to write by telling him how not to do it? Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 19:29
  • @reach4thelasers: Nowadays you get more or less two chances to get it right before the system locks you out. Users don't get question-banned by doing things right. If a user gets slapped upside the head with one of these and avoids a permanent question-ban as a consequence, I'd say we're doing them a favor.
    – user102937
    Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 19:32
  • @RobertHarvey well that's more reason to help a user rather than efficiently processing them via a link to "What SO is not". If they only get two chances its even more reason to help them, explain to them. A 15 year old Mark Zuckerberg gets banned from questions on SO for life because we didn't give him proper help - just imagine. I think you've done a great job in turning the question around. But I still think it needs to be flipped completely from a Negative to a Positive... "Here's what to do to make your question great...." Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 19:36
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    Your post does nothing to help the community or our new users - actually it does damage to both: that's my argument. There are two types of Geek - the ones that are so smart that they lack empathy and social skills are borderline autistic and come out with comments like "I'm not your personal research assistant" - and the other one who is sensitive and introvert and would be really hurt or offended by a comment like that. Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 19:55

Thanks for asking! I gotta say that every time that post pops up, it makes me a little sad for what Stack Overflow has become. I count 33 things that SO is not which amounts to at least that many behaviors that lusers users have discovered that are to be discouraged. No doubt the list will grow.

It's also a little discongruous to have a list that includes both:

Stack Overflow is not paying people to answer your questions

which seems like a very natural assumption to make, and:

Stack Overflow is not Your Free Promotional Site™

which seems like a more obvious form of abuse.

I've never seen the question being used as "just-in-time documentation", but I can imagine being horrified by getting a link the the "people aren't getting paid" answer and seeing the rest of the menagerie that surrounds it. The subtle message is, "The site is powered by volunteers, you spammer!" Which leads me to the first suggestion:

Split it into 33+ questions with one canonical answer

This would go a long way to solving my objection (which is admittedly not that big a deal) and, I'm guessing, make the whole thing more approachable to someone who's crossed a specific line. Instead of being confronted with "bad behavior #21", you could point them to the specific misconception they have about the site.

It also will allow individual responses to have their own tone. I love the answer to:

Stack Overflow is not attacking you personally

but it takes on a darker tone when put next to:

Stack Overflow is not going to read all that

or other, more snarky, answers. When it comes to sarcasm, these's a race-to-the-bottom problem. On it's own, the first answer sounds upfront and honest. But when you start to suspect the answers ought not to be read completely straight, you feel like the victim of a verbal practical joke or something.

My second suggestion is:

Assume the best

I suppose that the vast majority of people who abuse the system need a slap on the wrist and a stern dressing-down. It's useful to have a bit of text handy for just that purpose. But I really think it works best to assume the best in others. I know it can be cathartic to throw a little bile back at a particularly hateful user, but that's not a good idea. Rise above.

The funny thing is that I'm convince the really terrible people won't even notice the tone. There's probably some psychology out there to back me up, but my intuition is that being abusive makes people ignore blowback in general. If so, a sarcastic tone only serves to frustrate the users most likely to learn form their mistakes.

  • 2
    I just finished revising the "Stack Overflow is not going to read all that" answer, to reduce its condescending tone. Let me know if that jives with you.
    – Makoto
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:24
  • 3
    "Split this up" is my gut reaction as well. A few of those answers are well-written and useful; a few are so terrible I cringe every time I see them; most are just... Meh. I could easily see linking to more specific questions that address common trouble spots if they didn't run the risk of also including "Not a mind reader" as the prelude. And yeah - experience on SO has shown that the worst of the worst will ignore any feedback (up to and including being perma-banned by the system) - it's a waste of time to even bother.
    – Shog9
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:30
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    I need a suggestion for "Stack Overflow is not going to read all that." I actually think that is one of the better ones.
    – user102937
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:32
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    @Robert: that one just needs to die. It's trying to address too many distinct issues in one answer: lengthy introductions (which aren't always a problem) code dumps and off-site hosting/example-linking (which often are too localized), poor formatting, lack of research, multiple distinct questions in one post... Even one of these can be an entire FAQ without really straining.
    – Shog9
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:36
  • @Shog9: In other words, it's tl;dr itself. Let me try rewriting it.
    – user102937
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:38
  • 2
    @Shog9 Rewrite complete.
    – user102937
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:41
  • @RobertHarvey: Beautiful. Short, sweet, and to the point.
    – Makoto
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:44
  • Split it up sort of ruins the ability to easily link to this stuff...or easily read it...actually I see almost not reason to split it. The problem is the included titles/ect are a turn off, address that issue.
    – Zelda
    Commented Jun 8, 2012 at 16:47
  • @Ben: Perhaps if the misconceptions were divided into related bins: spammers in one bin and excessive optimists in another, perhaps. If I assume someone is paid to answer my question, I shouldn't be given a canned response that lumps me in with serious abuse. Maybe split it into two or three "questions" instead? Commented Jun 8, 2012 at 16:58

I've noticed two issues with What Stack Overflow is Not (WSOiN).

  1. The first is what vcsjones just said in a comment above, which I'll just copy because it's well stated:

    I think how it is delivered to people is also a problem. Often times I see links delivered to people in comments that contain just the post's title, like "Stack Overflow is not your personal research assistant," and that's all. It comes off very declarative.

    I would even go a step farther and say that it often comes off as brusque, unwelcoming or downright rude, depending on context.

  2. The second issue is related to the first. Now that WSOiN exists, users who link to it can — consciously or not — feel like they've done their part and move on. I've seen people post one-liner links to WSOiN entries and then leave without making any attempt to fix obvious spelling errors or other issues with posts. I suspect that the same is true of voting and flagging.

    In other words, linking to WSOiN is the "I just walked five extra steps to throw away a candy wrapper instead of littering, so I've done my part to protect the environment for this year" of the SO world. It really is the least you can do.

    This is just a human nature thing; people who normally put in a certain level of effort may do much less when you give them an easier alternative that still lets them feel like they've somehow contributed. I don't even mind WSOiN too much when it's used in conjunction with other efforts, rather than instead of them.

At one point, you said that people shouldn't criticize WSOiN without justification/evidence, which I respect. I have been collecting examples as I see them; it's not a priority, so it's slow going. But now that you've asked this question, I didn't want to wait to respond.

  • 2
    I'm new to SO but one of the first answers I found was a one-liner link to WSOiN and it came off very cold and critical. It made me hesitant to join the community and post a question. Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:18
  • "I would even go a step farther and say that it often comes off as brusque, unwelcoming or downright rude, depending on context." You say that as thought that's not exactly why they get used. I personally admit to using them this way, for questions that I feel are particularly bad or unworthy of expending actual effort. Recently, I've tried to avoid doing that for obviously new users, but I'm of the opinion that sometimes being "cold and prickly" is good. It needs to be controlled, of course. Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:18
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    @Nicol: well, that's the point Pops is making here, I think: if you're trying to discourage someone from coming back, being brusque about it is productive - heck, leaving no comment can work to that end. But if you get people leaving these links out of some misguided belief that they're "helping new users learn to use the site", it's counter-productive - poisonous even. Remember, it's not just the authors who see these comments; if I showed up new on SO and saw nothing but snark and rudeness in the comments, I wouldn't particularly want to hang around.
    – Shog9
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:25
  • 2
    "if I showed up new on SO and saw nothing but snark and rudeness in the comments, I wouldn't particularly want to hang around." hmm. That's the reason I did stick around...
    – Servy
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:33
  • 1
    Meh. I just want bad stuff deleted, @Servy. If I want to see folks piling on the criticism, I go visit TDWTF Forums.
    – Shog9
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:37

I don't think the problem is with the post itself - I don't think there have been any discussions about inappropriate posts or misleading information there.

Until recently I believe that I was abusing those links unintentionally. I meant well. The point is to educate the OP about what types of questions are allowed on the site.

People I've talked to who are opposed to this behavior claim (rightfully so) that it is rather snarky to just post a link like that. If you are going to make a comment and reference something then reference it, don't just post the link. It's almost like a lmgtfy, or a whathaveyoutried.com. If you want to leave a comment nudging the OP in the right direction then put a little more effort than just pasting a link. It pretty much comes down to rewording one or more of the answers from https://meta.stackexchange.com/questions/128548/what-stack-overflow-is-not to suit the OP and the question at hand.

I would love to post some examples of some helpful comments that include WSOIN links however most places where those comments are appropriate get closed and ultimately deleted as they are all examples of what we do not want on the site.

Given a question asking for recommendations on what jQuery-X plugin to use, examples of comments would be -

Bad example

Good example

  • It would be hard to decide what exactly would answer your question as all answers would be peoples opinions which can change over time as opposed to a concrete solution. Questions here need to be more specific. A question about a problem with a specific plugin would be acceptable because you could include code samples of things you've tried. – Lix 35 secs ago
  • 6
    That looks like a lot of work. Part of the objective was to shorten the conversation and provide authoritative, standardized wording. Your "good example" isn't exactly canonical; if I were a new user, part of my thought process would be "Who are you, and on whose authority do you say this?"
    – user102937
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:16
  • @rob - I can see your point. I think @bill's suggestion would optimal...
    – Lix
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 20:19
  • 1
    (Poor man's private messaging, as I referred you to Minitech's Tic Tac Toe earlier: there's a code challenge for that...)
    – Arjan
    Commented Jun 10, 2012 at 9:52

I don't agree with the comments which say that "Stack Overflow is cold and prickly".

Having said that some of the links could sound cold and pricky. It actually depends on the user perception. I am sure that you will agree that each one of us is a unique individual capable of forming our own opinions based on what we see and what we hear. For example, let's take the case of

Stack Overflow is not like all those other sites

Stack Overflow does not work like online forums. If you came here expecting to use your existing knowledge of how online forums work, you may be disappointed.

I have been participating in forums for a long time now and I don't find the above statement cold and prickly but yes, a first time user just might find that cold and prickly.

Perhaps changing that to something like this?

Stack Overflow is just not like any other site (Removed the word THOSE)

You will be pleasantly surprised to find that Stack Overflow is very unique as compared to several other forums. Before you ask or answer your first question, we would recommend you to read the following....

Here is another example.

Western+internet+developer culture may be more flippant/familiar/sarcastic than you may be used to in your own culture.

taken from here

Like one of the users who commented on that post, SO is Global. The above comments is just sending wrong signals (even if that was not your intention)


  1. Changing the tone of how the message is conveyed.
  2. Avoiding words which could initiate unnecessary discussions.
  • 3
    No offense, but your sanitized version makes me want to gag.
    – user102937
    Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 19:42
  • 2
    None taken. The sanitized version is an example. Feel free to amend it as you would like it :) The basic idea is to just change the tone of the original version :) Commented Jun 7, 2012 at 19:45
  • @RobertHarvey: Oh God... WSOIN post is deleted! Why would one do that? It was a beautiful thing that you created. Is it going to come back? Commented Jun 30, 2012 at 5:24

The "Stack Overflow is not a forum or discussion board" question is somewhat misleading, as Stack Overflow is part forum, as per the venerable Venn Diagram. I would instead recommend phrasing it as follows:

Stack Overflow is not your typical forum or discussion board

  • 1
    I'm inclined to agree, except that we have been removing modifiers such as "your," "that other" and "typical" in an effort to improve the tone. In the sense that SO has posts, it does look a bit like a forum, but the similarity essentially ends there.
    – user102937
    Commented Jun 8, 2012 at 16:39
  • 2
    It's kinda like a forum...but it's not a forum. We're also not Reddit, despite the circles. I think it's fine without typical/ect
    – Zelda
    Commented Jun 8, 2012 at 16:50