I sent this to [email protected] and they felt it would be a good point of discussion and suggested I post it here...

Votes and flames on StackOverflow

First off, I want to say that the site is seriously the best thing I've found online this year. It really could be (if it's not already) the wikipedia of support forums. I'm glad to finally find a support forum that actually feels like a real group with real people, not simply a bunch of 15 year-olds saying things like "Um, by PC do you mean Windows, guahhhh!"

On the other hand, that sort of attitude is on the rise on the site, and that makes me really upset and nervous that the honeymoon may be coming to an end.

To be fair, even the condescension sounds more mature or at least more intelligent than that found at most forums. But nevertheless it still reeks of intimidation and condescension, both of which are unhelpful.

As someone who works at a help desk, I very often find myself slipping up and saying things like "I'm sorry, do you mean you want me to help you set up your wireless? You don't really install the internet onto your computer." I am not a saint but I do know that the worst cases are those where the user does not participate and doesn't want to help themselves. And when I lash out, I'm only making it harder on myself and any other tech support consultant that inherits the disconnect that I have reinforced by being snide to someone who just wanted help.

It's one thing to need more information, or to feel frustrated that someone's question is vague, doesn't use the right terminology, or is simply lazy. But it's another thing to burn that user. The site is not open. They took the time to sign up (even if that is quite easy thanks to OpenID), and they probably skipped over half a dozen other sites and opted for SO because it is easy to search, easy on the eyes, and actually has intelligent and informed answers. Their reward for being brave enough to admit they need help should not be "Surprise, we're assholes, too!"

Someone asked a question about how to "Send letters with PHP to and from Gmail" or something along those lines. Everyone had to take a shot at his use of the term "letters" instead of "emails". English is not everyone's first language, especially when it comes to math and science. I personally found it confusing but also fairly charming that he came up with "letters". Granted, letters can also refer to "alphanumeric characters" but it took me all of 5 seconds to take a guess at what the intention was.

Not only did he get a highly melodramatic comment that led to a respone comment from the user with a frowny emoticon, he also got a "the answer is to type gmail php into the search box in the corner". Not to mention other smartass comments in other answers.

I work in IT, and we love to bust each others chops. We're geeks and we're boys (mostly) and it's all in good fun. But when there isn't a face to the screenanme, and it's a stranger, and it's someone's first time asking a question, it's not always in good fun. I've seen some fun jabs on SO on occasion, but I'm starting to see way more frustration and hostility.

The subject line mentions votes and flames because I've taken to voting down answers and comments I think are negative in any or all of the above-mentioned ways. And a vote down results in a suggestion box of "down votes should include comments". Any time I've voted something down with a follow up comment, I've gotten burned. I go down a point. Voting down with a comment, it seems, is effectively voting myself down. The only thing worse I can imagine, as far as petty and malicious behavior, would be if I left a comment but didn't cast the vote and still lost a point out of spite.

I really hope you can keep the site's integrity and good-nature (and good-humor) up, but also I think there needs to be some rethinking on the voting system. Perhaps a flagging system would be better. I down-voted the "use the search box"comment and was disgusted to notice that it was up-voted twice already. This type of attitude should not be praised or encouraged. I think those types of answers should be flagged, reviewed, and removed if necessary.

The point of a forum site is to share knowledge and help out people who are stuck, desperate, or just lost all together. When we start to assume what people should know before they DARE ask a question, we just further perpetuate the standard that IT and CS guys are bitter unapproachable toads, and it's that lack of support that results in bad design, bad architecture, and overall bad code.

  • 5
    Does the flag option not cover this? I.e. using the flag option to report abusive behaviour. I've never used it, but I think posts like yours should encourage us to report abuse and anti-social behaviour. Thank you. Aug 26, 2009 at 8:10
  • I think I've avoided flagging because I assumed it was reserved for personal attacks and specific malicious language (racist/sexist views, calling someone stupid, or offensive language in excess). But now that I know that it's meant to curb exactly what my email was about, I'll be sure to use the flag option for those situations.
    – Anthony
    Aug 26, 2009 at 8:41
  • Funny coincidence? Probably not. But the user with the "letters" question prompted my to ask this yesterday: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/17324
    – innaM
    Aug 26, 2009 at 9:25
  • 4
    The flag option is too intimidating. "Offensive, abusive or hate speech" - people see "hate speech" and think "well, this is mildly abusive, but it's certainly not at that level" and then reconsider if they should be flagging at all, thinking that it's meant for more extreme cases.
    – womp
    Aug 26, 2009 at 15:44

5 Answers 5


I can understand why they suggested posting it here.

The first and most important thing to remember that this is what flagging is for. Apart from Jeff and the team, SU has four moderators who act upon these flags, and we will act if someone is out of line.

We do NOT condone the above mentioned behavior, and will act based on the severity of the issue when it is brought to our attention. I used to check every post myself, but with the increase of questions it is becoming harder to do, and we are very dependent on others to flag items.

These items need to be flag each time they occur to ensure that we can have a track record to act upon as well.

Also users with 2000+ reputation can edit the posts and answers of others, and this is also to ensure that these can be managed, and fixed. We often edit post for non-english speaking users to check grammar and spelling, which most likely will happen with this answer, knowing the others on the site :)

I can't stress this point enough. Use the spam and flag options when these issues are seen. Use your power to vote if you able, and do not be afraid to contact the mods.
We do not disclose the information of the users who flagged to anyone, ever.

I only realized after answering the relevant question is regarding SO, however the rules are the same across the sites. A list of SO mods can be found here


I am the one who answered

By typing "gmail php" in the search box in the upper right corner of this web site

I tried the same thing myself before posting the answer, and the first result actually shows how you can send emails from php by using gmail's smtp-servers.

Off course I also linked to the question I found and also marked his question as duplicate.

Please help me understand what better answers you should give a user that asks something that is already answered on the site.

(I deleted the answer because Anthony down voted it. Also the question has now been edited with additional info that makes it not a duplicate of the one i pointed to)

  • 7
    The link to the duplicate is totally sufficient. Aug 26, 2009 at 8:20
  • 4
    This is what vote for duplicate (with enough rep) or even flag for moderator attention is there for. Aug 26, 2009 at 8:21
  • Ha! I knew I'd get busted talking out of school and that you'd end up seeing this. Well, first off, even if you had good intentions (which it sounds like you did), try to remember that EVERY coding and tech forum is polluted with responses like "did you even try searching yet" and "um, it's called google" and my favorite "um, without more details, it's impossible to answer that question." SO users know more so they should know better. Personally, I think links to duplicates should be comments...
    – Anthony
    Aug 26, 2009 at 8:34
  • I would gladly upvote you if you helped me find the answer in a comment, but I think giving you full credit for answering my question is about as legit as me asking the question without searching first. I'm rewarding you for my laziness at that point. But on that note, sometimes I've searched for my question and read the answers and still started from scratch because I knew I wouldn't understand the solution until I heard it addressed specifically to situation. If reading someone else's problem/solution was enough, the documentation would be good enough too.
    – Anthony
    Aug 26, 2009 at 8:37
  • Oh, and as a quick add on to my own rant and this series of comments, the response that made me actually laugh even though it was the most unhelpful answer ever was "Um...have you tried debugging?"
    – Anthony
    Aug 26, 2009 at 8:38
  • 1
    Thank you everyone for your replies. Is it correct to assume that the "correct" way to handle his question would be to vote for close (as duplicate, with the correct link) and then a comment to the question containing the url to the duplicate question?
    – Espo
    Aug 26, 2009 at 8:42
  • 2
    @Espo - Correct. This is acceptable practice. Also remember the Google is the SO home page, so Google it type comments will not fly. Aug 26, 2009 at 8:46
  • @Diago: I think there is a difference in "Google it" and "Search this site in the box to the right", but thats just me. I appologize for typing it and promize to never tell people to search for something they want again.
    – Espo
    Aug 26, 2009 at 8:55
  • @Espo: snark snark! I think there is a difference between "search the site in the box" as a comment and as an answer. And a difference between posting a link and "here's your answer, search in that box". But that's just me.
    – Anthony
    Aug 26, 2009 at 9:07

stackoverflow and serverfault is for developers & IT professionals, in which case the IT prima donna's answering expect a certain level of specificity with questions, without it we can't give properly detailed answers.

What sets the so-family of sites apart from yahoo answers (& others) is that it doesn't have 15 year olds asking vague questions that don't make sense.

The "Send letters with PHP to and from Gmail" is the equivalent of the "How do make baby" questions you get on yahoo answers. What i don't want to see is so sf (& su) turn into these lowest common denominator sites.

IMHO an answeer asking someone to do a search because the information is right in-front of them isn't abuse, it's helpful, especially when the question is so vague.

Being stuck constitutes that you've had a go first. Most vague questions asking how you do something simple are from users who haven't even tried to look.

There was a recent blog post by a SQL Server MVP Tibor Karaszi that spends a lot of time on forums answering questions. This guy actually does answer vague questions (i've seen him do it on MSDN forums) People don't like uncomfortable answers. His answer is almost always overlooked by the person who posted the original question. The person asking the question doesnt want to do hard work like read some links that will solve their question correctly if they thought about it, they want quick answers!

Maybe the best way to deal with poor questions is to down vote & add a comment as to why its a poor question & resist the urge to answer with 'go search' & it'll eventually get closed.

  • Well said!
    – Shog9
    Aug 26, 2009 at 15:14
  • 1
    The danger with being an overly noob-friendly site is that it's real easy to lost experienced people, and it can degenerate into a blind-leading-the-blind comedy of errors. For this reason, I don't know if SU is going to be useful over the long run. We need to be clear that we expect useful questions, without being abusive in any way. This can be difficult. Oct 12, 2009 at 14:48

If you find someone who is being abusive to anyone, flag it.

If you find there is a lot of abuse against a question, flag it for moderator attention.

There is no reason for anyone to be abusive on these sites, and there is no reason it should be tolerated.


I've had this reply to a question, that I admittedly over-confidently (or rather, excitedly assumed) was an unfound obscure bug in the framework rather than a hole in my knowledge. Even though it was the more thorough answer it had a condescending last paragraph that ruined it.

If you're spending your free time helping others (however dumb they're being) I can't see the point of condescending or patronising. A lot of forum-esque flaming has started creeping onto SO recently which puts you off posting questions.

Also the last answer: "pebkac error"

  • if it makes you feel any better, i -1'd the PEBKAC answer! you see.. democracy works! Aug 26, 2009 at 15:24
  • 3
    Hmm... Read your link... Didn't seem like Pax was out to be mean or belittle you. This - the "i found a bug in the OS / compiler / runtime" - is a bit of a classic bumble, one of the things you've gotta experience sooner or later as a coder. Not that they don't have bugs, mind you... ;-)
    – Shog9
    Aug 26, 2009 at 15:26
  • Problem Exists Between Ceyboard and Khair in that case
    – Chris S
    Aug 26, 2009 at 22:27

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